The Blair Witch Project was the first horror movie that fucking destroyed me. I was ten years old and living in a Bible-thumping suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, a place where Halloween is ignored almost completely. My friends “weren’t allowed” to celebrate the holiday, something they always explained to me while sighing. They attended a “Fall Harvest” party instead – some lukewarm, cornucopia-stenciled Jesusfest the local mega-church always conveniently hosted the night of October 31st, leaving kids like me in the lurch.
My mother and I went to Blockbuster to find a horror movie instead of trick-or-treating, knowing that the majority of our neighbors’ windows would be dark by sundown. There was one copy left of The Blair Witch Project out of dozen or so spaces on the shelf. I remember the dreaded and sexy “Parental Advisory” sticker pasted on either side of the VHS box, and having to convince my mother to rent it for me. I guilted her, telling her how much I just wanted to have fun on Halloween, how isolating it was being the only Jewish, left-leaning family in Clinton. It worked.
It’s difficult for any horror story to convince us it’s real. But I was ten, and I was gullible. I thought I disappeared with Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Michael Williams into the Maryland woods. I thought I lost my way with them, succumbed to cold and fear and distrust and hunger. I thought I discovered the abandoned, lean-to house with them at the end of the film, and I was terrified. Later I was embarrassed to find out otherwise, that it was all a genius marketing gimmick, but I know I wasn’t the only one, and I loved being a part of that.
I rewatched the movie this year as part of my annual horror movie run-up to Halloween, this time in a giant, largely empty, ranch house in the country. The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out me when I was ten. And guess what? It scared the hell out of me at twenty-three. I didn’t fall asleep until four in the goddamn morning, and then I spent the next few days sheepishly trying to figure out why I let myself get carried away again by those shrill college kids shooting a documentary about an urban legend.
Heather, the director and de facto leader of the trio, begins the film naively assertive and gung ho about the documentary she is making. This isn’t anything new to horror, but the way the film goes about stripping Heather, and by default the crew, of their control is particularly upsetting. As they lose themselves further and further in the woods, their dialogue erodes while their volume amplifies. Heather repeatedly insists they’re right on track, when it’s clear to everyone they aren’t. Josh disappears, and the last thing we ever see of him is a bundle filled with what looks to be his teeth and parts of his tongue – he is literally silenced. The last shot shows Mike standing quietly in a basement corner while Heather is reduced to incoherent screams and babbling behind the camera. Then she abruptly stops, and the camera falls to the ground, broken.
That ending, man. Fuck.
I stand by my argument that you can’t make a movie like The Blair Witch Project again, that our technology and our social networking won’t allow for it. Not that kind of visceral, analog, found footage horror. But that’s the exact argument that The Blair Witch Project sets out to tear apart: That our modernity makes us safe in the wilderness, that there’s no way we can get lost for good in America. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days,” Heather unconvincingly reassures herself, and her audience, midway through the film. Believing we’re still on the map, right on track to a definite and discernible conclusion doesn’t mean we’re not heading straight for the witch’s house.
As I write this, a fringe conservative movement in Washington is forcing a partial government shutdown. At the public library where I work, I’ve started showing patrons to the website for nationally subsidized health care, but I don’t talk about how influential people off-camera are trying to deny them access to it. As the days go on and the politicking amplifies, I get the sense that I’m being led to a place I can’t find my way out of, and that I’ll eventually find myself stuck with little to no options. All because a small group of politicians are blazing ahead into a forest they don’t know anything about, still babbling about how they’re doing this for the right and noble reasons. This standoff is temporary, but it won’t be the last. The Blair Witch Project is terrifying now because it somehow manages to mimic what I see every day in real life. Being dragged into the woods is scary, because I’ve seen the movie, and I know how this ends.