In 1999, we weren’t quite the cynics we are today. The ability to separate fact from fiction is quite literally in our pockets now; a search, swipe, scroll away.
But 20 years ago, there was a brief cultural moment in which we teetered on the edge of the internet age, a moment in which two filmmakers were able to create a horror film on a $60,000 budget which would leech into the cult movie canon and go on to rake in $250 million.
The Blair Witch Project asked us to suspend our disbelief and buy into a supernatural storyline in which a trio of documentary makers ventured into the woods near Burkittsville in the US state of Maryland to investigate a local legend. It’s their footage, found a year after they vanish, that we’re told we’re watching.
The shaky hand-held camera work. The heavy, tearful breaths of the panicked group. The haunting sounds echoing through the trees. Now iconic (and heavily parodied) movie-making moments that pioneered the found-footage genre.
But it’s not just the movie itself that meant countless viewers were prepared to believe what they saw. It’s the legend that masterminds Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick created behind it.
The same year The Blair Witch Project premiered, a program aired on US paid-TV network, The SciFi Channel, called Curse of The Blair Witch. It featured interviews, news bulletins, media clippings, to tell the story of deaths and disappearances around the town of Blair since the 18th Century. Residents, the program showed, blamed the mysteries on the ghost of Elly Kedward, a local woman accused of practising witchcraft and sentenced to death by exposure in the 1780s.
But Blair doesn’t exist, nor do the missing people. It was all fabricated; a PR masterpiece designed to lay the foundation for the feature film.
It’s not real… right?
The Blair Witch Project brought the mystery mainstream, leaving audiences unnerved and perplexed by the “it’s not real… right?” premise. In a strange way, the fact that audiences were never shown the witch seemed to give them more permission to buy into the narrative.