*Some spoilers ahead (I mean, the movie came out in 1999 though so….)
Though I’ve been aware of the cult classic The Blair Witch Project (1999) for some time, it was only recently that I finally sat down to watch it. Going into the movie, I knew about several of the theories surrounding it’s plot as well as the movie’s acclaim as one of the most prominent works of so-called “found footage” film. (Though not the first work as that honor goes to The Last Broadcast (1998)?) It was the movie that revitalized the horror genre after its decline in the 80’s (in large part due to the over-saturation of endless and often pointless slasher flicks). Also, I knew that there was no “witch” despite the movie’s eponymous name. I knew that and yet I found myself looking for the witch, for vestiges of its presence. This close inspection yielded a theory about the witch and about the supposedly “witch-possessed” hermit and serial killer of children, Rustin Par, who’s influence comes to play a role in the film that I find quite horrifying.
In Blair Witch, we are introduced to the fairly non-descript Heather, Josh, and Mike. Heather and Josh are film students working on a project for class that Josh ropes his friend Mike into assisting them with. They are going to shoot a documentary student film about the Blair Witch, a local legend. In their preliminary investigation, the three discover that there is a story of a serial killer of children attached to the Blair Witch legend, perhaps even an extension of the lore itself. Par lured pairs of children out to his remote cabin in the woods and killed the children one by one, having one child stand in the corner facing the wall while he killed the other. The second child was presumably killed upon turning around. In total, Par is held responsible for seven murders (an odd number we will return to). Importantly, Par’s cabin was built upon the Blair Witch’s old home, leading many locals to speculate that he was possessed by the Blair Witch.
Heather, Josh, and Mike are fairly non-plussed by this information and take it in stride. They are pretty blasé about the whole matter, in fact, drinking and goofing around the rest of the night. And, to be fair, the information about the high strangeness of the woods they are going to be exploring is not really presented in such a way as to inspire fear. The locals who are interviewed are quirky and odd, one woman possibly suffering from mental illness or disability — things that the trio are quick to make fun of amongst themselves. The Blair Witch and any extensions of the lore are presented as and treated as nothing but a spooky campfire story by the trio. In many ways, the trio is kind of acting like kids. It’s an attitude that I believe contributes heavily to their unfortunate circumstances and eventual demise in the woods.
Once they begin their trek into the woods and, more importantly, once it becomes clear that the trio is lost, that’s when the horror of the movie finally starts to reveal itself to me. Now, I’ve heard that there is some contention over the classification of this movie as horror since we never really “see” anything “horrifying” until the end. Creepy, yes, but scary….? I’ve often heard the movie described as “boring” because of that lack of typical build-up paired with the overall underwhelming performances of the lead cast. I think that latter point is harsh to be honest (the acting left something to be desired at points, sure, but it really wasn’t the worst) while I find the former to be kind of shortsighted??? Sure, looking at the movie as a supernatural horror flick leaves much to be desired (though we will discuss its merits). But, looking at the movie as a psychological horror flick yields something more… compelling.
Now, I know there are already several theories that look at this movie as a a more psychological kind of horror movie. A prominent fringe theory I’ve heard is that Mike and Josh set up Heather to murder her. I’m going to be straight with you – I’m not really interested in that interpretation. Yes, I suppose it’s titillating to a certain extent but upon closer inspection, I don’t really see enough evidence to warrant its prominence. It feels more like the movie is being “squished” and/or reduced and warped to fit that lens. More than that, though, I just don’t find that interpretation to be, well, scary. If that interpretation were the case, I’d say that’s boring and, further, it’s kind of lazy writing? Maybe in 1999 it would’ve been edgy? (Kind of sounds like a an M. Night Shyamalan twist now….>.>) And, I think that’s all I’m going to say on that theory for now. I wanted address it though cause it pops up pretty often.
Anyway, when I say the horror of the Blair Witch is psychological, I am referring to the increasing paranoia and fear the trio experiences as they succumb to their increasingly hopeless circumstances and their mounting frustrations with each other. Watching Mike and Josh become annoyed, frustrated, furious, and then resentful of Heather for getting them lost is horrifying not because the trio is now wandering directionless in the middle of nowhere with a possibly malevolent presence stalking them but because of how easy it is to understand the mounting anger and festering resentment taking root. I am angry at Heather too. But, paradoxically, because of how this film positions me, the viewer, most often from Heather’s perspective, especially once they all get lost in the woods (when Heather becomes the only one really filming), I also feel Heather’s growing sense of panic like my own. I desperately want to get out of this situation I have led us into.
Discovering the “witchy” ephemera hanging from the woods almost comes second to the horror of the growing tension within the group, especially since the discovery comes after the trio has already realized they are well and truly lost. It’s very clever to hide or obscure these troubling, external symbols within the intense conflict building internally within the group. Until encountering them, I kind of forgot why the group was in the woods in the first place. Once I have encountered these symbols though, I am now reminded of the initial plot and I am now considering the possibility that the trio is not just lost but lost with a now potential malevolence. It increases the fear and the paranoia. There is the paranoia that Mike and Josh feel towards Heather, believing she had in some way intentionally got them lost for her documentary. There is the paranoia Josh and Heather feel towards Mike when he confesses that he kicked the map into the river because he believed it was “useless” and “not helping”. There is the panic and fear Heather feels over not only getting the group lost but being accused of purposefully doing it for the documentary. And, now, there is this paranoia and fear over whether or not the group’s actions are being compelled or manipulated in some way by an outside, unseen force that may wish them harm. Here, I begin to question what IS the Blair Witch?
Is or was the Blair Witch a physical being? Or, something more ephemeral? Something in the very woods itself? This line of questioning brings me back to Par, the serial killer of children, mentioned so offhandedly at the start of the movie, the serial killer who lived in the woods and killed children in pairs. Except, he’s responsible for 7 deaths, a decidedly odd number. He’s one short. Par also only kills children but, to an ancient witch-like entity, I suppose most people would be considered “kids”, especially if they exhibit immature behavior >.> If the Blair Witch is not so much a single physical being as a kind of possessing presence that inhabits these woods, what then? Through this lens, how can we understand what transpires in the movie? This is what I would like to explore.
If the Blair Witch is more of this insidious, creeping presence, the group’s fairly quick onset of paranoia makes sense. It’s the seed needed for the rest to take root. It lured Heather off the trail, compelled Mike to dispose of the map, and drew Josh out of the tent — deepening their isolation and alienating the three from each other as they quickly begin to throw accusations of blame for their circumstances. The woods are not trying to hurt them. They are trying to get the trio to hurt each other. To turn on each other. (How very Stephen King’s The Shining of them >.>) In this way, it also makes sense why we would never “see” the Blair Witch. It gives a new sense of terror to Heather’s frantic “What the hell is that?” as the trio run through the thicket of woods in the middle of the night after their campsite has been “besieged” by some unseen presence, walls of darkness and shadowy brush closing in on all sides. What the hell IS it indeed. What does Heather see or….not see? What does she feel closing in on them? Their paranoia and panic is only emphasized by the shaky and jagged camera angles and sudden cuts, making us feel as though we are also frantically running through the runs with the trio, throwing our heads from side to side in search of a threat we can feel but cannot find.
Now, there’s been discussion about the possibility of Josh and Mike being responsible for “setting the stage” in the woods (I.e planting the cairns, the ephemera, “attacking” the campsite, etc.). It mires back to that theory that the whole movie is really being about Mike and Josh planning to do Heather harm. But, in response to the idea that Mike and Josh “set the stage”, I’d like like to point to the actors’ truly terrified performances at this point in the movie. Regardless of their overall acting abilities or lack thereof, they play at panic and terror pretty well. Also, let’s just briefly examine the premise here. If Mike and/or Josh wanted to harm Heather in any way, they could’ve done so ten feet or less into these desolate woods. They didn’t even need to take her to the woods. They could’ve driven her anywhere and dumped her body in the woods if they really wanted to. The pageantry is unnecessary and speaks to a deeply personal need to make sure the victims die afraid. By all accounts Mike and Josh barely know Heather. She’s a classmate, an acquaintance of a friend. It seems highly unlikely they’d go through all this work when there are far simpler ways to kill Heather. Occam’s razor is usually king in regards to murder. I know horror movie plots don’t really abide my logic as a matter of course but I find this theory to be a thorn in my side that I’ve got to point out at every turn. (Sorry.)
That said, it is interesting to consider that one of the guys is possessed by the Blair Witch and is acting as a kind of conduit, thus is the one planting the evidence found within the campsite itself. That’s compelling and scary. Because of Josh’s later disappearance, he seems to be the most likely suspect. It’s also Josh or Josh’s mimicked cries that lure Mike and Heather towards the killer’s presumed cabin later on. Once inside this remote and decrepit cabin, it is there that the pieces of the story assemble themselves into still one of the most unsettling conclusions in possibly all of horror cinema. Heather and Mike desperately search the dilapidated cabin for any traces of Josh. They find rubble and debris and, most disturbingly, what appears to be bloody hand-prints on the cabin’s disintegrating walls. Could it be graffiti? Most definitely, but, as established in the movie, this cabin is pretty remote and way off the beaten trail so it’s possible that it’s something else. As Mike and Heather are searching the cabin for Josh, it is, again, Josh’s cry that leads Mike and then Heather to the basement — where Par is purported to have murdered his victims.
Mike arrives in the basement first, frantic and clearly panicked. His camera is panning back and forth, barely pausing on any one thing. He’s breathing heavily and calling out desperately for Josh and then…. He drops his camera and goes silent, as if overcome by some unseen force. The camera, though, is not forcefully dropped or flung in a scuffle so much as simply abandoned. No shadows pass by the camera nor does anything else appear on the camera’s screen to indicate what happened to Mike after dropping it. Heather quickly appears with her own camera, calling for the guys. What her camera reveals before cutting to black is that Mike is now standing in the corner of the basement, facing the wall. Just like Par would have one of the children he kidnapped do. Perhaps it is the realization of this similarity or it is another unseen force or the same force that overcame Mike or it is Josh striking or it is her own terror finally hitting a fever pitch but Heather screams and the screen cuts to black for the last time.
Again, it’s deeply unsettling and maybe especially upsetting after making it through an entire “horror” movie where nothing extraordinarily horrific has really happened. (Barring the far-too-large-for-a-human bloody tooth and the flannel scrap of Josh’s t-shirt it is wrapped in. That definitely falls within “F*ck that” territory. This doesn’t occur till close to the end of the film, though.) I struggled with this ending for a while, trying to make sense of it. Because, yes, it’s unsettling but what does it mean? And, more, what does this mean I’m regards to what is the Blair Witch?
For me, this speaks to a deeper lore than was presented initially. If the Blair Witch is a possessive presence more than a physical being and if Par was an incarnation or manifestation of that presence and if that presence was tainted by its last incarnation that wanted to cause harm and if that incarnation had unfinished business (say, it was “one short” in regards to its murder spree), I think it is entirely possible that Josh was possessed by the Blair Witch and Mike and Heather became his victims.
For me, this works in one of two ways. In the first way, the trio helps “even out” the set. 3 + 7 = 10 meaning everything has balanced out now. It’s whatever the reverse of a zero sum game is. That’s one way to look at the situation if we accept that the Blair Witch isn’t a specter so much as a possessive presence. It’s intriguing and also provides closure in that the “score” is leveled with the presumed deaths of our trio.
The second way of looking at the movie from this perspective though is far more compelling to me. In the original story about Par, there are supposed to be two victims and one perpetrator. 7 victims in the last cycle died meaning that the perpetrator was one short. If Josh is possessed by the Blair Witch, he is acting as the perpetrator and would not be considered a victim meaning that killing Mike and Heather would still leave the count uneven (9). Still one short. To me, this provides a motive for the Blair Witch’s continued presence in the woods. The witch is always looking for that one last victim to complete the cycle but, because it is acting like the last person (Par) that was possessed, a pair of victims must always be selected. Ergo, the cycle can never be completed and so the Blair Witch cannot rest. It’s the opposite of closure and arguably a more interesting narrative because of the complexity.
Of course, this theory really only works if you consider one of the trio possessed at all by the Blair Witch. It’s very possible that Josh was not the one possessed and he was just killed. If at least one of the trio is possessed though then Josh’s death could still count. Josh and Heather could very well be considered the victims and Mike the “possessed”, especially considering where the movie leaves off. Because of the early mention of possession and because of how the movie ends with a reference to Par’s killings, I’m inclined as a viewer to believe that there has to be some connection to our main characters or else why bother? Also, I’m not really sure how this interpretation would connect to the witchy ephemera found in the woods unless the possession is tied back to the Blair Witch. It’s very possible that this stuff is just present to make the woods “spookier”, I suppose, but I think it’s presence paired with whatever is “attacking” the camp at night does call into question the nature of the force that is possessing people in these woods.
Anyway, that’s my hot take on The Blair Witch Project (1999). Obviously, there are many interpretations of this media and there will continue to be new interpretations as time goes on. This is one of many out there. I touched on only a brief selection of many moments from the movie and presented a case for one interpretation. I’m interested in hearing other interpretations, though! Please, let me know what you think about the movie and how you perceived its plot and meaning!