History of horror: The Blair Witch Project put found footage at the forefront of horror

1999 Heather Donahue Stars In "The Blair Witch Project." (Photo By Getty Images)
1999 Heather Donahue Stars In "The Blair Witch Project." (Photo By Getty Images) /

The Blair Witch Project is one of my favorite horror films of all time, and takes the number one spot in my personal list of favorite found footage flicks. After I recently wrote an article about the history of The Exorcist and its importance in the horror genre, I decided to make this a regular thing. I immediately started thinking about which film I would write about next.

The Blair Witch Project is often touted as the first found footage horror. That’s not entirely accurate, because it was preceded by films such as Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast, but without a doubt, The Blair Witch Project was the most significant found footage movie in horror history.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez worked together on the conception of the fictional legend of The Blair Witch, writing up a 35-page screenplay. The story was outlined, but all dialogue was to be improvised by the actors. Three relatively unknown actors were ultimately cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard. In keeping with the improvisational script, each of them shared their own first names with the characters they were playing.

In October of 1997, the three actors were sent into the woods in Montgomery County, Maryland with basic camping equipment, a bare bones storyline to follow, and their own cameras. No cameramen went with them, they would instead film everything themselves over an eight day period.

The Blair Witch Project
372697 02: 1999 Micahel Williams Stars In “The Blair Witch Project.” (Photo By Getty Images) /

Since there was no real script to follow, milk crates were planted in the area they were filming in, and the actors were tasked with tracking the crates one-by-one, using GPS. In each crate were individualized instructions which would help them improvise the next plot points.

This guerilla-theatre style of filming definitely lent an air of realism to the final film, and most likely helped the filmmakers stick to their estimated budget of around $60,000. It also kept the actors on their toes, as they were awakened in the middle of the night while sleeping in their tent, and forced to run away from film crew members terrorizing them in order to elicit a genuine reaction.

The Blair Witch Project would become huge, and the real magic happened when it became the first wide-release film to achieve internet fame. The marketing strategy was brilliant; a website was created that made the events in the movie appear authentic. Fake police reports were posted, as were recorded interviews and “missing” posters that featured Donahue, Williams and Leonard. The public in general believed The Blair Witch Project was a documentary based on real events.

When the film made its debut at Sundance in 1999, the actors were not allowed to attend. Instead, the missing posters were handed out at the festival. During the first year of The Blair Witch Project’s release, each actor’s IMDb page listed them as “missing, presumed dead.”

That marketing campaign worked, and Artisan reportedly paid $1.1 million for distribution rights. Fueled by the website and word of mouth, The Blair Witch Project had a successful limited release in mid-July before opening nationwide on July 30, 1999. It was a huge history-making success, and in my opinion, it holds up upon rewatching it.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Many people dislike the film, proclaiming it as boring, not scary and motion sickness-inducing. Others defend it as a product of the times, and it is true that the best way to have seen it was before the hoopla. I saw it during its limited release at Enzian, an Orlando-area arthouse movie theatre. It was the perfect place to watch the film that I had been so eagerly anticipating, An avid reader of Entertainment Weekly, I had heard the early buzz around The Blair Witch Project, and even though I knew it was not a true story, I left the theater with goosebumps on my arms. It was a sold-out showing, but you could have heard a pin drop in the seconds after the ending.

It has spawned two sequels, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in 2000, and Blair Witch in 2016. While both are decent films (I particularly liked Blair Witch), neither of them approached the popularity of their source material.

Love it or hate it, it is impossible to deny the impact The Blair Witch Project  has had on the horror genre. Think I will dig out my DVD and watch it tonight!

Next. Why William Friedkin's The Exorcist is so important to the history of horror. dark

Prime members can watch The Blair Witch Project on Amazon for free.