— Shudder (@shudder) 14 July 2018
It might be a fact that many of us of a certain age may not want to accept, but it is indeed true – it is now 20 years since The Blair Witch Project was released. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez on a reported budget thought to be no more than five figures, the mockumentary went on to become one of horror’s greatest successes.
Not only that, but it has also had a huge impact on the genre in the two decades since it was released. Whether you love it or hate it, there is simply no denying that the trend of found-footage horror was popularized and perhaps given its modern form thanks to the success of this monster hit.
A fascinating movie
There are so many elements which make The Blair Witch Project a fascinating movie, from its improvised lines to its incredibly straightforward premise. Three students head into woods near Maryland to investigate a local legend referred to as the Blair Witch and, from that point, things inevitably start to go wrong.
As we have already touched upon, for such a simple concept The Blair Witch Project became a huge success and it, of course, spawned sequels, including the 2016 effort known concisely as Blair Witch. However, its true legacy has undoubtedly been how it has made found footage – where a movie revolves around video recordings which are supposed to be newly discovered – an entire sub-genre of the film world.
The idea of found footage has played a role in a whole host of horror movies since The Blair Witch Project, with a notable example being the Paranormal Activity series. The original of course was based around another fairly simple premise, the setting up of a camera in a bedroom to monitor strange activity while the house’s occupants sleep. Other notable films include the VHS movies and 2014’s As Above, So Below, which is based around following a documentary crew as they explore the famous Catacombs of Paris.
An influence beyond horror
The found-footage and documentary style of film-making has also thrived in other areas beyond horror in the past couple of decades, too. Notable examples where the concept has had a major impact include Josh Trank’s 2012 movie Chronicle, which starred Dane DeHaan and Michael B Jordan and had a definite superhero flavour. Elsewhere, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield proved to be a huge hit by imaginatively telling the story of a monster attacking New York through the eyes of normal people on the ground.
Found footage has also popped up in other surprising areas, too. For example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned to the style at the start of Spider-Man: Homecoming to neatly show Peter Parker’s perspective on events from Captain America: Civil War. A 2015 Doctor Who episode Sleep No More also used the concept as a framing device for the plot of a space station under attack.
But just why is the concept so popular? Well, it seems to chime into a demand for realism, as the documentary feel ultimately gives viewers an authentic and immersive experience. This same demand for authenticity may have also been behind the rise of reality TV shows like Big Brother across the past couple of decades, as people want to feel like they are at the center of the action.
Such trends seem to have had an influence on the gaming world too, through concepts such as virtual reality, with headsets like those created by Oculus providing players with a truly immersive experience. The concept has also been leveraged in the ‘live casino’ subsector of the online casino industry. Available on sites like Betway, live casino products allow people to play casinos games like blackjack which are hosted by a presenter via video link. This therefore gives them a relatively authentic casino experience regardless of where they are playing.
At the heart of the action
Experts seem to agree that this idea of realism and being immersed in the action is undoubtedly the reason why found-footage movies tend to work. Speaking to Screenrant in 2012, screenwriter John Swetnam discussed the concept at length and explained how it makes sense for horror as it ultimately puts viewers “in the shoes of the story”.
However, he added that the concept is beneficial from a studio perspective too. In comments which bring us back around to the simple fact that The Blair Witch Project had an incredibly low budget and went on to be a huge success, he outlined how there was “a lot of upside” to found footage concepts and hinted how they offer a low level of risk for potentially significant reward.
The role fans play was also highlighted by Swetnam, as he explained to the website how they become “part of the process” by seeing films and creating a word-of-mouth campaign which ultimately leads them to be a success.
Here to stay?
It is hard to believe that the Blair Witch Project is 20 years old but it is clear from all of the above that the film has had a huge part to play in making the mock-documentary, found-footage style a huge part of both the horror genre and popular culture in general.
So many people seem to be seeking a ‘real’ experience at the moment, whether it is in gaming, the TV they watch and of course the films they go and see. As long as that stays the same, we are sure the enduring relationship between horror and grainy, unsteady camcorder footage will continue for a great number of years to come.