“It was my fault, because it was my project,” says a woman, eyes wide and terrified as she hovers close to the camera lens. “Everything had to be my way. And this is where we've ended up and it's all because of me that we're here now – hungry, cold, and hunted.” Heather’s monologue from The Blair Witch Project (1999) is one of those instantly recognisable movie moments. Tears and snot streaming down her face, only a quarter of her visage visible to the camera and with darkness behind her, it’s now one of the defining shots of horror cinema. At the time, its significance was even more important with actress and filmmaker Heather Donahue playing herself along with the two other cast members in the movie. So convincing was her performance and spine-tingling testimonial as she shivered over the word “cold” that audiences believed the footage they were watching was real. These people had gone missing. The Blair Witch was more than just an urban legend. This found footage was their final testament.
The Blair Witch Project was originally conceived back in 1993, with filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez developing a short film version as a proof of concept, which aired on community television. The feature was made for just $60,000 USD at the time, with the actors shooting much of the action themselves and having only basic plot points to go off. Their performances and dialogue were mostly improvised to give the movie its authentic, genuine quality… which also added to its terror. It premiered at Sundance, with the hysteria following due to an early viral marketing campaign that sought to blur the lines between fact and fiction. The website – which still exists to this day – featured no film studio copyright and no footnotes that would lead to it being considered inauthentic. Instead, it charted the history of the urban legend like it was real with a detailed timeline under a ‘mythology’ tab, followed by crime scene photos and collected evidence of the missing filmmakers that had been discovered with a Frederick Sheriff’s Department watermark under the ‘aftermath’ section. The actors were even listed as ‘missing’ on their IMDB profiles for over a year after the film was released, with no press interviews, premieres, or red-carpet appearances to burst the illusion.
The Blair Witch Project resurrected the found footage sub-genre, specifically how it was used within horror, and earned more than $250M USD internationally. It was the most successful independent feature film of all time, a record that was only broken in 2009 when another low-budget, found footage horror film became a phenomenon: Paranormal Activity. Yet The Blair Witch Project has endured even as the found-footage horror crown has been passed on, with two other films in the series, a television show in development, video game adaptations, multiple novels set within its supernatural world, comic books, a documentary on the faux-documentary and merchandise including dolls, shirts, and collectibles. In the same way, the opening of Jaws (1975) has become the scene everyone remembers from a timeless classic, Heather’s monologue has become the scene that people remember from Blair Witch long after the encroaching sense of dread and terror has faded. Partially because it was the first of its kind, partially because of the execution and performance, and partially because it has been parodied and mimicked and imitated countless times in the 20-years since its release from features like The Bogus Witch Project (2000) and Scary Movie (2000), to a Saturday Night Live (1975–present) skit about there being too many Blair Witch parodies.
– Maria Lewis