Written by Alexander Greco
August 31, 2020
The Blair Witch Project, one of a number of the 90’s death throes, has become something of a meme. It’s a low-budget horror flic written by film students in the 90’s: it was filmed in 8 days, the entire script was improvised with almost no retakes, 80% of the movie is three people walking through the woods, and we never actually see the “villain” of the film (the mysterious Blair Witch). The Blair Witch Project has often been epitomized as the quintessential cheap, shitty, b-horror film. However, a less cynical and more appreciative mind might find this film to be quite enjoyable, and possibly even far more intelligent and intelligently created than it’s ever been given credit.
While I could spend this article exploring why The Blair Witch Project is an example of impressive cinematographic ingenuity on the part of its amateur cast and crew, and how it influenced countless films after its release, this has been discussed at length in the 21 years since Blair Witch’s release. What I’d rather talk about is the overlooked genius of the film that I doubt anyone has ever realized—possibly not even by the creators. The horror of The Blair Witch Project is being lost in the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unseen forces, with no map to help you return home—the genius of The Blair Witch Project is that this horror reflects one of the underlying horrors of modernity.
I was conceived and born smack-dab in the middle of the 90’s (~June 1995 – March 1996). The first birthday I remember was my third birthday, which would have been in 1999 (which would have been 3 months before The Blair Witch Project was released). I also remember my fourth birthday in March 2000, my fifth birthday in March 2001, and the collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001.
It would be over a decade before I realized the 9-11 attacks were precipitated in part by the military actions of the US during the decade I had been born. It would be almost another decade later before I would really appreciate that the events that had precipitated 9-11 were precipitated by a vast number of prior events, which had been precipitated by an even vaster number of prior events, which had been precipitated by a nearly infinite gulf of prior history, which all create a continuum of history that resulted in our current state of society and reality, along which 9-11 happened.
The 90’s were something like a pivot point, both culturally and historically. Long-held traditions were, for many, little more than a joke at this point. A sense of Nationalism had in large part been disintegrated in America and across the world—a phenomenon that seemed to have begun post-WW2 and, in America, after the death of JFK and the rise of Hippie, Punk and other underground movements.
By the time of the 90’s, so little was genuine anymore—if it ever had been. Everything was cartoons and sitcoms, everything was commercial breaks and advertisements, everything was playing pretend, ignoring foreign wars, ignoring drug epidemics, ignoring government and economic corruption. Or, conversely, everything was Rage Against the Machine, but there was only Rage and the Machine, and no Against: no action. Now, even Zach de la Rocha has sold out, with “the Machine” providing him a net worth of 30 million dollars, despite still “Raging” about the broken system to sold-out shows.
So few things by the 90’s were genuine—no genuine wars, no genuine political movements, no genuine arts—and the things that were “genuine”, like the Grunge movement, were, with some exception, hopelessly cynical. This was because the only things that could be genuine, other than, perhaps, science, were the cynical things that shed light on the disingenuous nature of contemporary humanity.
No one really knew who they were anymore. As individuals, and as a society—possibly even as a species. Then, in 2001, 9-11 happened. The world watched in quiet shock as the World Trade Center collapsed in the middle of New York City—the crown jewel of America—and we still don’t know what this event even means for us.
We’re still living in the post 9-11 era, still stumbling from the aftershocks of that massive quake. We can’t agree on whether or not the resulting war was justified or even worth the effort. We can’t agree on the motivations of the aggressors and their allies. We can’t even agree on whether or not our own government was involved in the attacks of 9-11.
And now, we live in a world that seems entirely disingenuous, beyond what it was before. With social media, with ideological tribalism, with all facets of information and sense-making from all angles coming into question and under attack, with the inability to agree on the facts and “facts” of reality, we can’t even agree on what reality is. Who among us even can tell what reality is anymore?
We can’t agree on a common narrative. We can’t agree on what our various narratives even mean or signify. We can’t agree on what is meaningful, what is moral, what is true—or even what it means for something to be true, or if it is even possible for something to be “true” (whatever “true” might mean).
We are living in a chaotic time, with existential threats standing all around us like specters at a deathbed, and we’ve lost all ability to even understand what is happening. We don’t know what is going on around us, we don’t know who we are, and we don’t know where we are.
And this brings us back to The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch was developed throughout the 90’s and released right at the end of the decade, in ’99.
The entire movie was filmed as if it was an amateur documentary—a mockumentary, or a pretend documentary. It depicts three individuals—Heather Donahue (Heather), Michael C. Williams (Mike), and Joshua Leonard (Josh)—going to the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. After interviewing a variety of townsfolk, the trio embarks into the woods north of the town, where the Blair Witch is said to live.
As a quick aside, the names of the three characters are actually the names of the real-life (“real-life”) actors who play these characters.
Intending to stay in the woods overnight and return to civilization the next day, the trio ends up getting lost in the woods. While lost in the woods, they find strange things, such as piles of stones in a small clearing and sculptures or perhaps totems made from branches and vines that are hanging in trees. At night, they hear strange sounds coming from the woods and are even attacked at one point while trying to sleep in their tent.
In the end, Josh goes missing, and then Heather and Mike find an abandoned house, where they presumably meet their demise (though their demise is not seen).
Throughout the movie, Heather relies on a map to guide them through the forest, though Mike does not trust Heather’s navigation skills, and Mike does not trust the map itself. However, Heather wakes up one morning to find that the map is missing. Josh blames Heather for losing the map, and Heather questions whether or not Josh or Mike took the map as a joke. We later find out that Mike actually took the map and essentially destroyed it, laughing as he tells Josh and Heather:
“…I kicked that fucking map into the creek yesterday. It was useless! I kicked that fucker into the creek!”
Heather and Josh are rightfully indignant, and the movie from this point on takes on a markedly nihilistic and dread-filled tone. At this point, they are lost in the forest, they are being stalked by unknown forces in an uncivilized pocket of nature, and they have no map to return home.
And this is both the central horror and the central theme of the story.
Blindly wandering through the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unknowable forces beyond our control, without any useful form of navigation.
Now, there is one more important aspect of the movie that must be brought to light here: the filming of the movie itself.
The entire film, as I mentioned earlier, is supposed to be shot as if it were a documentary, giving it a Gonzo style of film (meaning the one filming the movie is also an actor, and the fact that the film is being shot is an element of the film itself). The entire film is shot from cameras the characters/actors are holding, which is constantly made obvious or relevant by the character referencing or interacting with their film equipment.
While this is important, obviously, to the horror of the movie—giving the movie it’s “real” quality, where the horror is that the movie is supposed to a depiction of reality—it is even more important to the underlying themes of the movie.
The film we watch is not in fact reality, it is a representation of reality, and it is a filtered representation of reality. This is made explicit in the film when Josh tells Heather:
“I see why you like this video camera so much. […] It’s not quite reality. […] No, but it’s totally like a filtered reality, man. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
Now, we can begin breaking down some of the major components of the film: the map, the wilderness, the camera and the witch.
The map that Heather uses is their symbolic representation of reality. The map is not reality, but it is a symbolic depiction of reality, signifying the geography of reality, that is used to navigate that reality.
That reality is the wilderness, and the wilderness is symbolic of the true nature of the world we exist in: the world in-and-of-itself, as it is outside of our representation. If you look at a cellphone, you see the cellphone as what your brain decides it is. The cellphone is an object—an incredibly complex object—designed, primarily (or at least initially) to communicate with other people who have an object that can communicate with your object. That is our “map” of the cellphone. However, a cellphone is also an object made out of plastic, metal, glass and other materials, arranged by humans in a specific pattern to achieve its desired outcome.
However, these components of a cellphone are things that are only signified by our words, which have an agreed upon definition. These material components are only known to us as they are (these materials as such) in an incomplete way through science, or through Empiricism. We can never completely understand, know, perceive, etc. these material components because we can only experience them as external stimuli that have been filtered through our knowledge structures and our personal, subjective experience (more complexly, through our neurological structures, but we won’t get into that).
The wilderness is this primary reality—the true, actual reality that we exist within, but that we can only partially experience and imperfectly represent.
And this brings us to the cameras used in the film. These cameras are our knowledge structures and our subjective experience. They are the lens, the filter, and the mechanism by which we perceive reality. The camera is both our neurological mechanism representing reality—our imperfect capabilities of perceiving the wilderness we live in—and it is the knowledge structure of our society—the camera literally being an invention of modern humans.
Finally, the Blair Witch her/itself. The Blair Witch is a bit more complicated. Mythologically, we can connect the Witch to the Occult, most commonly thought of as Pagan or Satanic practices (though “Satanic” is usually a reactionary description of witchcraft). More deeply, the Witch can be connected to Nature—a priestess of the wilderness. She is the invoker of Nature, of the Wild, of the ambivalence of reality—both one who can heal and one who can curse, one who invokes the growth and life of nature and the destruction and cruelty of nature, and one who lives outside the scope and structure of civilization.
If we combine these two—Nature, or the wilderness and the occult—we get a “clearer” picture of the Blair Witch. “Occult” actually means “hidden” or “secretive”—that which is esoteric, unknown or unknowable. “Occult” practices were not “Satanic” practices, as they are often represented, but in fact practices meant to invoke “hidden” forces or discover “secret” knowledge. But the Blair Witch is also an entity which lives in the depths of the wilderness, far removed from society, who exists within and as a part of the forces of the unknown that we fear and cannot understand.
She might in fact be a symbol of this wilderness—a personified representation or manifestation of the wilderness.
We never see the Blair Witch: she is in fact the Occult—the unseen, the elusive, the hidden, the unknown and unknowable. She cannot be represented by our cameras—our subjective experience and our cultural knowledge structures.
To summarize these:
The map is the representation of reality.
The wilderness is that reality (reality in and of itself).
The camera is the lens of knowledge structures and subjective experience we view reality through.
The Blair Witch is the personified embodiment of the wilderness, or the personified embodiment of that which cannot be truly seen or understood.
Now, to bring these together.
On the surface, The Blair Witch Project is about three film students attempting to investigate the Blair Witch, and end up getting lost in the wilderness after their map is destroyed. They are stalked and eventually killed (presumably, we don’t know actually know) by the very thing they are investigating, the Blair Witch.
However, if we take the deeper analysis of the various aspects of the film, The Blair Witch Project is about individuals attempting to understand and represent the wilderness of reality in and of itself. While exploring the depths of reality, they find that their representation of reality does not adequately describe the world they live in. Their representation of reality is destroyed, and the three try to escape the reality they no longer understand and return to a reality they do understand. However, they ultimately meet their demise by the forces of the unknown and unknowable.
This demise could represent a few things. The death of these three individuals might be the death of their knowledge structures. They perceived reality with their pre-created representation of it (their map), and this representation was destroyed. As they attempted to flee the wilderness of reality and the overwhelming horrors of existing in a reality they don’t understand, they inevitably were lost inside this wilderness and could not return to the society they once existed in. They themselves might not have died physically, but the framework they represented the world with collapsed, and so it was impossible now to escape the wilderness of reality.
Now, to bring this back to the actual state of society as it is now and as it was when this film was created, I’m going to tie in the postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and his book, Simulacra and Simulation.
Now, postmodernism is a somewhat controversial collection of philosophies, and I myself have a few issues with some of the tenants of these philosophies, but they raise a number or important issues about humanity and the knowledge structures of humanity that are certainly worth discussing. These issues may even be at the core, or at least a portion of the core, of the current predicaments of society.
The central tensions of Postmodernism could be characterized as a criticism of our representation of reality—though there is admittedly quite a lot of nuance in the Postmodernist philosophies and one ought to simplify Postmodernism with caution. Since our beliefs and how we act within reality and society is determined by our representation of reality, Postmodernism is also a criticism of our beliefs and our actions.
Jean Baudrillard’s primary contention in Simulacra and Simulation follows this core concept of criticizing how we represent reality.
The first two paragraphs of Simulacra and Simulation go as follows:
“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
Now, in the text following this, Baudrillard immediately contradicts everything he just says, adding to the opacity of Baudrillard’s writing, and means that quoting Baudrillard and referencing his work can be a bit perilous, but this quote will do.
To simplify what Baudrillard is saying here, we have a socially/culturally “agreed-upon” representation of reality (the map), and the map represents what we believe to be reality (the territory). Now, as what we believe to be reality erodes (the territory), so too does our representation of reality (the map). What we are left with is the “The desert of the real itself”, which parallels the wilderness of Blair Witch.
Baudrillard goes on throughout his book to use his metaphor of the desert-territory-map to analyze and critique a number of things, including (put simply) the disingenuous state of “reality” as the map and territory—leaving the desert as a blank, ungraspable truth beneath the map and territory.
However, here I would say that the Blair Witch’s forest—the wilderness—is a better representation of “the real itself”. The “real” is not an empty, desolate void, but an incredibly complex and dense tangle of existence. The problem of contending with “the real” is not that it is an empty wasteland, but, quite the opposite, that it is an infinitely complex landscape of objects, information, perceptions, interpretations, morals and decisions.
While Baudrillard simplifies the reality that exists beneath, or perhaps outside, our representation of reality, Blair Witch shows us this reality for all of its infinite complexity.
Nonetheless, the parallel metaphors paired together give us, ironically, an accurate representation of our current state of being.
This is the state of reality we find ourselves in today—the state, you could say, that was in the process of either being created or destroyed by the time the 90’s rolled around.
Currently, we are all blindly stumbling through a wilderness. The territory we reside within is crumbling, and, with it, so too crumbles our map. We do not understand and cannot adequately represent reality, and so our actions are all either ignorant fumblings or self-destructive collapsings.
Blair Witch can be seen as a commentary on this state of reality.
There is a major ambiguity in Blair Witch that is important to explore here.
The trio seemed to be lost in the woods even before Mike “kicked that fucker into the creek”. Despite Heather reassuring Mike and Josh that she could read the map, and that she knew exactly where they were and where they were going, the three of them couldn’t find their way out of the woods, even while Heather possessed the map.
The three different characters each had their own beliefs as to why they were lost. Heather thought they were lost because they lost the map. Josh thought they were lost because he didn’t think Heather knew how to read the map. Mike thought they were lost because the map itself was inherently useless or flawed.
So, following the three different beliefs of the three different characters, we as a society might be in our current state of confusion for three different reasons:
– We’ve lost the map / Our representation of reality is accurate and decipherable, but it was destroyed
– We are incapable of deciphering the map / Our representation of reality is accurate, but it cannot be deciphered
– We never had an accurate map to begin with / Our representation of reality was never accurate to begin with, so, rather than attempt deciphering it, the map ought to be destroyed
Whose interpretation of the situation is correct?
These interpretations and the question of which one is correct can be transferred to our current state of society and our current relationship with reality.
Do we / Did we have an accurate map of reality, but our map is being destroyed, and this is how we arrived at where we now are?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the actions of fellow humans.
Is our map of reality accurate, but the map is impossible to decipher by us, and so we cannot agree on what the map depicts?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the ignorance of fellow humans.
Is our map actually inaccurate, and so any attempt at contending with reality using our representation is inevitably worthless?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the nature of humanity and the state of reality itself.
And lets look at how the characters of Blair Witch were “picked off” throughout the end of the movie, in the order that these events happened.
First, Josh went missing. His voice could still be heard in the wilderness, and Heather and Mike still tried to save him, but he couldn’t be found, and the search for Josh inevitably led to the demise of both Heather and Mike.
We didn’t lose faith in humanity’s ability to contend with reality, but we lost faith in our ability to comprehend reality.
Second, Heather finds Mike staring into the corner of the room. Mike went to the basement of reality, to the darkest pit of the witch’s lair (to the darkest pit of the unknown and unknowable), hoping that salvation was still possible even without a map, and succumbed to a motionless apathy.
We stopped believing that it was in fact possible to contend with reality.
Finally, Heather drops the camera she is holding (her entire subjective experience/knowledge structure falls) and the movie ends. Heather finds that she has lost both Josh and Mike to the Blair Witch, and, in her presumed demise, lets go of all attempts to perceive or even experience reality (self-destruction, possibly to the point of suicide).
We stopped believing in humanity itself.
2 years, 7 months and 20 days after The Blair Witch Project was released at the ’99 Sundance Film Festival, the whole world, my 5-year-old self included, watched the Twin Towers fall.
Almost 10 years after 9-11, we still can’t agree on why it happened, we still can’t agree what happened that day, we still can’t agree how we should have reacted to what happened, and we still can’t agree on the state of reality as it was and as it is now.
Who are our enemies? Who are our allies? Where are we? What is our civilization? Why are we where we are right now? What do we do? How do we do it? Why do we do it?
With our map destroyed, how do we move on?
With our faith in our knowledge, our perception, our structures and even our fellow humans crumbling in our hands, what do we do next?
The only thing I can say we do is salvage what we still have—which I would say is quite a lot more than what many people suspect—reinvigorate and reconstruct our knowledge structures and our social systems, and regain faith in humanity.
Perhaps it is good for portions of our structures and systems to be torn down, but, with them, there is much that ought not to be torn down, and in the wake of these structures’ collapse, there must be better, stronger, truer, more genuine structures that are erected.
We have to create better maps—maps that do accurately represent the reality we live in; we have to grow as people, as individuals—so that we can create these better maps, interpret these maps and act appropriately by these maps; and we have to maintain our faith in fellow humans—maintain faith that we can understand reality, that we can trust other people, and that there is a way out of the wilderness.
There is nothing else we can do, except stumble into our own self-destruction and be devoured by the wilderness manifested by our actions and our disintegrating humanity.
We can emerge from this wilderness alive.
The Blair Witch Project may go down as a b-movie horror flic that grossed an impressively large amount of money and inspired two decades of b-movie horror flics in its wake.
However, I think Blair Witch represents a deep aspect of the society it emerged from, and ought to be remembered as such.
Not only should it be remembered as a film that quite profoundly represents one of the many horrors of modernity, how it represents this ought to be remembered.
Someone who excels at their given craft can engineer beautiful, thought-provoking creations with that craft.
Someone who can take their craft to the next level can use the aspects of their creations, in-and-of-themselves, to communicate meaning.
With a writer like James Joyce, meaning is not only conveyed with the plot and characters, but meaning is also conveyed with sentence structure, paragraph placement and with language itself (rather than the meanings of specific words used in that language). With the abstract movements of modern art, the elements of art are broken down to their constituent elements (color, tone, form, shape, line, etc.), and these elements are the focus or the subject of the art, rather than the elements that create the focus or subject.
With film, David Lynch might be the most well-known example of someone who can make the elements of cinematography themselves to communicate meaning. It isn’t only that the camera angle helps the subject of the film communicate meaning, or that the words of the dialogue are all that is communicating meaning, or even that the events of the movie contribute only to the meaning derived from plot and character arc. All of these elements in a David Lynch film not only help the subjects of the film communicate meaning, but the elements themselves are meaningful and communicate meaning.
With The Blair Witch Project, while much of the meaning is communicated in what is being communicated through the subject of the film—three students lost in the woods, stalked by an unknown and unknowable force—meaning is also communicated in how the subject is depicted to us. It isn’t just the tribulations of three people trying to survive in and escape from the woods, it’s that we see these tribulations through the lenses of their perceptions and knowledge structures.
The documentary intended to investigate and depict the legend—the narrative or modern representation—of the Blair Witch devolves into the last record of three people’s lives. The representation of the film begins as an attempt at objectivity—investigative journalism or documentarianism—with this lens of modern society and civilization, but the documentary falls apart and gives way to fear, dread and hopelessness.
The lens of modernity gives way to the survival of humanity amidst the wilderness of reality.
Remember this movie not as a strange novelty that emerged at the tail end of the 20th century, but as a misunderstood representation of the historic pivoting we currently find ourselves stumbling through.