The aim of the creators is that the viewer sees the film not as film, but as artefact, in addition to the materials presented on the Web site, which can be viewed to understand a kind of hidden reality. The Blair Witch site portrays that this film is equally representing everyday life just as the Internet is, that ‘it extends the sort of unfettered knowledge access that the Internet seems to offer, and that its pleasures, in fact, closely resemble those of the electronic medium with which its core audience is so familiar’. The importance of the film’s Website Blair Witch co-creator Eduardo Sanchez posits is that “It gave us a lot of hype for a little movie,” while he also points to the fact that the site was effective primarily because it was so very different from other publicity pages with which web users were familiar. This echoes Janet Murray’s study of electronic narrative forms, wherein she describes how such texts, are generally much more sophisticated than a typical advertising site and usually rely upon three “aesthetic principles” or characteristic “pleasures” for their lure—what she terms “immersion, agency, and transformation.” The term “immersion” refers to the “experience of being submerged” in the world of the text, and thus to a certain delight in “the movement out of our familiar world” and into another sphere.
The Blair Witch site functions as part of a larger narrative context and draws to varying degrees on each of these pleasures, which, it forecasts to those who have grown up with the computer and the Internet, extend into the world of the film as well. While employing the same sort of dark and suggestive colour scheme as other websites, the Blair Witch page is especially distinctive by its power of immersion. After establishing a real world context, the site moves from that anchorage into a completely ‘other’ world, one of witchcraft, one affiliated to the repressed history of the mysteriously abandoned town of Blair, attested to by a collection of woodcuts depicting witchcraft in the province and selections from the illusive book The Blair Witch Cult, which the viewer is told “is on display at the Maryland Historical Society Museum.” As site visitors discover that realm, they increasingly exercise an element of agency, exploring, like the missing filmmakers themselves, different dimensions of the mystery: gathering background on the region, investigating the public debate about the missing students through interviews, reading pages of Heather’s diary and looking over the evidence accumulated. Despite the densely structured nature of this world and its invitation to navigate its cyberspace, the site never quite gives us a full range of that other “characteristic pleasure of digital environments,” of transformation. Here we cannot become one of the characters, the best we can do is assume the role of an investigator. To do otherwise, to allow us to temporarily become one of the lost students, would go against the very texture of the film toward which this site does ultimately and so successfully point. The site mainly hints at the power of transformation as that closely allied pleasure is the reward at the core of the film itself.
The Website’s ultimate aim is to encourage viewing the film, to help build its audience, which it does so effectively not only by allowing us these electronic pleasures, but by suggesting we might also find them, and perhaps something more, a content for this frightening context, in the film itself. Indeed, what The Blair Witch Project offers is some variation on the thrills of its Web site, along with a surprising level of transformation. In fact, after a number of studios tried to emulate this Internet approach of The Blair Witch Project, usually without reaping the same benefits, many in the industry recognised that its success derived from the way the Web site and film function together and share certain key attractions. As Marc Graser and Dade Hayes explain, an initial industry temptation to mimic the Blair Witch Internet campaign has been replaced by a recognition “that the ‘Blair Witch’ site was not an added on marketing tool but was designed as part of the film experience—one that tapped into fans of the horror genre in a special way”.
The Film portrays no monsters or maniacs as it is trying to immerse us in a world that shares the same scope as our own. The young filmmaker Heather worries about making her film look too much like a traditional horror movie. “I don’t want to go too cheesy,” she says, in a manner that echoes the project’s constant insistence on the real; “I want to present this in as straightforward a way as possible . . . the legend is unsettling enough.” In keeping with this attitude, the film begins with domestic scenes at Heather’s house with Josh (“This is my home, which I am leaving the comforts of,” she says as the film opens) and is one of the many strange meta-cinematic parallels to the “real” world this film portrays. The location of the woods is pointedly different, the cemetery against which Heather films her introductory remarks in 16mm black and white quickly establishes that. The narrative quickly shifts into a realm in which neither the students nor the viewers can ever quite get their bearings. The constant shift between black and white film and colour video images reinforces this disorientation. The climactic scene, in which Mike and Heather enter the ruined old house in the woods, contradicts those initial domestic images of Heather’s home with the implications of safety and security. The viewers are simply left immersed in a world that has been completely transformed. If the Web page is driven in large part by agency, the film connects that thrust precisely to the powers of transformation.
As Janet Murray reminds us, ‘the more realized the immersive environment, the more active we want to be within it’. However here, after ‘a fashion long familiar from other horror films and their limited use of subjective camera, agency is evoked only to be frustrated, creating a sense of helplessness that is fertile psychic ground for horror’. Horror Films repeatedly note and parody, we cannot stop ‘these teenagers from running out into the dangerous dark where their fates are cinematically sealed’. The success of films like Scream may have signalled a new interest in Horror cinema. Hollywood and viewers were enamoured by the film’s charming and acute cleverness and rushed to embrace this new aesthetic. While The Blair Witch Project consciously targeted a youth market, the film’s creators in contrast considered the film’s truth conceit an instant apparatus “to catch young and airy minds.”” Sanchez’s description of the directors’ revelation “we have something different here” also indicates the creators’ desire to interrogate genre conventions. The Sundance film catalogue description of the film highlights this interrogation by accrediting the work as one that “redefines the horror genre”. In interviews, the directors deliberately positioned their film in opposition to contemporary examples of cinematic horror. When describing their aspirations and hopes for The Blair Witch Project, the film’s directors pointedly affirm their grievance that “too many recent horror films have used satire and humor to reinvigorate a genre that had become predictable and repetitive”. Accordingly Artisan fashioned a promotional campaign designed to intensify and nurture viewers’ impression of a film that stylistically “seems real,” “looks real,” and “feels real.” What the filmmakers “were going after was identifiability,” as Myrick lamented, deliberately avoiding stylistic clichés which they saw as having the function of distancing an audience from empathising with the characters’ plight.
This film dismissed the concepts of the unbelievable and impossible with which horror films generally abound in an effort to realise an aesthetic purpose and evoke a more ‘real’ response from their audiences. By presenting and promoting their works as factually-based, the creators invested their cultural products with a characteristic much valued by their respective cultures. The recognition of the importance of the ‘real’ or the ‘true’ was motivated simultaneously both by commercial interests and aesthetic objectives. The makers of The Blair Witch Project viewed the contemporary horror film’s disconnection with actual human experience ‘as having evolved into a commercial liability’. Since realism often will increase the likelihood of “identifiability,” cultural products exhibiting a realistic style will often carry greater cultural capital by increasing the potential demographic of its audience.
In conclusion, the creators of The Blair Witch Project were successful in their concentrated efforts to promote and exhibit their cultural objects as containing some element of truth. Eduardo Sanchez’s comments epitomise this aim of illusion of The Blair Witch Project’s factuality: “It seems real, it looks real, it feels real. We’re not saying it’s the truth, and we’re not saying it’s not. We were smart enough, as we were making the film, to realize we have something different here”. This petition to realism did aid in the attraction of large audiences, but more essential to The Blair Witch Project’s unprecedented commercial success was ‘the fundamentally conservative moral stance informing the work’s attempt to reform its respective genre of popular entertainment’.