Love it or hate it, there is no denying the impact The Blair Witch Project had upon the horror genre with its 1999 release. Not only did the marketing campaign utilized by its distributor take a page from the Hitchcock playbook in building up audience expectation, but it also reframed the horror trope of “recovered footage” as a means of accessing the horror. As the story of a group of filmmakers who embark on an ill-fated journey into the woods in an attempt to discover proof of a witch, this film is most remembered for its shaky hand-held visuals and reliance upon its audience to create a sense of horror using their own imaginations.
Yet, at the heart of the story, is the legend of the witch who haunts the woods in a demonic frenzy. The question as to why the “old woman” is used as a vehicle for horror is interesting to me because one would think the loss of her youth and beauty (and the power derived from her sexuality) would render her impotent. Yet, I think it may be her lack of perceived sexuality that allows her greater access to the male gaze since she is now seen as asexual and no longer needs to be punished for looking. That power imbues her with a great deal of autonomy, which I think makes it extremely difficult to cast her in the role of victim.
Certainly, one likely reason for the “old woman” character is her perceived authority in the domestic home. Carol Clover notes that “the terrible place” is most often a home. As older women are culturally deemed to be the stewards of the home (they keep it and raise its inhabitants) it makes sense that they would be privy to the secrets of “the terrible place.” She is the sage to contrast against our unknowing. The woods too are considered feminine domain likely stemming from how we utilize language in describing it. As part of “Mother Earth,” the woods are an extension of the feminine. I think that’s why so much mythology refers to nymphs and fairies as its custodians. Yet, take away youth from the equation and you are left with the female witch, who often is portrayed as jealous of younger rivals.
Another reason for the “old woman” is that we have a cultural bias toward youth. The “old woman” plays upon our impression of the elderly as feeble and, ultimately, non-threatening. Our bias lulls us into a false sense of security which horror exploits. Recent examples of this seemingly innocent old lady turned killer is seen in House, Drag Me to Hell and Legion. Advanced age also offers us, the audience, a tangible connection to the archaic past that thus connects the horror to a new generation.
I’m also trying to figure out what was bothering me about the film during this viewing. For me, I think it is almost too dependent upon the time in which it was made. When the film came out, the concept of following the exploits of “normal” people was pretty much exclusive to the documentary genre. It was the horror of the unknown (“reality” footage) over the known (horror expectations derived from slasher films). But today, when our media is saturated with reality television, what was once unknown has become known thereby lessening its impact.
Also interesting is how the supernatural was contextualized in the film. It seemed dependent upon religion, specifically the concept of God, in order to derive its power. For example, we see Mary Brown clutching a bible as she tells her tale—and a local man repudiates the witch legend due to his religious convictions, implying that the spiritual is one defense against supernatural horror. Additionally, the scene where they encounter a dead mouse and try to determine whether it was a supernatural death or a death via God hints that the two are connected as oppositional forces.
For me, The Blair Witch Project does not hold up as a horror film. But its massive success and impact on the genre demands at least an obligatory viewing by horror fans.