Last night, I rewatched one of my most favorite horror movies: The Blair Witch Project, a movie whose (Can I use “whose” when referring to inanimate objects? Always learning!) scariness is debatable, but has influenced other movies, such as Paranormal Activity and REC. Debatable, indeed! My girlfriend who had never seen it didn’t think it was scary. “These characters are stupid,” she said in the middle of the film, when one of the characters, Mike, revealed that he had kicked their map into a river the day before. I tried explaining to her, but I’m not good with words.
These were normal people who had lost their sanity, and most importantly, their trust in one another. The map that was supposed to guide them out of the woods was useless either way because they were never going to get out. Something supernatural was causing them to walk in circles, keeping them in the witch’s territory, even if they followed a compass going all the way south.
I was 9-years-old when the movie first came out in 1999. Imagination was still intact. Cellphones and the internet weren’t as accessible. The world was more closed and mysterious. Film documentaries were all too real. From what I remember, The Blair Witch Project did a great job fooling people that it was real through campaigning. Remember the missing posters? It was years later when I found out that it wasn’t real, thanks to the internet. Oh, and it made $250 million on a $60,000 budget. It’s considered a landmark film because of its success and influence.
But my girlfriend, like many, didn’t like it.
I understood while watching the movie in 2017 that it looked outdated. Scenes were choppy. But it was supposed to be a movie put together using “found footage”. The female protagonist, Heather, did too much screaming while I had the Bose sound on (so to hear the cackling in the night). But the “acting” seemed to be genuine. Heather was too proud and Mike was too stupid. But one wouldn’t think something was wrong at first, and the loss of sensibility was a progression. Loads of “buts” that could deem it a bad movie if the audience isn’t flexible enough.
So why do I like it?
Last semester in Creative Writing class, Professor John Weir, author of The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and What I Did Wrong?, asked his class, during a practice workshop, if the piece of writing we were discussing had character development. “Did it have character development? Or was it more situational?” It was something he never expanded on, but it gave me ideas on what created effective storytelling. Throughout the semester, he touched on characters starting somewhere and ending up elsewhere. “Did the characters change someway?” He didn’t say explicitly, but, of course, he was talking about character arcs. Some of my fellow classmates whose stories were situational felt like their stories tried too hard to impress, to the point that they sounded contrived.
The Blair Witch Project gives us three normal people in the beginning. They experience supernatural events. As a result of those events, they deteriorate psychologically. Cause and effect. The film is so deliberate in this aspect. Every night, things get worse and worse. They first react with questions and confusion. Then, they become frustrated and angry. Then, they turn on each other. Then, there’s screaming and crying. Then, there’s surrender. Three people, the woods, and a hidden antagonist that makes it even more psychological. What was stalking them? In my mind was a floating woman wearing a black, tattered cloak, her eyes constantly watching them. Why did she leave rocks outside their tent? Even she has to have motives. Was it to taunt them?
My girlfriend likes the movie Hush better, a movie I find to be okay, but lacking character development. To me, like many lazy horror movies, it’s more situational storytelling. It’s about a woman who lives in the middle of the woods (cliché) and is attacked by an intruder, but with a twist: she’s deaf. It reminded me of Home Alone, a movie with an identifiable character arc (Kevin is a scared little boy in the beginning, but then becomes brave enough to protect his own home). Hush has a “cool” concept, but that’s just it, and I didn’t find myself caring too much for the protagonist.
So what’s up with character development? The characters become much more real. The story becomes a bit more personal. There’s a chance that you’ll care about these people – empathize – and you’ll put yourself in the story. And when you put yourself in a horror story, that will make it even more of a horror for you.
Speaking as a student of psychology, I think The Blair Witch Project is one of the best psychological horrors out there, considering the fact that they did so much with so little. And, at one point, it was real. All too real.