It’s one of the most memorable Horror movie endings. Heather runs down the stairs of a crumbling house, screaming Mike’s name. He isn’t responding. Anything could’ve happened to him. Then there’s a glimpse of him in the basement. He’s not decapitated or consumed in witchfire. He’s just standing in the corner.
That’s all we see before something strikes Heather, and everyone goes silent.
You know it’s meaningful. You remember the legend that locals told us earlier, that a serial killer made children face the corner. Suddenly the children’s handprints on the walls upstairs feel like they have a clear meaning.
Except nothing is actually clear. What persuaded Mike, who’d been screaming for Josh to come out, to abruptly go into a trance? The serial killer didn’t have mind control, nor did he target college-aged adults on camping trips. Also, that killer had been dead for years. The legends of a magical figure are about a centuries-old witch.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) doesn’t operate like the found footage movies it later inspired. In movies such as Paranormal Activity (2007) and Lake Mungo (2008) audiences spend the runtime narrowing down options of what’s going on and dreading a few possible outcomes. Coming to understand the antagonist is usually where dread comes from. You’re afraid of Jigsaw because whatever byzantine situation he’s set up will inevitably turn into a murder puzzle. Train to Busan (2016) tells you clearly: if zombies get on this train, or if they bite anyone aboard, we’ll be in trouble.
The Blair Witch Project asks: how do you escalate a threat that will never be knowable?
At the outset, the movie won’t make up its mind. No two people that the students interview agree on what the exact legend of the Blair Witch is. She might attack children who don’t go to bed on time, or she might be covered in horsehair and float mysteriously above rivers, or she might tie together the disemboweled bodies of men. Still, others say the real local legend is Rustin Parr, the previously mentioned serial killer who kidnapped and murdered children. Why he did it, we don’t know. But we do know he hated being watched.
As such, any little event on the students’ camping trip could indicate what’s after them. When Josh knocks over a pile of significant-looking stones, it could have angered a spirit. When the students hear sounds at night, those could be a witch, or stalkers from town, or a red herring. Enough plot dots have been scattered that the audience starts connecting things.
We can connect enough things that by the time of the first big night chase, we’re looking for corroboration of our fears. Heather runs by something that’s not caught on camera and yells, “What the fuck is that?”
Without seeing anything, we wonder if it’s corroboration of a monster. We’re ready to be scared of something that the movie has never actually established is real. For the runtime of the film, we’re experiencing a superstition.
Tensions heighten because we know the students don’t get out of this. Some fate where they disappear is awaiting them. We connect the omens to possible fates. Are they going to be murdered? Is a nebulous cursed forest going to trap them in limbo forever? Get possessed? It’s unusual that a movie hides even its own stakes from us. We shouldn’t be so worried if we don’t even know the shape of the fate we’re supposed to be afraid of.
Empathy is another part of this. The students are afraid for their lives, and we assume when they’re chased that they would be harmed if caught. We watch them devolve from goofballs joking about Gilligan’s Island into sobbing messes who rock themselves on the ground like small children. It’s dire to them in a way they keep illustrating. And we know, as the audience, that they’re right to be afraid because we believe whatever is hunting them in that probability space will make them disappear in the end.
The enigma would be more frustrating if the movie was coyer about its antagonists. In something like Predator (1987), we are gradually teased with clues about the alien hunter until the camera frames an exciting reveal. That’s the standard way to introduce an ominous Horror antagonist. It worked then, and it works today, but it would break The Blair Witch Project.
Since it’s found footage, the students’ camerawork is our only way of looking for antagonists. Once they’re worried, they’re never ignorant about looking and trying to catch what’s happening on film. They model the expected audience behavior of trying to figure this out.
But they have limited resources, so we know they can’t confirm everything. Even them loitering too long in the grove of stick men feels like a risk. We want to see more, but also we know we should be nervous for every extra moment. There’s a precious beat where everyone is yelling for Heather to leave, but she hesitates because she wants to know more. It’s stuff like this that promises there could be answers. It keeps the story from feeling lazy or like it’s avoiding explanations. We don’t take exploration for granted, especially not as the students grow exhausted and traumatized.
The movie ratchets that up later when Josh disappears and a small bag of body parts is left for Heather. Neither we nor Heather know why Josh vanished; now we only have the implication that if Heather and Mike are caught, they might be dismembered.
They only might be, though. Because ten minutes of film later, we hear Josh’s voice screaming for them in the night. That can’t have been his organs in the bag if he’s alive. Or is that voice a witch? The uncertainty won’t let up.
It should feel random, but it doesn’t, because the audience is still connecting plot dots. It’s still too enticing to read intentionality into why these folks are lost and what’s being done to them. By not having things confirmed while giving us possible clues, we keep building theories we’re afraid of as things unfold.
This approach can go wrong very easily. Blair Witch (2016) throws all sorts of perils at its explorers, too, but just winds up feeling random. We actually see parasites eating people alive, and giant monsters throwing people into the trees, and experience definite time travel. That sequel makes the mistake of showing and confirming too many possibilities, and so its world feels confirmably random. Anything can happen, and “anything” is not frightening.
It’s a significant departure from the original Blair Witch Project, where we feared anything might happen. It was the probability space in the vagueness that got to us. As anybody with anxiety problems can tell you, the prospect of “anything” is more terrifying than the reality.
It is a tenuous balance. Many Horror stories since have attempted to be opaque and confusing to inspire terror. Most have flopped hard. You can’t just plunk mysteries down in front of an audience and expect them to care. It’s the structure of Blair Witch Project that makes its maelstrom of possibilities work. There’s a lot to learn from these students.