Can you see this?

My actual The Blair Witch VHS tape from the '90s.

Around this time of year, every website and media outlet cranks out some version of a 'Scariest Movies Ever'-type article, listicle, or listosticle (that's a 'list post article'-- a word I just made up).

Why HERE'S ONE now.  And HERE'S ANOTHER.  Annnnnd ANOTHER.  You get the idea.

Generally, I find these lists to be pretty cookie-cutter containing the same classics and usual suspects. No slight on the films themselves, but I more-than-likely have already seen most, if not all, of what's included.

But the barrage of lists got me to thinking about what I, personally, find scary and when the last time was that I truly was scared by a film.  I'm not talking about a music-sting jump-out-of-your-seat moment... I'm talking about a movie that unsettled me so much that I had difficulty existing in the world afterward.  What I came up with surprised me.

The Blair Witch Project 'Missing' Poster

The Blair Witch Project.

That film is the last time that I was scared down to my bones. 

However, I believe I saw The Blair Witch Project under what can only be deemed 'ideal conditions.'

Here's the story:

I worked for a small TV production company back in the late '90s and my then-boss walked in one morning and handed me a VHS Tape.  On the spine was a P-Touched label that simply said "Blair Witch Project."

"Here," he said. "Somebody gave me this. Supposed to be scary but I couldn't get through it."
I took it to my friend's house that night and gathered a small group of fellow horror/sci-fi geeks and their girlfriends for a viewing. We knew absolutely nothing about it.

We turned out the lights, hit play on the VCR and were WIDE-EYED AND RIVETED to the screen for the entire film.
Comments made during the screening became more and more panicked.

"Is this real?" 

"This is fake right?"

"What IS this?"

"Where did you get it?"

"Seriously this is fake right? ...RIGHT?!"

When Heather runs down the stairs at the end of the movie, the camera catching glimpses of children's hand prints on the walls, only to find Mikey facing the wall and Heather's incessant screaming, and then a hard CUT TO BLACK---

Still from The Blair Witch Project ending.

---We all sat there stunned.

Freaked out.

WAS this film real?  Couldn't be... right?
We rewound the ending to see any details we missed.  A cacophony of questions filled the room:
"What was that guy doing standing at the back wall?"
"Remember? They said that guy who killed the kids--"
"Rustin Parr."
"---Yeah. He used to make them face the wall before he killed them."
"I think he's in a trance."
"Is it a ghost?"
"Look!  LOOK!  Those are little child hand prints on the walls!"
"Is she dead at the end?"
"Well she drops the camera."
"Pause it!  Pause it!  Is there an image in the shuttering frame?"

We must have run it back a dozen or more times. We eventually had to mute the volume because Heather's screaming was unsettling us so much. We pored over it as if it was the Zapruder film.

The internet wasn't the robust beast that it is today so we searched for what we could but there was no real info out there.  Nothing on the actors.  Nothing on the production. 
WAS it real?

The film affected me so much that my roommate and I were jumpy for months afterward.
And when I went camping 3 months later with a group of friends... and some of the group separated off in the late afternoon and we found ourselves calling after them into the woods... the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I giggled uncomfortably.

But I didn't just stick the tape on my shelf and call it a day.  I loaned it out. Anyone we talked to who hadn't seen it.
"Dude you HAVE to watch this."

Word of mouth campaign?  We WERE the word of mouth.  How many tickets did we sell, I wonder?

The film eventually hit theaters and became a huge phenomenon and made buckets of money for Artisan.  But the backlash was hard.
Many people who saw it in the theater left motion-sick from the shaky camerawork magnified on the big screen.  Or became bored because there was no gore or payoff to the hype. Nothing was explained.  "You don't see anything. This sucks..." many an audience member would say.

Newsweek cover, August 16, 1999

In my opinion, there is no way this film could have worked in a movie theater.
After all, we had already seen actor Michael C. Williams quit his job on Conan and the full cast appeared --alive and well-- on the cover of Newsweek. Add to that the NUMEROUS parodies that were spawned from it and the mystique didn't just get diluted, it evaporated.

I really think the only way it could have ever shocked a wide audience is being handed around on a nondescript videotape... watched in the living rooms of people who wondered if it was real.

Horror movies are very personal.  What scares some, may not scare others.  Found Footage films seem to be something that pushes my buttons.  I can probably trace when that button was originally installed all the way back to an episode of That's Incredible that dealt with a haunted Toys 'R Us, complete with the 'ghost' caught on infrared film.  Couldn't sleep for weeks after that one.  Ghostwatch, Lake Mungo, even the Inside No. 9 "Deadline" episode all gave me similar creeps over the subsequent years.  Found footage is my thing.


I'm also the type that enjoys a little mystery.  I don't need things overly explained or shown.  I like not knowing who's the Thing in John Carpenter's The Thing.  I liked that The Shape disappeared at the end of the original Halloween (1978) and could have been 'not a man,' but just 'purely and simply evil.'  And re-reading those last two sentences, it goes without saying that I like John Carpenter.  

In the middle of the Pandemic, in October 2020, I wandered up to check out a Little Free Library in the neighborhood.  There sandwiched in amongst the books was --not a book, nor a DVD-- but a VHS cassette labeled The Blair Witch Project.  

 I smiled broadly, took it home, dug the VCR out of the closet and dusted it off--- and fired up the cassette.

Low and behold it WAS the film in all its glory.  Did I keep the tape?  Nope.  I had one.

I immediately returned it to its LFL location hoping that SOMEone would have the same experience I did all those years ago.    

The Blair Witch Project on iTunes
I put Blair Witch on for the first time in years this Halloween season.  No longer watching it on a videotape, on a CRT monitor---I had purchased a digital copy and was watching it crystal-clear on a computer screen as I worked.  Not much work got done over the next 90 minutes as I found myself sucked in.  And there was that familiar icy creep up the back of my neck as Heather's screaming started in the last few minutes.

Yep.  Stiiiiiill got it.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have seen The Blair Witch Project as it should have been seen all along:  

In the dark.

On a small TV screen.

With the trick unknown, and the treat a good scare.

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