In the years immediately before The Blair Witch Project debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, the American horror genre was dominated by two trends: self-aware semi-comedies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and expensive throwbacks like The Mummy and The Haunting. In the years immediately after Blair Witch made nearly $250 million at the worldwide box office, something changed. It wasn’t that found footage fright-flicks suddenly became hot. That turning point occurred nearly a decade later, with the success of Paranormal Activity — a movie that borrowed a lot of Blair Witch’s production and marketing techniques, including debuting in Park City at the Sundance rival Slamdance. Instead, the next big things in horror in the early ‘00s were low-budget “torture porn” and American remakes of Japanese ghost stories. Suddenly, irony was dead, nostalgia was buried, and audiences were ready to be shocked again.
It’d be a mistake to say that The Blair Witch Project changed Sundance’s reputation overnight either, although it did arrive at a pivotal point in the fest’s history, and had a ripple effect that’s still being felt. The buzz around Blair Witch was reminiscent of what happened to Sundance in the early ‘90s, when the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez stormed into Park City with grubby little genre pieces that then slipped into arthouses around the country, blurring the lines between B-movies and prestige pictures. In the latter half of the decade, with Sundance’s star-making bonafides duly established, the festival seemed to lose touch with its roots, and began garnering a reputation as a place where Hollywood hobnobbed and oxygen-deprived studio execs threw too much money at forgettable middlebrow flops like Spitfire Grill and Happy, Texas.
The Blair Witch Project brought a lot of Sundance’s cool back, serving as a reminder that the festival programmers could still book something cheap, edgy, and weird that would immediately become a must-see. It was a return to the era when the story behind a Sundance movie was as important as the movie itself. When an El Mariachi or Clerks made their way out of Park City, they came with a side of hype about how little they cost, and what the cast and crew went through to make them happen.
It’s hard to top the Blair Witch backstory. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez treated the production more like an extended prank than a work of art. They hired three amateur actors — Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — based on their improvisation skills and ability to hold a camera, and then dropped the trio into the woods with loose instructions to film anything interesting that might happen. Then Myrick and Sanchez tormented them, leaving them rough instructions daily about where to go and what to do but otherwise behaving like the proprietors of the cruelest haunted house ever devised, by springing creepy surprises on their cast (and hoping that they were filming their genuinely terrified reactions).
When The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance — and to some extent in the months that followed — some audience members were convinced they were watching an actual documentary, and were accordingly panicked. A lot of the backlash that hit Blair Witch after it went into wide release had to do with the “secret” being revealed, that the movie was all a stunt. Some non-festival crowds felt that the movie was too cheap-looking and not all that scary, given that they knew it was a fake.
And yet the approach that Myrick and Sanchez took has helped Blair Witch endure. It’s still “real” in its own way, in the sense that even now when people who watch that film see actors actually experiencing some of the worst nights of their lives. Plus, it’s hard to deny that the hubbub around the movie — both positive and negative — helped make it a massive hit. Stories about viewers getting motion sickness from the handheld camerawork, or about true-believers scouring the internet for info about the witch and its victims — these were an early form of viral marketing.