On July 12, 1999, I worked the 2:00 PM to closing shift at Zapp! Comics in Freehold, New Jersey. The night before, a curious television show premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel. Entitled “The Curse of the Blair Witch,” it purported to reveal the secrets behind the upcoming film “The Blair Witch Project,” which was allegedly the recently discovered footage of three student filmmakers who’d vanished in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland and were never heard from again.
I missed “Curse of the Blair Witch” on Sci-Fi, but as an 18-year-old film geek I already knew plenty about “The Blair Witch Project” — its premiere at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and its groundbreaking marketing strategy to pass off a fictional film as an authentic documentary through the use of a spooky website. “Curse of the Blair Witch” was one arm of that strategy: a fake documentary about the “reality” behind another fake documentary.
It was a relatively quiet day at Zapp! I was working the register with another clerk, and we passed the hours ringing up customers by chatting about comic books and pop culture. Eventually, the subject came around to “The Curse of the Blair Witch.” Previously unfamiliar with “The Blair Witch Project,” my co-worker was intrigued by the way the distributor, Artisan Entertainment, was convincing people that a movie about evil witches murdering film students was true.
At that moment, a middle-aged woman shopping in the store with her son, approached us. “Excuse me,” she said. “You’re talking about that ‘Blair Witch’ thing, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did I hear you say it’s not real?”
“No, no! You’re wrong!” she shot back.
A little voice in the back of my head whispered: “The customer is always right.” I told that little voice to shut its goddamn mouth.
“Ma’am I’m sorry, but it’s just movie. I mean, it’s designed to look real. They want you to think it’s real. But it’s all an elaborate hoax.”
“You’re wrong!” she said, angrier. “It’s real! I know! I’m a teacher!“
Dumbfounded, I nodded and said “Okay, sure. It’s real!” And with that she stormed off. The whole thing lasted maybe 45 seconds, but for some reason, those 45 seconds have stuck with me. “I know! I’m a teacher!” has become an inside joke in my family, and I often think of that anonymous customer and her deep, fervent belief in “The Blair Witch Project” whenever a new found footage horror movie comes out. Which, these days, is pretty often.
It’s curious how closely linked found footage and horror have become. True, found footage’s earliest success stories — “Blair Witch,” “Cannibal Holocaust” — were horror movies, and Hollywood loves any good idea it can copy, repeat, and drive into the ground. And there have been a few found footage movies of other genres; “Chronicle” very cleverly applied the concept to the world of super-heroes; “End of Watch” used it in a crime story. But horror remains the format’s preferred subject matter. The reason why can be found in that crazily insistent customer I waited on fourteen years ago:
Deep down, we want to believe. And found footage horror movies give us things to believe in.
A poll on The Huffington Post earlier this month found that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts and “that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations.” 45%! And that’s the percentage of people willing to admit it in a poll. If we short circuit our suspension our disbelief and accept a found footage horror movie at face value, then what these movies do is essentially prove those beliefs. They reaffirm the notion that there’s more to this world than what we can see, and the idea that if we just point our camera in the right spot we might actually capture something magical.
The plot of nearly every found footage horror movie is designed to play to that mindset. Their protagonists and are typically skeptics looking to disprove the existence of the supernatural — like disillusioned Reverend Cotton Marcus from “The Last Exorcism” — or opportunists hoping to fake “proof” of ghosts in order to turn a quick profit — like Lance Preston and the crew of the titular ghost hunting television show “Grave Encounters.” Eventually, these cynics are presented with the answers they’d hoped to avoid. The results are often fatal — though if we accept the mythology of these found footage movies, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since most insist on the existence of an afterlife.
Found footage critics often complain about the generally mediocre quality of their acting; to make their veneer of reality work, these films require previously unknown actors, and that can sometimes lead to dicey casting choices. It’s a legitimate complaint — and a legitimate reason why believers like found footage movies even more. Surrounded by crummy actors, low budget sets, and often unconvincing approximations of documentary filmmaking techniques, the supernatural begin to look more real than the natural. Because they’re made by fiction filmmakers rather than documentarians, found footage movies often feature much more authentic fictional elements — i.e. the ghosts/monsters/trolls/etc. — than the nonfiction ones.
You could make a documentary about cops or the government or life in the offices of a paper supply company, but the only way to create a documentary about evil witches is to “find” the evidence somewhere out in the woods. Squint hard enough, believe strongly enough, and you’re left with movies that make a pretty convincing argument for paranormal activity, assuming you’re inclined to trust them.