- The Blair Witch Project: Technology, Repression, and the Evisceration of Mimesis
Given its preposterously low budget, outsider production, and a priori cult status as ludic masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project does not seem a likely candidate to become the allegorical moment of our postmodern media-scape. In fact, the major obsession of all reviewers has been, thus far, that the film somehow by-passes technology altogether, returning us to an authentic psychological (think Hitchcock) rather than technical horror (Wes Craven). The marketing of the film exploits this fact—i.e. here is the real horror of your imagination rather than the over-produced kitsch of Freddy Kruger or Pin-head. This undisguised appeal to the authenticity of imagination is paradoxically coextensive with BWP’s presentation and marketing of itself as a documentary. Thus, not only is the film obsessed with returning the viewer to an authentic experience of self under the sign of imagination, it simultaneously presents itself as an unmediated, even “unimaginative,” reality. However, BWP is, ironically, a deconstruction of the possibility of such authenticities in our technologically mediated culture, and the return of this knowledge is where the real horror of the film is to be found.
The classic horror narrative is based on the return of the repressed: From Mary Shelly’s left-for-dead monster to Candyman, the theme asserts itself as both causality and moment of terror. BWP is in this sense no exception. Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the film presents itself as the raw footage of three student filmmakers (director Heather Donahue, cinematographer Joshua Leonard, and sound technician Michael C. Williams). As they venture into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest in search of the legendary Blair Witch, we witness both the initial shots for their documentary project (complete with slates) and their continual filming of the strange events that ensue as they are stalked by a malicious presence. As we are told in the opening credits, the three were never seen again. The narrative, then, is the return of the Blair Witch, who, presumably, is responsible for the disappearance of the filmmakers. However, there is another way we might grasp the return of the repressed in this film, and thus explain both its popularity and power. The marketing and reception of the film are centered around its supposed ludic repression of technology and return to authenticity. Yet, within the narrative, we are left with only film cans, DAT tapes, and 8mm Video. To put this rather more pivotally, the substantive repression in our reception of the film is not that of the witch herself, but of technology’s mediating role in every aspect of our world. Yet at every turn in the narrative, and encoded into the documentary format which relies on both grainy black and white and shaky video, the technological apparatus and its inability to represent the witch are underscored. The real horror of the film is built out of the return of this knowledge—that we remember our powerlessness in a world saturated with, but immune to, a technological mimesis we can neither trust nor escape.
Much has been made of the BWP’s status as a psychological horror film that relies on imagination. The consensus established in the reviews is that the omnipresence of billion dollar effects in films from The Phantom Menace to Aliens are, these days, no longer effective because they alienate the audience from its imagination. As Entertainment Weekly Online puts it, “[t]oday, when moviegoers know everything about everything (and can never unimagine, say, that ‘Alien’ monster bursting from John Hurt’s chest), the only true fear lies in what’s not shown” (Schwarzbaum). The old argument here is that films which push technology towards a total mimesis no longer frighten audiences so desensitized that they can watch any evisceration disinterestedly. However, the reason for that jaded passivity is that real horror must be the evocation of our own fears; in short, a return to and paradoxical affirmation of the self. The success of BWP, so the...