You may wonder why I would think it appropriate to write about an 11-year-old movie in a blog on Atheist Nexus.
As for waiting 11 years, that is merely a function of not having gotten around to seeing the movie until last night. I do apologize for the lack of timeliness, but I can’t see everything when it comes out. I’m not omniscient or omnipresent, after all.
But as for having relevance to the atheist community here, bear with me and I will try to make my case.
I should insert a spoiler alert here, although I assume most have either seen the movie, heard about the movie, or don’t care about the movie.
Short synopsis: three college kids head out to make a documentary about a local legend, a witch who lives in the woods. While interviewing the local people, they hear a couple of stories about a long-ago murder of some children along with dubious accounts of a misty shape once seen by some guy and a woman covered with hair seen by the local crazy lady. It’s all fairly vague and not really coherent.
But once they hit the woods, things take a turn. They get lost, they hear eerie noises in the distance, they find a bunch of human-like stick figures hanging from trees, one member goes missing, piles of rocks appear around the tent. The end scene seems to mirror the end of one of the legendary murder stories, whereupon one character screams, the camera takes a tumble, and the tape runs out.
The reviews were about as polarized as those of any movie ever made. Viewers either loved it or hated it, were scared out their minds or bored out of their skulls. Why was that?
It’s all in how you perceive and interpret the events, actually. You can interpret each one, and the story as a whole, as being mysterious and frightening; or you can examine each event and see it as something quite normal, and not scary at all. You will not see the witch. You will not see a ghost. You will see rocks and sticks and hear some weird noises. From there, it’s up to you.
Personally, I liked it. Not because it was scary, but because it wasn’t.
This is not a movie about a witch, or a ghost, or a murderer. It’s a movie about people imposing meaning on events, meaning that is not inherent in the event itself but comes about when people interpret those events within the context of an unrelated story. Things are not examined for what they are in themselves, but are seen in terms of how they fit within the framework of a preconceived narrative. The Blair Witch Project is a pareidolia—there is not necessarily a pattern there, but you will see one if you squint a little.
And that’s where the genius lies in this film. It is an inkblot, nothing in itself but merely a vessel waiting to be filled with meaning by the viewer. There is no witch, unless you create one yourself while watching.
In order to be frightened by The Blair Witch Project (and from the reviews I’ve read, many found it genuinely terrifying), the viewer has to relate everything that happens back to the vague, disconnected legends heard in the beginning. If you think you’re watching a movie about a witch, a pile of rocks becomes an ominous warning; a guy standing in the corner of a room is being forced to re-enact an old murder.
But if you become convinced, as I did, that you are watching a movie about some kids heading into the woods unprepared and simply becoming irrational, a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks. And the guy standing in the corner has simply flipped out and given up. There is no horrible monster jumping out at you, no mysterious misty shape in the shadows, no bloodthirsty undying thing; there is a series of fairly unremarkable events that are only frightening when seen in a context that is not actually part of the events themselves.
Of course, many people went to the theatre expecting scary stuff and were very disappointed when confronted with bundles of sticks and a few odd noises. Those people panned the movie as not the least bit frightening. Which is a perfectly valid viewpoint; in fact, there was nothing inherently frightening there.
And yet, a whole lot of people have written to say it was the scariest thing they’d ever seen. Fear of the unknown, the unseen, is the greatest fear of all. You don’t see anything, you don’t know what’s going on, so it’s frightening. And that’s also a valid viewpoint.
But the key to understanding this movie, and the reason why I’m writing about it here, is this: if you take another step back, analyze the story in terms of what actually happens, and "watch" people react to it, there’s another, more encompassing viewpoint: namely, the scariest things in this world are often things we see, know, and should understand, but we connect them in patterns that don’t exist outside our minds and imbue them with meaning derived from a context that is in fact unrelated and often unreal. We are imposing our own narrative on random events.
Sort of like seeing God’s vengefulness in every earthquake.
Maybe I’m doing my own bit of projecting here, but it seems like The Blair Witch Project is not so much a movie but a psychological experiment on the movie-going public. Give them a sequence of events that don’t necessarily add up to anything, but provide them early on with the right context to make those events seem to fit a pattern, and they will do the work of scaring themselves with no further help. It will work on a lot of people, and doesn’t require much of a budget for special effects.
Which is sort of like religion, and that is why I’m posting this here. Miracles, you see, are not required when you provide the proper context ahead of time. With just a little preconditioning, people will turn ordinary events into miracles all by themselves. Just tell them a nice ghost story when they’re young; if they buy it, you can scare them with just about anything from then on.