Thursday, October 28, 2010

Defending the Unknown: The Blair Witch Project

I don't need to defend The Blair Witch Project, as the film has an ample supply of supporters and the backlash against it is as old news as a Y2K story banged out on a Smith Corona for next weeks' issue of George. I also don't need to go into the plot (3 teen/twenty somethings, woods, cameras, lost... you get it) or remind anyone that you don't ever see a witch in it. I don't need to go into the maddening cracks in common sense that the characters demonstrate (they pass the same stream twice and don't immediately think, "Let's just follow the stream.") or the acts of mindless stupidity ("Something's outside the tent. I'm going to run blindly from the tent into the night."). I don't need to because the people who didn't get that The Blair Witch Project got the fear of the unknown just right aren't going to listen anyway and I don't feel like arguing with them.

I understand movie viewers can sometimes be driven insane by some of the logical inconsistencies of a movie like this, and I sympathize because I too find myself gritting my teeth at movies that contain "Idiot Plot" elements (as described years ago by Roger Ebert, an "idiot plot" is any movie plot in which, if the characters weren't all idiots, would end in five minutes).


Sometimes a movie really is going for a feeling, a sense of... something. Something intangible, something unknown. That's what The Blair Witch Project is going for, something unknown, and it succeeds mightily. But I don't bring this up to drag out another defense of the movie but to herald the unknown as a viable source of horror genre fodder that is, surprisingly, rarely used. When I say "the unknown" I don't mean supernatural or paranormal occurrences that can't be explained, like The Amityville Horror or Paranormal Activity or Burnt Offerings. I don't mean movies about unexplained occurrences where investigators have to figure out what's going on before it's too late or movies about vampires, werewolves or poltergeists. I mean the unknown. Period. As in The Blair Witch Project, where nothing is explained and nothing shown and nothing, really, even strongly hypothesized. Our characters are there, in the woods, and they feel a menace around them. And that's pretty much all we ever learn.

I know that kind of thing exists because I experienced it once myself, years ago. I was in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up and, bored, decided to drive up highway 17, north. Eventually I turned off onto some side roads, parked in a small open space off the shoulder and wandered into the woods of Francis Marion National Forest. I started walking into the woods, off any main trail, and continued to do so for about an hour. Eventually, I came to a clearing and if you hike a lot, and my wife and I do, you know that a clearing (a natural one) is, in many ways, a mystical place. Usually small spots where, for whatever reason (sometimes it's a dried up pond or lake, sometimes a rocky area), there aren't any trees but plenty of vegetation. They're nice, relaxing and inviting. Usually. But this time I got a feeling, a bad feeling. All of it was, with almost complete certainty, inside my head. Nevertheless, I stopped dead in my tracks. For reasons only my primal psyche knows, I wasn't about to walk into that clearing. I stood there, still, for about five minutes. I kept looking around, over my shoulder, behind me, but not moving forward. I had the feeling, crazy as it sounds, that something was waiting for me to move into that clearing, to get myself out in the open, and I wasn't about to oblige it.

I can guarantee you now what I could probably guarantee you then, that there was nothing there but the ancient synapses of my ancestors' primal fears firing into place, something instinctual about not letting yourself be exposed and vulnerable. Still, I felt it, and it was palpable. Eventually, after telling myself this was ridiculous for five minutes but not once convincing myself of said fact, I turned around and headed back, double time. To this day, it's the most unnerving hiking experience I've ever had. I've ventured back into the woods in South Carolina and Maryland and Vermont on numerous occasions without anything but glorious thoughts about nature's beauty and how wonderful it was and is to be alive. But on that day, I got spooked. And what I was spooked by was nothing. Nothing known, that is.

And that's the success of The Blair Witch Project, in the final estimate. It is not that "they don't show anything," as is often touted (although, admittedly, that's a big part of it as well). It's that they don't explain anything. We don't discover it was really just a bunch of backwoods rednecks, or pranksters or perhaps even a real witch. We don't find out anything. When the final words are spoken and the camera is blacked out, we have no answers to the question, "What happened?" All we know is there was something out there and our instincts told us to be afraid of it, and avoid it. The Blair Witch Project doesn't avoid it. Unfortunately, most of the horror genre does, which is a shame because the unknown, when done right, can trigger every primal fear we have. And that's a known quantity for the horror genre just waiting to be used.