In January 1999, a movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that no one could quite figure out. It was called "The Blair Witch Project" and it seemed to be a documentary about a trio of film students who were killed in the Maryland woods while making a documentary about a string of killings in those same Maryland woods. It seemed to have been compiled almost entirely from footage that was found at the scene of their deaths and it was absolutely terrifying. But then people started to realize that the "film students" were actually in attendance at the festival and they were alive as could be.
Buzz about "The Blair Witch Project" spread like wildfire through Sundance, with people flocking to screenings and trying to decipher it. (The closely guarded true story of the movie was that a pair of young directors had basically dropped three actors into the woods and given them minimal background information and even less direction, forcing them to improvise almost every scene. The entire thing cost about $25,000.)
The momentum -- fueled by a creepy website that perpetuated the idea that this was really a documentary -- continued to build until the film opened across the country in October. It became a word-of-mouth sensation, eventually pulling in about $248 million worldwide and becoming one of the most profitable movies ever [source: Entertainment Weekly].
People thought "The Blair Witch Project" was real because that's what they were told. The massive influence of the film's Internet marketing campaign cannot be underestimated. There were fake police reports, interviews, "missing" posters -- you name it. The timing couldn't have been better: we hadn't yet been bombarded with reality TV and the Internet was still fairly new. People were intrigued when they found so much fascinating information about this movie online. The Internet was still relatively free of naysayers at the time, so you couldn't instantly go to any number of sites that would immediately debunk the myth. Blair Witch was one of the first "found footage" horror movies and audiences didn't quite know how to wrap their minds around it. As far as most people were concerned, this was a totally new kind of movie-going experience. What you saw was what you got and what you saw was that this movie was real.
Of course, the energy around "The Blair Witch Project" did start to fade, and a vicious backlash started as more people unmasked it. But it wasn't enough to stop the movie from becoming a box-office juggernaut. Nothing like the Blair Witch phenomenon is likely to ever happen again. It was a one-shot deal, a rare combination of uncanny timing and near-perfect execution.
Author's Note: I'd still rank "The Blair Witch Project" as one of my best-ever movie experiences. My roommate and I saw a midnight showing very early in its run -- it might have even been the premiere at that theater. The theater lobby was filled with an exhibit of artifacts and news clippings, and we had no idea what was real and what wasn't. We were so scared after the movie that we basically had to hold hands on the walk home in the middle of Manhattan. I don't know how long it took us to figure out the entire story, because I'm pretty sure we didn't even have a computer at our apartment, much less Internet access.
- Bacle, Ariana. "'Blair Witch Project actors talk going hungry on set." Entertainment Weekly, Oct. 6, 2014. (Jan. 14, 2015) http://insidemovies.ew.com/2014/10/06/blair-witch-project-found-footage/
- D'Angelo, Mike. "15 years beyond the hype and hatred of 'The Blair Witch Project.'" Dissolve, Oct. 28, 2014. (Jan. 14, 2015) https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/800-the-blair-witch-project-15-years-beyond-the-hype-a/
- Meslow, Scott. "'The Blair Witch Project': an oral history." The Week, Jan. 14, 2015. (Jan. 14, 2015) http://theweek.com/articles/531471/blair-witch-project-oral-history