Did The Blair Witch Project invent YouTube and our modern viral culture as we know it? 20 years after its release and in a completely different landscape, the found footage cult classic still illuminates what audiences really want—authenticity, a story around a story, and sometimes a touch of controversy.
Did The Blair Witch Project invent YouTube as we know it?
20 years ago, the Blair Witch Project was more than a movie - it was a movement. This story of three student filmmakers getting lost in the woods - told through what’s supposed to be their own footage discovered after their death - wasn’t the first found-footage horror film, but it so captured the global imagination that it started a found-footage craze in cinema. In the years that followed, countless movies tried (and mostly failed) to replicate the runaway success of this low-budget movie which was (at the time) the most profitable movie ever in terms of return on investment.
Even more than its impact on cinematic style, Blair Witch became the gold standard for what amazing film marketing looks like. In 1999, this movie was one of the first to unlock the mysterious power of the world wide web to drive meaningful viewership. Cut to 2019- we’re years into a cultural obsession with viral video and shareable content. And what’s really fascinating is that today’s online video ecosystem revolves around truths that Blair Witch demonstrated- like that audiences often care less about expensive production value than that elusive feeling of authenticity,
that you need a story around the story to generate buzz and that there’s nothing like confusion and controversy to start a conversation.
So here’s our take on what Blair Witch taught us and whether, two decades on, it might still be able to illuminate what audiences really want.
So what does the found footage craze have to do with the YouTube generation? In the early 90’s, co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were film students who felt like horror movies just weren’t scary any more.
Daniel Myrick: “There were horror movies, quote-unquote, and they were kinda fun to kinda go check out and stuff like that…”
Eduardo Sanchez: “It was scaring us that they were being made!”
Daniel Myrick: “Yeah. But nothing that really freaked us out like The Exorcist or The Shining…” –on SBS Movie Show
The two loved pseudo-documentaries-they felt the ‘reality’ of these docs made them more terrifying than fictional material of the time. So they channeled this connection to verisimilitude and the documentary format to create a far more genuine scare than audiences were used to. The raw footage of the actors in the woods felt “real.”
And in a certain sense, this is because it was real. Myrick and Sanchez had the actors actually operate the cameras and improvise their dialogue.
The filmmakers hid in the surrounding wounds, orchestrating events for the actors to react to. Each morning they guided the actors via GPS to find hidden film canisters and their instructions and motivations for that day.
“Okay, here’s your motivation…you’re lost, you’re angry in the woods, and no one’s here to help you…there’s a fucking witch and she keeps leaving shit outside your door.” –Behind the scenes, The Blair Witch Project
Here were these unknown actors, going by their real names, unfiltered by the usual Hollywood gloss and thrown into this uncomfortable set-up designed to get honest, spontaneous reactions out of them. All this added up to the feeling that real people were responding to a genuinely terrifying situation.
Another way Blair Witch made us feel this was real was by creating a clear division between the movie these young people are supposedly making, and the behind-the-scenes footage they’re filming for fun.
When Heather’s in her movie she puts on a persona.
“This is Burkittsville…much like a small, quiet town anywhere.” –Heather in The Blair Witch Project
And because the film establishes these two differentiated versions of her, later when everything descends into mayhem we believe her fear because this is clearly not her fake movie persona.
“We’re gonna die out here.” –Heather in The Blair Witch Project
So the central achievement Blair Witch pulled off was the perception that it was authentic.
After the unbelievable success of Blair Witch and the later Paranormal Activity franchise- which broke Blair Witch’s profitability record- found footage showed up everywhere- not only in horror and monster movies, but also in science fiction and even comedy.
Some of today’s Hollywood directors proved themselves with a low-budget found footage picture- like Josh Trank with Chronicle, Neil Blomkamp with District 9, and Matt Reeves with Cloverfield.
Found-footage movies are still popular, as evidenced by Paranormal Activity’s endless sequels, but no longer the fresh, exciting choice they once were. Today filmmakers might seek that authentic, stripped-down feel by filming on iPhones.
Tangerine director Sean Baker has said that nonprofessional performers are more comfortable in front of an iPhone camera because phones today are so ubiquitous. So just like with Blair Witch, finding ways to get rid of the Hollywood gloss can focus the film on a situation and performance that feels real.
YouTube in its early days was also a place for new directorial talent to get noticed—look at David F. Sandberg, whose viral 2013 short Lights Out led to him directing the feature Lights Out in 2016 and Shazam! in 2019. Jon Watts, the director of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home, was part of the New York filmmaking collective Waverly Films posting videos to YouTube in 2007.
But just like the found footage genre, the ascendancy of YouTube and the channels that thrive on it prove that a sleek, Hollywood production style isn’t the only (or even the main) thing audiences look for—they crave a window into real people’s lives, warts and all.
To this day, the authenticity that was Blair Witch’s selling point is one of the top qualities that people consciously seek in their entertainment. Stories based on true events thrive, while viewers flock to YouTube for content that feels made by “regular people.”
The second thing Blair Witch proved was the power of the story about the story. This is still a key aspect of successful movies- just look at the way Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga fed the narrative that they were artistic soul mates (or even secret lovers) while promoting A Star is Born.
“There can be 100 people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you. And you just need one to believe in you.” –Lady Gaga
The Blair Witch directors’ masterstroke was the choice to pretend their movie was a true story. Blair Witch’s official website featured fake police reports and newsreel style interviews… when the film premiered at Sundance, flyers were distributed asking people to come forward with information about the missing students… and even IMDb listed the three actors as “Missing, presumed dead.”
This was all the more believable because the actors didn’t make public appearances to promote the film. And a special called Curse of the Blair Witch was released on the Sci-Fi Channel before the movie came out.
The result of all this is that some people who saw the movie in 1999 believed that they were watching actual footage of student filmmakers who had died in the woods. And even if most didn’t literally believe that the marketing successfully created a strong confusion for viewers as to what degree details were real or not.
“The search of the three missing Montgomery College students continues in Frederick County tonight, as dozens of volunteers and state officials join local forces in what has now become a full scale search of the Black Hills area.” –Joseph Nagy on News 11
This power of confusion is a really interesting lesson we can draw from the publicity campaign- it didn’t actually matter that the majority knew deep down that this was a work of fiction…the seed of doubt was planted, so they felt that Blair Witch was somehow more real than the average horror movie.
The popularity of Blair Witch’s marketing foreshadowed our current obsession with true crime and stories based on real events.
The Blair Witch filmmakers weren’t the first to understand that audiences are intrinsically more interested if they think a story really happened. They learned from the example of the actual first found-footage film, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, which was so convincing its director was actually charged with murder.
There’s also a precedent for fictional stories passed off as real going viral. The explosive 1971 book Go Ask Alice was billed as the “Real Diary” of a teenage girl descending into drug addiction. But many believe this is actually a fictional story by editor Beatrice Sparks, who went on to replicate her success with a number of other “anonymous diaries.
And we’ve also seen this fake-true-story effect in action on YouTube.
Starting in 2006, the lonelygirl15 web series captivated viewers. Eventually, it was “outed” as a fictional show. Part of the fascination around the show came out of –like with Blair Witch- the element of confusion. Viewers engaged with the exercise of analyzing the show to figure out if it was a fraud. Lonelygirl15 began only a year after YouTube’s inception, and it’s hard to imagine viewers being as easily taken in today.
Likewise, Blair Witch’s marketing success had everything to do with the particular moment when it came out. The team took advantage of how new internet marketing was, and how viewers were relatively undiscerning and naïve about what they read online. This explains why so many who have tried to copy the particulars of the Blair Witch marketing campaign have failed to gain traction. Audiences aren’t going to be fooled by the same tricks over and over- savvy promotion efforts need to do something fresh and tap into something current.
According to J.P. Telotte, another often overlooked secret to Blair Witch’s success is that -within this new territory of the world wide web- it actually applied a number of traditional marketing techniques. It had a $20 million marketing budget- which is another reason why just tweeting that your character is missing presumed dead is not going to get the same reach. So the mythology of Blair Witch was incredibly calculated and deliberate.
“We were trying to kind of make the marketing an extension of the storytelling.” –Robin Cowie
The compelling narrative around the film came together with a conventional, well-budgeted promotional campaign that capitalized on the late 90s internet moment. Today’s YouTubers came of age believing in that Blair Witch dream that anyone can make content on limited means and find an audience. But it’s important to remember that this movie wasn’t just a fluke that rose up out of nowhere, just as most people uploading videos on the Internet don’t get millions of views. Even when it looks cheaply made, most of the consistently successful media online today is backed by well-funded and implemented strategy.
So can Blair Witch can it give us any insight into why things go viral now? This is one of those unknowable mysteries- why does some random piece of content catch on and get shared around the world, while so much else (that may seem more interesting) is ignored and unviewed, lost to the ether? A lot has changed in the media landscape since Blair Witch. The nature of social media today makes it harder than ever to pass something off as real when it’s not. And if you do manage to trick audiences, that might not be well-received on an Internet that’s often consumed by outrage culture.
Meanwhile, many online creators resort to ever more shocking gimmicks in order to generate the surprise or controversy that virality often requires.
Still, there’s something eternally enthralling and effective about Blair Witch’s strategy of creating not just a story but a mystery around the truth and the fiction. In recent years, the craze for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels was fueled by wide-spread curiosity about the anonymous author’s real identity.
Most fundamentally, researchers say that the secret to virality is creating a strong emotional response (positive or negative.)
When something takes root in us emotionally, posting an article or video on social media or sharing it with a friend is a cathartic release that helps us process what it made us feel. So essentially, creators need to find a way to move us, and let us do the rest of the work for them.
“Going viral” is- as the name implies- to catch and spread, like a disease. And as the New York Times put it, “Online, as in real life, feelings can be caught like the flu.”
Through its combination of fresh-feeling elements, Blair Witch made people feel visceral fear- and evidently- they needed to share that- to tell others about it- so they could deal with their response. 20 years later, it still holds true that the way to reach people is to infect them with a potent, contagious emotional response they just can’t shake.
“It’s totally like a filtered reality, man. It’s like you pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.” –Josh in The Blair Witch Project