Saturday, October 22, 2016

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN #22: HOW TO SELL A SCARY STORY


This is the first thing you see in The Blair Witch Project.  No credits or title card, but just this info that gives only the most basic information about what you're about to see.  Your mind is left to fill in the rest as you see what appears to be the terrifying downward spiral of three hikers in the middle of nowhere.  If you had to break down what the most effective component of Blair Witch is, you could easily say it's the imagination of the viewers.  Their imagination will instinctively come up with the worst thing imaginable, and humans can imagine a lot.  Even better, their imagination will save you a mint on special effects and CGI.

Throughout the film we see the three characters filming themselves and being tormented by something unknown in the woods.  We hear the sounds, see the aftermath, but never what actually causes them to be so terrified.  The ingenious thing about all of this is that the actors were just as in the dark as the audience.  None of them knew what the other would be coached to do (the directions came via messages that they founds with a GPS) and they were improvising everything in the film. They were cold, they were scared, and they didn't know what was going to happen next.  The terror that we experience is so intense because the terror on the screen was very real.


If you weren't around to experience the film the first time around, it might be hard to imagine how effective this movie was.  There were lines around the block with people dying to get in.  At one time The Uptown theater was the only place in Minnesota that was showing it, and the demand was so great that they eventually started screening it 24 hours straight.  It was a genuine phenomenon.

Part of why the movie was so scary was that if felt incredibly real.  The shaky camera footage shot by the actors didn't feel staged.  Now this kind of thing is a dime a dozen, but back then people were sucked in.  What's more, a large part of the public thought it really was real.  The opening of the film said that this was recovered footage, so why shouldn't they believe it?


It wasn't lost on the filmmakers that people might buy into the realism of the film, and the way they sold it was groundbreaking.  When it came out in 1999, the internet was in its infancy.  People still naively believed that if it was on the internet that it must be true.  Blair Witch made the most of that and developed a back story that was only told through their internet marketing.

Step one was build the web page.  The producers made it themselves, and they loaded it up with missing persons posters, family photos, and the story about what happened to the three people in the movie.  They even went so far as to take crime scene photos and shoot footage of investigators with the evidence recovered in the woods.  The end result was that The Blair Witch Project felt even more like a documentary.


Step Two was create the entire history of The Blair Witch and the weird stuff that happened in Burkittsville, Maryland, where the hikers went missing.  In the movie we see one of the characters holding up an old looking book that contains the story of The Blair Witch.  She tells a story of a bizarre murder scene that took place on the very site she was standing on.  Town folks tell stories about crimes that took place in the community decades ago, and even tell the actors to leave.  Again, these stories were just as unknown to the actors as they were to the audience, so their reactions to the people telling them are genuine.

The creation of the backstory was kicked up even further when the producers decided to make a TV special that revealed the entire Blair Witch story.  They created old woodcuts that depicted the witch in the 1600's in New England.  Experts on witchcraft and local history appeared and dug into the nuts and bolts of the witch and the subsequent bad luck that fell upon the community after she was dealt with.  Beyond that, they told the story of a murderer who claimed to have been motivated by the witch, and they shot old newsreel footage of his capture and incarceration.  Pile on the interviews with family members, police investigators, and vintage footage from old witchcraft educational films, and you have a solid hour of very realistic backstory for something that never even happened.


When the movie came out I was working at Barnes & Noble, and made big displays of all the tie-in books that came out to cash in on the film.  They all expanded on the mythology and played it off as real.  The crazy things was that I regularly had customers coming in looking for books that told the real story of the Blair Witch, and they just wouldn't believe that it wasn't real.  It didn't help that the actors initially weren't allowed to promote the film, and their invisibility enhanced the fact that the characters really were missing.  Ultimately, it didn't even matter when they did make an appearance.  As far as these people were concerned, the three people we see in the movie were never seen again.

The TV special that helped sell the story to these people was called Curse Of The Blair Witch, and it aired on the Sci-Fi channel.  Later it was an extra on the Blair Witch DVD.  I was already creeped out by the movie, and the special just made it that much worse.  It didn't believe the story, but I sure as heck lost sleep over it.

Here's The Curse Of The Blair Witch TV special.  Watch it, and then join us THIS SATURDAY for Grind-Fu Cinema, as we watch The Witch and The Blair Witch Project.  Plus, we'll have what could possibly be the greatest Grind-Fu cake ever.  Really, you guys won't even believe how crazy it is.

Shyboy



Grind-Fu Cinema presents

THE WITCH

and

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

 Saturday, October 22nd @ 7:00 pm
Wiecking 220 Auditorium
Minnesota State University, Mankato

FREE! FREE! FREE! FREE! FREE!

7:00 - The Witch
8:30 - GRIND-FU CAKE INTERMISSION
9:00 - The Blair Witch Project

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