When I was growing up I was often asked what kind of horror movies were my favourite. And it was a simple answer, the slasher flick. Growing up I loved watching a group of teens being outsmarted by indestructible mad men who always seemed to be able to catch them despite the fact that they only walked. I couldn’t get enough of these movies, that was until one film came out that ruined this entire sub-genre of Horror for me.
The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project was one of the most revolutionary things to ever happen to the Horror movie genre and to this day remains the best found footage film there is. Everything about this movie was unique and original. The viral marketing that surrounded this movie consisted of numerous fake websites about various Blair Witch legends. It had news reports of the missing teens and there were even fliers calling for tips of their whereabouts. People at the time, including myself, thought this was 100% real.
This wasn’t the only thing that made this film seem so real and authentic. The crew of the film often stayed out of site and would legitimately scare the three main stars while they were sleeping, provide them with maps that were difficult to follow and slowly began depriving them of food. The tension, fear and tears were all real and they’re unable to be replicated by any actor in a horror film today. While filming the movie, the director failed to even mention to the three main actors that The Blair Witch was fabricated. They were told that it was a real thing but that this movie was going to be a fake hunt for it, which resulted in the actor’s actually being afraid of the woods at night even though they knew the rest of the crew were out in the woods.
It even went so far that the director hired actors to be residents in the town so when the three stars interviewed the ‘locals’ they were told ‘true accounts’ of The Blair Witch which made them think that this was a real story/haunting. Eventually it came out that literally every single thing about this movie was fabricated but it came out in a time before the internet was what it was today. Go on IMDB or Wikipedia and you’ll find all of these facts for yourself, but back then these didn’t really exist. Instead you had people believing this was real, and there was no one to tell them otherwise.
Outside of the authenticity of the film it also revolutionized the horror genre as it was the first movie to never show the monster/villain. Not once, not even a glimpse. At the time people were upset about this as the horror films they were used to always had unkillable monsters that appeared in the first five minutes. Blair Witch threw that idea away and gave the audience an unseen entity that would arrange stick figurines outside their tent, paint satanic symbols and leave mementos from their ‘missing’ friend. The hauntings increase in severity until the climax of the movie which sees one of the actors run into a rundown house covered in symbols. He enters the basement, drops his camera and we are taken to the perspective of the last remaining crew member. She shortly thereafter enters the house, goes down to the basement and finds her friend standing in the corner facing the wall……this scene will forever haunt me. Afterwards you hear a thud and she drops her camera.
The credits roll.
At the time people were saying “that was it!? Where was the witch!?” They were expecting to actually see The Blair Witch, but in depriving the audience of a monster the director ended up creating something scarier than anyone at the time realized. The problem was that no one at this time was ready for this kind of movie. At this time the slasher villain was usurping the ghost villain in terms of popularity. Movies like the Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Exorcist were dead (no pun intended). Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and Halloween were in the prime of their franchise lives. This resulted in horror fans being not ready for this type of film. The pre-film hype was better received than the movie itself because at the time people just didn’t think that a lack of a monster was scary.
The movie was so far ahead of its time a found footage horror film wasn’t made for another 8 years (HORROR FILM! I know Cloverfield came out before this but that was hardly a classic horror film). The movie I’m referring to of course is Paranormal Activity.
The timing of this release worked out so much better for the movie as it reintroduced a concept that fans were interested in, but not quite ready for. In the mid-2000s the slasher genre had died. The latest Halloween, Friday the 13th and Chucky movies had all flopped and flopped hard. The re-makes of classic horror films were being poorly received as they took classic films, introduced no new concepts and expected people to like them more due to updated CG and camerawork. The only real franchise out at the time was Saw which was already on its fifth installment and it was had started using roman numerals. You know when a franchise starts using roman numerals you can expect one every year, with each one being worse than the last!
Paranormal Activity mirrored Blair Witch in so many ways, only it took the idea of having a ghost out in the woods and replaced it with having a ghost in your home. It had an extremely limited release which meant that the majority of its marketing was through word of mouth. It involved 2 actors who were isolated from the rest of the production staff and you never actually see the villain. The only real difference being the frequency of the ghostly encounters in this film as it dwarfed that of The Blair Witch Project, but that was to be expected as this was much more of a controlled environment.
The audience was ready for this movie and as a result it received better reviews. Everyone looooooved this movie (myself included). The main reason being that it introduced something that everyone can believe. It played off our most primal fears of ghosts (it entered our room at night, it pulled our blankets off, it tapped on the walls and made noises etc.). With the exception of one or two crazy occurences it doesn’t really do anything THAT unbelievable. But the thing that made this movie so scary was the ghost (this movie’s villain) is literally never seen, nor are it’s motives explained. You don’t get a sense of its history or how long it’s been there for. Katie briefly mentions that she experienced hauntings as a child but doesn’t elaborate more, nor do you need her to.
By having a simple ghost as the villain the audience experiences fear like no other because chances are they had similar experiences. I’m never going to be scared that a burned man is in my dreams or a man with a hockey mask is going to kill me when I’m at camp. But I WILL be scared that a ghost will walk into my room at night or that it’s going to slam a wall and wake me up.
I remember watching this with my sister (We are both full grown adults at the time of this story). We were in the dark on separate couches under separate blankets. When you first hear the ghost moan and slam something downstairs we both screamed and jumped for the couch between us. We got under one blanket and refused to get off the couch to turn the light on when the movie was over. We actually had to call my brother from upstairs to do this for us because we were both so scared. The reason being that we both always feared ghosts, not for any rationale reason. But the thing was that every irrational fear that we ever had about ghosts was just presented to us on film. It played on the core fear I have of the dark.
Not only that but the actors involved were two ordinary people reacting to extraordinary circumstances the same way any one of us would! They didn’t have convenient access to the exact method of killing the monster, they didn’t know anyone who knew anything about ghosts and they didn’t fall into typical horror archetypes. Rather they were a realistic couple who argued, sat on the couch together and ate together. They were some of the most relatable characters anyone had created in a horror film in a long long time and as a result you felt like you knew them personally. I was actively hoping that they would turn out okay but knew that they wouldn’t. Normally I never really care if the heroes beat the villain in the end but in this film I remember thinking “What are you waiting for! Leave now Mikah! Take her and leave you can do it! Please don’t die!”
I watched this movie over 10 times (which is rare for me when it comes to a horror film as most can usually only scare you once) and made everyone I know watch it. I was so happy that this genre had saved Horror films and was hoping that other films would follow suit.
I was treated to The Last Exorcism which despite poor reviews, still terrified me. Once again you were introduced to a ghost that’s never really seen and a series of unexplained events. But this was really the only film to follow that I enjoyed. I slowly started to notice certain trends, and eventually I realized the things that plagued all of the old franchises had bled into this genre. It had so much potential to create a new generation of horror fans but instead it fell back into the category of cliché horror films.
They started introducing more and more characters (see Paranormal Activity 3, V/H/S) they started casting younger and younger actors until the main characters were always teens or college students (Paranormal Activity 4, V/H/S, The Gallows) they started increasing the amount and severity of scares to the point where it was unrealistic (V/H/S, V/H/S 2, The Gallows) and they started showing the villain and explaining it’s motives (Paranormal Activity 3, The Devil Inside, The Gallows). In fact ‘google’ found footage films and you’ll see after 2008 an assortment of movies you’ve never heard of that look more terrible than the last (Unless you really think you’d like Found Footage 3D)
This genre became the very genre it was trying to move away from and as a result has become void of suspense, mystery and creativity. The majority of these movies don’t even have a reason why they’re being ‘filmed’ by a camcorder! “Our friend was kidnapped by a mad serial killer! So we grabbed a camera and we’re investigating!”. I remember/regret watching V/H/S and at one point a group of college guys come across…..a banshee…..sigh…I wish I was making this up. Anyways it concludes with her grabbing the last surviving male and flying away with him in the sky…which you see….because he’s still filming this. Remember that time a monster that killed your two best friends grabbed you to fly and you said hmmmmm I better capture this on film.
But Paranormal Activity, a movie that reignited my love for horror movies wouldn’t fall victim to this! Sadly – as I mentioned above – Paranormal Activity did indeed fell victim to the horror movie pressures and began turning out sequels and spin-offs. It introduced telekinesis aaaaand….wait for it…….witchcraft. It repeated scares from previous installments (see kitchen drawers exploding open, see person being dragged, see person being swarmed by coven of witches), the characters got younger and by the end I found myself asking “wait what does this have to do with the original?” . It was originally a movie about a ghost haunting and it was terrifying! But now it’s about a coven of witches who trained two young girls and as a result they called on a demon that they have to later vanquish…..relatable eh!? Totally just like the first one!
That being said, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity will forever remain two of my favourite movies ever, and in my mind two of the best films in the entire horror genre. They were revolutionary for their time and will remain classics. I suppose now though we’ll have to wait for a new sub-genre to be introduced to once again make horror movie lovers excited.
In the mean-time I’m going to pop in Paranormal Activity IX where in this one they time travel into the future to a space station where they find out there’s an ancient prophecy that wakes a monster that can only be killed by cutting off his head otherwise he’ll kill all the non-virgins and babysitters in the world!
Thanks for reading and I hope my thoughts on the paranormal have left you slightly perplexed!