Previously in Web Citations:
The Net's Next Vice
Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government.
The Great Divide
The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me.
The virtual partition of Jerusalem is a fait accompli.
Politics Made Simple
A new political site aims for the GenX mind -- and shows us what the world does not need now.
Presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier. Here's how the field is shaping up for 2024.
Menace to Society
The hype isn't the most annoying thing about the new Star Wars release.
See the complete Web Citations Index.
August 11, 1999
Would the mushrooming multimedia success of The Blair Witch Project be possible in a Web-less society? I doubt it. The film's craft and artifice would scare a lot of people, fool some others, and make some money for its makers. And that would be it. Instead, it has turned into one of those blitzkrieging 1990s media machines, like Star Wars or the O.J. trial, that defines everything in its path. The ineffable "buzz" to which all contemporary art aspires has descended, with all of its blessings, upon The Blair Witch Project. What sets this film apart, however, is that the Internet, not the multiplex, is its true home.
Few movies have been better served by a Web site. The Blair Witch Project's premise -- that three students went into the Maryland woods to make a documentary, disappeared, and left behind the raw footage that constitutes the movie -- requires that most of the story is never shown on screen. The official site fills in details and continues the documentary fiction, offering snapshots of the movie's principals on the University of Maryland campus, at their senior proms, with family. There are even shots of the recovered film cans, and police photos of the abandoned car. The official site is maddeningly sketchy, however. It's little more than a teaser.
Naturally, many other unofficial sites have stepped into the breach -- so many that a Blair Witch web ring has sprung into existence in the past few weeks, its dozens of full-scale fan sites augmented by the inevitable Blair Witch Ate My Balls site, a peevish page called the Blair Bitch Project, and so on. The Blair Witch Project, it turns out, is the ideal Rorschach image for the Web. Literal-minded sorts embrace evidentiary details, plot points, and the ultimate mark of the rage to order, the Frequently Asked Questions page. Commercial sites sell official Blair Witch merchandise. Debates crackle on discussion boards, including one thread in which very dumb people, unaware that it's all make-believe, discuss the "documentary." (Burkittsville, Maryland, where the film is set, has been inundated with volunteers offering to help find the missing filmmakers.) In a Borgesian twist, some users, attempting to spin the fiction for all it's worth, have written into discussion boards pretending to be volunteers, or at least pretending to have been duped by the film.
All this activity is more than The Blair Witch Project probably deserves -- which is why it's an important movie. You may find, as I did, that the film really isn't scary so much as unnerving, and that given the interminable squabbling of its Gen X principals -- a horror in its own right -- the witch could hardly be blamed for wanting them dead. Still, that's hardly the point. The Blair Witch Project may well be remembered as the film that broke through the barrier separating old and new media. Granted, Phantom Menace gave birth to dozens of Web sites, but they were really created against the spirit of the movie, which was old Hollywood (hierarchical, centralized, self-important) to an embarrassing degree. George Lucas even tried to sue Internet providers to keep his idiotic plot from being spoiled. The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, was made to order for a vast and interactive audience longing for a believable construct with expandable ports and edit-it-yourself game patches. A matrix, as it were.
What's more, with its less-is-more philosophy TBWP (as it's called on the Usenet) exploits the defining media fetish of the nineties: "reality TV." The arc of the decade has been away from processed slickness and toward the vicarious, blurry eyes of camcorders and surveillance tapes -- camera styles that require more participation on the part of the viewer. And the Blair Witch filmmakers' do-it-yourself aesthetic is utterly in keeping with that of the World Wide Web, where everyone is potentially a producer and a consumer at the same time. That potential may not be realized very often, but in the dreams of amateur Webmasters, media from the bottom up is still one of the holiest of grails. TBWP's crudeness, combined with the mythology of its cheap creation, resonates with Webbies. The idea of making a classic horror film with three actors, a camera, and a mike, has an intimate kinship with the Web fantasy of every man his own publisher.
The so-called Internet community is writing valentines to the Blair Witch -- which amounts, essentially, to writing valentines to itself. Netizens have finally seen their own image on the big screen, and are ready for more. Until that happens, they'll return the favor on small screens everywhere.
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Josh Ozersky writes frequently on American cultural history for Feed, Newsday, and The Boob, among other places. He has just finished a book on TV and American society in the 1970s.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.