The largest, most obvious legacy of The Blair Witch Project has been the rise of found-footage horror films, shot to look like documentaries and constructed as if they’ve kept just enough of the boring bits to make the scary parts really scary. (The second-most influential thing about the film is probably that shot of the character Heather apologizing profusely straight into camera, accidentally framed so it only captures the top half of her head. It’s impossible to count how many times that scene has been ripped off and parodied.)
Blair Witch wasn’t the first horror film to be shot in this style. (Cannibal Holocaust, for instance, leaps to mind.) But after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival — and proved to be one of the fest’s biggest sensations — Blair Witch’s story was unstoppable.
The fact that directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had actually dragged their cast of three into the woods, then attempted to legitimately scare them by startling them at random intervals and keeping traditional direction to a minimum, made for great copy. It was proof of directors overcoming budgetary limitations through sheer creativity. The film ended up on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and it was staggeringly successful in limited release, including a weekend when it made nearly $30 million on just 1,101 screens. (That same weekend, Runaway Bride made $35 million but had to be on over 3,000 screens to do so.)
What’s hard to remember now about Blair Witch, especially as it’s become all too easy to make fun of it for, say, launching a truly terrible sequel, is just how much of the story about the film was all of the material surrounding the film. The onslaught of Blair Witch content became inescapable throughout July of 1999, as distributor Artisan (since folded into Lionsgate) worked to reach potential viewers through a Sci-Fi Channel documentary, promotional tie-in book, and innovative for the time website. (The movie’s “franchise” would later expand to include video games as well.)
Horror wasn’t in a great place in 1999, when the genre had mostly succumbed to a bunch of Scream clones. Artisan’s plan to elevate Blair Witch from the arch sensibility of those movies and make it seem like the genuine article also ended up looking a lot like a modern fiction form: the creepypasta.