This Halloween, revisit two 1999 films that changed horror forever

The original creepypasta

Creepypasta, which briefly had a moment in the limelight in the wake of two Wisconsin teenagers allegedly stabbing their friend after reading scary stories online, is an online story that exists primarily to terrify. It tends to proliferate on the same-titled Wiki, as well as on Reddit sites like NoSleep. In many ways, it’s just another permutation of campfire ghost stories or urban legends.

But poke a little more at creepypasta, and it starts to look an awful lot like Blair Witch. Sites like NoSleep don’t just predicate their stories on the idea that they are true; they insist they literally are true. Horror is always scarier if it seems like it might really be happening, so creepypasta exploits both the weird ability of the Internet to make anything seem plausible and the useful tension of the reader’s brain knowing something is bullshit while still half believing in it anyway. Authors like Dathan Auerbach (who wrote the horrifying Penpal) have even been able to ride that tension all the way to self-published novels of their work.

But Blair Witch did both of these things, too, and it arguably got there first. The websiteArtisan cooked up for the film was the first sight many had of the project, and its stripped-down aesthetic gave no indication that the film it was promoting was fictional. Yes, the brain insisted that it would have been hard for three filmmakers to disappear in the Maryland woods because they’d been consumed by a ghost witch without a media frenzy, but the site — state of the art for the time — felt just official enough to not set off alarms.

Artisan exploited this real/not real divide for all it was worth that summer. Yes, if pressed, the studio would grudgingly admit the film wasn’t real. But it really hoped potential viewers would think it was. The mythology surrounding the titular witch that the directors came up with felt so tangible and plausible, like a small-town horror tale glanced barely out of one’s peripheral vision. The tie-in book and Sci-Fi promotional show were pitched at the tone of Unsolved Mysteries or In Search Of, infotainment aiming to playfully deceive.

The Blair Witch didn’t actually exist. But the promotional materials seemed aimed at getting viewers’ collective unconscious to make her real. And particularly when combined with the film’s Internet presence, the campaign created an appetite for untrue truths that the ‘net was particularly well-suited to sate. Want to read more about the Blair Witch? Just click on the links. Want to tell your own stories about her? Well, why not. Want to create your own monsters? All the same, really.

See, the thing this campaign was ultimately designed to hide was that it was supporting an independent film, one that made unconventional story decisions and ended in hopelessly grim fashion (even if that hopelessness was plastered all over the campaign). Blair Witch was a huge, huge success, but it also tended to run out of steam as it added theaters. When it doubled its screen count heading into the weekend of August 6, 1999, it actually fell slightly at the box office.

The idea of Blair Witch, as it turned out, was ultimately far scarier than anything the film could sell. The unconventional nature of its narrative made Blair Witch stronger as a film, but it also ultimately flummoxed the portion of the audience that wanted something more concrete.

Fortunately, The Sixth Sense was right there to scoop up any viewers who wanted to be scared within the confines of conventional narrative.

Sixth

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