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Reflections on The Blair Witch Project
This is a copy of an article which was written in the
early autumn of 2000. It
grew out of an earlier film review of The Blair Witch Project ,
analysing the huge success of the film in relation to its status as an
independent film succeeding within the mainstream.
It was also written from a specifically American Studies angle,
suggesting ways that the discipline may look to use branches of film
theory to further analyse successful American cultural products.
This initial article was developed into a much larger polemic
printed below. The name
of the piece – the summer night screams of pre-millenial
America – adopts the policy of film studies by analysing the
success of The Blair Witch Project in the much larger context
of the final summer of the Twentieth Century.
The last summer of the American Century is the
structuring theme of the article and, from this, a number of arguments
about American youth at this critical juncture are presented.
Looking at the article now, some two years on, I feel
many of the observations are pertinent and are worthy of
the article was written from the point of view of the American youth.
It opens with the assertion from Heather Donahue that there is
nowhere left in America to get lost in anymore.
Post September 11th and America’s position in the
world radically altered with the war on terrorism, this generations
innocence has been shattered. The
supposed safety of the post-Cold War ear gone, this generation is now
potentially facing its own Vietnam.
The article also relates this innocence to wider concepts of
American national identity, the frontier and the No Logo
movement, initiated by Naomi Klein.
It is primarily an academic text, although it opens
with the present tense and in the first person narration.
Since the temporal context – the last summer of the century
– is the structuring principle to the article it is foregrounded and
implicated within the wider discussion.
Cowan, November 2002.
"If you go
down to the woods today.........................."
The Blair Witch Project and the summer night screams of pre-millennial America
By Chris Cowan
"We are not lost! It is very difficult for a person to get lost in America
nowadays!" screams Heather Donahue in The
Blair Witch Project. As
a college graduate, spending the last summer of the twentieth century
serving pizzas and diet coke on America’s eastern seaboard, how
could I disagree with Donahue?. After
all, this is the last summer of the American Century and we are
partying like its 1999. Short
shifts, endless nights – the American Dream, here there and
Driving through North Carolina on a hot humid day, I
feel as though I am benefiting from all that America has achieved.
Each summer, thousands of European students pile over the
Atlantic Ocean longing for the American Dream just as their
forefathers did. We are
living the dream and we never want it to stop.
The endless road opens out before me, consumer
utopias offering their brand of Nirvana everywhere I look.
And what I want is a movie.
As an antidote to a summer movie season dominated by phantom
menaces, and the ghost of Kubrick, I’m gonna take a look at a new
indie released that morning which I know nothing about, except three
words: Blair Witch
Project. Little do I
know, that in the weeks and months ahead, those three words will turn
into the movie event of the year…..
As time passed, and I returned home to Britain, my
mind often wandered back to that summer’s day in North Carolinaa and
what Donahue had said. There
I was, in the land of plenty, blue sky and open road all around me,
yet for those terrifying ninety minutes, I was deeply lost in a dark,
threatening America. People
do get "lost" in America in the metaphorical sense of the
word, where life in the world of drugs and crime take anonymous people
every year, but in a small North Eastern Maryland town - “much like
any other” - and not that far from the seat of government?.
Could myself and Donahue be wrong?
As I further reflected upon my long, hot summer, a
feeling overcame me that perhaps
the summer screams of ’99 might actually be echoes from an
earlier decade. My mind
wanders back to the summer of 1975….
graduate in that endless summer was adapting a New York Times Best
Selling novel to the big screen on Martha's Vineyard.
Plagued by a drunken crew and a plastic fish called Bruce, this
shoot proved to be the training ground for a talent that would
dominate American cinema for the next three decades.
By the time Spielberg had unleashed Jaws
into every beach resort, swimming pool and bath tub of the American
nation, David Thompson remarked, with particular candour, that:
it's striking that in such an advanced country
pre-occupied with GNP, with the interlocking machinery of capitalism,
research science, social statistics and measurable alteration in the
states of man, we should believe in a large rubber shark and the
ominous musical theme current in the waters off Amity Island.[i]
Spielberg had unleashed his terror onto very specific
American cultural terrain. As
Thompson suggests, there was something going on inside the American
conscience that gave Jaws its resonance thus allowing the country to
be scared by some plastic and hydraulics. Jaws
came to symbolise all that
America had feared in the 1970's.
defined this period in American History as "The End of American
Exceptionalism", where the sins of the old world came to impinge
on the new. Spielberg set
about allegorising these sins in the fictional New England town of
Amity Island and the film wrapped itself up in the prevailing
discourses of the decade.
From the allegories of Vietnam, where swimmers were
allowed to go bathing without being told of the dangers, to Watergate,
where corrupt town mayors seemingly hid around every corner, Amity
lived and breathed 70’s America.
In the character of Chief Brody,
Spielberg even went as far as to engage with one of the decades
other seminal works - Taxi Driver - since “the Chief” was forced to leave New York
City due to the rising crime rate and threat of violence from people
More significant than the Vietnam and Watergate
metaphors, however, was the way that Spielberg represented the
American frontier and its corresponding ideological significance.
The search for the new Frontier was a trend within American
cinema of the 1970’s with Star Wars being the paradigm.
Amity Island was, in effect, America in miniature.[iii]
Out there in the big wide frontier (the ocean), where the
community earned its living, was a threat which required men of action
to destroy it. And
destroyed it they did, sending everyone home from the movie theatre
safe in the knowledge that the Amity in us all would live to see
Surely, however, the summer of ’75 is not the
summer of ‘99. This
world of pre-millennial America is not the one that dealt with the
fall out of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the death of the
counter-cultural movement. Why,
therefore, can I not help but feel something connects the rustle in
the trees in '99 to the fin in the water of '75?
Then the answer dons on me...
The connections between '75 and '99 prevail through
the representation of the American frontier, since, as an ideological
concept it has prevailed throughout American History.
Those audiences who shrieked and screamed at The Blair Witch Project may have had different experiences to those
who watched Jaws, but they
still felt terrified because their fear came from the defining
American experience of the frontier.
But why? As
Donahue suggested, what can there possibly be, on the edge of the
Twenty First Century, left to fear in the woods?
Where can there be, in the most powerful and technologically
advanced nation on earth, to get “lost” in?
I intend to posit some theories working towards a
mode of critical engagement with the success of The Blair Witch Project that will connect it to the wider social,
political and cultural context of America as it stands on the edge of
the Twenty First Century.
The central protagonist of the film is the Maryland
woods and the experience of watching the film provides the spectator
with an obstructed view, persistently blinded to events unfolding by
the home movie aesthetic and the trees.
Indeed, the filmmaker’s strong emphasis on landscape is
reminiscent of the classical Hollywood Western where the background
becomes not merely a context for the unfolding of narrative, but a
character itself containing ideological significance.
One line of critical inquiry is that The Blair
Witch Project should be
studied as a 90's representation of the American idea of "The
Frontier" showing that, for all the gains made in technology, it
is the primitive discourse of survival in a wilderness environment
that dominates the film just as it had done with Jaws decades
The phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project does not come out of a vacuum.
The 1990's witnessed something of a renaissance in the American
horror film. It was Wes
Craven who initiated the recent trend with the post-modern Scream
and Scream 2 quickly followed by others such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. Not since
the heyday of American horror in the 70's, has it seemed to appeal so
much as genre.
I am, therefore, concerned with locating the
phenomenon of The Blair Witch
Project in a wider frame of generic reference so that it can
stimulate further discussion and debate around American horror,
analysing the way in which The Blair Witch Project conforms to pre-existing discourses of film
theory and suggest how, through its departures and transgressions, it
may force us to re-think our critical engagement with the genre in the
late 1990's and early Twenty First Century.
It was the outspoken Marxist critic Robin Wood who
was the first to champion the cause of American horror as a serious
subject of critical film theory, arguing that it provided significant
sites of transgression from which to effectively analyse the status
quo. Wood posited the
theory that the monster in the horror genre embodied "all that
which a society represses".
Working from a Marxist position "all that which a society
represses" related primarily to those features (social,
political, sexual, racial) which did not fit into Bourgeoisie
capitalist America. He
argues that repression is the key to understanding the workings of the
modern American state in that, to function, a line must be drawn
between what is included in the nation and what is not.
According to Wood, the ideological norms of the body politic in
the Twentieth Century has been white,
heterosexual nuclear families living in small towns, such as Bedford
Falls in It's a Wonderful Life.
The national paradigm, one might say.
Taking a lead from Freud, the key to Wood's argument
is the difference he makes between basic and surplus repression:
Basic repression is universal, necessary, and
inescapable. It is what
makes possible our development from an uncoordinated animal capable of
little beyond screaming and convulsions into a human being;
it is bound up with the ability to accept the postponement of
gratification with the development of our thought and memory process,
of our capacity for self-control, and of our recognition and
consideration of other people.[iv]
Surplus repression, in contrast, are those
constraints imposed upon people by specific cultures since
it is the process whereby people are conditioned from
earliest infancy to take on predetermined roles within a given
culture. (In contemporary
America) thus, surplus repression makes us into monogamous
heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists.[v]
As a cultural critic, Wood sees the media as
instrumental in acting as a location from which to facilitate this
surplus repression. Wood's
list of features that are repressed in American culture forms the
basis for his analysis into the horror film genre, where the monster
is the embodiment of the repressed.
The overarching framework he sets out to characterise this
monstrous embodiment is the concept of the "other".
"Otherness" represents that which Bourgeoisie
ideology cannot recognise or accept but must deal with.
In his seminal work, Mythologies,
Roland Barthes[vi] argues that Bourgeoisie
culture can deal with this in two ways: reject it and, by consequence, destroy it or make it safe,
understandable and assimilate it into their modes of thinking.[vii]
In later Twentieth Century America, Wood saw as
"the other" those aspects of society that had made their
voices heard in the 1960's and thus threatened Bourgeoisie America.
Amongst this list he includes the Working Classes, Women and
alternative political ideologies such as Marxism.
That said, however, Classical Hollywood Narrative is
based around problem solving and closure, so the 70's Horror genre was
able to let this repressed aspect of culture lose and ensure its
containment along with the restoration of the status quo by the final
reel of the film. This
was possible because
the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle
for recognition of all that our civilisation represses or oppresses,
its re-emergence dramatised, as in our nightmares, as an object of
horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending - when it exists -
typically signifying the restoration of the repression.[viii]
Though some 20 years on from the subject of his
enquiry, and the Marxist position challenged, Wood's paradigm is still
useful as an insight into studying the phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project and what it articulates about pre-millennial
...it (the horror genre) becomes in the 1970's the
most important of all American film genre's and perhaps the most
progressive, even in its overt nihilism - in a period of extreme
cultural crisis and disintegration, which alone offers the possibility
of radical change and re-building.[ix]
In The Blair
Witch Project, it is
the dark history of Burkitsville, Maryland, where children went
missing in the woods decades earlier that returns to haunt the
contemporary age. As I
will argue later, however, "the return of the repressed", is
not articulated in the classical Hollywood style, since no containment
of any kind is suggested at the films end nor any monster ever
disclosed to us, thus The Blair
Witch Project, through its departures and transgressions,
offers up the "possibility of radical change and
All of those engaged in discussion of American horror
owe a significant amount of debt to Robin Wood for his groundbreaking
study. Yet, at the edge
of the millennium, I still feel something is missing from his work.
When Wood talked about the characteristics of America he never
quite grasped what "America" meant to the average
man, woman and child out there on Main Street, U.S.A.
Films, and particularly summer films, operate within a
wider social sphere where they are consumed against a specific
cultural terrain. So, at
the end of the Twentieth Century, what did America mean on the
beaches of the eastern seaboard in that endless summer?
I believe the crucial omission in Wood’s polemic is
the idea of the frontier as the defining American experience and that
which facilitates National Identity construction and maintenance. Wood impressively trolls through the workings of modern
American society, but for a writer so immersed in the cultural
ambience of the 70's, his omission of
the frontier, as a force in American life, seems surprising.
Herein lies the connection between the summer of 75 and 99; the "place" of the frontier has never been properly
allocated in American culture. It
is at one time both "outside" and "inside" the
nation. On the "inside" are the principles of hard work and
individualism, whilst on the "outside" is the terrible acts
of violence committed against Native American Indians in the name of
This makes me think back to the open road in North
Carolina. Just what was
it about American culture that had attracted so many throughout the
last century? It is more
than the simple promise of capitalism, but the way that as a mode of
production and social living, capitalism infused with a new,
developing nationalist ideology required for a fledgling state. To
fully understand how this fusion took place it is necessary to go back
to, what I believe to be, American National Identity year zero and the
creation of the frontier mythology.
Ever since Frederick Jackson presented his paper
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History"[x]
the frontier, capitalism and the politics of representation have had
an intimate relationship in American History.
What The Blair Witch
Project successfully managed to do, was to take one of the tenants
of American capitalism - the frontier - and give it articulation in a
dramatic new form of representation.
The complaint that the camera was "shaky", and
therefore unwatchable, is indicative of the privileged position
representations of the frontier have had in the last Century.
As a "location" in history, it has been polished and
packaged for us. Before being able to assess the significance of this new mode
of representation at the end of the Twentieth Century, it is necessary
to understand the importance of frontier ideology in the development
and implementation of American National Identity.
On this issue, Alan Trachtenberg has noted the following:
An invention of cultural myth, the word West
embraced an astonishing variety of surfaces and practices, of
physiognomic differences and sundry exploitation's they invited.
The Western lands provided resources essential as much to
Industrial development after the Civil War as to cultural needs of
justification, incentive, and disguise.
Land and minerals served economic and ideological purposes, the
two merging into a single complex image of the West:
a temporal site of the route from past to future, and the
spatial site for revitalising national energies.
As myth and as economic entity, the West proved indispensable
to the formation of a national society and a cultural mission:
to fill the vacancy of the Western spaces with civilisation, by
means of incorporation (political as well as economic) and violence.
Myth and exploitation, incorporation and violence:
the process went hand in hand[xi]
The place and time where Frederick Jackson Turner
delivered his speech is just as important for understanding its
influence on American National Identity as what was said.
At an 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association
during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Turner presented a
historical interpretation of American development that served both
political and cultural needs. By
arguing for a narrative of unity and wholeness, Turner was presenting
a blueprint for functional American nationalism were immigrant
groupings could pledge allegiance to a nationalist ideology which was
divorced from ethnic or racial specificity.
In his thesis the term "West" came to mean
ruggedness, independence and free of social constraint, since
that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness
and inquisitiveness; that
practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the
artistic but powerful to effect great ends;
that restless, nervous energy;
that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and
withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom.[xii]
The minute Turner stepped of the podium in Chicago,
the concept of the West entered into American national consciousness
in a contradictory state that has prevailed to the present day.
In effect, he was championing the cause of a frontier
that had already been closed, arguing that even if the frontier itself
no longer physically existed, the legacy of it lives on in the
character and consciounse of the American people.
The world that Turner spoke from was not one of small agrarian
farmers living from the land, but it was the glass and steel of
industrial urban capitalism where corporations dictated the forms of
business and social activities. Nowhere
was this more in evidence than the city of Chicago itself:
at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse
have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern
commercial lines; the
wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilisation growing
ever more numerous. It is
like the steady growth of a nervous system for the originally simple,
At a time when it was facing forward, the American
nation felt that it had to look back.
This is a paradigm which holds true for 1999 and 1975, as much
as 1893. Before it felt
it could deal with the trauma of the recent past and face the 80's
with confidence, 70's America looked back to the frontier and the
"early settlers" of Amity Island, where a satisfactory
answer was given. In
1999, at a crucial moment in its culture, 90's America looked to the
Maryland woods, but no simple answer was given.[xiv]
As a historical discourse, Turner's polemics
instigated a kind of nationalist canonisation of the past where those
historical figures imbued with taming the frontier were given hero
status. Yet, what of the
"other" in American society from this time period?
What of those who do not figure in the discourses of Turner,
who are not part of this canonisation - what becomes of them? It was the first example of the kind of surplus repression
that Wood identified and was inextricably linked to the place of the
frontier in modern America; those
excluded from the frontier would join Robin Wood's list of repressed
features and assume the position of "other" in American
It should be noted that in the 1970's valiant efforts
were made to attempt to challenge this restrictive canon of America's
frontier past. If the
70's horror genre gave repressed aspects of American culture something
of a discursive space from which to articulate themselves, the same is
true of a group of scholars known as "New Western
Parallels exist between film and historiography in
the following way: Just as classical narrative ensured the containment
of the transgression ("the return of the repressed")
and maintenance of the status quo in American horror, the shift
to the right and death of the counter culture ensured that new western
history found it hard to break into mainstream political thought thus
Turner's frontier discourse accompanied America in the transition from
the 70’s to the 80’s. A
re-conception of frontier history and its ideological consequence
found few favours in Reaganite America.
Yet, like the horror genre, it would signal the start of a much
larger independent movement within historiography that would broaden
its sphere of influence with the on-set of post modernity and the
approaching millennium, as I will demonstrate later
Richard Slotkin[xv] is one historian who came
to prominence in the Conservative 1980's analysing how the myths of
the West has been used within American culture and a consideration of
his work is important in understanding the "place" of the
West at the end of the Twentieth Century.
Following on from this, Brian W. Dippie makes the case for the
study of western mythology as crucial in a historical understanding of
Since cultural values shift over time, myths, in
order to remain relevant, shift their meaning aswell. If, as most would agree, the major challenge facing western
history is to relate past to present in a meaningful way, the mythic
approach has much to offer. It
accounts for continuity and change.
Custer is dead, his last stand long over.
Why, then, do people continue to re-fight it?... We may dismiss
Custer as a minor figure historically.
But he was once a national hero... His defenders still think of
him as a paragon if not a Saint, and has been compared to Jesus who
died in that hill. His detractors regard him as a racist villain, fit symbol for
America's mistreatment of its native people:
"Custer died for your sins...." In either guise, hero
or villain, Custer continues to function as a vital presence in the
public's imagination. Why?[xvi]
the frontier is a nationally defining experience - the historical
basis of American National Identity.
The paradox, at the end of the American Century, is that it is
something of a schizophrenic identity, one that is both
"inside" and "outside" popular conceptions of the
If, as Frederic Jameson[xvii]
has argued, "History is what Hurts", The Blair Witch Project can be approached as a self-reflexive tale
of investigating the history of frontier, and what repressed features
might live there. It
carries a significant metaphor for the larger explorations of American
history in the contemporary age and its radicalism lies in its
presentation of history in a new aesthetic form.
It also locates itself as a history documentary in terrain
already covered by the likes of David Lynch (Blue
Velvet, Twin Peaks) that dealt with repression of a different kind
in small American towns.
Throughout the film, the viewer is presented with
various examples of historical discourse (myth, historical fact,
personal belief) and the mechanics of how these collectively fit
together to tell the history of an event are foregrounded.
Firstly, there is the character of Mary Brown. Her characterisation is crucial, in that she fulfils the
stereotypical crazy old woman indicative of the genre.
Yet, as Donahue informs us, she is also a historian writing a
book on American history from her trailer park home complete with
There are also the various interviews conducted in
Burkitsville itself, where people are asked what they know of the
legend of the Blair Witch. In
the short interviews, one woman tells how she never goes up into the
woods. Donahue subsequently responds by stating "Does that mean
you believe in the legend of the Blair Witch" to which the woman
says "I believe enough not to go up there...".
This statement serves as a useful paradigm for
understanding frontier history at the end of the Twentieth Century.
This statement would work equally well if it read as follows:
"I believe enough not to challenge history...".
The achievement of 70's horror, and the debt that The
Blair Witch Project owes it, is that it provided a discursive site
from which to challenge the status quo, challenge the canonisation of
the nation and the "believing enough" theory.
At the end of the Twentieth Century, what is now coming back as
the "repressed" is not alternative political ideologies or
the threat of Woman's rights, but history itself.
If history, and conceptions of national
history, are afforded a privileged place in the world of academia,
society will, in general, believe enough not to look behind or beyond
the picture of the national past presented to them.
Often these kinds of polemics are heard by those campaigning
for social activism (forcing governments to act upon issues of civil
rights or, in the case of South Africa, the truth and reconciliation
committees) but, I would suggest, that before being able to understand
contemporary America there is a desperate need to fully understand the
national past, of which the frontier is an integral part.
To develop this line of critical engagement further
and begin to think about how The
Blair Witch Project can be seen as representing a new form of
historical investigation, I need to sketch out the main parameters of
a new approach that has been loosely termed Post-Modern
Along with the wider dissemination of domestic
recording equipment, has come the ability for people to create their
own little moments of history. In
America, when Rodney King or JFK is discussed, it is the footage shot
by Zappruder or Holliday, which is shown.
In a very real sense, history lives and breathes around about
us in the contemporary age, as John Gillis observes:
Never before has so much been recorded, collected;
and never before has remembering been so compulsive, even as
rote memorisation ceases to be central in the educational process.
What we can no longer keep in our heads we keep in storage.[xviii]
Post-Modern historiography argues for the abdication
of a straight causal narrative that can encompass the totality of a
given historical event. This
means that such grand narratives as Turner's are at odds with the
wider cultural paradigms that views the past as open to many different
today, more people than ever before are
"willing" things. In
the wake of those absent centres and collapsed meta-narratives, so the
conditions of post-modernism have produced that multiplicity of
histories that can be met everywhere throughout our democratic and
What was found in the tapes recorded by the three
students who went missing in Burkitsville, Maryland was a classic
example of post-modern history where the video-taped evidence was
complete with gaps and fissures.
It conforms to Hayden White's theory on post-modern
historiography which is "..discontinuity, disruption and chaos
are our lot"[xx].
The film is a historical discourse on two events - the Blair
Witch legend and the search for missing students both on going at the
Indeed, it reaches the stage where the two histories are
intertwined, since the more the students get lost, the more we seem to
be finding out about the Blair Witch legend, until, that is, the
climatic sequence where both "histories" have reached a
point of hysteria. This
aligns very much with what Roland Barthes has argued about the
"place" of history in the contemporary age, where our
relationship to the past is firstly based on an active engagement with
modes of representation:
With regard to many of these photographs, it was
History which separated me from them.
Is History not simply that time when we were not born?...
History is hysterical: it
is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it - and in
order to look at it, we must be excluded from it...[xxii]
This widening of the sphere of history, as identified
by the likes of Hayden White, forms
the basis for a number of other films in the 90's horror genre.
Of most importance on this theme, is the two films, I
Know what you did Last Summer and the aptly titled, I
Still Know what you did Last Summer along with Urban
Legend. All of these
work through central young adult characters investigating hidden
aspects of history in their local areas.
Investigation is as much a part of this new horror as the
standard thrills and spills. Indeed,
even the title of I Know What
You Did Last Summer hints at a metaphor for the larger repressed
aspects of US frontier history; to
produce a sequel called, I Still
Know suggests that the process of bringing to light all that is
repressed in a society's past may still have some way to go.
The issue of representations of history on film is
something that has come to the surface in 90's Hollywood, particularly
since many Academy Awards went to epics such as Braveheart,
Titanic and Forrest Gump. Yet,
curiously, the resurgence of the horror genre is noticeably absent
from the theoretical discussions led by people such as Robert
It has been well documented that history can fuse with other
genres creating hybridisation, but I would argue it is time that
critical film theory began to look at the mechanism of history and
horror working together in the light of the success of The Blair Witch Project, and taking on the good work done by Robin
Wood in the 1970's.
Indeed, I would go further, and argue that the fusion
of these two genres articulates something deeper about American youth
at the end of the Twentieth Century and its relationship to the
dominant cultural norms. By
simply raising the question of why the horror genre should
appeal in two particular decades to a predominantly younger age group,
the answers can be illuminating and provide pointers for further
discussion and debate in the spheres of both film study and cultural
theory more generally.
Again, thinking back to the summer of '75, the
generation who consumed the horror genre in the 70's were those
off-springs of the counter cultural movements of the 1960's when
Wood's repressed groupings took to the streets of the nation.
When this movement broke down, or, as Peter Fonda says in the
swan-song of counter-cultural cinema, "we blew it" (Easy Rider), it fled to suburban America to pursue a life full of
golf, shopping malls and air-conditioned cars.
The youth who came to prominence in this environment had no
battles to fight and no cause to champion;
theirs, unlike the generation before them, became a
materialistic life. 70's
horror was popular because it challenged that by providing danger and
chaos in suburban America - outside every window, in every street,
there could be another Michael Myers.
Christopher Lasch has described this mood in 70's
America as "The Culture of Narcissism"[xxiv]
where he claims that the discourse of political action shifted from
society to the self:
After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans
have retreated to purely personal preoccupations.
Having no hope of improving their lives in any ways that
matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic
in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in
ballet or belly-dancing and jogging.......[xxv]
Lasch further argues that this was a dangerous trend
which led to apathy on the part of the American public since:
Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a
program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness,
signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past.
Indeed, Americans seem to forget not only the sixties, the
riots, the new left, Vietnam, Watergate, but their entire collective
past... To live for the
moment is the prevailing passion - to live for yourself, not for your
predecessors or posterity. We
are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of
belonging to a successions of generations originating in the past and
stretching into the future.[xxvi]
Foremost in this forgetting of the past, is the dark
side of the frontier. To
those living in 70's air-conditioned suburban America, they would
probably have agreed with Donahue.
Nobody could get lost in 70's America, yet horror jolted people
out of their comfortable lives and terrorised them running around
their safe little suburban streets.
And with every jolt, came a wider metaphor about frontier
ideology and its place in American national culture.
Whenever a Travis Bickle or a Michael Myers threatened the
audience it was a threat from the frontier.
The monsters which America once needed to tame the frontier, to
commit those unspeakable acts, have no place to go when the frontier
closed. For men who carry
the violent impulses in them - part of the "national
character" as Turner proclaimed in 1893 - had no place in the
self-healing 70's America. Vietnam
had been the new frontier for a generation, where young men were sent
to fulfil America's Manifest Destiny, yet when they returned they
found a society, just as Lasch described it, where these feelings were
given no space nor any respect.[xxvii]
The generations who flocked to see The
Blair Witch Project in 1999 did so for the same reasons that drove
the 70's audience of the beach and into the movie theatres.
Nowadays, we live in the age where everything is visible, all
the time. Through the explosion of the Internet and other forms of
communication, one can scour the world without having to leave the
comfort (and safety) of one's own home.
Television has moved towards the voyeuristic, fly on the wall
docu-dramas, epitomised with the worldwide success of the Big
In such a frenzy of the visual, it is hugely
significant that The Blair Witch
Project was successful precisely because it did not
show. Perhaps by summer
'99 people felt they had seen it all in the movie theatre and the only
place they could really be scared was somewhere in the back of their
own mind. To this end,
the film used the devices more akin to the fields of literature where
the reader uses their imagination to engage with the text.
The success of the film thus may be the starting
point for a wider discussion about capitalism at the start of the
Twenty First Century and its connection to modes of representation.
I would suggest that in order to broaden The
Blair Witch Project out to the larger social, political and
cultural context of contemporary America, the film should be read
alongside the writings of Naomi Klein, author of "No Logo"[xxviii].
Her polemics are based on the theory that the global
capitalist organisations have colonised the world’s resources to
such an extent that they are the new purveyors of slavery on an
unprecedented global scale. To
quote just one statistic among many:
an Indonesian worker may produce a pair of sneakers for $2 a
day wage but when transported to Nike town in the United States, it
will sell for up to $120. The scenes of Anti corporate activism witnessed recently have
happened, believes Klein, since branding has worked so well in the
Multi-nationals such as Nike, Microsoft, and
Starbucks have sought to become the chief communicators of all that is
good and cherished in our culture:
art, sport, community, connection, and equality.
But the more successful this project is, the more vulnerable
these companies become. When
they do wrong, their crimes are not simply dismissed as the
misdemeanours of another corporation trying to make a buck.
This is a connection more akin to the relationship of fan and
intense, but shallow enough to turn on a dime.[xxix]
She also resents the colonisation of the globe,
where third world countries are packaged for us and delivered to us in
Starbucks coffee houses. Klein
cites this as the front line of anti-corporate activism:
...it's about saying that we actually want the real
thing, the real "third place" (not home, not work) that
Starbucks tries to sell us, the real public space.
People are now saying - I do want real community, this is a
strong and powerful idea and I resent the fact that the idea has been
stolen from me.[xxx]
In a statement echoing Donahue claim about being lost
in America, Klein also feels that in the modern world, "there is
no open space anymore" where the corporations have not been,
where the culture has been colonised and plastered on a mug. Her rallying call is for people to re-discover themselves as
citizens, and not just consumers;
it is a call which could equally be aimed at post-modern
historians seeking to re-claim the past, as a broad and open
The same might be said of American cinema in 1999.
Prior to three student filmmakers going missing, it seemed as
though everything that was to be seen, had been seen. Naomi Klein is
helping to re-define politics for a new generation and
is doing so by foregrounding the mechanics of global
capitalism. She is
attempting to allow those repressed features of capitalism - the
slaves who work away behind the scenes, far away from the sharp camera
focus on Tiger Wood's new outfit -
a voice, much in the same way as Wood characterised 70's horror
genre as doing. It is
about creating a discursive space within contemporary society to allow
those repressed voices a platform, both from the present and the past.
Like the Frontier, like Vietnam and like Watergate,
America might not like what it sees when it goes behind the vale of
global capitalism. Just
as the frontier, when investigated beyond Turner, gave up dark and
hidden secrets, what tales of horror will this current political
movement bring to light? And
what sense of being "lost" in their own country will it
bring to Americans today?
In terms of generic hybridisation, the fusion of the
horror and historical investigation genre, may be the starting point
for a new generation investigating aspects of the national past, which
is profitable at the box office and accessible to the wider popular
culture. The character of
Mary Brown is an excellent starting point for this new area of study,
where historical discourse fuses with Horror generic characteristics.
She is also indicative of post-modern historiography, since she
lives in a trailer park yet claims to be a historian writing a book on
This new genre can offer up the possibility of
radical restructuring since, in Wood's polemic, the containment of the
monster was essential to the ideological workings of the film, where
the status quo would be restored.
Yet, The Blair Witch
Project suggests that whatever repressed aspect of Burkitsville,
Maryland, which haunts the woods in the later 90's, is beyond
containment and beyond visibility.
Crucially, this forces the viewer to construct the monster in
their own mind; what is
that they fear may be lurking beneath the veneer of pre-millennial
America? This process of
construction was most evident when people asked "what do you
think the Blair Witch was?".
It sub-consciously an ideologically weighted
question, for the answer depended on what aspects of America scared
you the most. If, in
contrast, a special effect ghost had been shown in that house, the
Woman's assertion that "..I believes enough not to go up
there" would have been vindicated.
As it stands, however, the monster was different for every
viewer. In your own mind
you to had imagine what was going on beyond the corners in that
fateful house. In this
very process lies the burden of history, since "the screams of a
in pre-millennial America came from a black screen and some noise in
the bushes. What was it
about the burden of American exceptionalism that drove people to the
movie theatres and be scared by a black screen?
An answer to this question seems fundamental for the field of
film studies and, for that matter, cultural theory, to begin to
ascertain a critical approach to the success of this film and what it
said about America at the edge of the Twenty First Century.
In 1975, America was scared by flesh and blood.
Bruce was there for all to see, and everywhere in the water he
could bite you, if you were not careful.
For the Labour Day weekenders of '75, simulated Jaws attacks
were a standard joke. They
had fun that weekend, hiding in the closets and shark cages away from
America's monsters, since, in the end, the monsters were always
destroyed. Everyone could
return to air-conditioned suburban America safe in the knowledge that
the monsters could never really
get you, as long as the good old classical narrative held sway.
At the end of The
Blair Witch Project Josh, Heather and Michael had been unable to
neither assimilate nor destroy the "other".
Not that anyone could agree what the "other" was in
the first place. Just as
in 1893 and 1975, it seemed as though one more look at the frontier
was required before America could face the brave new world of the
Twenty First Century. This
time, however, straight answers to difficult questions have been hard
to find and I hope the observations made here help to provoke study
into this area.
After all these years on from Jaws, what jokes do this generation have to share on their autumn
camps in the woods? No
monster to fear, just a sound that, even in itself, is hard to
imitate. If someone says
"..watch the Blair Witch doesn't get you", a metaphor for
America's past is being articulated.
Reflecting upon that open road in North Carolina,
having just seen The Blair Witch Project, I can now see how
wrong I had been. There
was another America, one rooted in the past as much as the
present and the future; where it is still possible to get
"lost" in and where repressed
aspects of a nations past remain hidden.
The road to this place, however is often difficult to find
because people “believe enough not go up there.." for they
might not like what they find.
As a generation, it is necessary to move beyond this,
to confront what has been left out of the worldview of America at the
turn of the century, whether it be Vietnam, The Frontier or Global
Capitalism. To see that America,
and the world, has places still to get “lost” in which we will
only see when we look beyond what is provided by the culture at large.
This process must start by confronting demons which may exist
"..if you go down to the woods today........".
Wood, Robin Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, New York,
Lasch, Christopher The Culture of Narcissism (Norton,
New York, 1978)
Trachtenburg, Alan The Incorporation of America:
Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (Hill and Wang, New York,
Ray, Robert A Certain Tendencey of the Hollywood
Cinema 1930 - 1980 (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1985)
Ryan, Michael & Kellner, Douglas Camera Politica:
The Politics and Ideology of the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
(Bloomington, Indiana, 1988)
Maltby, Richard Harmless Entertainment:
Hollywood and the Ideology of Consensus (Scarecrow Press, New
Corrigan, Timothy A Cinema Without Walls:
Movies and Culture after Vietnam (Routledge, London, 1992)
Grant, Barry Keith Planks of Reason:
Essays on the American Horror Film (Scarewcrow Press, New
Waller, Gregory A. American Horrors:
Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (University of
Illinois Press, Chicago, 1987)
Weber, Ronald America in Change:
Reflections on the 60's and 70's (University of Notre Dame
Press, London, 1972)
Chafe, William H The Unfinished Journey:
America since World War II (Oxford University Press, New York,
White, Hayden The Content of the Form:
Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (John Hopkins
University Press, London, 1987)
White, Hayden "Historiography and Historiophoty"
in American Historical
Review (Volume 93, Number 4, October 1988)
Limerick, Patricia Nelson et al (eds) Trails:
Towards a New Western History (University Press of Kansas,
Sobchack, Vivian (ed) The Persistence of History:
Cinema, Television and the Modern Event (Routledge, New York,
Munslow, Alan Deconstructing History (Routledge,
Rosenstone, Robert A. Visions of the Past:
The Challenge of film to our ideas of History (Harvard
University Press, Boston, 1995)
Rosenstone, Robert A. Revisioning History:
Film and the construction of a New Past (Princeton University
Press, New Jersey, 1995)
[i]Thompson, David Overexposures: The crisis in American Film Making (William Morrow & Company, New York, 1981) p.27
[ii]Bell, Daniel "The End of American Exceptionalism" in The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960 - 1980 (Basic Books, New York, 1980)
[iii]For an analysis of the way which in the iconograhhy of Amity Island engaged with the imagery of early American settlers, see Heath, Stephen "Jaws, Ideology and Film Theory" in Nichols, Bill (ed) Movies and Methods II (University of California Press, London, 1985) pp. 509 - 514
[iv]Wood, Robin "The American Nightamre: Horror in the 70's" in Wood, Robin Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986) p. 70
[v]Ibid, p. 71
[vi]Barthes, Roland Mythologies (Paladin, London, 1973)
[vii]For a paradigmatic example of Hollywood's construction of the "other", see the opening scene in the Vietnam section of Stanley Kubrik's Full Metal Jacket, where the Vietnmese prostitute and the surrounding mise-en-scene is appropriated into western discourse.
[viii]Wood, "The American Nightmare" in Wood, Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan p. 75
[ix]Ibid, p. 80
[x]Turner, Frederick Jackson The Turner thesis concerning the role of the Frontier in American History (D.C. Heath, Lexington, 1972)
[xi]Trachtenburg, Alan The Incorporation of America (Hill and Wang, New York, 1984) p.17
[xii]Turner, The Turner thesis p. 45
[xiii]Trachtenburg, The Incorporation of America p.19
[xiv]To see how Hollywood has worked through this American paradox in relation to a number of other genres, see Ray, Robert A Certain Tendencey of the Hollywood Cinema 1930 - 1980 (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1980)
[xv]Slotkin, Richard The Fatal Enviroment: The Myth of the Frontier in the age of Industrialisation 1800 - 1890 (Harper Perenial, New York, 1994) Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Weslayan University Press, Connecticut, 1973) Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in American History (Maxwell MacMillan International, New York, 1992)
[xvi]Dippie, Brian W. "American Wests: Historiographical Perspectives" in Limerick, Patricia Nelson et. al (eds) Trails: Towards a New Western History (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1991) p. 53
[xvii]Jameson, Frederic Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Verso, London, 1991)
[xviii]Gillis, John (ed) Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1984) p.14
[xix]White, Hayden The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (John Hopkins University Press, London, 1987)
[xxi]Special mention should also be made of the films climatic sequence in the abandoned house. It is shot in double take on two different film stocks, thus creating further narrative displacement.
[xxii]Barthes, Roland Mythologies p.76
[xxiii]Rosenstone, Robert Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Ideas of History (Harvard University Press, Boston, 1995) , Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995)
[xxiv]Lasch, Christopher The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, New York, 1978)
[xxvi]Ibid, p. 5
[xxvii]This led to the creation of a number of films dealing with the subject of the returning Vietnam Veteran, of which Taxi Driver is paradigmatic.
[xxviii]Klein, Naomi No Logo (Harper Collins, New York, 2000)
[xxix]Interview given to The Guardian newspaper (23/9/00) pp. 12 - 21
[xxx]Ibid, p. 21
[xxxi]This phrase is taken from an article by Tom Figenshu "Screams of a Summer Night" Film Comment (Volume 15, Number 5, September - October 1979) pp. 49 - 53