It’s been thirteen years since the found footage genre first caught the public’s eye. Though The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first film of its kind, it was wholly responsible for the rapid expansion of a new type of filmmaking: one that placed stock in intentionally bad camerawork, poor picture quality, and improvised acting. But for the dozens of found footage pictures that have screened over the last decade, few have come close to matching Blair Witch, the genre’s most successful entry. Perhaps there’s even room for us to be absolute and say that no film has yet matched Blair Witch. Blair Witch happens to hit all the right spots, but it isn’t the genre’s progenitor. The first found footage work hit the airwaves some sixty years ago, and it wasn’t in film—it was in radio.
In 1938, Orson Welles starred in a now notorious radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The radio play is remembered for the frenzied response it evoked from its listeners, but it also introduced the basic tropes and techniques we now associate with the found footage genre. The War of the Worlds imagines a Martian invasion of Earth, but rather than parrot the original book, the play’s writers chose to relate the invasion as if it was actually happening at that moment, in real life. The show mixed breaking news bulletins and on-site field reports, and it was convincing enough to send thousands of alarmed listeners fleeing from their homes.
(Listen to a clip of The War of the Worlds where the anchor throws from a musical performance to a reporter in the field. The reporter describes a landing site where one of the Martian spacecraft has crashed.)
But the startling thing is that the play had the same effect when it was rebroadcast years later. And it worked overseas too: in Ecuador, a Spanish-language adaptation caused a city-wide riot that led to six deaths (the story of the riot was reported in a brilliant episode of Radiolab). People, it seems, are either remarkably gullible, or easily frightened—or perhaps both. But consider the era in which Welles’ play aired: there was already conflict in Europe, though war had not yet been declared. And as the abovementioned Radiolab episode hypothesizes, and the opposite article from The New York Times affirms, some listeners may have mistaken the Martian invasion for a German invasion. Radio had by now cemented itself as an authority for news alongside the daily paper. What if you turned on your television to find CNN reporting a Russian or Chinese invasion of the West Coast à la Red Dawn—but a few hours later it turned out they were just kidding?
A radio play might be an unlikely candidate to spark off an entire genre, but The War of the Worlds in fact established all the major tropes used in found footage films. The sense of authenticity we get from the production is pure trickery; the story is communicated through mediums we trust and take for granted, like news reports. The story is also presented clumsily, giving us the sense that we’re seeing raw reality rather than a staged event. And as a cap on it all, the story’s ending arrives suddenly, leaving the audience out in the proverbial cold. In the case of The War of the Worlds, the play ends with a reporter presumably dying as massive Martian war machines traipse across Manhattan.
Sixty years later, Blair Witch reintroduced those storytelling tropes into film, sparking the found footage genre. It now ranks amongst the best horror films ever made. Its creators were fans of The War of the Worlds radio production, and that might therefore render the parallels between the two unsurprising, but nonetheless, Blair Witch aped the tricks Welles used in his play to great effect. The film claims to present amateur footage shot by three students that went hiking in Burkittsville, Maryland on a quest to find the “Blair Witch,” a spirit supposedly involved in the murder of young children. The students disappear, and their footage is found a year later—so goes the story.
In a genre where the semblance of reality is paramount, Blair Witch does a superior job of turning its audience into believers. The aforementioned clumsy presentation is one way this effect is managed, and they do the obvious things well—improvised dialogue, unsteady camerawork—but one of the subtler choices the filmmakers made was to bathe the film in darkness. Rather than ever show what was so scary (nothing horrific is seen on camera at any point), directors Myrick and Sanchez often rely on sound. There are extended stretches where the screen is black, isolating viewers with the disconcerting sounds of something: often industrial noises like scratching or clanging, and other times organic noises, like crying.
There are many similar qualities that make Blair Witch compelling, but the film's most basic quality turns out to be its most instrumental: it's that the scenario in Blair Witch is actually plausible. Of course it’s a work of fiction, but as a horror film, Blair Witch practices extreme restraint. There’s no evidence that the supernatural is to blame for the bizarre events the students are experiencing. It could be that some bizarre cult is responsible for the crazy stick figures and the night frights; otherwise, it might be some depraved psychopath hunched out in the woods. So unlike most other horror films—and now most found footage films—there’s nothing abjectly unbelievable about Blair Witch. The fact that it all could have taken place is incredibly alluring, and it reveals a fundamental strength almost unique to this type of found footage film: the moment we're watching it, we're sure it's real.
(You might question how realistic The War of the Worlds radio broadcast was, given it also dealt with something paranormal. But as late as the 1930s there was a belief circulating that the lines on Mars’ surface were artificial canals, supposedly constructed by Martians. The notion that Mars might actually be populated by man-like creatures may not have been viewed as outlandish.)
Just as thousands were coaxed into believing The War of the Worlds, thousands of those who saw Blair Witch accepted it as true. It turned a profit of approximately $249 million. Studios were quick to glom on to the found footage train, and the last ten years has seen a veritable menagerie of pictures in the vein of Blair Witch, though none as good. Cloverfield is an almost forgotten example, and Chernobyl Diaries is the most recent entry in the found footage account, though of all the most recent crop of pictures, the Paranormal Activity franchise seems to have captured the genre’s momentum.
As a result, it seems that the horror genre has now hijacked the found footage technique, and we’re left with a collection of films almost exclusively involving the supernatural. It’s a great irony that the found footage film—a type of film that originally relied on fooling its audience into believing its story is true—has spilled over into the horror genre, a genre that makes no attempt at hiding its fictitiousness. While Paranormal Activity may be a commercial success, it is a storytelling dud compared to the standards set by Blair Witch. There can be no illusion that ghosts and spirits are real. They simply don’t exist. So we’re left with two different movies: one that leads us convincingly down a troubling path, and one that throws novelty jump-scares our way under the premise that humans can be possessed. But in comparing the resulting experience from both films, I can’t escape the feeling that Paranormal Activity is vapid. Its imagery isn’t as haunting as that of Blair Witch, and it hardly comes close to disturbing or affecting emotion in the way Blair Witch did.
If found footage films are to be trapped in the domain of the horror genre, then the best thing for this mode of storytelling is for it to stick with reality—serial killers, cultists, and the like. It’s not only that the found footage storytelling method works best that way; it’s also that the best horror films typically have some modicum of realness to them. We might be momentarily startled by a jack-in-the-box ghost scare, but real terror comes from films that affect us psychologically. Blair Witch does that by keeping the ball in our realm. We can say that The Blair Witch Project seems real because there’s nothing in the film that proves otherwise. There’s nothing that assures us that it’s all fake. And that should be the power of the found footage genre: where other films are over at the credit roll, found footage films should keep us trapped in that world long after we’ve left the theater. That is the best quality the genre has. It would be a pity to give it up over a ghost story.