Russ Gomm

The Blair Witch Project

Published by Arrow Books

Jul 02, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the last dying gasps of the 20th Century, The Blair Witch Project came along and made an impact on the horror genre of a magnitude to which few other films can lay claim. It can be easy to forget, what with the countless found footage flicks, faux-documentary ghost hunting shows, and transmedia movie experiences that have flooded the genre in the two decades since, just how revolutionary Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick’s indie horror film felt when it came out way back in ’99. I almost pity the younger horror films because, more than any other movie I can think of, you had to have lived through the whole phenomenon to truly appreciate it. The Blair Witch is perhaps one of those things that, well, you just had to have been there.

Much of Russ Gomm’s detailed history of the Blair Witch franchise pertains to fans’ personal experiences with the film, and it’s inspired me to share mine. I was a high school freshman at the time of Blair Witch’s release and a huge horror nut. I’d used the advent of the DVD era (and the proliferation of chains like Blockbuster and Movie Gallery) to my advantage and had spent much of my summer job funds cherry-picking the horror sections of all the mom ‘n’ pop video stores that would soon be out of business. My bedroom shelves were lined with more than 100 ex-rental horror tapes, from battered, sticker-covered Vestron releases to gruesome, big-box titles on the Wizard Video label. My family was an early adopter of dial-up Internet, and I had spent too much of my formative middle school years on Usenet’s alt.horror newsgroup. While I was too young to get into an R-rated horror movie, I damn well knew when new ones were coming. Back in ’99, Blair Witch was the most hyped horror movie on the Internet.

While The Blair Witch Project delivered as a genuinely terrifying horror film – it tapped into several fundamental human fears and its gonzo directorial style pulled frighteningly realistic performances from its cast – it was the film’s marketing approach that was its most groundbreaking element.  Even before filming was underway, Blair Witch’s co-directors were putting together the movie’s greater mythology, detailing a centuries-long history of the witch’s hauntings and throwing it up on the movie’s website. There were forged news articles about missing kids, bogus talk show segments, filmed testimonies, and an entirely separate dummy documentary which aired on TV ahead of the movie’s release. This was almost twenty years before our “fake news” era, when it was much easier to take things you read on the Internet at face value. The Blair Witch Project was presented as non-fiction, and many, many people believed that the upcoming film was a 100% real documentation of three missing film students’ final days. Heck, even the lead actors’ IMDB pages listed them as “presumed deceased”!

The marketing was brilliant. Although not everyone took the bait – the cynical bastards of alt.horror were well aware that it was just a movie – a lot of people believed it was fact, and continued to do so even after the film had become a box office hit. I saw through the illusion, but had fun perpetuating it – I’d watch the VHS version with anyone who’d not yet seen it, prefacing it with the Witch’s long history and then gleefully wait for the dozen or so further questions that would inevitably follow our screening. “Have they found their bodies yet?” they would ask. “No,” I’d tell them, solemnly shaking my head. “They’re still missing.” For a few months, lying to friends and family about The Blair Witch Project’s veracity was my favorite activity. In time, everyone saw through it – we eventually got together to shoot a parody version for a first period history class project – but nothing beat that short period of time when a horror movie’s status as fiction was still up for question.

Author Russ Gomm tracks The Blair Witch’s whole history, from the genesis of the idea, through its $30,000 production and the hundreds of millions it brought in at the box office, and through its sequels. Gomm is friendly with many of the people behind the film, and although his history doesn’t utilize direct quotes, it’s clear from the details in his information that much of it must have come first-hand. The book is heavy on personal essays about the movie, with reflections on the Blair Witch phenomenon from superfans and a few folks who had a tertiary involvement in it. (Sometimes these passages feel a bit repetitive, particularly when they echo the author’s early encounters with the film; it does make you long for similar essays from more of the filmmakers or cast.) If you were a fan of the movie, this book is a wealth of great information. Best of all, it serves as a reminder of what made the film so incredible twenty years ago to those for whom it may have lost its original luster.

The Blair Witch Project is a numbered volume in the Arrow Books line, which is put out by the same folks behind Arrow Films and Arrow Video – purveyors of some of the most high-end, deluxe releases of cult movies out there. As a fan of multiple lines of collectible, pocket-sized deep dives into popular culture (i.e. Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 books, ECW’s Pop Classics), I feel the need to commend Arrow Books’ production value. Aside from its slick cover artwork, the pages are full of color stills which really enhance the reading experience. Of all the slim book lines boasting spine numbers, these ones are most presented as actual collector’s items.


Author rating: 6.5/10

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