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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: Terror, Psyche and Life's Little Tricks

Perhaps you have played this game before.
The answers you give to the following questions supposedly reveal a lot about you:

1. You are walking through a forest; describe it.
2. You are on a path; what does it look like?
3. You come to a body of water; how does it make you feel?
4. You find a cup on the ground; what do you do with it?
5. You come upon a house deep in the forest; how do you feel about it being there?

As with other psychological games of this nature, each of the objects mentioned above is a symbol for something far more metaphysical. Thus:

1. The forest is your life.
2. The path is the way you see yourself going through life.
3. The body of water is sex.
4. The cup is the one you love.
5. The house is death.

In The Blair Witch Project, it is as if this little parlor game were magnified to horrible proportion, and never-ending.

I have now seen this phenomenal film three times, and I could not tell you when the above framework occurred to me as a way to read the film. But once it did, I found even more depth and subtlety there than I had previously, and gained even more respect for the artful editing work which sculpted a tight and terrific (in the traditional sense of the word) 90-minute narrative from over twenty hours of raw footage. Forget the Stanislavskian performances or the rough camera work: though the actors' contribution was certainly awe-inspiring (caution: hyperbole and superlatives go hand in hand when talking about this film), The Blair Witch Project's authenticity lies ultimately in the hands of its directors, who made the final product look like it was stuck together with spit and Scotch tape. For me, this allowed utter suspension of disbelief (or, more accurately, at least as much suspension of disbelief as a film critic who had immersed herself in the film's considerable pre-release mythology and hype could muster); the journey to the heart of terror was unimpeded, the road to the mind's darkest recesses lay bright and shining in the shadowy night.

Now, about that forest...

Heather, Josh and Mike were film students. Young, inexperienced (green?), wild, imaginative, full of vigor and eagerly seeking knowledge. Like the forest, their lives pulsed with magic and secrets: works of art to be made, lovers to be embraced, sensual thrills to be savored, mysteries to be approached and solved. The three of them ventured into the Maryland woods one sunny afternoon to make a film about a local legend: the Blair Witch. Heather was the writer/director/narrator of the project; Josh the photographer; Mike, the sound man. On the day of their departure, we see Heather showing off her apartment (which she says she is leaving the comforts of for the weekend), we see Josh sleep-deprived and drinking orange juice as he struggles to wake up, and we see Mike saying goodbye to his mother. They goof off in the grocery store buying supplies (the granola bars, rice and marshmallows a cruel foreshadowing of the hunger they will face later), and interview a few townies on their way to the woods. Some of these locals were actors, some not; all of them had a story to tell about the Blair Witch, Elly Kedward. And about the residents of the area (Blair township, now renamed Burkittsville) who, through the years, had been influenced by Elly Kedward's legacy.

Like the man who tells them about Rustin Parr, who in the 1940s confessed to the murders of seven children. Parr apparently kidnapped more than one child at a time, and had one turn to face the corner while he killed the other, so he would not have to see accusing eyes on him. Then there are the two fishermen who tell the story of Robin Weaver, the eight-year old girl who disappears briefly from the area in the late 19th century, only to return shaken but safe. But one of the search parties dispatched to find her are found weeks later in the woods at Coffin Rock: seven men, tied together at the arms and legs, and completely eviscerated. (For more on the mythology of the Blair Witch, see The Blair Witch Project official website). Heather and her crew also interview Mary Brown, an insane old woman who claims to have seen the Blair Witch in the form of a hairy half-woman, half-beast. After these brief interviews with locals, the crew heads towards their true destination: the woods where Elly lived, and where, over the years, many bodies were found.

Preparing to enter the woods, the three don huge backpacks containing their camping gear and film equipment. As they enter the woods from the road, the camera looks back on Josh's car, growing smaller with every step they take. This eerie shot emphasizes their departure from the comfortable world of the known, into the realm of the unknown, embarking on their purpose and goal, the filming of The Blair Witch Project. This shift from the "unreal" world of loved ones and creature comforts to the "real" world of survival and exposure to the elements marks their entry into the place they will live the rest of their lives: the forest. They are now inseparable from it.

Now, about that path...

Heather has a map: a rather detailed topographic map, to guide them to the areas she wishes to find (an old graveyard, Coffin Rock, the site of Rustin Parr's old house). And there is a trail of sorts, since there were once logging roads in these woods. But she has never been in the area before, and must rely upon her own common sense and intuition when they veer from the path. She is also very aware that, as the director of the project, her authority and confidence will set the tone for the weekend: no small task for a young woman leading two young men, one a friend (Josh) and one a recent acquaintance (Mike). It is clear she is in charge, and that Josh and Mike accept her position (for more on Heather's struggle with authority and interaction with her crew, check out the pages of her journal). As we so often experience in life, however, our sense of control over a given situation is not always what it seems. False pride and fear of failure often push us beyond the bounds of what is reasonable risk: and the path through the forest becomes obscured or confounded. Heather's determination to complete the project, as well as her inability to admit defeat, overshadows the inherent danger of exploring an unfamiliar wooded area; that is one reason the party becomes lost. Heather's sense of herself as infallible make it problematic for her to navigate the physical path.

But becoming lost finally turns out to be the least of their problems...

Early on, when it becomes apparent that Heather may not know the area all that well, or that the map may not be accurate, both Mike and Josh question her ability to lead them. At first, their failure to stay on a clear trail is dealt with humorously by Heather, who continues to insist she knows where they are. But when the day comes for them to go back home and they find themselves deeper in the woods, rather than closer to the road, Mike loses his temper. His sense of their safety and purpose is blown apart when he realizes things are not as he thought. He is concerned that the borrowed equipment will not be returned on time, but also very likely wondering if their food and water supply will hold out: a perilous situation.

When Josh sees the tension between the other two, he attempts to smooth things over; again, ignoring the gravity of the problem but compensating by attending to the situation's dynamics, if not its truths. When humans lose control, we lash out; when we become afraid, we become ungrounded and irrational (in her journal, Heather had mentioned the importance of remaining grounded and centered during the shoot). For a brief time, the three experience a dangerous instability and breakdown in communication: Heather records sound and operates the camera as they walk through the rain, and observes that no one will talk to her. When they are two days late in getting back, the three decide that the late equipment and missed work commitments pale in importance next to the realization that they are indisputably lost.

And other things on the path are worrisome. After discovering the burial ground, which is little more than a clearing in the woods containing a dozen or so small cairns of rocks, the group begins to experience nightly frights from inside their tent. Breaking sticks, children's laughter, and distant moaning keep them sleepless and edgy. That these sounds are accompanied by a nearly black screen allows viewers of the film to empathize with what they see and hear. One morning after pitching camp in near-darkness, they find three piles of rocks at the corners of their tent: the significance of these grave markers, one for each of them, is certainly not lost upon them. The purpose of their trip, the film project, is losing importance, yet it is precisely the supernatural quality of the "hauntings" at night, colored with all they have found out about the witch's legend, that throws them off balance and terrifies them further. Josh and Mike both suggest it is locals trying to scare them off; but when they discover the dozens of stick figures ("voodoo shit!" as Mike calls it) hanging from trees, their terror multiplies a hundredfold: as Mike puts it, "no redneck is this creative." Whatever it is that is following them, it means to scare them. No doubt their lack of sleep and ever-growing terror add to their inability to get their bearings and find their way out: a compass is little help, and the map turns up missing. The path is now irrelevant, as are their personality conflicts: survival has become key.

Now, about that body of water—and the cup...

The body of water is supposed to represent sex. Sex? Young and attractive though they may be, these three have surprisingly little sexual tension between them. We do know Josh has a girlfriend, and Heather hints at having camped out with a man before. In her journal, Heather is very aware of the potential for tension around traditional male-female roles, and refers to "playing the girl" and using some good old-fashioned feminine manipulation to balance her need for respect—she also refers to her crew as "the boys" and worries that their male bonding during something so manly as a camping trip may force her to behave "cuntishly." As for the obvious body of water in the film, it is the creek that appears early in their foray into the woods—Tappy East Creek, which at times is only to be crossed on rotting logs which fall across it. The first time they cross the creek, Heather falls into the mud and, in perhaps the only bit of sexual innuendo in the entire film, Mike trains the camera on her and says "I see a dirty behind." This sets the tone for their sexual dynamic, which is more one of power struggle and inversion of traditional gender roles than of sexual tension per se. Like Tappy East Creek, this dynamic runs through their situation, and like the creek its presence directly affects their ability to remain centered and on track. As they follow the creek deeper into the woods, Heather's awareness of her authority, her single-minded focus on the project and insistence on pushing on even though they may be lost, intensifies this sense of herself as the center of a sexualized triangle, with herself as the strong feminine force (the director) balancing the more diffused maleness (the crew) of Josh and Mike.

Interestingly, Heather also writes some magical correspondences on the cover of her journal: symbols and materials corresponding to Saturn and the moon (for Saturday through Monday, the proposed days of the shoot): for Saturn, onyx, vaults, tombs, empty houses, the angels Zapriel and Sabathiel, "frankensense" and myrtle; and for the moon (which rules tides and bodies of water): cats, silver, pearls, woods, rocks, ships, highways, the angels Gabriel and Lemanael. She mentions and identifies with the Triple Goddess, the sacredness of the number three (as in her, Josh and Mike) and how this magical number will aid them, as it represents a totality of activity (beginning, middle, and end) and of time (past, present and future): all very creepy, considering what happens to them. This interest in the occult and things magical, as well as her position as leader of the party, reinforces an idea of Heather as a sort of nature goddess figure, perhaps the Earth Mother of creativity, the mother who rears and takes again into her womb, who governs birth, life and death—full circle. That same line of reasoning would also make Heather into the witch of the title—she who is of the woods, who is also banished from them and who ultimately dies within them, much like Elly Kedward.

She also observes, both on camera and in her journal, that Mike is scared: of the cemetery, and of the sounds they hear at night. She refers to Mike and Josh as "pansies" in her journal because the off-trail hiking with only a map and compass was not something they were used to; she also assures them over and over again that she knows where they are and that they are not lost. Mike admits that the map is Greek to him, grudgingly accepts her judgment, but says he does not trust her (at this point he also complains about having all of his conversations recorded on camera). Josh, who has known Heather for a while, is not so quick to mistrust her, but doubts she is right about their positioning; and when she questions whether he is lying about having the missing map, he becomes angry. Later on, after Mike admits having kicked the map into the creek in sheer frustration at its uselessness, the body of water as sexual dynamic is again suggested: unable to rely upon intuition or creative imagination (feminine qualities), Mike uses the masculine tools of disruption and destruction to effect change. Like the feminine mysterious force of the forest that Heather has united with, the creek absorbs the map, the last connection to objective (male) reality and perspective; their fate is now even more clearly aligned with the feminine Other: Heather's intuitive authority and nature-given ability to keep them all grounded and on track. The two men continue to attempt to overthrow her authority, but eventually share the burden of finding their way home without placing further blame on her. Their fear of the forest as Other becomes their fear of the forest as Familiar Nemesis: and in this Heather as their feminine guide (chthonic, lunar, biologically attuned to nature) is their most likely ally.

Subtle gender differences and role-playing are underscored by the two men's physical characteristics as well. Mike is heavy-set, strong, with short dark hair and an aggressive attitude: he is by far the more practical camper, willing to meet the bad weather and darkness with pragmatic action (selecting a good tent site, arranging night-watch duty). Josh is thin, wiry, with silky reddish hair and more feminine features, and does not hold up as well to exhaustion and disorientation, as revealed when he slips under a tree and decide to stay there until they are found. Josh's personality also seems to be a slightly more androgynous balance between the masculinity of Mike and the femininity of Heather: he plays the role of peacemaker and voice of reason when things first begin to unravel. Likewise, after Mike's initial outburst at Heather, it is Josh who says they have to get along and work together. But when Josh loses it, Mike becomes the voice of reason. He had earlier complained that Heather filmed every conversation they had, whether it was connected to the Blair Witch or not. Then, when Josh becomes overwhelmed emotionally, Mike tells Heather not to turn the camera on him. This is a very interesting switching of roles that occurs between the two men, who trade off their roles as protector and antagonist frequently. Mike becomes protector after he is overcome with guilt about the map and feels responsible. He also feels guilt about his angry outbursts and seems determined to keep things on an even keel. Thus when Josh begins to become emotional (feminine), Mike becomes stronger (manly). Heather, as the Triple Goddess, embodies all these emotions and qualities (aggression, guilt, anger, capitulation), but is also the source of their angst, the creative force and the wheel of fate, the goddess Fortuna. In late October, the psychic veil between the worlds becomes thinnest at Samhain (Hallowe'en); Heather, with her research into the occult, is surely aware of this. As the days pass, their journey into darkness also brings them closer to the underworld, and the realm of the dead is associated with the feminine element of earth, and the ethereal symbol of the cauldron of rebirth, alternately a fertility symbol and one of rebirth after death. The feminine force is also associated with the moon and with bodies of water, and Heather as the leader of the party (and thus the one most responsible for their disorientation) shares a spiritual alignment with the creek, the body of water that presumably will keep them from getting lost; in a way, it does; but it also prevents them from leaving the woods alive.

It is the same Tappy East Creek that confounds them when, already lost for at least two days, they apparently travel in circles for hours and come back to the exact same log they had crossed earlier in the day (this circle of completion is another image associated with Heather as Triple Goddess of birth, death and rebirth). The first time they cross this log, Heather ominously says "If I never have to cross a creek on a log again I will die a happy girl." And it is at the site where they have travelled in circles that they do, indeed, embark on the path that leads to Josh's disappearance and Mike and Heather's deaths. When they discover they have walked fifteen hours only to arrive, as night falls, at exactly where they were earlier in the day, Mike bellows with anger and Heather, for the first time, cries. Josh's reaction is more complex: he turns the camera on Heather, torturing her with method-acting jibes, and asking her if she will write them a happy ending—again, she weeps, resorting to that most feminine of emotional responses, but out of desperation and fear rather than manipulation. She begs Josh to leave her alone; Mike concurs, but not before telling Josh "You're worse than she was." We realize a shift in the dynamic has occurred: Heather's authority and, more importantly, her confidence, has crumbled; Josh's Libran peacemaking has turned into Scorpionic cruelty (a mere several days after the actual astrological cusp of Libra and Scorpio occurs, on October 23); and Mike's bluster and bravado have changed to conscientious delegation and survival tactics.

Which brings us to the cup: the one we love.

This question and corresponding answer is more difficult to navigate, since no real cup appears in the film. But I have decided there are two ways of looking at this question. One, by looking at the cup in question as the suit of cups in the tarot: which corresponds to the suit of hearts in a conventional card deck, and which represents relationships and the emotions, especially love, and the element of water. In this way, what one does with the cup once it is found has to do with how one manages emotions and relationships. The sexual dynamic of the three is explored above, in terms of how expected roles and behaviors shift and conflict as the situation in the woods intensifies. The body of water, the creek, complicates their dilemma (being lost), and this dilemma is directly affected by the behaviors, perceptions and prejudices they bring to it. But the love dynamic, represented by the cup (or suit of cups) takes Heather, Josh and Mike beyond their individual selves, their self-centeredness and self-preservation, and becomes the way in which they care for and watch out for each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than after Josh's disappearance.

At this point there also arises a second, perhaps more obvious, cup symbol: Josh's canteen. On the morning after someone (or something) thrashes against their tent and sends them running screaming into the night, the three face the dawn huddled together, some ways from their camp. Feeling safer in the daylight, they return to find the tent dismantled, and their belongings strewn about. Mike's and Heather's packs are intact, but Josh's has been opened and its contents litter their campsite. He finds his canteen covered with something wet, and at first thinks someone has dumped out his water; then he realizes it is a slimy substance. He is very disturbed by this, particularly when Heather repeatedly emphasizes that it was one person's belongings that were singled out and that this must somehow be significant. After the rock cairns are left near their tent soon after one cairn at the cemetery site was accidentally knocked over by Heather, and after the discovery of the dozens of eerie "Wicker Man" stick figures made of sticks, twine and pine boughs, the three are ready to assign supernatural significance to almost anything that occurs. As mentioned earlier, Josh becomes very emotional after this discovery, and Mike prevents Heather from filming his distress, saying "There's no way we're watching out for him if we stick the camera in his face when he's crying." Heather for once backs off from being the driven filmmaker. Josh asks if they have any cigarettes left and won't take no for an answer; Heather grows impatient and says they need to leave (although she had earlier wanted to capture everything on film even if it meant staying in the woods another day). Josh asks them "Why was that blue slime shit all over my stuff, man?" Mike and Heather have no answer, which seems to make it worse, but by ignoring his question they are perhaps diminishing its importance, letting Josh know it is just a coincidence.

But later, having wandered for miles and arriving back at the creek, Josh turns the camera on Heather: the central dilemma of female authority versus male rebellion plays itself out yet again, but with a twist. Josh is angry and looking to blame Heather for their situation. But he is also frightened, knowing that something is stalking them in the woods. The grave danger that faces them becomes absolute and real to him. That night, as they settle into their tent for the night, expecting another terrifying night, the three talk about what they miss most. Since their food ran out days ago, food is uppermost in their minds. Josh says he wants nothing more than "mashed potatoes—my mom's mashed potatoes." He then amends this to "My mom's mashed potatoes, and a piece of ass." We are reminded of Josh on their second rainy day in the woods, smiling into the camera and thanking his Mom for giving him raingear for his eighteenth birthday—and of his certainty that when the party have not returned by the day expected, his girlfriend will definitely know he is missing. Josh's longing for his loved ones is set in motion by his terror, rekindled that morning when his own canteen was found covered with slime. After his wistful longing is stated, the very next scene takes place in the morning. Mike and Heather are yelling for Josh, who is gone. "We let him get out of earshot!" Heather screams at Mike, underscoring the responsibility the students now feel for each other.

They stay where they are, hoping he will return, knowing somehow he won't. Fearful for their own safety, but feeling responsible for Josh, and not wanting to not be there if he should come back to their campsite. Very little filming occurs that day. Despite a sunny, peaceful quality to the wooded landscape, there is an ominous feeling of doom in the air. That night, Heather tells Mike not to fall asleep. She has clearly come to rely on him to keep her safe: his strength and level-headedness, just as he relies on her companionship and intelligence to pull him through. A symbiotic connection has developed between them, stronger than any romantic bond: their will to survive, and to find Josh, transcends anything else they feel about each other. Mike staying awake is Heather's connection to her own sanity. That night, they hear someone moaning deep in the woods; it sounds like Josh, and they scream his name, asking where he is. Then they worry they have put themselves in danger by indicating their position, and letting their tormentors know that Josh is gone. But their desire to rescue him is stronger than their fear, and they continue to scream for him.

In the morning, Heather shows Mike briefly with the camera, saying she wants to show that "Mike is still here." Why? Does she fear being blamed if he is gone, too? Or is she so desperate to reassure herself of his (and thus her own) safety she feels a pathological urge to capture his presence on film, making it more real? The next thing the camera sees is right outside the tent: a bundle of sticks tied with shreds of plaid flannel, identical in color and pattern to the shirt Josh was wearing. Heather picks it up and throws it away from the tent, and hides it from Mike. Though filled with terror at the implications of this discovery, Heather also feels more connected to Josh because an item of his clothing has come back. Later that day (the two still remain where they are, calling for their companion), she unties the bundle of sticks and looks inside. What she finds fills her with horror: a bloody scrap of the same flannel shirt, with what appears to be a finger and some teeth inside. She does not tell Mike about it; out of guilt perhaps, but by this time it is clear she also wants to protect him. This is self-preservation as well as compassion: Mike's state of mind is intimately linked to her own.

That night, when Mike dozes off, Heather turns the camera on herself and apologizes to Josh's mom, Mike's mom, and her own parents for the danger she has brought them all into. She admits her naivete, that it was all her fault because she insisted on having her way. Her fear for her own safety, and her paralyzing guilt over Josh's disappearance, have pushed her over the edge. Her tears, her terror and her overwhelming sense of regret reduce this once-assertive young woman to a cringing waif. This is clearly the emotional climax of the film, since no matter what the outcome may be, it is clear Heather has accepted that they are all doomed. Her last desperate attempts at communication with the outside world are borne of love and guilt. The noises outside the tent begin again.

Some time later (it is still dark), amid noisy confusion, Mike and Heather leave the tent again and venture into the dark with the cameras and sound equipment. It is pretty clear this is no longer about the documentary, but about catching on film whatever it is that is pursuing them, and that has captured Josh. They trek noisily through the woods, surrounded on all sides with moans and sticks breaking. They come at last to a house.

The house. Death. How do they feel about it being there?

They appear very eager to enter. Because they can still hear moans which sound like Josh, they rush inside. They appear to think he may be inside. Mike keeps calling Josh's name, and Heather says faintly "That can't be Josh." Having seen the bloody bundle, she has resigned herself to the fact that Josh may be dead. The next few moments are a marvel of filmic choreography, as the two cameras, one with black and white 16mm film and the other with color video tape, film Heather and Mike (she has the black and white camera, he the color—the videotape was meant to chronicle the film shoot itself, while the 16mm was meant for the documentary footage—this is a significant switch, as Heather had before been the one in front of the 16mm camera, and behind the video. This makes it clear Heather is now unconcerned about the film project itself, and about her own authorship of it. And Mike, the sound man, is now the one who chronicles their last moments. Their collaboration, at times characterized with tension and struggle, has led them to this final and tragic point).

Mike rushes through the decrepit house, up the stairs, almost faster than Heather can keep up with; she screams at him to wait. This chillingly underscores the fact that both are rushing towards their deaths, and even as they welcome being reunited with Josh, and ending their torment, they still cling to a last hope of survival. Mike's camera spots strange inscriptions, as well as blackened, tiny handprints, like those of children, clustered on one wall on the staircase. This terrifying image brings us back to the initial legends of Elly Kedward, and the tales of her luring children into her house in the woods; as well as Rustin Parr, hundreds of years later, who brutally murdered seven children because he insisted "an old woman ghost" told him to. He was immediately convicted and hanged upon his confession. In this house, a dangling loop of electrical wire looks strangely like a noose, caught fleetingly by Mike's camera. These images of death, echoing long-dead victims and murderers, cover the interior of this house in the woods: it is a place of death, literally and figuratively. A muffled voice screams: it does indeed sound like Josh shouting "Mike! Heather!"

Mike rushes down the stairs again, and finds steps leading to the basement. He feels no danger, but a sense of pure exhilaration and closure, because he thinks he has found Josh. Symbolically, his sure-footed rushing through the house, camera in hand, says he is ready for death, has accepted its inevitability. Mike tells Heather he thinks Josh is downstairs, and rushes ahead of her. She screams again for him to wait, but pauses first to train her camera lens on the handprints and strange writing on the wall. Perhaps she stops because she hesitates to go to her own death, knowing in her heart Josh is already dead and that death is what awaits them in the basement, whose walls echo with the far-away sound of Josh's eerie voice. She follows Mike down into the basement. Her camera finds him, standing, facing the wall, his back to her. We are reminded once again of Rustin Parr, who asked his young victims to turn to face the wall, so he did not have their eyes on him as he murdered their companions. Who is there in the basement with Mike and Heather?

The film ends here, in the house of death. All terror and uncertainty at an end, but not before Josh, Mike and Heather disappear from sight forever, and their camera equipment and film footage is buried beneath the house's foundation, to be discovered one year after they first enter the woods.

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