Memorable horror films tap into both primal fears and the anxiety du jour. American guilt over the war in Vietnam inspired Night of the Living Dead (1969). Carrie (1976) and Alien (1979) are fantasies about female power provoked by the feminist movement’s demands for equality and the resulting destabilization of sexual roles.
Ingeniously made and very unnerving (although not as terrifying as the aforementioned trio), The Blair Witch Project blends the timeless terror about the evil that lurks in the woods at night with current fantasies about instant indie success and current confusions about cinematic fact and fiction. In conception and execution, Blair Witch is, as they say, right on the money.
But the film’s most horrifying aspect seems to have escaped notice. Blair Witch is a cautionary tale about what happens when a woman directs a movie. That the film is set in rugged terrain and involves much fiddling with compasses and maps suggests a parallel between moviemaking and war and calls up the commonplace analogy between directors and generals. Heather, the director of the aborted “Blair Witch project,” fails in her primary responsibility—to bring her boys home safely. An overreacher who gets her comeuppance, Heather spends the last third of the film crying and apologizing for having fucked up.
To add insult to injury, it is not Heather’s film that is currently breaking box office records at the Angelika. The fame and glory belong to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the filmmakers who packaged her raw footage into a commercial product. No matter that Heather is a fictional character and Myrick and Sanchez are indisputably the real deal. The blurring of boundaries is the essence of the Blair Witch experience.
Anyone who’s spent time in film school knows how difficult it is for young women to claim a spot on the directing track. In Hollywood, the hours logged by women as directors of feature films have never exceeded 8 percent. At Sundance, which takes the measure of the indie world, the statistics on female directors are only slightly better. The Blair Witch Project, which premiered at Sundance 1999, is not only its success story of the year, it’s an allegory for the indie boys club: if a woman dares to enter, she dies.