This post contains massive spoilers for Blair Witch, the Blair Witch Project sequel that arrived in theaters this weekend.
Anyone hoping for The Blair Witch Project to reveal its mystery could go screw. Though the 1999 movie is littered with mythological hints, Heather, Michael, and Josh's search for answers amounted to their untimely deaths. Audiences never saw who or what attacked the trio; an unseen force "knocked" the camera out of Heather's hands and that was that.
Seasoned horror veterans Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett saw an opportunity to add to the Blair Witch Project mythology, but for their sequel, Blair Witch, to do justice, they had to play in the sandbox without kicking up too much sand. That was a risk Barrett, the new movie's writer, was willing to take.
"If there was just the The Blair Witch Project and nothing else, if it was just a classic found-footage horror film, I don't think I would have been as excited [to take on this project]," Barrett tells Thrillist. "But there were ancillary materials that took the mythology in a different direction. And as a fan, I always wanted to see a more direct sequel to what they were building in the first film. That was really enticing."
Anyone who caught Blair Witch this weekend knows the movie is full of violent paranormal activity and theory-worthy twists. To nestle it into the "Blair Witch" mythology that provoked so many imaginations starting in 1999, Barrett culled from backstory-building material written around the releases of The Blair Witch Project and its 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows. This includes the TV documentaries The Burkittsville 7 and Shadow of the Blair Witch (both directed by The Blair Witch Project production designer Ben Rock), the epistolary novel The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier, and The Blair Witch Cult, a book said to have been written in 1809 (it wasn't) and put on display at the Maryland Historical Society museum in 1991 (also bullshit).
In Blair Witch, six campers retrace Heather, Michael, and Josh's hike through the Black Hills, only to discover that the demonic forces are even fiercer than legend told. Through his new characters' pre-attack banter, Barrett name checks the pillars of the "Blair Witch" myth: there's "Elly Kedward," the woman from Blair, MD who was burned at the stake for crimes of "witchcraft" back in 1785, only to "return" as a ghost the following year; there's "Eileen Treacle," a settler of Burkittsville, MD who drowned after a white hand reportedly yanked her into the Tappy East Creek; and there's "Rustin Parr," a serial killer of children who acted "on instruction" from the "Blair Witch."
"When you talk about the historical figures caught up in this legend," Barrett says, "you have to ask yourself: are these the cause of the haunting or are they symptoms of it?"
Blair Witch makes the case for the latter. In the early stages of Barrett's nightmarish cat-and-mouse game, we see the Black Hills' invisible forces trap the campers in a time-shifting plane of existence. An afternoon amounts to five days for the wandering Land and Talia, the local guides booted by the core group after being total bullshit artists (or so everyone assumed). Barrett says the original movie actually gave us this taste of time travel -- he just blew it out.
"When [Heather, Michael, and Josh] find Rustin Parr's house at the end of the film, the movie tells you the house was burned down after he was hanged." In Blair Witch, that insinuation is expanded into a literal time loop, which (if I'm reading this correctly) ties the final scene of the film back to a YouTube video viewed by the campers before their big trip. Barrett won't tell me flat out that his group witnesses their own demises, but he's frank about playing with the mind-boggling logic in the name of scares.
"I wanted to create as many unique set pieces as possible ... If you experienced permanent night and claustrophobia in the woods, it would be incredibly unnerving. There's something primal about human instincts about the terror of being lost in the woods."
The biggest lingering mystery involves Ashley (played by actress Corbin Reid), who cuts her foot while crossing the Tappy East Creek and, a few hours later, suffers... what, an allergic reaction? There's more to her cut than infection and blood, as evidenced when a limb begins to protrude from the wound.
"That references a couple things form the original mythology," Barrett says. The inciting incident in the creek is a nod to Eileen Treacle's watery death. Whatever reached out and grabbed the girl also sliced Ashley's foot. Barrett also references passages from Cult of the Blair Witch, which suggest that Elly Kedward could speak to the forest and command the trees.
Here's where I extrapolate from Barrett's teases based on gut feelings: Ashley is slowly turning into one of the Blair Witch stick figures. Lane reveals early on that there's more to the Elly Kedward story than we previously realized; she wasn't simply burned alive. The original Blair townfolk strapped her to a homemade vice, stretching her out into a shape resembling the "stick figures." At the end of the movie, we see a tree-like creature running amok in Rustin Parr's cabin. That's not the "Blair Witch," Barrett confirms, or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. It's Elly Kedward, now made of branches. We see hints that Ashley's suffering the same fate, including above, when she yanks bark out of her slashed calf. If she survived the movie (death didn't stand in Elly's way, after all) it's likely she'll complete her transformation and become one of the Black Hills' living plants.
And the rest of the gang? Jeremy and Lisa, the two campers who make it to Rustin Parr's cabin, encounter the disembodied voices of their loved ones, and a blinding light that beams through the cracked wood just as the camera cuts to black. Here's the real cockamamie theory: Blair Witch and the surrounding mythology is one big alien story. The lost time, the arena-like quality to the Black Hills, the spindly creatures, and the rumbling, roaring final set piece, resemble a different kind of American folklore: alien-abduction narratives. UFO sightings have been occurring stateside since 1639. Was "Blair, MD" the victim of alien tenure?
Barrett wasn't going to touch my extraterrestrial theory with a 10ft tree branch, but he did remind me that, in the 1999 movie, Heather, Michael, and Josh do wake up one morning to find blue slime on Josh's bag. Intriguing. What he did say, and what's clear from his movie, is a love for homegrown legends and the potential density of made-up mythology.
"I love going back to the early periods of America and how horrifying life was back then. That era of Puritanism and genocide of the Native American population is such a fascinatingly horrific time. There's a lot to play with there." Pile that lore into a few acres of woods and you get Blair Witch, a reinvented horror franchise that gives 21st-century folk panic attacks (or was that just me?). "I grew up in the middle of Missouri, gotten a little disoriented before, there's a terror of, 'Wait, where's the trail? I could die so easily.' Especially now, we're so reliant on technology that a fear of nature is even more subconsciously horrifying."
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