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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Spooky World-Building: Looking Back on the Sci-Fi Channel’s ‘Blair Witch’ Mockumentaries

In professional wrestling, the concept of “Kayfabe” refers to an unspoken agreement between fans and performers to never acknowledge the fictional aspects of the sport. In the horror genre, we have something similar with the way Found Footage movies invite audiences to play along with the scares to enhance their viewing experience. And when it comes to Found Footage, no movie handled this blending of reality and fiction better than The Blair Witch Project, which was accompanied by an ingenious viral marketing campaign featuring websites, dossiers and even missing person posters.

Among this supplemental material was an infamous mockumentary known as Curse of the Blair Witch, which premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel and was instrumental in convincing audiences that the film’s footage was meant to be taken seriously. A year later, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 had its own lesser-known tie-ins with Ben Rock‘s The Burkittsville 7 and Shadow of the Blair Witch. It’s been over two decades since these TV specials first aired, but I think they’re still worth talking about after helping to solidify the Blair Witch franchise in popular culture.

Directed by the same duo behind its parent production, Curse of the Blair Witch originally hit television screens in the summer of 1999. Through archival footage and interviews with friends and family of Heather, Mike and Josh, the hour-long special presents itself as a serious documentary about the “real” story behind the (then) upcoming Blair Witch Project. While there are occasional excerpts from the film to hype up its release, the meat of the special consists in expanding the mythology behind the titular witch and the crimes inspired by her story.

Watching supposed experts comment on the history of witchcraft and Elly Kedward’s cruel demise makes for some surprisingly entertaining television, especially with the spooky illustrations and tongue-in-cheek inclusion of faux ’70s programs. While these details aren’t really necessary to enjoy the film, they enhance the viewing experience by making the lore feel more fleshed-out and believable.

It’s also fun to see investigators discuss details from both the film and Dave Stern’s The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier like fragments of a True Crime incident. Like the film, the special still doesn’t offer up a concrete explanation for the disappearance of these young filmmakers, but piecing together the interconnected story and forming your own theories is half the fun here. In fact, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez‘s narrative puzzle-box likely inspired viral ARGs like Marble Hornets and TheSunVanished despite predating them by literal decades.

[Related] Blumhouse and Lionsgate Join Forces for Brand New ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Movie

Elly Kedward did nothing wrong!

The added characterization of the film’s protagonists also enhances the experience from an emotional standpoint. Having loved ones comment on the victims’ personal lives before the ill-fated project makes the movie’s horrific ending hit that much harder despite being a foregone conclusion. It’s a lot easier to understand Heather’s insistence on completing her movie once you’re aware of her personal ambitions, and it’s hard not to root for Mike once you find out that he’s a lovable underachiever. The eerie revelation that the film’s footage was inexplicably found within the ruins of the Rustin Parr house also adds an extra layer of mystery to the story, with the special implying that the tapes were somehow already there when the house burned down in the 1940s.

It may lack the raw scares of the feature film, but I appreciate Curse of the Blair Witch as an exercise in spooky world-building and often revisit it alongside the main attraction. Some viewers might be bothered by the lack of a proper resolution, but I think the subtle suggestion that the events of the movie might be real are much scarier than any concrete answer, making this a worthy companion piece to the original film.

A year later, the world would see another expansion of the Blair Witch mythos through Joe Berlinger‘s strange sequel. While Book of Shadows was critically panned and more-or-less disowned by its director, the film has undergone a recent reappraisal as fans realize that it has a lot to say about mass hysteria and the negative effects of media while also serving up some quality scares and a kick-ass soundtrack. It’s still no masterpiece, but I think Blair Witch 2 is an underrated horror flick with its own peculiar backstory.

To me, the most interesting part of this sequel is the studio’s choice of director. While Artisan Entertainment must have thought that hiring the co-creator of HBO’s true crime opus Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills would result in an even more believable Found Footage production, it turned out that Berlinger was vehemently opposed to the sub-genre. An experienced documentarian, the director believed that it was unethical to mislead audiences to sell more movie tickets, resulting in a traditional horror film simply “based on true events.”

However, that wouldn’t stop the movie’s supplemental material from blurring the line between fiction and journalism like the original film. This time, director Ben Rock was brought in to produce a pair of promotional mockumentaries expanding the lore behind Blair Witch 2. Once again airing on the Sci-Fi channel, these specials would actually borrow from Berlinger’s work in True Crime, treating the film’s story like a down-to-earth murder mystery and courtroom drama rather than a paranormal investigation.

Eerily believable.

The first of these specials, Shadow of the Blair Witch follows the prosecution of the “real” Jeff Patterson once he’s accused of the murders which supposedly inspired Berlinger’s Hollywood sequel. By revealing extra details about this troubled young man and the mysterious deaths which led to his imprisonment, the special recontextualizes Book of Shadows as a sensationalist re-enactment cashing in on a real crime, which I think makes the sequel much more interesting as the successor to a Found Footage classic.

In contrast, The Burkittsville 7 returns to the lore of the original film and chronicles the aftermath of the Rustin Parr murders through a more grounded lens, mostly ignoring the supernatural elements. With more than a little inspiration from the real world horrors of Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies and classic True Crime tropes, this is one of the creepiest entries in the Blair Witch franchise as well as one of the most believable. The archival footage and interviews are eerily convincing, and the focus on mental health issues makes it a great prelude to Berlinger’s film.

This commitment to authenticity may be part of what makes these specials so effective in the first place, but it also became a source of controversy. Some viewers apparently objected to Sci-Fi presenting these fictional narratives as real events, which resulted in a minor backlash. The criticism isn’t entirely unwarranted, as misleading media has only become a bigger problem in the digital age, but I don’t think the filmmakers intentionally set out to profit off of naïve viewers.

To me, this kind of promotional material feels a lot more like the cinematic equivalent of prefacing an urban legend with “it happened to a friend of a friend of mine” rather than a legitimate case of false advertising. In all honesty, I actually wish that the 2016 Blair Witch had chosen a similar route during marketing, as it would have helped to contextualize that film’s scares.

Like the aforementioned Kayfabe, which allows wrestling fans to accept undead fighters and dramatic feuds within the ring, a little suspension of disbelief can go a long way when it comes to horror. These TV specials might not be required viewing when revisiting the Blair Witch movies, but I think they perfectly capture the innovative spirit of Myrick and Sanchez’s original film by focusing on subtle and realistic scares. The way I see it, the added context makes these movies even more enjoyable, so I’d recommend these spooky appendices to any fan of the Blair Witch mythos.

After all, wanting to believe makes these stories that much more fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 1, 2021.

The post Spooky World-Building: Looking Back on the Sci-Fi Channel’s ‘Blair Witch’ Mockumentaries appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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