A Filmmaker's Guide to Horror Techniques Used in 'The Blair Witch Project'
Study, Experience, and Analysis
(Note: this article contains analysis on the film The Blair Witch Project and in order to get the best insight, it is recommended that you watch the film at least once).
The Blair Witch Project was a film that broke the mould for horror cinema. It spurred off the creation and abundance of "found-footage film" and with it came Paranormal Activity and other massive horror films that continued its legacy. The difference between everything after it and The Blair Witch Project is that the original felt almost too realistic as if it wasn't a film at all.
We're going to first cover the five main themes of horror that we can see in The Blair Witch Project:
- Light and Dark
- The Woodlands
- Urban Legend
We're going to look at the main question: "how does this add meaning to the film?" This is because every single theme in The Blair Witch Project is there to give the film meaning; it has no amount of physical horror and therefore relies on the characters and atmosphere to do most of the work. It was a truly groundbreaking film.
1. Light and Dark
The theme of light and dark is quite huge in this film seeing as the characters are outside for an extensive amount of time and therefore, the light and dark theme would directly be reflected from the sunlight and the moonlight/night time that would occur in this timeframe.
But there are sections of the film where light and dark look almost unnatural and these create that feeling of discomfort, adding to the intensity of the scene.
Take a look at this frame. The scene moves darker as we move down the screen. The effect of this is to make the scenery around the characters seem darker than it actually is, even in broad daylight. You can do this in colour as well by the placement of dark items nearer to the bottom of the screen, such as leaves, stray branches, and lots of soil/dirt. For the atmosphere of the woods, this will make a huge difference on how the audience looks at it.
Here's a tip: in order to create better darkness in the woods, you need to have only small spaces where sunlight can break through, only just enough for the audience to be able to see what's going on.
It is well-known that The Blair Witch Project is less a story about an actual Blair Witch and more a story of insanity. The characters are trapped in the woods, can't find their way out, and there is a good chance of someone, or all of them, going insane.
The way in which you could achieve this in your project is seen in this frame here. Now, the reason I stated you should watch the film is because this frame will not make sense if you don't. Frames like this work really well in context, so building the context of one friend or member of the group "drifting" from the others is a good way to assure you're building that structure for insanity. The reaction of the remaining members of the group will show the insanity of the situation and therefore, when we see this frame, we can be assured that the insanity and build up will be pushed into this climatic moment as reconciliation without explanation.
As we can see, in the frame the lost member has his back turned on the one holding the camera. This shows that apparently, there is something being hidden from us. Look at where he's standing as well. There's a bit of distance and the man is in the corner of the room.
Here's a tip: if you're working on a project which includes a similar scene, you want to build that distance. Not too much distance, but enough distance so you can see the person's feet in the shot. This makes it more effective in terms of moving closer to the character; the tension would be quite strong.
The insanity has to be built up throughout the film in order to achieve the effect of this distance and tension, especially with the character's back turned to the camera. It is highly effective to create this between a group of friends as well; this is because it can represent more than just insanity but also a sort of broken trust.
3. The Woodlands
Now, we've discussed how the woodlands and the woods play a bit of a role in the film in terms of creating spaces for bits of sunlight to enter the scene in order to let the audience know what's going on. But in terms of the setting and the way in which it works for the characters getting lost and being unable to find their way back out is highly effective as well.
It is well known that in The Blair Witch Project there is a lot of talk about the woodlands all looking very similar wherever the characters walk. This is the way in which they are effective to show the characters getting lost; the woodlands are so difficult to distinguish from each other in each place.
Here's a tip: if you want your woodlands to look like this, then you should use a woodland in which you know all or most of the trees are of the same kind.
The second way in which the woodlands are effective is that they provide smaller spaces in a large space. Woodlands remain in a large space and are normally measured in acres. This is effective for creating a maze-like setting in which the characters will undoubtedly get lost. The smaller spaces are created by the placement of the trees. The trees are placed very near to each other and therefore they create the smaller, more claustrophobic space in which the characters now must navigate.
This is great for creating an element of fear because not only does everywhere look the same, but it also makes for difficult movement for the characters. This means that anything that is in the woods with them would be able to navigate, but running away would be fairly difficult especially if the characters do not know their way around.
Take a look at this frame and how claustrophobic it looks; then imagine the amount of sheer space the characters must be in altogether. This brings us onto our next theme:
The feeling of Agoraphobia is a reaction of anxiety to being put in a large open space and, most likely, these emotions would be exemplified if a person with Agoraphobia was put into a woodland area. The question is: why? Surely if the space is larger and more open then the Agoraphobia will be heightened. That is not correct.
In order for Agoraphobia to have the full effect, there must be the following things:
- A large open space
- Obstructed view of every direction
- The similarity of every part of the woodland area
In your audience, you can use this space and depth to create this feeling of Agoraphobia. As in this frame, it creates height and depth by showing shots of light above the trees and how far they stretch on for. It almost looks threatening for the characters to be caught in the darker space at the bottom.
Here are some things you could use to create the feeling of Agoraphobia in the woodland area:
- The height, space, and depth
- The colours being a shade or two darker than what they normally are
- Natural, but obstructed light source
- Leafless trees/Hardly any leaves on trees
- Stray/Many branches
- Leaf-filled floors
- Latticed branches above the heads of the characters
As you can see, there are a few of these used in this particular frame, especially regarding the space and the darkness. Darkness can create your depth, remember, and this will be an easy way to do this without the characters moving around too much. So, the best advice is to use this technique more when the characters are moving less or are static.
5. Urban Legend
Urban Legends are very good to play with in horror films because you can never state their source. How they began is always a mystery and how they've spread becomes more apparent with the spread of media and when people become more connected. In The Blair Witch Project, this is produced by the beginning of the film.
Here's a tip: it's important you established the urban legend at the beginning of the film because it has to have something to do with what your characters set out to do. If you don't establish it at the beginning, you could be accused of shoe-horning your urban legend in for the effect of shock.
When it gets to the section of the film that is shot inside the weird house in the woods, we already have the vast majority of this urban legend established. So, when we see things like bloodied handprints, we're not surprised but we make the link between the urban legend and the handprints.
It is the house scenes that truly heighten the feeling of drama towards the urban legend and as this comes at the end of the film, there's something connective about the insanity of the lost character, the urban legend, and then the physical abnormalities in the house. It is vitally important that all three of these are connected since there has to be a link to show that there is reason behind each one.
There is a certain amount of abnormality when exploring the case of The Blair Witch Project and how it created horror. Of course, the techniques used in this film are far less physically attributed than those in other films but they are just as effective. If you want to explore further, you can try using the following themes and going into depth with them:
Good luck with your next project!