The Scariest Movie I’ve Ever Seen

Back in May, the Shock Waves podcast did an episode on the scariest horror films from 1970-2018.  The episode got me thinking a lot about what the scariest movie I’d ever seen was.  As a kid, my parents were pretty strict about the types of movies I was able to see, so it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I really got the chance to start embracing the horror genre.  At that point, I started consuming everything I could, after all, I had quite a few years to catch up on.   I finally saw the Nightmare on Elm Street films, some friends and I rented and binged Friday the 13th 1-8 over a weekend one summer, and I finally got to start seeing horror films in theaters.  Since I was introduced to so many of these films later in life, none of them really left an impression of fear on me.  In fact, most of the horror I consumed didn’t really shake me.  That changed in 1999 when a little film by the name of The Blair Witch Project was released.

Now before I dive into this any further, you need to consider how different the world was back in 1999.  We didn’t have social media.  You weren’t constantly seeing spoilers and teasers and information about movies leading up to their release the way we do now.  Unless you were reading about movies in magazines or watching some of the entertainment shows on television, you weren’t really getting a lot of outside information about a movie beyond its trailer, advertising and maybe word of mouth.

Found footage films hadn’t gone mainstream yet.  This film was marketed as though it was actual footage of a documentary gone wrong.  When the trailer said that three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary, we believed it, and that’s what we went into the movie believing.

The Blair Witch Project was released on July 14, 1999, and that night some friends and I decided to go to the midnight showing of the film.  What we saw was fascinating and terrifying. I had never seen anything like it. When the film ended the theater was silent almost as if everyone was still trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed. Did we all just sit and watch these filmmakers get murdered or abducted? Again, you have to remember that many of us believed going into this that the movie was real.

When we left the theater it was nearly 2 AM.  It was dark, too quiet, and after seeing the film the outside atmosphere was unnerving even for me at 18 years old.  The film had done its job. It scared me.  The Blair Witch Project would go on to be the movie everyone talked about that summer.  The film was critically acclaimed while audiences were a bit more split and people continued to debate whether the footage was real or if it was faked.

The Blair Witch Project found its place in popular culture that year.  So much so that MTV parodied the film in promos for the 1999 Video Music Awards, which would air on 9/9/99.  The parodies featured 1999 VMA host Chris Rock, comedian/actress Janeane Garofalo, and rapper Method Man.  But that wasn’t the only Blair Witch tie in MTV had in store.

During the 1999 VMA’s actor Buddy Hacket was invited to the stage to present the award for Best Director alongside Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams.  Yeah, the same Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams I thought had been killed off in a film I had seen two months prior.  That night the idea that The Blair Witch Project was real ended, but everything I felt before, during, and after that movie has stuck with me.

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The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s the scariest because the entire movie experience before, during, and after the film was scary and unsettling. I went into the movie thinking that what I was about to see was real thanks to the incredible marketing work by Artisan Entertainment leading up to the film. I then watched as three people were picked off in the woods by something or someone I couldn’t see and were then declared “missing” or “deceased” in the film’s marketing materials. I left the theater in the dead of night with a sense of fear looming over me and I wouldn’t discover for another two months that the entire thing was fake. There’s no way you could pull something like this off in 2018, but in 1999 our limited access to information created one of the scariest movie-going experiences of my life.

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