Any hardcore horror geek remembers their first encounter with The Blair Witch Project. For me, it was a full-page ad in Entertainment Weekly heralding the "totally true story" of three student filmmakers disappearing in the woods of Maryland — to make matters spookier, I read it while staying at my friend’s cabin in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. On June 1, Carnegie Science Center will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the movie that sent us running and screaming into the dark unknown of the 21st century for a special Science on Screen event.
Taking place at the center’s Rangos Giant Cinema, the evening features a talk by noted sociologist and author Dr. Margee Kerr, whose research looks into the science of fear. She believes The Blair Witch Project’s success was due to its immersive found-footage style and the uncertainty of the then-burgeoning internet age.
“We’re there with [the characters], lost in the woods, in the dark, alone, and we feel the intense vulnerability coupled with lack of control,” says Kerr. “It's not just a great recipe for fear — it mirrors how many of us felt in the late '90s as we began to adapt to living in the unknown online world, where the boundaries between entertainment and reality were disappearing.”
While horror movies like Cannibal Holocaust used documentary elements before, The Blair Witch Project used it to greater effect, coupled with the power of hype (check out the fake TV documentary and still-functioning website, blairwitch.com/project/main, that fooled audiences into buying the film’s legitimacy). In a time when the horror genre was taking a cynical, post-Scream meta route, fans were looking for something new, something terrifying, something — for lack of a better term — real. The Blair Witch Project delivered just that, and then some.