Or perhaps not.

If, as Martin Loiperdinger argues, L'Arrivee's bolting crowd is "the founding myth of cinema's birth", the central myth of cinema's second century may have been formed at its cusp, in the summer of 1999. That July, Artisan Entertainment released its microbudget horror film The Blair Witch Project to a fever pitch of anticipation, stoked since its Sundance premiere by an oblique marketing campaign so effective that, when it finally hit theaters, the film earned nearly $250 million globally. But what everybody remembers about The Blair Witch Project is not the modesty of its production, or the ubiquity of its promotion, or even the small fortune it won at the box office. The Blair Witch Project was the film on everybody's lips for one reason and one reason only in 1999, and today, more than fifteen years after its theatrical debut, one all-important contextual detail still eclipses any discussion of its merits as a movie in and of itself. It's our generation's enduring cinematic myth: people thought The Blair Witch Project was real.

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The Blair Witch Project

opens with a title card whose text remains emblazoned on our collective memory: "In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found." It's hardly uncommon, of course, for a work of fiction to begin by announcing its own veracity. Even

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

kicks off with a title crawl claiming that its story is a true account of deep South savagery—"one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history". The difference is that

The Blair Witch Project

was conceived around the illusion of authenticity, and a great deal of effort went into sustaining it. Most obviously, it looked real enough: The film was shot and edited as if it genuinely were a work of nonfiction, and, while it was not the first fiction feature to adopt the form of a documentary, it was among the most prominent to do so convincingly. (This, remember, is about a decade before "found footage" entered the lexicon and exhausted its welcome.)

In theory, The Blair Witch Project replicated the look and feel of a documentary so credibly that, were you to watch it not knowing anything at all about it, you would have to conclude that it was real. But that sort of useful ignorance proved easier said than done. The problem? You can't convince millions of people to see your movie without telling them anything about it. The pop culture economy expects certain things: Stars have to appear on daytime talk shows, directors have to conduct interviews with magazines, producers have to serve up behind-the-scenes promos and stills of the cast and crew. And in 1999, as households across the United States were getting accustomed to the transparency afforded by the world wide web, fact-checking a movie's backstory seemed easier than ever. And so for the makers of The Blair Witch Project, sustaining an illusion of authenticity meant the construction of a more elaborate ruse.

The genius of The Blair Witch Project's marketing campaign was that it embraced, rather than obviated, the all-seeing eye of the Internet. In other words it put the truth-telling power of the web to work for its own lie: The film's producers planted phony news reports confirming the disappearance and unknown fate of its stars, posted authentic-seeming videos on the film's official website corroborating their story, encouraged debate on forums and message boards by forging anecdotes and first-hand accounts by mocked-up users, and, in a stroke of brilliance, convinced the then-burgeoning IMDB to list the film's cast and crew as "missing, presumed dead". Meanwhile, back up in the mainstream, the producers invested time and effort into a straightforward ad campaign claiming that the film was real—a claim bolstered by a news media eager to believe it. And anyone inclined to look into these claims further found a trove of data on the web seeming to back it up.

So here's a question: Did people actually believe that The Blair Witch Project was real? Yes and no. Doubtless some people, whisked into the theater in a fog of hype, convinced themselves that what they were watching was the Zapruder film of paranormal activity. But a more likely explanation for The Blair Witch Project's stratospheric success was that after nearly a year of word-of-mouth excitement, curiosity got the better of the world: everyone simply needed to see what all the fuss was about. Claims that the film was real, however instantly dubious to most, had an unavoidable echo chamber effect: even if most of the discussion centered around how unbelievable it seemed, the discussion itself was having a net-positive effect. People heard about the film and went to see it as a consequence—their desire to keep up with the zeitgeist outweighed any suspicion of its fakery.

Not that it matters. Fifteen years on and the myth still holds: everybody was stupid enough to fall for this movie's claims to veracity. How naive we were back in 1999! We were no better than the buffoons who ran from the Lumiere's train. But it's important to remember that no matter how significant its history as a marketing gimmick has become, The Blair Witch Project remains a fascinating film in its own right—a pioneering work in the horror genre, plainly, not so much for its deceptive conceit as for the style it popularized and the effect it accomplished. Today the film seems an obvious influence on so much of contemporary horror: the found footage genre, reinvigorated by Paranormal Activity in 2009 and going strong ever since, plainly wouldn't exist without this, nor would the movement over the last decade away from slasher mania toward a simpler, more pared-down kind of horror spectacle. You don't need gimmicks or marketing campaigns to appreciate the elegance of The Blair Witch Project's final seconds. It's just a man standing in the corner of a room—no effects, no twists, no sudden jolt of surprise. And yet through all the nonsense that surrounds the film's reputation it endures for what it is: a moment of genuine terror.

Calum Marsh writes about film. You can follow him on Twitter, here

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