The Blair Witch case: When sound makes all the difference
When in 1999 The Blair Witch Project came out, it established itself as one of the first and best examples of world-building and transmedia storytelling in the horror genre. The film follows three college students as they shoot a documentary about a witch that has been said to haunt the woods around Burkittsville, a small town in Maryland that was formerly known as Blair. The students disappear and only later their video footage is found in the woods, edited together and presented as The Blair Witch Project. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had planned and written the project for six years and created their own witch-mythology prior to the release of the film. Over this period, they forged and spread false information about the Blair Witch and the students that had supposedly gone missing after investigating her. Myrick and Sánchez especially made use of viral marketing on the internet, back when such a strategy was something people hadn't seen before.
You can still access their old website on the Internet Archive. Accurate timelines, detailed mythology, photographs, evidence and reports from eye-witnesses made people believe in the existence of a witch in Burkittsville. Spreading chunks of information on different websites and forums kept people talking about the myth. And advertising at selected college campuses instead of a big nationwide marketing campaign helped to create a feeling that if you got to know about The Blair Witch Project, you thought you were discovering something special. Shortly before Blair Witch Project hit cinemas, Myrick and Sánchez published Curse of the Blair Witch (1999), a 44-minute mockumentary that introduced audiences on the Sci-Fi-Channel to the case of those three missing college students trying to investigate the Blair Witch myth.
The Blair Witch Project left a lot of people with mixed feelings. Due to the careful and extensive spread of the Blair Witch myth, the film's premise of being found footage seemed legit. Which ultimately lead to the films huge success - from a production budget of $60.000 to currently $248,639,099 in total worldwide gross.
After this big success, of course there had to be a sequel. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 arrived in 2000 and played in the same world of its predecessor, but was a complete flop. Now, 17 years after the original, Blair Witch (2016) tries to become a worthy successor of the found-footage classic. This time, the brother of one of the students that got lost in The Blair Witch Project tries to find his sister - years after she went missing.
Just as in the original, Blair Witch opens with a disclaimer, which claims the footage shown has been found in the woods near Burkittsville and edited together. Like so many others since The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch tries to immerse us into the action and give us that little extra bit of scare and unease by pretending to be real. It doesn't only say so at the beginning of the film, but also adopts the typical stylistics of found-footage as a genre: shaky camera, semi-professional framing, rough cuts, raw audio, random cutaways and arbitrary lighting. Although the film first holds up to its genre and starts out really entertaining, Blair Witch ultimately fails to be convincing found-footage horror. But why?
It's sound that makes the difference
Disregarding any logical issues with the film (like, why does it sound plausible for everyone in the film to go look for Heather, years after she went missing in the woods in the first film), sound plays such an important role in Blair Witch - as in any other found-footage film. Taking a closer look at what happens in the soundtrack of the film though, you'll notice that director Adam Wingard ignored or deliberately chose to neglect a pivotal element that made the original such a believable classic of its genre: the authenticity and believability of the sound.
The absence of any score or music in Blair Witch Project, as well as no fancy sound effects that have been added to support a jump scare, is what made it authentic to audiences. The raw soundtrack of (at least seemingly) untreated location sound recordings helped to establish an immediate closeness to the material and opened it up for emotional involvement. Even if sound effects had been added during the process of audio-postproduction, the soundtrack as it appears to audiences feels raw, real and trustworthy. The subtleness of inexplicable things happening in the film are translated into a considerate soundtrack. The team's consequence in connotating an authentic found-footage-feeling to their film can also be seen in their decision to not mix the film in 5.1, but in stereo. Instead of going for big and effective cinematic surround sound, they chose to stick with authenticity and presented their material with two audio channels, just like it would sound if the student's material had really been found-footage (and nevertheless orchestrating crackles and snaps that make the nighttime tent-scenes so utterly scary).
Authenticity and believability of the form is key to get people believe the content of the material
In order for people to believe, to actually take into consideration that the story shown is true, you need to make sure it is presented in a formally believable way. So, instead of going for the biggest possible cinematic impact, choosing to use no extradiegetic music, no sound effects out of reasonable context and to go for a 2.0-mix actually helped to facilitate the emotional impact of the The Blair Witch Project on audiences. With the decision to stay true to the premise of being found-footage on a sound level, Myrick and Sánchez demonstrated the remarkable integrity of their project. Combined with the film's brilliant marketing, it rapidly earned a reputation, made it an instant genre classic and one of the best examples for clever choice in marketing and stylistics to sell a premise to an audience.
In Blair Witch however, sound is the one key factor that pulls you out of the narrative and the whole film experience. The soundtrack is exorbitantly overproduced and in parts just unpleasently loud. Although the film claims to contain nothing else than the mysteriously found footage, it features extradiegetic music, loads of obvious intradiegetic sound effects (e.g. squishy bug sounds - also: what was that even about?), explicit extradiegetic sounds for unimaginative horror sensationalism (e.g. string screeches and deep percussion hits to heighten the impact of a jump scare) and a surround mix, which admittedly quite nicely lets the woods come alive around you - especially during night scenes. Still, by deciding for a bigger cinematic effect through surround sound, Blair Witch loses another piece of authenticity it so distinctively claims for itself at its beginning.
For me, ultimately, sound is what makes Blair Witch fail. The film tries to be the true Blair Witch Project sequel, while so consequently breaking with the strategies that led to the huge success of the original. Establishing a believable found-footage premise through solely relying on visual markers of this genre while dismissing the films audio-authenticity for seemingly greater horror-impact just doesn't work. Where a more subtle sound approach could have helped to create the believability of the film, it causes the exact opposite.