Last night’s controversial Oscars ceremony might have slapped with a few surprises, but there are some things that never change. Each and every year, horror and comedy are ushered towards the aisle seats as typical forms of solemn reverence take centre stage. No matter how groundbreaking, beloved or simply brilliant the screams and laughs prove from these celebrated genres they remain critically maligned.
However, commercially they boom almost like no other—just ask Stephen King who has been the benefactor of so many spooky book to scintillating horror adaptations that the novelist’s bank balance may well be the most eye-opening of all. From The Shining to IT, he is a man who knows a thing or two about scares, but there is one movie that has proved too terrifying for him to get through.
Back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project revolutionised horror. Upon release, it was described as “One of the creepiest films since The Exorcist,” by EW as it brought a new voyeuristic dimension to cinema. Three years earlier, the Coen brothers may have brilliantly led the masterpiece Fargo with the false claim that their fiction was in fact a true story, and The Blair Witch Project took that ball and ran with it creating the illusion that the film was a real documentary gone awry in a horrifying manner.
This concept grabbed King by the cajones. “One thing about Blair Witch,” the horror writer explained, “the damn thing looks real. Another thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing feels real. And because it does, it’s like the worst nightmare you ever had, the one you woke from gasping and crying with relief because you thought you were buried alive, and it turned out the cat jumped up on your bed and went to sleep on your chest.”
As it happens, his opinion may also be swayed owing to the dark introduction he had to the film. As he once explained: “The first time I saw [The Blair Witch Project], I was in the hospital and I was doped up.” The writer had just suffered a near-fatal car crash and was busy recovering. “My son brought a VHS tape of it and he said, ‘You gotta watch this.’ Halfway through it, I said, ‘Turn it off it’s too freaky.’”
Quite why King’s son thought it was a good idea to make his stricken and no doubt slightly woozy father endure voyeuristic scares after he had just had a literal real-life nightmare of his own is anyone’s guess. Granted his dad is the king of horror, but the next step up from making the hallucinatory bedbound penman watch The Blair Witch Project would be something akin to his own creation with Misery.
In truth, the whole thing might be laughable with the lights on (as a thousand parodies have proved), but there was no doubting its innovation upon release. This is why the movie still proves to be a cultural phenomenon. For those of us who can remember when it was first released, the impact it had was unrivalled. It got people talking and proved transcendent in culture as a result. Seemingly it also got Mr King screaming to boot.