What is the Witch? — Part One: The Blair Witch Project

the blair witch project 1
Photo Credit – The Blair Witch Project

For an Independent Seminar on horror and monstrosity, I sat down (again) to watch the very classic and very canonical The Blair Witch Project, a film, not surprisingly, about witches, and one situated at the inception of the found footage trend in filmmaking (a trend I address in other posts).  Of course, I’ve written about this film before, some time ago, but I really only scratched the surface of its depth and what it has to offer us, as both a piece of criticism and a manifestation – a cultural artifact signaling the historical location of the late 90’s and what questions that location raised.  Needing, I thought, to narrow my focus for this film (and, perhaps, for all the texts I’ll encounter this week that deal with witches) I started with what I thought was a very important question: What is “the witch,” so called?  What surrounds her, perhaps, and what does she tell us?  I think putting a variety of texts about witches in conversation with one another could yield rather interesting answers to this question, but I’ll start with The Blair Witch Project, which offers us a turn-of-the-century glimpse – based off, in the film, age-old lore – of what “witchiness” is, how the witch reveals herself, and what she’s (frighteningly) capable of. 

Before watching the movie, I based my very loose hypothesis of what the witch “is” – at least, in a few films, and definitely in this film – on my recollection of the film.  So I started with the belief that the witch is both absent and present throughout the film, and thus I labeled her a sort of “absence-presence” – not a negation, or an entity signifying a lack (although I wonder if she could be considered that, too) but an entity at once both visible and apparent in the material world, and completely materially absent, at least insofar as her body is concerned.  The Blair Witch in other words, may be embodied – may be a person in a body – but we never see her body, despite the fact that she exists first in lore, and then surrounds the characters through a variety of synecdochic artifacts – artifacts that serve as sorts of “parts” of the witch’s whole, and artifacts that may indicate something about her.  (It could be, too, that the artifacts are metonymic – that artistically, they represent a whole that we only see in parts, through the existence of stories, noises, and objects – but that seems like a point of additional speculation).

To elaborate on diverse manifestations of the witch more, we can start with revisiting the fact that we’re faced with myriad lore about the so-called witch in the beginning of the film, when Heather and her intrepid group of male adventurers (Mike and Josh) embark on a quest to the Maryland forest of an obscure small town to make a documentary about the Blair Witch.  Even that the possibility of creating a documentary, exploring the validity of the myth, is so prevalent in the beginning of the film, indicates a startling fact about the witch, so-called: “the witch,” and her very existence, is always a point of contestation.  Her body, specifically, is a contestable site: Does she exist in physicality?  Did she ever?  Did she or does she really do the horrendous things that the storytellers – local townspeople – say she did, things that even Heather assumes she did at points in the film and events that Heather thus presents as “truth” when filming her documentary?  It seems to me that this contestation of the witch’s body links neatly to her absence: her absence in body (in any given narrative) allows her “truth” – the inherent reality of both her existence and insidiousness, not just in the story, but on a non-narrative or social level – to remain in question.

If I were to speculate, this absence and concomitant contestation might signal two things: First, it might signal the fact that witchcraft originated as a mythology that probably could have never been empirically proven, insofar as it didn’t exist but was a construct of patriarchy to demonize aberrant and unordinary women.  Second, it may reflect a cultural ambivalence about the witch in contemporary society.  After all, as Stevie Knicks reminds us, the symbol of the witch has been “appropriated” – adopted and re-shaped – to become a signifier or symbol of feminine power, a symbol of mystery and seduction, a symbol of subversion and transgression, but a good symbol of subversion and transgression.  We see both of these representations, incidentally, in American Horror Story: Coven – but perhaps I’ll write about that work at some other point.  In short, contemporary witch representations, I would argue, go beyond the very Wizard of Oz-ian good witch-bad witch dichotomy, but perhaps their origin lies in that dichotomy or binary, that set of two joined but opposing set traits.

witch poem 5
As in The Blair Witch Project, strange artifacts surround the witch in this picture.

I think, furthermore, that the contestation of the witch’s existence, her embodiment, specifically, indicates a general contestation over the role of the body in feminism and how women represent their own bodies to reify or underline social liberation, but that seems, quite possibly, like a second line of inquiry.  To return to the analysis at hand, this sort of cultural-narrative ellipses – does the witch exist, in general, in life, in the narrative?– is highlighted in the divergent opinions of locals, some of whom ardently believe in her presence, and some who are viciously opposed to its likelihood.  But the fact is, nonetheless, that the witch exists, to some extent, in local lore, though only as she’s represented in contemporary discursive practice, in this sort of game-of-telephone played between the town locals and the documentary interviewers, a game of telephone that originated, ostensibly, long ago, and persists to what the film considers the present, which is 1994 (when it took place).

The witch is present in the narrative, already – present conceptually, and vis a vis a variety of representations – as she’s absent in body.  Oddly, the inverse might be true of women in oppressed situations, who are viewed as mere bodies, whose selfhood is negated and absent.  Suffice it to say, that just as Derrida notes that the presence of the specter incites us to examine issues of social (in)justice – in general – so the witch calls us to do the same, although I think she generally signals gender injustice, true to the concept’s history as a vehicle for the patriarchal oppression and annihilation of women, especially those considered inherently “different,” subversive, or outside the realm of contemporary society.

As a sidenote – but an important one – when the witch becomes a presence, which only happens in the eyes of some characters in the narrative, she becomes both a provoker of insanity, so-called, and her alleged madness is reflected in others.  An incredibly stereotypical character emerges in The Blair Witch Project, a sort of recluse on the borders of the town named Mary who harbors delusions of fulfilling a variety of crucial social positions, and Mary claims to have seen the Blair Witch – the witch’s physical embodiment – at one point.  Mary is regarded as “mad” by everyone, but she heartily asserts that she saw the Blair Witch once, an old woman with a shawl, covered from head to toe in horsehair (and thus, not incidentally, a sort of patriarchal nightmare of the unappealing monster woman, the woman situated far outside the confines of what’s considered both socially acceptable and physically attractive for women).  Another tale emerges of a group of individuals who saw the witch, embodied, as an old woman whose feet hardly touched the floor.  It is revealed, unsurprisingly, that they went mad.  When filmmakers enter the forest – the location of the witch – and become surrounded by her representative artifacts, division erupts and they, too, begin to go mad, sometimes erupting into argumentation, and sometimes collapsing into nonsensical laughter.

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One representation of “being a witch.”

There is a possibility, then, when considering what the witch is, we can not only conclude that to most characters in a narrative – and to us, as readers and members of society – she is both an absence and a presence.  We can take that assumption a step further, and say, I think, that when we glimpse the witch, when she becomes “all presence” with no scintilla of absence or negation, she drives us mad, we go berserk.  It is as if we cannot handle the presence of the subversive woman in society.  Her inherent subversion is feared as an impetus for chaos.  Not incidentally, witnessing other horror entities – like the specter, or the monster – can also have this effect.  It is challenging but perhaps incredibly consequential, from an analytic standpoint, to decide when we group certain horror entities together for analysis, and when we highlight how they function differently in both narrative and society.  For now, though, we may conclude that the witch’s ability to provoke madness aligns with that ability in the monster and specter, although her effect on those who view her might have different interpretive ramifications.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Blair Witch is her ability, in her state of absence-presence (and thus her state of “Differance” – as Derrida would call the simultaneous existence of two inherently different signifiers and states of being) is her ability, like ghosts, like monsters, to disrupt linear space and time.  Of course, it will come as a surprise to few who read this blog that I argue the witch usually exists in the woods (which is an American cultural fact, I think), and in this text the woods become a metonymic signifier for the witch’s omnipresence (in other words, the “whole” of the woods may represent a smaller part of it, the witch).  But the woods quickly transform to a location of madness and chaos when the witch exacts her influence – when Heather, Josh, and Mike hear her laughter at night, see the pile of rocks she’s left outside their tents, see the stick people hanging on trees around their campsite.  Time is not what it once was: Characters wake up at two in the afternoon and think it’s 7 A.M.  Characters travel South for fifteen hours only to realize they’ve gone in a circle, that no matter what directional maneuver they choose, they will inevitably, invariably, always be lost.  There are probably a lot of implications to this tendency, in The Blair Witch Project, but one, I think, is simply to suggest that the transgressive woman, the woman who sits outside the parameters of what patriarchy deems “acceptable,” is seen as a monumental and perhaps insuperable threat, as someone who can immediately and irrevocably rupture our cultural ontological and epistemological construct (how we conceive of both being and knowing) and replace it with a new reality (a reality with the potential to undermine the omnipotence and superiority of maleness, and perhaps economic privilege or whiteness, depending on the text).

witch poem 2
And…the witch on the proverbial broomstick.

We should speculate the possibility that, while the witch is present in the objects she leaves around the campsite (a separate point of speculation, I think), in local lore, and in her maddening effect both on those who have been purported to glimpse her and on the documentary-makers that get lost in her woods, she might, also, be a presence in Heather.  Or, Heather might be her sort of doppelganger.  It’s not insignificant that the strong, somewhat stubborn, willful, creative, intellectual Heather gets a group of male followers devoured, in the forest, by an evil witch.  In fact, the true ellipses, or point of ambiguity, in the film – I would argue, although this could be refuted – is whether or not the embodiment of the Blair Witch exists, at all.  Perhaps the main characters are going mad on their own.  Perhaps they are getting lost because in a flurry of rage, Mike kicked Heather’s map into the river.  Perhaps they merely slept in, accidentally, instead of experiencing a massive disruption in temporality.  Perhaps they’re being manipulated, and people who know the woods more than they do are stalking them, leaving contrived, witchy-artifacts outside their tent (even when that artifact is a bloody tongue in a bundle of sticks, this conclusion is possible if we assume those pretending to be the Blair Witch are sort of sociopathic and insidious).  If we eliminate the possibility of the witch’s existence, then this ellipses in the narrative concludes that the assertive, ambitious Heather has been the witch all along in that she has been the soul provoker of Mike and Josh’s annihilation and the impetus of the group’s general disruptive experience.

Heather’s possible witchiness in the film makes her apology at the film’s conclusion all the more problematic.  When Heather cries into the camera, which has been an extension of her throughout the entire film, she vehemently and lamentably apologizes for possessing a variety of character traits considered positive in men – her drive, ambition, and relentlessness, though those traits are couched in more negative language in her speech.  She is, essentially, apologizing for her humanity, for who she is, because it doesn’t fit into patriarchy’s understanding of what is acceptable for femininity, even approaching the millennium.  We would, after all, never see a man soliloquizing apologetically like this, although the film presents Heather’s apology as natural and appropriate.  To that end, Heather is either a reflection of the witch, or she is the witch, the only witch, and her possibility for disrupting patriarchal stability is a threat, a fear, that’s reified by the movie’s conclusion, when she apologizes for her own drive and initiative.

It seems, like most horror entities (specters and monsters, specifically) that the witch exists, in absent-present form (at least, in this film) as a disruption – perhaps a disruption of categories and binaries, but definitely a disruption of time, space, and patriarchal order.  I think there is more to be said about the witch, but in The Blair Witch Project, the witch’s absence-presence underlines cultural contestation over the internal validity of the witch (do these evil women, often thought to align themselves with the devil, really exist, we ask?) and signifies the presence of significant gender injustice, even as the film, in a problematic conclusion, seems to reinforce that injustice.  As I ponder, I think the witch may be among the most fascinating horror entities, if only because her origins are simultaneously literal and historical (in that women were actually accused of witchcraft in America), and this sort of dual point of origin amplifies the witch’s ramifications for feminist interpretation.  The “witchy woman,” as such, a sort of disruptive, simultaneously abject and seductive presence, has a variety of representations.  Stay tuned, as I explore the witch in other contexts!

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What is the Witch? — Part One: The Blair Witch Project

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