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Image Credit: Supplied

More than a year before ‘The Blair Witch Project’ hit theatres and became a cultural phenomenon, its central mystery had already gone viral.

According to the movie’s fledgling promotional website, which presented itself as a real investigative project, three film students — Heather, Mike and Josh — had ventured into the Maryland woods in 1994 to shoot a documentary and then disappeared. Their footage was recovered a year later, providing evidence to support a disturbing legend. The online message boards began to buzz, with questions about the story’s veracity.

The hype, intrigue and scepticism surrounding the account, fuelled by the internet’s advent, grew through the movie’s premiere, in July 1999. What eventually emerged — a feature-length film made of spliced together scenes of shaky home video footage — made the demise of its three characters seem all the more authentic and terrifying.

Of course, the whole thing was fiction. But a lot of viewers didn’t know that going in.

“The prime directive we had was that the film had to look completely real,” said Eduardo Sanchez, who conceived and directed the entire thing with Daniel Myrick, from the manufactured legend to the film itself.

The prime directive we had was that the film had to look completely real.

- EDUARDO SANCHEZ | Director

“The lighting had to make sense, the sound couldn’t be great,” he continued. “There wasn’t going to be a soundtrack. It was just edited footage.”

‘Blair Witch,’ released 20 years ago this week, remains an inflection point for the movie industry. Produced for $60,000 (Dh220,349), the film went on to make $248.6 million at the global box office, an indie record at the time. Its amateur aesthetic prompted a generation of filmmakers to pick up a camera, however low-tech. It exposed new possibilities for marketing in the internet age. And it was a ubiquitous part of pop culture, spawning myriad imitators and spoofs, in turns inspired by and mocking its shaky cinematography and selfie-style confessionals.

$248.6m

was how much the movie made at the global box office

‘Blair Witch’ could also be just plain scary — in a way that tapped perfectly into the trends and anxieties of the moment.

“In many ways mainstream moviegoing audiences simply forgot horror could be scary in this way,” said Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of the book ‘Found Footage Horror,’ in an email. “There was something in the air in 1999 that made us acutely aware that technology could be linked to some kind of vague, chaotic unknown, and ‘Blair Witch’ tapped into this at exactly the right moment.”

‘Blair Witch’ didn’t invent the found-footage movie. Film historians credit Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 thriller ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ which similarly featured the disappearance of a young movie crew, as the first. But the ‘Blair Witch’ creators understood there was a fresh appetite for the concept. By 1999, reality TV programmes like ‘Cops’ and ‘The Real World’ were on the rise, and the internet was providing a conspiratorial and conversational hub for its users.

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Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams Image Credit: Supplied

That convergence primed viewers for a low-fi aesthetic that, in the right hands and with the right idea, could lead to something novel. It also allowed for an extremely low budget.

“For us, video was about to become as good as film,” Sanchez said. “All of a sudden, you could edit on your computer.” Audiences seemed willing, he added, to accept “these new types of media and new types of stories that were being told.”

To make the film, Myrick and Sanchez used only Hi8 and 16-millimeter formats. (Hi8 is video, used in a digital hand-held camcorder.) Their surprising success inspired many young filmmakers to view amateur equipment as an opportunity, not a limitation.

“Everyone now can afford a camera — has a camera in their pocket — and can, if they think out of the box properly, do something very new,” said Aneesh Chaganty, the director of the breakout thriller ‘Searching,’ from last summer.

He added: “Seeing a group of people like the whole team behind ‘Blair Witch’ succeed at the level they did back then was an injection of adrenalin as filmmakers.”

After the release of ‘Blair Witch,’ the found-footage concept quickly spread. Low-budget features like ‘August Underground’ and ‘Septem8er Tapes’ aimed to replicate the ‘Blair Witch’ formula, but without the mystery surrounding their origins, they couldn’t reproduce the immediacy and potency.

In 2009, however, Oren Peli’s ‘Paranormal Activity’ seemed to recapture some of the elusive ‘Blair Witch’ alchemy, using unknown actors and improvised dialogue. This time, the characters were just regular homeowners, using a surveillance camera with night vision to capture the movements of a supernatural demon inside their house.

Shot independently on a $15,000 budget, but distributed by Paramount, the movie grossed $193.4 million globally.

“If someone decides to do it honestly, and has a great idea, it can always be effective,” Peli said.