The terrifying power of hype


RECENTLY IT CAME TO MY attention that I was one of the eight remaining Americans who had not seen "The Blair Witch Project."

In case you're one of the other seven, I should explain that "The Blair Witch Project" is a hugely popular movie that was featured simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek (mottoes: "We Both Have The Same Motto"). "The Blair Witch Project" stunned the Hollywood establishment, because it proved that, to make a hit movie, you don't need big stars, an expensive production and a huge promotional budget to generate hype. All you need is a huge promotional budget to generate hype. The movie itself can cost $34.

Not wishing to be a cultural holdout, I went to see "The Blair Witch Project," which tells the story of three young actors who attempt to make a documentary without a tripod. This means the camera constantly moves around, as though it is strapped to the head of a hyperactive seal. (For some reason, the camera is often pointed more or less at the ground, as though the seal is hunting for ants.) The effect of this technique is to create a mood of intense realism for several minutes, after which it creates a mood of intense motion sickness.

The three movie characters are looking for the Blair Witch, who according to legend is a mean witch who is never actually seen because of the high cost of special effects. The characters set out and almost immediately become lost in the legendarily huge uninhabited forests of Maryland (motto: "The Endless Vast Expanse of Wilderness State"). They respond to this predicament exactly as Lewis and Clark would have: By holding long, whiny arguments wherein they wave the camera around and repeatedly shout a very bad word that I cannot put in the newspaper, so let's just call it "darn." Much of the dialogue sounds like this:

First character: Darn you! You darned got us darned lost in these darned woods! Darn!

Second Character: Go darn yourself!

Squirrel: Will you darners shut the darn up!?!

The characters are all so busy arguing and yelling "Darn!" at each other that, in the entire movie, they actually travel a grand total of maybe 75 linear feet. You get the impression that if they'd just shut up and walk, in 20 minutes they'd come to a Wal-Mart. But they don't, and after several days they run out of food. They do not, however, run out of electricity for their cameras, which apparently are powered by tiny, highly portable nuclear generators.

And thus they are able to keep videotaping, which enables you, the viewer, to experience the terrifying things that happen right outside their tent at night, namely: It's hard to say. Apparently something terrifying is happening, but you can't really tell what it is, because pretty much all you see is the ground, or total darkness. Much of the footage near the end appears to be shot deep inside a sleeping bag.

I won't reveal the terrifying and shocking surprise ending of the movie, because I don't want to spoil it, plus I have no idea what it is, since it's not actually in the movie. The characters all get killed and are unable to videotape it. But at least the darned camera stopped moving.

I hope I don't appear to be criticizing "The Blair Witch Project." I happen to think it's a great film, because despite its flaws, it meets the ultimate artistic test: It will make more than $100 million. This inspires me. In my college days, I spent my summers working at Camp Sharparoon as a counselor for disadvantaged youths, and one of my key counseling techniques was terror. When we were out in the woods at night, I could make the youths at least briefly stop hitting each other and making bodily sounds by telling them scary bedtime stories. Not to brag, but some of my stories were a lot scarier than "The Blair Witch Project," as determined by the standard unit of measurement for bedtime-story scariness, which is Bedrolls Wetted.

So I'm thinking I can cash in on my Camp Sharparoon stories by turning them into terrifying low-budget films. I'll start with "Hunt for the Latrine Demon," which will be about an ill-fated attempt to make a documentary about an entity that dwells, according to legend, in a primitive hand-dug campsite toilet facility. I've already got a script written ("It's got me by my darned ankles!"). All I need now is some unknown actors, a video camera and a huge promotional budget. And of course a seal.

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