The Blair Witch Allegory

By Nathan Payne | pablosmoglives | 14 Jan 2024

"I see why you like this video camera so much.  It's
not quite reality.  It's like you can pretend
everything's not quite the way it is."
The Blair Witch Project


I saw The Blair Witch Project at the Davis Theater in Chicago, in October of 1999.  It was one of those dying, orange, cool gray Midwestern autumn days that was fragrant with the scent of bus fumes and decomposing foliage.  I used to like to stroll past the European sausage shops on Lincoln Avenue, the weird German places that sold exotic bicycles and chocolate, and strange liqueurs, and wine.  It was like walking through a European movie, strolling by the record stores, the coffee shops, the storefronts reflecting the gray, cloudy sky above the sidewalk, and the orange and falling leaves.  Or maybe I would stagger down the same street in a jonesy daze at 2am, scraping the pavement for the dream of an open liquor store, of which there were precisely 2 in Chicago that stayed open after 2am.  Neither of which were in Lincoln Square or Ravenswood.  But I had wandered the area many times at night, had gone on many midnight hikes from the lake to the graveyard (any graveyard) to the 24-hour Mexican place on Lawrence & Clark, where I had eaten many times, in the midst of many self-important nightmares.  I had even purchased an eighth of oak leaves from some gangsters on Foster & Damen once, who insisted I not smell the product as I gave them $20 on the sidewalk.  I asked them if they had any weed, and they said they'd be back in 10 minutes.  They returned with some oak leaves, crushed inside a baggie.  I put it up to my nose but the gangsters became intimidating so I let it go.  I took the baggie home and was extremely disappointed.  It obviously wasn't weed at all.  I'd just spent $20 on some oak leaves.  But I didn't care about anything.  I was driven by the ghosts, the invisible fires in the trees, and had to try.


So I went to see The Blair Witch Project at the Davis Theater in Chicago on a cold, gray October day in 1999.  It must have been a matinee showing, because I was out before dark.  After the movie, I wandered under the L tracks on Lincoln Avenue as though they were ancient pagan relics, some kind of rusty steel Trainhenge upon which someone had constructed an efficient urban railway.  The train rumbled above my head, and it was the mechanical sound of witches forging bowling balls in hell.  "Western Avenue," the prerecorded conductor said in a calm, computer voice, as the passengers disembarked, and the pigeons drank Wild Irish Rose from small plastic alpenhorns procured from the local specialty shops.  It was like a beer bong for the birds.  The pigeons would get loaded and cruise the streets on their 19th-century German bicycles, cooing aggressively at anyone they perceived to be a mark.  They tried to sell me some grass clippings, but I had learned my lesson.  I gave them a wide berth as I passed by.

The Blair Witch Project had a lot of buzz, and the "found footage" filming style was groundbreaking at the time.  Which is another way of saying that, in 1999, nobody would have thought to film themselves sitting around in the woods arguing about directions, and so to see it on the big screen was unusual (if unbelievable) indeed.  But it was grainy, dark, and creepy.  It was the perfect film for an urban nihilist on a cold October day.

Side note:  Without the premise that the characters were documentary filmmakers, people whose purported field of expertise was documenting everything from the extraordinary to the mundane, the "found object" filming style wouldn't have worked at all.  And even though the characters are all aspiring documentary filmmakers, the premise of the film still dances like a pixie on the borders of the unbelievable.  But the descent into chaos and mayhem is compelling enough (and the characters are strong enough) to allow the audience to suspend disbelief, if they so choose.  The "found object" filming style brings an interesting first-person perspective to the drama, and the director and/or production team knew that to make it remotely believable, the characters would have to be documentary filmmakers themselves.  Throughout the film, the characters cling to their role as documentarians, to justify filming the most mundane, uninteresting events.  If the film is groundbreaking, it's partially because it was made in a world before social media.  These days, it would be groundbreaking to require the characters NOT to be documentarians of every detail of their lives.  But I don't think the people behind The Blair Witch Project "paved the way" for selfie culture.  They were just trying to make an original film from an original perspective.  So it goes.


It's been almost 25 years since I first saw it, so when the thumbnail of the film popped into view tonight, I clicked on it.  I hate horror movies, but The Blair Witch Project is special.  I was surprised at how many new, imaginary layers of meaning I was able to read into it.  Nothing profound or infinitely deep, and nothing I believe was intentionally put there by the filmmakers, but certainly enough to justify a passing mention.

The Blair Witch Project depicts three unprepared Gen-X kids who get lost in the forest of their own forgotten culture, a dark, tangled wood in which the ghosts of death and hell itself cause them to lose their civilized composure, and totally freak out.  Their speech, which starts out sprinkled with the requisite "cools" and "hey mans," devolves into panicked screaming, both at the darkness and each other, as their fate becomes ever more shadowy and doomed with every passing frame.

Not only do they have no idea how to survive in a world without motel rooms, the characters in The Blair Witch Project also display a lack of stoicism which is natural to their (our) culture.  If a stoic is "characterized by a calm, austere fortitude, especially in the face of trouble or loss; not giving in to one’s emotions," then a generation raised by people who are famous for popularizing militant feminism and psychedelic drug orgies will perhaps be unfamiliar with basic stoic principles.  "Express yourself, man," said the guru to the wastoid.  "Sure thing, brother," said the leader of the creatures to the wolfmen and the warlocks, the children of the wind who hang oracles and teeth from the ceiling of trees above their lost and screaming children.

"Please help us," yells the soundman, to the killers in the wilderness.  Do we actually have to sleep here?  How shallow does the gallows culture go?  The ropes they tied around our necks were colorful, but I fear there is a fiery abyss, just beneath the surface.  These gallows look like Jimmy Page's sword, from The Song Remains The Same.  Like guitar strings made of fire, or the tongues of devils 'round our throat:


Did the hippies know what they were doing when they brought the Maypole Gallows into Brentwood?  Was The Eastern Star involved?  Perhaps Led Zeppelin hung sacrificial angels from their album art.  Like the protagonists in The Blair Witch Project, we had no idea what it meant.  We thought it was cool.  It is cool.  Jimmy Page will probably always be my favorite guitar player.  Which isn't to say I can listen to him, or ever will again.

Because it's evil.  I mean, really.  How blind do you have to be.  Look at it:

Or maybe don't.  Maybe don't look at it.  I've looked at it a thousand times.  Maybe that's what my problem is.  I've been hacking through the woods of a culture that isn't aware it's evil, screaming into the darkness, hunted by the witches and the beasts.  And I have, too.  I have lost my cool completely, screaming furiously into the woods on the top of a mountain in the middle of the night, with all the self-possessed, stoic composure of a fatherless house fire.

YAAAA!  Ya bastardite jackals.  Ye infernal lions.  Confused are am we.  My fury is ancient.  I am the terrible one, of whom you should be 'feared.  I am the coven-less wolf with hard iron teeth.  The horrible lion, hyena'd and free.  I spit wolves on the sidewalk.  I blow bubbles of fire.  Don't even come near me.  I am the product of the horror in which you presume to be hiding.  I am the son of the dead naked thing in the trees.  Make the mistake.  Amuse me again.  Come at me and die.  I never get tired.  I am the offspring of rebellion itself.  I will repent with a face full of tears by the end of the film, but for now I am the fool.  Hear me cackle and roar.

And then you pass out.  And the morning comes early, and the songbirds replace the jackals, and the grace of God begins anew.  In spite of all your efforts to disqualify yourself from it.

But it has to be real.  If you're going to scream into the woods, even if you say please, make sure it's for real.  Don't fill the spaces between your desperate pleas with the sense that you deserve better.  Witches love that.

They feed on it.


So, what happens to the fools prancing through the dark, demonic woods, filming themselves dancing on the edge of the abyss?

Spoiler alert:  They don't make it.  Everybody ends up slaughtered by the spiritual darkness hiding just off-camera, where nobody whose face is buried in a secular device can see it coming.  Even though they make every attempt to heed the warnings that are literally hanging from the trees of the lost, overgrown culture in which they find themselves, the unprepared Gen-X kids still can't find their way out of the forest and back to the freedom of civilization, the comfort of motel rooms and pumpkin pie, and mom's mashed potatoes.  Like real life, in The Blair Witch Project, being cool and not believing in the power of darkness does not make one immune to its devices.


"Everything had to be my way.
And this is where we've ended up."
The Blair Witch Project


Fortunately, even though the 2 surviving characters are lured to their deaths by the sound of their dead friend crying for help from the basement of a house which symbolizes hell and appears to be abandoned, but which may in fact be the home of characters from a Led Zeppelin song, their ordeal does at least break the girl.  Her famous moment of snot-soaked repentance would never have been possible at the beginning of the film, when the depths of the demonic culture of witchcraft and paganism had yet to be explored.  And while she and her cohorts may have set out to solve the mystery of a mythical witch for self-interested career reasons, by the end, they're just sorry.  They can no longer hide behind their postmodern secularism and fancy retro tech.  The absence of those luxuries prevents them from pretending "everything's not quite the way it is."  In spite of our technologically-advanced hubris, this is the way it is.  We're in the woods, we're lost, and demonic entities are at the door.  Our illusions have been shattered.

I left Chicago and quit drinking a long time ago.  Even though Jimmy Page is my favorite guitar player, I haven't listened to Led Zeppelin for years.  For spiritual reasons.  The witchcraft in their music is like a drop of hemlock in a glass of fine wine.  You look at the bottle the wine came in and shake your head.  What a waste.  Such a good vintage.  So many great songs.  Ruined by one drop of arsenic.  Or hellfire.  I don't hold on to the things that have always kept me down, whether it's good music, bad relationships, or anything that drives me to prowl the streets of Chicago in search of booze at 3am.  Including the self-unrighteous rage of the wolf-spitting jackal engaged in a rebellion against the fires of hell itself, a rebellion that is in fact just another form of conformity to hellfire.  I reject all that, with horror.  I have been weeping in the tent, frozen and unsightly, for many years on end.  I am sorry for much.  I regret much.  I shudder to think that I could possibly look at my life and say that I have no regrets.  Regret helps me untangle myself from the colorful noose hanging from the Maypole Gallows, upon which I was sentenced to choke and scream forever, and infinitely die.  My regrets have kept me from dancing off the edge of the cliff like a fool.  Because I should have fallen off a long time ago.  But for the mercy of God, am I still here doing anything at all.  How amazing indeed is His grace.  In light of that mercy and grace, shall I spend my final moments yelling at the people who have destroyed the map?  Our "only way out," or so we once believed?  Will that really set us free?  If the culture burns like a city in the Old Testament around us, and our earthly lives are lost inside the fire, should we not at least spend our final moments in a state of genuine repentance?  So that we can finally be free?


"Behold, now is the accepted time;
behold, now is the day of salvation."
2 Corinthians 6:2


Because, one way or the other, we will be sorry.  The only question is,

Will it be now, while there's still time?

Or will we wait...

'Til it's too late?

Those are the only choices.

Thanks for listening.

p.s.  It's another story in and of itself, but the song "Welcome To Sunshine" was written after an attempt to work and live as the caretaker of a horse ranch near Highland, Maryland, not far from Burkittsville, where The Blair Witch Project begins.  I wasn't in a good headspace or emotional condition, and I couldn't hide it from the proprietors.  I had a silent breakdown in the middle of the night, jumping up and down and screaming at the moon, though silently, so as not to wake the horses.  After it became clear that I wasn't going to be taking the job, but before I left town, I came across a dead raven in the pasture.  He was dead on the ground, but his wings were spread as though in flight.  I don't remember if it struck me as a good omen, or a bad one, but on my way out of town, I passed through the town of Sunshine.  "Welcome to Sunshine," the sign read.  Immediately, I knew that I was going to be alright.

That was 20 years ago this fall.  It amazes me to realize that the message hasn't entirely gotten through yet.  It's as though my heart is full of holes, and needs to be continuously refilled.  God knows it, and is patient.  And merciful, and kind.

If your heart is full of holes as well, take heart.  It's almost over.  We'll get through it.

Sunshine is on the other side of this current darkness.

I look forward to seeing you there.

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Nathan Payne
Nathan Payne

I am a songwriter and bandleader who travels the world in search of the golden ticket.


Replacing my blog at

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