Sunday, March 1, 2015

Robert Bloch and The Blair Witch Project-Part One

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was based on "Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner (1974). Of that there can be little doubt. But were there other sources for the movie? Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Robert Bloch's short story "Notebook Found in a Deserted House":

"Many consider it to be a predecessor to the film The Blair Witch Project."

Many.

There's scholarship for you.

Presumably the people who write articles for Wikipedia have access to the Internet. You would think they could replace that many with a few names by doing a simple Internet search. So I did a simple Internet search and quickly came up with two names. That's a start. One is Michael D. Winkle, who wrote an article called "Tales of the Blair Witch Mythos," posted on a sketchy website in 2001, back when computer servers were made of stone and iron. Mr. Winkle's article is interesting. You might want to have a look.

Another of the many is Michael J. Tresca, who wrote a customer review of the anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in 2006. I could go on down the line, but I'm not sure I would find the originator of the idea that The Blair Witch Project was based on or inspired by "Notebook Found in a Deserted House." The thing to do is to just see how they stack up against each other.

"Notebook Found in a Deserted House" is a short story by Robert Bloch. First published as the cover story in the May 1951 issue of Weird Tales, it has been reprinted many times since, including in the aforementioned anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Coincidence or no, Lee Brown Coye was the cover artist for both magazine and book. I have read the story in a later edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990), very generously provided by my friend Gandelyn.

As the name suggests, "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" takes the form of a notebook and is told in the voice of its author, a twelve-year-old boy named Willie Osborne. Willie lives with his aunt and uncle in the backwoods of New England, presumably in Massachusetts. (Arkham and Kingsport are both mentioned in the story.) Bad things start to happen and the boy is left alone in the house. There seems to be no escape for him and there the story ends. I won't give anything more away.

Bloch's story and The Blair Witch Project utilize a framing device. In "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," the title is the device, but there isn't any frame on the other end. Maybe it's only a half-framing device. In The Blair Witch Project, the narration inserted at the beginning and end of the film are the device. So there is the first similarity. But there are hundreds if not thousands of stories with framing devices. I read one the other day, "The Horror of the Heights" by Arthur Conan Doyle (1913), a story that also takes the form of a notebook kept by the protagonist. So maybe not much of a similarity.

Story and movie are also both told in documentary fashion, and in general the action takes place as the story is being told. (Both begin with scary stories of what happened in the woods back in the old days.) Both take place in the backwoods, and in both, the woods--inhabited by unknown and terrifying forces--represent a menace. That idea--that evil lurks in the deep, dark forest--goes back at least to first settlement and probably to the beginning of time. Witness "Hansel and Gretel" and "Young Goodman Brown."

In both tales, the narrators circle back to their place of beginning, but that's common in people who are lost, disoriented, frightened, or on the run. You might take that as a metaphor for life itself, for we all return or wish to return to the place where we began. Both stories end within the walls of a house, in the story, a deserted house, in the movie, a decrepit house. However, the deserted house is the last safe place, while the decrepit house is the place where horror still lives.

Finally, both "Notebook Found in an Deserted House" and The Blair Witch Project are "found footage" stories. In the case of the first, the "footage" is actually, of course, a notebook. I'll have more to say about "found footage" in the second and last part of this series.

That's it. That's as much as I can see. I think the similarities between Bloch's story and the film from half a century later are superficial and consist mostly of conventions of storytelling. That's not to say the moviemakers had not read "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," or that they were not inspired by it, but I don't see any hard evidence that they had or were.

To be concluded . . .

Weird Tales, May 1951, with a cover story, "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," by Robert Bloch, and cover art by Lee Brown Coye. Stories told by Bloch and Coye are supposed to have influenced the making of The Blair Witch Project. But could Coye have been influenced by Bloch's story in his tale of the Mann Brook house?
"Notebook Found in a Deserted House" was reprinted in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in 1969.  Once again, Coye was the cover artist.

Text and captions copyright 2015 terence E. Hanley

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