Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lee Brown Coye and The Blair Witch Project

A few days ago I watched The Blair Witch Project for the first time. You might say I'm a little behind the times. After all, the movie was released in 1999. (Tempus fugit.) I remember the controversy surrounding it, and I remember something of the opinions for and against it. At this distance, I can say that I found it effectively creepy, though a little unfocused: the filming begins with recounted stories of at least three ghastly or supernatural events (four if you count the fisherman's own tale of having seen a ghostly mist arising from the water). The title itself seems to be a misdirection, for as it turns out, the ghost of a serial killer rather than the witch herself seems to be behind the disappearance of the three film students. Some viewers think that the serial killer was possessed by the Blair Witch, but there doesn't seem to be any indication of that in the movie. And as we all know, the story has to tell the whole story by itself.

The Blair Witch Project hinges on the stupidity of its characters through a device called "the idiot plot." (I have written about idiot plots before.) The two men, Josh and Mike, are stupid for following the leader, a horrible creature named Heather. She is stupid because she doesn't realize how stupid she is. We have all known people who are insufferably confident in themselves (to the point of arrogance) and who drag people along with them, often to their doom. Imagine spending a week in the woods with a control freak: it could only have ended in murder. Anyway, I guess you could say The Blair Witch Project serves as confirmation of the Peter Principle, a principle that goes back through Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull to José Ortega y Gasset and states that people rise to their level of incompetence. More on Ortega y Gasset tomorrow.

The Blair Witch Project should come with a warning: "Should not be viewed by foresters, especially not alone in a dark house at night." I work as a forester. I'm especially interested in movies that take place in the woods. (The Village falls into that category. I believe spicebush was the shrub with the red berries.) One of the things I noticed about The Blair Witch Project is that the woods in the movie look pretty thin and scrubby. Those aren't deep woods at all. I would say they are actually old-field woods, that is, woods that have grown up on the site of old farm fields, and consequently not far from human habitation. The location of the house in the woods seems to support that idea. I have come upon houses in the woods, though never one as large or as intact. I always explore them, wandering from room to room among the detritus and decay of former lives. I can say that every old, abandoned house is haunted, not with actual ghosts, but with the presence of the people who went before us and who lived their lives within these walls.

The Blair Witch house is gone now. The State of Maryland, presumably people who work in natural resources, demolished it sometime after the filming. I have seen this kind of thing in natural resources people before. They will surely do it again. They would say that it's not in their mission to manage historical resources, or that the house was in a state of decay, or that it would have been too expensive to maintain or restore it, or that it would have been an attractive hazard, thus a liability. They may have their justifications. That doesn't excuse their lack of imagination. Of course maintaining a building in a state of decay is a contradiction in terms, but we should all remember that during the Gothic revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people actually constructed new "ruins." Ruins and other old, decaying, remote, and abandoned places are after all the proper setting for the Gothic in our lives.

As I have written, fantasy, especially weird fiction, seems to be about decay and about the past. It's interesting that the makers of The Blair Witch Project would take three contemporary people with modern equipment and place them in a premodern situation. How rapidly they revert. The cameras work, but the map is lost. And even though they have a compass, they wander in circles, as people who are lost tend to do. (I don't see any supernatural reason why they would have ended up at their starting point after having walked all day. That's what people often do when they are disoriented.) In the end, technology fails them. Being people of today, they are oriented towards the future. Instead, they are driven into the past, and there meet their end.

The Blair Witch Project has its antecedents. It calls to mind those creepy documentaries from the 1970s about ancient astronauts, flying saucers, and Bigfoot. I'm also reminded of In Search Of . . . (1977-1982) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). The reason I'm writing about it here is that the sticks in The Blair Witch Project remind me of the work of Weird Tales artist Lee Brown Coye and an incident in his life. His biography, Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), opens with an account of the artist's trip into the backwoods of central New York State in 1938. There, in a remote and abandoned place, he found stones arranged on the ground, bundles of sticks and boards nailed and wired together here and there, and an old house in which, fantastically, he was grabbed by a hand out of the dark. Once I became acquainted with Coye's work, I noticed the similarity between his bundles of sticks and those in The Blair Witch Project (even though I had never seen the movie). I wasn't the first to do so. Mr. Ortiz made note of it in his biography. So did Al Harron on the blog The Cimmerian. (You can read his entry of Oct. 13, 2009, here.) Both go back to a short story called "Sticks," written by Karl Edward Wagner and published in March 1974.

"Sticks" is a fictionalized version of Lee Brown Coye's original encounter with the unknown in the cellar of an old house near DeRuyter, New York. Consciously or not, the makers of The Blair Witch Project were inspired by "Sticks" and Coye. Nic Pizzolatto, who scripted the TV show True Detective, acknowledged the influence of both in an interview posted on the blog The Arkham Digest, dated January 21, 2014, here. (Last year I wrote about True Detective and Robert W. Chambers in this space.) If Coye's story is true, then it only supports my proposition that real life is very often weirder than fiction. Anyway, like the characters in The Blair Witch Project, we are armed with the techniques and the technology with which we believe we will conquer the future. Instead, like them, we are ceaselessly borne into the primitive past.

Lee Brown Coye's cover for Whispers #3 (Mar. 1974), in which Karl Edward Wagner's story "Sticks" first appeared. 

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Interesting.

    Forgive me for going off-topic again. Perhaps YOU, as a forester, who is interested in stories set in the woods, will be able to give me the title of something I saw on the TV 20 or more years ago. I don't know if this was a show or a movie.

    All I really remember of the story is a guy driving through woods and he is lost. He keeps coming upon a cafe or general store on the side of the road. He goes inside, frightened and angry, demanding directions to his intended destination. Always, the same old man is behind the counter, and always, he says something like "Now why don't you just sit down, son, and have a nice, relaxing cup of coffee?"

    I've been searching for this for years now. I remember it being kind of a cool story, and I'd like to see it again. Does this ring any bells?

  2. Dear Howard,

    That sounds kind of familiar, but I can't place it. It sounds like something from The Twilight Zone, but every weird story sounds like something from The Twilight Zone. I checked the plot summaries for Amazing Stories on the Internet Movie Database and didn't find it. I thought of Tales from the Crypt, but I remember those stories as being a little less subtle. It could be from Rod Serling's Night Gallery or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There were other anthology series that I have never seen. Someone who reads your comment might know. Good luck in your search.


  3. The woods and horror ...

    Just a couple of thoughts.

    First, I've been reading Ambrose Bierce lately, and he has a story, "The Eyes of the Panther", in which he talks about the great woods that once stretched across the upper tier of middle America. I can't recall a lot of 19th century American writers setting stories in them, though.

    I happen to go to a Russian art museum recently, and they had several displays about Russian life in their great forests. In Russian folklore, unlike European, the forest isn't a place of menace (or Dante's "dark woods of error"). It's a good place where you're provided for and safe.

    "Sticks" is a great story even on its own merits, but it goes up to another level with the story around its creation.

  4. Dear Marzaat,

    I think you're right about the lack of stories from the nineteenth century about the great forests of the eastern United States. One that leaps to mind is "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which of course ties the forest to the devil-on-earth. Another is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving.

    I think the earliest settlers looked at the forest as a place that was against them or that threatened them, or at the very least stood in their way. The sooner it was gone, the better. Only later in the nineteenth century was the forest seen as a place worth saving. In any case, this would make a nice topic for a research paper or book.

    Thanks for writing.