Trespasses into Temptation:
Gendered Imagination and The Blair Witch Project

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1

Deneka C. MacDonald
University of Glasgow

When women transgress the boundaries of knowledge, power, or gender in the contemporary horror film, they are reprimanded to varying degrees. In slasher films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1988-1995), Friday the 13th (1987-1996), Halloween (1983-1999), Witchcraft (1984), The Shining (1980), or The Exorcist (1985), women who open doors, go downstairs, answer the phone, or talk to strangers die. Women who give up their virginity within a given film also die, as Randy so ironically points out in the postmodern horror film Scream (1996). Scream is an interesting diversion from conventional horror in its intertexuality, self examination, and deconstructionist techniques. To that end, Randy is quick to point out in the film that the cops don't watch enough movies—implying that if they did, they might catch more killers. "If it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience," he explains. "If they [the cops] watched Prom Night, they'd save time. There's a formula to it! A very specific formula." Scream also addresses the gendering of the horror film several times, most notably when Sidney states that she doesn't "watch that shit" (horror films) because "there'll all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl who can't act, and she's always running up the stairs when she should be going out the door. It's insulting." INDEED! Pioneering in its attempt to deconstruct the contemporary horror film, Scream is perhaps the exception to the rule that transgressions are never allowed. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most horror films.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, in "Notes Toward a Politics of Location," Adrienne Rich effectively talks about the politics of location, insisting on the importance of this subject for women and making it an integral aspect of second wave feminism. Since then, several feminist academics have taken location seriously and dedicated much of their scholarly work towards exploring how we, as women, interact in/with our various surroundings. Typically, feminists in the fields of geography, anthropology, and sociology have tended to focus on three specific areas: public/private space, the sexual politics of space, and transparent space. Transparent or abstract spaces have recently been extended to include the dynamics of language by feminists such as Shirley Ardener who contends that all physical areas have sets of rules which determine how they will be crossed and who will occupy the particular space (11). She adds that "the extended use of such spatial terms is firmly embedded in the language in which this is written" (11). Thus, Ardener sees the language of spaces as equally important in defining gender boundaries. Quoting terms such as "high society" and "narrow-mindedness," she formulates her argument whereby the notion of the so-called "real world" and the social reality of that world intersect and are, therefore, inter or co-dependent:

Societies have generated their own rules, culturally determined, for making boundaries on the ground, and have divided the social into spheres, levels and territories with invisible fences and platforms to be scaled by abstract ladders and crossed by intangible bridges with as much trepidation or exultation as on a plank over a raging torrent. (12)

Using a brilliant string of metaphors here, Ardener emphasizes not only the difficulty one has in crossing social spheres, but the intangibility of their very nature as abstract boundaries. This concept/notion of abstract boundaries is particularly interesting in looking at the image of the supernatural in literature because supernatural power is unknown and arguably knows no boundaries, and, if so, they cannot be firmly determined. Moreover, the supernatural woman, in particular the witch, by her very nature as unknown and fearsome, has a literary tradition strongly fused with particular geographical spaces, most notably the forest.

A figure whose image plays an integral role in her literary presentation, the "witch" is typically fused with her "forest." (We certainly see this fusion in fairy tales like Snow White or Hansel and Gretel, with the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, in Shakespeare's sisters or in Titichaba's forest performance in The Crucible to name but a few examples). There is something fundamentally fearsome about the deep vast forest—perhaps it is the uncharted territory or wilderness itself that frightens us, or the forest's deep connection with nature as a volatile and uncontrollable space. Regardless, films, particularly horror films, whose plots center in and around forests work to illustrate a profound sense of fear. They tend to play upon our reluctance to venture into dark spaces, our apprehension of the unknown, and our perverse notion that these two things combined are both thrilling (because we are fundamentally invading something taboo) and petrifying (because we do not know what we will find). This atmosphere sets the tone for most horror films that incorporate the image or the notion of the supernatural within their narratives and plot: the forest is the witch's domain, not to be invaded, and if so, be prepared to pay the consequences. In such a way, the horror film confronts issues of human geography at a visual level which is compelling: forests are "inside" or "private" spaces associated with nature and the feminine, whilst cities and towns are "outside" or "public" spaces associated with culture and the masculine.

In Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic, Linda Badley makes the point that "[h]orror has been a gendered issue since the eighteenth century Gothic revival" (101). I would agree and argue further that fantastic horror films, dealing closely with witchcraft, sorcery, or feminine supernatural power, are more obviously gendered. Moreover, if the participation in the act of viewing a film automatically engulfs one in the act of voyeurism, a notion closely linked with issues of spatiality and geography, then films that employ a voyeur within the very film itself are doubly voyeuristic.

Take for instance, the 1999 North American film The Blair Witch Project. Called the scariest movie of all time, The Blair Witch Project is horrific because it confirms society's worst fears: witches are evil, they kill small children, they perform sacrifice and murderous rituals, and they live in the depths of the unknown places we surely do not want to enter. The Blair Witch Project reproduces these fears for its audience, and in so doing, the film joins a long history of reaffirming both the negative image of the witch and our perverse attraction for such images.

Both the witch and the protagonist in The Blair Witch Project overstep their boundaries in a world that does not accept such trespasses (the witch by the very fact that she has dared to be a witch and, in so doing, reject norms of society—and the protagonist because she investigates this transgression). "Do not go downstairs," "do not go into the woods," "do not talk to strangers," and "do not open the door when you are alone" are recurring warnings in the horror genre, yet these warnings also bleed into real psychological and sociological lessons: "Do not trespass, cross gender boundaries, or stray from social norms." Curbing curiosity has become a horror film tradition. We learn, adopt, and agree that curiosity is a dangerous notion. It is a quality that needs to be controlled, for the alternative, lack of control, is dangerous and undesirable. Furthermore, the apparent lack of control over the witch and her wealth of "possible" supernatural power is perhaps one of the most fearsome notions we face in fantastic literature.

The act of discovering, of seeking, of looking for, or at, although both natural and pleasurable, has become, through language, a disagreeable one because it is associated with the search for knowledge and power; to see is to acquire knowledge, to acquire knowledge is to gain power. It is Pandora's curiosity to see which leads her to open the forbidden box, just as it is Eve's curiosity to know which leads her to eat the forbidden fruit. And, in The Blair Witch Project, it is Heather Donahue's curiosity to learn which leads her to the woods outside of Burkittsville. Notably, when all of these women endeavor to see, they are punished for their "trespasses into temptation": once you have seen, you must die a gruesome death—or so is the underlying message of the contemporary horror film. The forbidden, once seen, cannot be unseen. Seeing, learning, and knowledge are a masculine prerogative; they belong to the realm of public space which men occupy and are free to move within; women who violate this rule are dangerous and threatening.

Witchcraft, the craft, or the occult is perhaps the ultimate of the unseen and unknown. It is this phenomena which sparks Heather Donahue's curiosity. And curiosity, is, of course, the main thematic structure of the film. As with most horror films, it is the curiosity of both the characters and the audience that leads to the climax of the story. Just as curiosity drives Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991) or various female characters in the 80's slasher films mentioned at the beginning of this paper to "go downstairs," Heather Donahue's curiosity about the story of the Blair Witch leads her to embark on her film project and, thus, to her eventual demise. As Laura Mulvey points out in her influential essay "The Myth of Pandora," the negative association between curiosity and the feminine is important: "Curiosity projects itself onto, and into, space through its drive to investigate and uncover secrets, carrying with it connotations of transgression and danger" (Fetishism 60). While Mulvey raises some crucial points about the female image and iconography in "The Myth of Pandora," her arguments about space are particularly important for horror fiction. Certainly the viewer of The Blair Witch Project is fully aware of the danger inherent in this film from the very beginning—well before anything "scary" happens—through its association with curious investigation; culturally we are conditioned to know this fact—curiosity has become a signifier for danger just as the forest has become a signifier for the witch.

Heather Donahue's curiosity about the Blair Witch is analogous to the Pandora metaphor which Mulvey draws on as a crucial point of her thesis; like Pandora herself, Donahue unleashes the evil of the Blair Witch on her film crew when her curiosity leads them further into the woods. Indeed, the supernatural entity in this film seems to permit their trespassing when they only investigate areas on the outskirts of the forest (an area still considered to be a "public" space). On the first night of the excursion the film crew enjoys a peaceful night's sleep in the woods, despite a minimal sense of fear. On the second day, however, Heather insists on leading them deeper into the forest (and consequently nearer the witch's "private" territory). Once there, they unintentionally stumble across a gravesite of sorts, a forbidden area of the forest, presumably not yet discovered by humanity. From that point, the film crew begins to lose its way, and they are forced to spend a second night outside, this time deep within the forest where they are tormented by unknown voices/noises. Further, the first victim in The Blair Witch Project, Joshua Leonard, is killed because he stumbles into a secret place of worship; the remaining characters are murdered, significantly, in the witch's house, another forbidden place—one that is wholly private in which they dare to trespass.

Mulvey contends that the female drive to investigate is directed by a culture that has tended to consider femininity as an enigma (Fetishism 54). Moreover, Linda Badley points out that "[h]orror is reactionary. Its job has long been to punish transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforce stereotypes" (102). This transgressive desire to know is indeed what Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Clive Barker and others rely on when building suspense before various characters ultimately fall. And it is the obvious factor causing the fall in The Blair Witch Project. The message of the contemporary horror film for women is clear: do not transgress the boundaries of home and hearth; do not go into the woods. But there is a further division in The Blair Witch Project because conventional public spaces (man) and private spaces (women) are reflected in miniature within the overall space of the forest. Here, the private space of the forest is divided into further territories—the outskirts (public), the deep inside (private), and the witches home (the ultimate private). All of these spaces belong to the witch, but the severity of the trespass varies according to the divisions.

For the first half of the film, Heather is the strongest character in the film. She is focussed, organized, and domineering. Further, she refuses to be the object of both the larger film's gaze and the documentary's gaze—she has brought her own camera to record all of the events that take place. Moreover, the project was her idea; her Blair Witch documentary was intended to be a controlled student film. Thus, she takes possession of the only map for the excursion as well as the only compass. It is also Heather who has "scouted out" the project and who leads the excursion. Literally, she holds all the cards. However, out of all of the characters, it is Heather who has the most difficulty accepting the reality of events around her. Thus, when she realizes she is losing control of her "controlled" and "well planned" project, she frantically dismisses what she cannot explain. She repeatedly refuses to accept the seriousness of the situation she finds herself in and desperately tries to hold onto what is "real" by repeating phrases such as "things like this just do not happen in America"; "this is America. It is impossible to get lost, and just as impossible to stay lost." Shoshana Felman notes the dichotomy of the real and the unreal arguing that:

The supernatural cannot be rationally explained and hence should not detain us and does not call for thought . . . . Realism postulates a conception of "nature" and "reality" which seeks to establish itself, tautologically, as "natural" and as "real." Nothing, indeed, is less "natural" than this frontier which is supposed to separate the "real" from the "unreal" and which in fact delimits only the inside from the outside. (13)

Heather consistently tries to distinguish the "real" from the "unreal" in her mind. She rationalizes events that take place, even when they are clearly unexplainable. Further, as the film gets more intense and the characters begin to accept that they are being hunted by an unknown entity, Heather's obsession with the camera grows stronger. She refuses to give up the security of the camera, continually recording all of the events they witness, continually trying to come to terms with them. During a crucial conversation, Josh notes that he understands why Heather won't turn off the camera. Heather is able to suspend the reality of the events transpiring around her in the forest only when she can view them through her camcorder. Again, Laura Mulvey's arguments on voyeurism in film are useful in this analysis. Mulvey argues that it is the gaze, or pleasure in looking, that is most powerful for the film viewing audience. She explains that the object of the gaze sets up an amazing masquerade that expresses a strange underworld of both fear and desire (Visual 8). For Heather Donahue, the camera offers a filtered reality, allowing her to become the voyeur, rather than the object of both the film's gaze (The Blair Witch Project) and camera lens itself (their Blair Witch documentary). Finally, Heather never loses the desire to investigate even when she is fundamentally frightened. While this is the case throughout the film, it is perhaps most obvious in the final scene which leads them to the Blair Witch's home as they follow Josh's desperate cries for help—Heather insists they bring both recorders to witness the event.

The technique of a film within a film is an interesting one on several levels. Anneke Smelik argues that the mirror metaphor so often used in feminist discourse "acts as a surface or screen which reflects dominant images of women, suggest[ing] a possible site of subversion mimesis in cinema: the screen or the image projected on it" (123). Indeed mirrors are a dominant image when associated with the literary female, in particular with the witch, but, in this case, the mirror metaphor can be further applied to reflect the concept of the film within a film—the use of multiple cameras that reflect and record images instead of the use ofmirrors. Thus, voyeurism is not just a product of the film being a film, it is inherent in the film itself. The camera work is both objective and subjective. We see what Heather sees, we look at the process of her looking, but we also see her.

The notion of a female gaze is one that has been much explored in feminist film theory. As Linda Badley notes:

A woman in a scopic-phallic economy. . . is coveted, desired, by the voyeuristic-sadistic or fetishizing male gaze. Only secondary is she a coveting subject. . . [she] can covet only by means of a female gaze that does not exist. She is trespasser on patriarchal territory; she lacks a space from which to launch a female gaze, no site, except that which she makes for herself situation by situation. (140)

Indeed, Donahue is a trespasser, but not because she cannot create a female gaze. She does, in fact, reject the notion of a male perpetuated gaze and participates in her own voyeurism with the employment of her own camera throughout the film. However, she trespasses within the forest, she crosses the gender boundary by becoming the investigator, and she is an unwanted entity in this secret territory belonging to the witch. In this way, Heather finds herself between worlds, between territories, and, once she has witnessed or seen, she is unable to return. Donahue takes on the qualities of the voyeur with her camera, and by virtue of her existence in this space, through the process of her investigation, becomes transvestite.

But Donahue does not entirely escape the eye of the camera lens; although she fervently clutches her own color camcorder throughout the film, there is a second black and white camera to watch her. And her own colored eye turns on her, in the hands of Josh, watching her, recording her vulnerability while she teeters on the edge of sanity. Finally, frustrated, alone and hysterical, she turns the lens upon herself and speaks to the camera. By her own hand, she becomes the sole object of the voyeur as she dramatically apologizes for entering the woods. Bordering on sadism, this scene confirms all stereotypes of the helpless female and is the crux of the male perpetuated gaze; the climax of the film depends on Heather's visual hysteria which "signals a recognition of the discursive pressures upon the woman protagonist to be scatterbrained, incompetent, and stupid, to conform to a patriarchal stereotype of hysterical femininity" (Armatage 141). While Heather may have been strong and controlled in the first half of the film, her role as failed investigator has, by this point, lead her to become incompetent and highly vulnerable. For the rest of the film, she relies on Matt to make all the decisions.

Thus, in the end, The Blair Witch Project reinforces the notion of fear associated with the witch by relying on our cultural perceptions and expectations with horror; it re-establishes and re-situates the voyeuristic investigator in film whilst projecting an image of the witch and the forest that we have come to expect. Its power lies not just in our own imaginations (for indeed, we do not actually see the Blair Witch), but in the labels and rules that we accept as gendered.

Works Cited

Ardener, Shirley. "Ground Rules for Social Maps for Women." Introduction.                Women and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps. Ed. Shirley                Ardener. London: Croom Helm, 1981. 11-12.

Armatage, Kay. "Nell Shipman: A Case of Heroic Femininity." Feminisms in the                Cinema. Eds. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri. Indianapolis:                Indiana UP, 1995. 125-145.

Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. London: Greenwood                Press, 1995.

The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick. Perf. Heather                Donahue and Joshua Leonard. Blair Witch Film Partners and Haxan                Entertainment. 1999.

Felman, Shoshana. "Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy." Feminisms:                An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol                and Dianne Price Herndl. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1991. 7-20.

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1996.

—-. Visual and Other Pleasures. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1989.

Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York:                W.W. Norton and Co., 2001.

Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Drew Barrymore and Neve Campbell.                Dimension Films.1996.

Smelik, Anneke. And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory.                New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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