The Blair Witch Project Then, Now, and in the Future: A Talk with Ben Rock
September 5, 2016, 5:20 PM Berlin time – I met Benjamin Rock on Instagram. While at first sight, this cyber encounter may not seem out of the ordinary, the significance it holds for me is colossal. Ben was the production designer of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the most unpretentious material I have ever seen on the silver screen, which has succeeded in carving its name on many layers of popular culture.
It didn’t take long for us to decide to turn this chance encounter, which took place when he added me to his friends list as he was trying to reach horror fans on the Instagram page of the third film (which hit theaters on October 16th in the US, September 23rd in Turkey, and October 6th in Berlin), into an interview.
I don’t think it’s too big of a blunder to say I noticed I know more about the witch and its cult than Ben does. Born on 22nd April 1971 in Miami, Florida, Rock worked as a special effects makeup artist during his college years at UCF and at art departments of independent and commercial productions in Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Alabama. At the same time he was putting in free hours at a local theater project.
After college, he took up directing, mostly low-budget, 16MM and Super-8 films. In 1996 and 97, his accomplishments in advertising one of his local projects earned him two Addy’s (American Advertising Awards). This was followed by more local commercial projects until, as he states on his website, BOOM! the darkest version of the cursed Witch of the West was created.
The Blair Witch Project’s Stickman symbol (a.k.a. The Twana) seems to divide his career in two as well as his online biography. However, this iconic logo, which has found its way as far as into our kitchens, was not his only contribution to the film of course. He also helped devise the improvisational atmosphere in the film directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick and played an instrumental role in the creation of a major part of the story, which may be seen as a prequel to the Blair Witch (available on the website of the original film). Soon after the premiere of the original film, he was invited to write the Curse of the Blair Witch by the creative team. This was an hour-long documentary revealing the “true” story, prepared for the Syfy channel. Later he took up the screenplay and direction of the Burkittsville 7 (Showtime) and Shadow of the Blair Witch (Syfy) films, which were complementary to the original film. The echoes of the Witch and Rock’s career in the cinema industry are still in full swing. (I highly recommend you also read Rock’s extensive biography at benrockonline.com)
On 2nd October 1999, I was only 15 years old when I went to the movies to see The Blair Witch Project. It was in tough competition, reaching viewers at the same time as Star Wars: Episode 1 Phantom Menace, which the popular culture, Hollywood in all its glam, and media outlets had been anticipating for a long time. It was two months since the 17th August Izmit Earthquake and two years before the 9/11 attacks in the global timeline of events at the old Renk Cinema in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy area. This was when cinemas were yet to be monopolized by shopping malls and you had to go a couple of floors below ground to see movies, at least in the neighborhood where I grew up. These kind of damp underground cinema experiences allowed for a more claustrophobic, semi-masochistic relationship between the horror movie and the viewer where with each step down the stairs you felt like you were going down the layers of your own subconsciousness. Such horror movie experiences which present the possibility of facing suppressed or not-yet-in-the-consciousness-enough to be suppressed issues have been defined by Carol Clover as “engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.” (Men, Woman, and the Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992)
Shortly before our lives became completely possessed by the internet and search engines, I had refused to pay attention to the earthquake after shock warnings that day; and I remember the agitated silence in the movie salon when The Blair Witch Project ended. This silence is rooted in the incitation of feelings of fear, anger, pleasure, and curiosity and the successful representation of notions like confrontation/lack of confrontation, fakeness/authenticity, reality, repression without ever being seen on screen by this American witch – who in the following years would grow to be a total phenomenon. (On a different note, the long awaited earthquake aftershock caught up with me at another movie soiree on November 12th, 1999 while watching The Haunting directed by Jan de Bont. Catastrophe!)
If you’re one of those who had just reached puberty when you watched The Blair Witch Project, which came into existence thanks to Ben Rock’s immense contributions to production and myth-formation, in your 30s you’re getting another chance to reevaluate your journey with the Witch and popular culture. In your early memories, the Witch may have attacked you from behind, in a basement oddly similar to the whirlpools of your subconsciousness, which you may or may not have enjoyed. If you ask the elderly, they’ll tell you the Witch can bend time and space; thus, she exists simultaneously in the now, then, and future. As long as we continue buying it, the brand of the Witch will become an even bigger brand than her mythology.
Don’t fret if you never got a chance to visit Maryland/Burkittsville; in 2000 Nocturne provided the computer and PlayStation players with Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr. If you were denounced as a witch by the sociable and popular kids for playing computer games excessively, you’ll get what I really mean by this. In essence, there are myriad possible understandings of a film which blurred the boundaries between real and virtual and a witch who evolved into a mythology of its own production, comic books, refrigerator magnets, trading cards, calendars, and even an erotic film industry (The Erotic Witch Project). Furthermore, with a bit research you can discover the readings of The Blair Witch Project in countless references by theoreticians like Tamiko Southcott Hayter through the lens of gender, male hegemony in the horror film industry, capitalism, the relationship between the viewer, and gaze. I’d say it is an inevitable popular culture privilege to learn through analysis of this film that a horror film isn’t essentially just a nameless gratification or a mere thrill. I would like to thank Benjamin for cracking the door open in 1999 to these aforementioned readings and move on to my questions.
Dread Central: Ben, I know you penned a retrospective into the story of the production of The Blair Witch Project on Dread Central. However, I would like to formulate my questions based on what may have been ignored between the lines, on behalf of the people who didn’t get a chance to read the piece, and adding to it what I have gathered about the Witch over the years. (I would like to warn that this part of the article will contain spoilers for the new film; I won’t claim to feel much empathy for the ones who haven’t seen the first film yet.)
DC: Do you still believe in the Blair Witch stories?
Ben Rock: Believe? I never believed in the stories – I was one of the people writing them. The stories which inspired them, however, are a dark part of American folklore. I don’t believe any of that stuff either, but I don’t need to believe something to have the shit scared out of me by it. Things like the “Bell Witch” in Adams, Tennessee, always frightened me, and I put that into the backstory stuff I created for Blair Witch.
DC: The new film premiered in Germany on October 6th. (I watched it at the first screening.) You had guaranteed to me that the film was in good hands. To begin with, do you still believe that after seeing the film? There are some positive reviews as well as many negative impressions. What would you like to say now after its release? Keeping your own mythology in mind.
BR: My biggest fear walking into the movie theater was that they’d throw away the mythology or add extra, pointless elements to it just because they could. I was extremely relieved when I saw the film at how close they’d stuck to the mythos as we’d created it. I mean, some tweaks and adjustments needed to be made because Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are making their own new movie and they should be allowed to do so – but the core of the idea was left intact.
In a way, that’s what makes folklore so much fun – you can twist it around. Every generation has its own take on a given piece of folklore. And we’re incredibly lucky with Blair Witch to be interesting enough to people all these years later that they still want to use this material to scare people.
DC: What kind of a relation do you see between going to the woods in the 90s and surveying the woods via the technology of 2016?
BR: Well, in the new film, they have much better technology of course. In 1997 when we made BWP, we had a GPS system which would be laughable by today’s standards. I don’t walk my dogs today without a GPS tracking me, but in 1997 it was pretty sophisticated stuff. But the thing about the woods is that they’re always scary no matter what gear you have with you. There’s something so primal and frightening about the unknown as you look into the chasm of the woods. It’s no wonder so many horror films happen there, and I assume they will continue to do so.
DC: Both films (even when the main character of the sequel is James) prefer to keep the female characters until the end (and chop them up last). How would you describe the relationship of the Blair Witch brand with women? Based on the fact that both films were directed by men, I began considering the necessity of analyzing the childhoods of Sanchez and Myrick and taking a peep at their relationships with the opposite sex, in order to understand Wingard and Barrett.
BR: I truly don’t know what Ed and Dan’s relationship with women in their childhoods were, but women are often the lead characters in horror films. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” or Heather Legencamp in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” In the case of “Blair Witch,” I can say that it was always the intention to have a woman be the lead, and we never actually see Heather die. We don’t know what became of her. Personally, I think Heather is such a strong force in that film that it’s not about her being a woman or a filmmaker, but her character becomes an inevitable matchup for whatever is in the woods.
DC: In his 1996 “Monster Theory” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen claims it is possible to study cultures (and their fears) based on the monsters they possess. Moving from that, would you like to analyze our fears based on the witch perspectives of 1996 and 2016? (I think there might be a cultural relation between the witch of 1999 who wasn’t visible, even for a second, and the witch of 2016 who is spreading terror on screen.)
BR: The 1990’s were a terrible, horrible time for horror movies in my opinion, and I think that what pervaded in movies were overly-slick CGI monsters, which felt unreal. Maybe the culture of the 1990’s convinced us that there really wasn’t much to fear. We were in a bubble psychically and emotionally. In America, we weren’t at war with anyone in particular, our economy was booming, and yet, “rawness” pervaded the edges of culture in indie film and music and stuff. But horror movies were kind of dead. I think that “The Blair Witch Project” made people’s fear of the woods, fear of the natural world, come to life.
Then 9/11 happened and brought real fear into our world in America. You can see it in American horror films even a year later. Then the Iraq War began and the wave of “torture porn” films followed. I feel like today we’re in a weird “post-9/11” time for horror movies, and Adam Wingard grew up in that time. His films are more visceral and horror fans expect a level of that in their movies. I think today what Americans fear has more to do with real danger in the shadows that can violently hurt us. But, as we saw, the new movie didn’t strike enough of a chord with moviegoers, so maybe I’m wrong.
DC: Did you get a chance to speak to Tom Hammock, the production designer of the sequel, during or after filming? I personally watched the set built for the sequel in awe. What do you think of the final state of the house? How do you imagine Patricia DeCou’s reaction would be if she were alive?
BR: I had literally zero contact with any of the filmmakers of “Blair Witch,” but I thought the outside of the house looked amazing – a damn fine replica of the original house. On the inside it looked very different, but that was part of what they were going for.
It’s hard to say what Patty would say if she were alive. She was a complex person, maybe the subject for an interview all on her own.
DC: I read that initially a prequel, not a sequel, was in the talks. What would you say our chances are of watching the beginning of the Blair Witch story on the silver screen? With regards to the box office outcome of the sequel, could we expect further sequels in the future?
BR: It’s really hard to say if there will be another Blair Witch property out there. Robert Eggers’ movie “The Witch” is about as close to the kind of prequel we were talking about in 2000 as anything I’ve ever seen, and I love the fuck out of that movie.
But even though “Blair Witch” probably made the studio some money, I think it effectively put a pin in further sequels or prequels unfortunately. Back in 2000, I thought there were a lot more stories to tell in that universe. Today, I don’t know if the audience is that excited to hear them as they were back then. And don’t forget that “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” came out in 2000 and destroyed the franchise back then.
DC: Speaking of prequels, what is your opinion on the 2016 production The Witch: A New England Folktale by Robert Eggers? Do you think Black Phillip would get along well with the Blair Witch?
BR: Well, even though I mentioned that movie above and I love it – saw it twice in the theater – I think it’s a very different kind of malefactor. In my opinion, Elly Kedward was a scapegoat and didn’t do any of the things attributed to her in the legend. Whatever is in the Black Hills is way more frightening than some woman who died in the snow.
DC: You are the designer of what has become the sole symbol of The Blair Witch Project: the stickman. Why is the symbol that became synonymous with the Witch male? You had said that your inspiration for the Stickman came from “Magical Alphabets” written by Nigel Pannick. Pannick defines all the symbols in this book as “the keys to personal enlightenment” Looking from this angle, what exactly does your stickman (also called “Twana” in TBWP Volume 1: Rustin Parr) symbolize? Have you ever considered the dimensions other than the cultural and commercial relations of this symbol with the outer world?
BR: “Twana” wasn’t something we created; it was part of the video games that followed the first movie. Also, I wouldn’t say that the Stickman is explicitly male (although it has a basis in the “Rune Man”). It’s just another way to make a humanoid out of four sticks. To me the Stickman was a totem, and it was a threat. It was a way for a primitive mind to say, “We’re watching you.” It could have represented the filmmakers themselves even, but I wouldn’t put a gender on it.
DC: Was the creation process of the film’s characteristic font as improvisational as the creation of the stickman?
BR: That was a marketing thing, and I wasn’t particularly involved in that decision.
DC: Season 6 of “American Horror Story” blinked at the Stickman symbol. Do you follow the series? Is there anything you’d like to add about this relationship?
BR: Not really – It was an obvious nod to BWP, but it’s not like any of us were involved in “American Horror Story.”
DC: Who are your favorite witches in the history of cinema and television?
BR: That’s a great question, and I’ve never thought about it specifically that way. I’d say my absolute favorite is Helena Markos (AKA Mother Suspiriorum in Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” That movie and her character never fail to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I’d give the Stygian Witches in the 1981 Ray Harryhausen classic “Clash of the Titans” an honorable mention as well.
DC: Speaking of TBWP Volume 1: Rustin Parr… Have you played the games? We can feel the contributions of the first game to the mythology created in the new film. The antagonist of the game, Doc. Holliday, briefly sees Heather in the basement of Rustin Parr. Just this moment had made my expectations about the film soar. How exactly did the idea that the Witch can play with time and space come into being?
BR: It has been 16 years since I’ve played the games. It’s honestly hard for me to remember them well. The idea of the Blair Witch playing with space and time wasn’t overtly our idea, although there is that full day where Heather, Mike, and Josh hike in one direction and end up in the same place. But it was far more subtle and creepy in that way.
DC: Also in the first game of the series, an American native called Hecaiomix who is even older than the witch herself mentions an evil power in the woods. At the end of the sequel Wingard and Barrett started signaling that the creepy creature seen first in the woods and later at Parr’s place could have been something else than a witch. This was interpreted by some to be a strategy to boost the DVD sales. Any comments on the “thing” we saw at the end of the film?
BR: I liked the Hecaiomix myth, as it played into what I think the “Blair Witch” could be. It’s my opinion that the “Blair Witch” is something more insidious than even that creature. It’s not a creature, it’s like “Pet Sematary” or the “Bermuda Triangle.” But of course an actual monster is far scarier than than a force of evil. But I really can’t comment on the intention behind anything in the new movie, as I wasn’t a part of it.
DC: This question is from a half-witch/half-cyborg fan of yours who wishes to remain anonymous: “Witches have different goals according to their own occult systems. They make a deal with demons through consecration to receive power or immortality. Does the Blair Witch possess a complex power which entails all these benefits, or did she have a goal or a desire?”
BR: The reason the name “Blair Witch” has always felt appropriate to me is that in Colonial times in America anything occultish at all was called a “witch.” It was kind of a generic name. So to me, the “Blair Witch” is the folklorish name of a malevolent force in the Black Hills. I don’t think it has a specific goal except to cause chaos, and many of the stories told about it (including the entire legend of the “Blair Witch”) are greatly exaggerated in some instances, greatly underplayed in others. So to me, it is in itself its own “occult system.”
DC: Another horror fan from Istanbul asks: “These days anybody who waves a fork in the kitchen and films it with a dynamic camera, launches it as a horror film. Are you happy with what you’ve done?”
BR: It was inevitable that technology would enable filmmakers with no money to make interesting work. I think we’ve seen the spike of “found footage” movies, and hopefully we’ve moved on. But every time there’s a new camera that gives unprecedented quality at lower prices, someone’s going to make a movie out of it.
I do like that anyone, anywhere can make a movie that’s screenable on Netflix or in a movie theater or wherever. A couple years ago a movie called “Tangerine” won a big award at the Sundance Film Festival. I feel like all bets are off and the best story can finally win. That’s a good thing.
DC: Including the directors of the first film, many people have talked about how “there were no big expectations” in the production process of TBWP. Now that you have become a part of a project that succeeded in carving a major place for itself in many layers of pop culture, how would you describe this +10-year process? For example, have you tried to steer away from the Hollywood perspective and reevaluate the whole process?
BR: It wasn’t 10-year process (unless I’m misunderstanding the question). I was brought on in 1996, the film was made a year later, finished about a year after that, and premiered at Sundance shortly thereafter. I will say that none of us had any reason to expect that this film would go anywhere at all. We’d all worked on stuff in Florida and the southeastern United States around that time (Gregg Hale had worked in LA on TV shows), but nothing we’d worked on had gone on to any great acclaim.
As far as steering clear of Hollywood, I live there and I work there, so I guess not. Since Blair Witch, I’ve been trying to get my own work made and seen, with varying levels of success. But I don’t think there is a “Hollywood perspective.” When you get out here, you realize that this city is crawling with some of the most remarkable AND unremarkable people you’ll ever meet, doing amazing work and shitty work alike. Hollywood is a big tent. Some of the best movies ever made got their start here, as does every reality show on television.
DC: The first film is formed around the idea of shooting a documentary about the witch on purely “academic reasons.” How do you feel about the critiques and academic texts on the film? Could you share with us the research (directly related to the film or you deem noteworthy regarding the horror industry) which holds significance for you? (Tamika Southcott Hayter’s “Perverse Pleasures: Spectatorship The Blair Witch Project“ (2005) seems to be one of the most important resources that I could locate. With regards to this, I wonder how it feels to be a component of what somebody formed their thesis on, but never being mentioned in the thesis itself?
BR: Wow – I have read none of that. I’d love to see some links if you’d be willing to share them.
DC: Reaching your 40s, what are your thoughts on the horror film industry?
BR: Very little has changed regarding my opinion of horror films and making them since I was a teenager. I recently worked on a film that was super-gory, all nights in the woods, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had lately. I love being scared. I love making scary things. I enjoy the construction of the magic trick that every great horror film has at its core.
As far as the “industry” goes, it’s not specific to horror but low-budget movies are in a historically bad place. I don’t know if they’ve been this bad during my lifetime, and it’s somewhat depressing. A combination of the rise of YouTube, prevalence of video games, services like Redbox and Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as widespread piracy make it very difficult to recoup costs on lower-budget feature films for pretty much the last 8 years or so. We’ve seen the entire industry move to make nothing but comic book properties and things that make SO much money that they’re basically piracy-proof.
As an example, I directed a feature in 2009 called “Alien Raiders” (stupid title, I know). It was released in Japan two months before it was released in America, and the day it came out it was on a BitTorrent site. That movie was made for the then-low budget of $2,250,000. Today, that movie would be lucky to get a budget of $500,000 and the expectations would be identical.
As a result, I moved to make a web series over the last few years. One of which is called “20 Seconds to Live” and I love making it, but there’s no money in it. But even given that, it’s better to make no money quickly than it is to bleed money for years on a feature and never see a dime back, which is an experience too many of my friends have gone through. I hate reducing all of this to a business, but at some point we have to pay our bills.
I’ve complained about this with my horror filmmaker buddies before, but when we were all growing up reading Fangoria magazine, “horror director” was an actual job we could have. Today it feels like it’s easier to make horror movies but MUCH harder to make a living doing so.
DC: I had asked you if you could share with us the sketches from the film’s production period…
BR: I wish I still had them somewhere. I remember sketching the first Stickman on a legal pad in my car driving back to Germantown, Maryland from Bethesda. I may still have it somewhere, but I don’t really have any of my original notes. When I was writing the series for Dread Central, I looked at some diaries I kept while we were shooting the film, and that made it easier for me to pinpoint dates. But there weren’t any sketches in there – sorry.
DC: What is your most sensational experience about the witch so far?
BR: I tend to lump the whole experience together – from Gregg Hale pitching me the basic concept in his living room in 1996 to the last day I worked on delivering the TV special “Curse of the Blair Witch” for Syfy in 2000. So many things happened in that period of time, and my life really feels like it’s divided into everything before that and everything after.
Making the film itself, which was a one-month immersion for me, was one of those rare times in life where the decisions were obvious, my ambitions were pure, and all I wanted was to serve this story I believed in. That really doesn’t happen very often, so when that comes along in life, we have to jump on it.
DC: We had established that the theme of this interview would be the witch, but would you like to quench our curiosity on what exactly you are up to these days and what awaits you in the future?
BR: Like I said above, I worked on a horror/comedy web series called “20 Seconds to Live,” which I co-created with my friend Bob DeRosa, who writes them, and I direct and edit every episode. It’s been fun to play in the new media landscape and hopefully bring some of our aesthetic (along with our producer Cat Pasciak) to the very small screen.
I have also been directing lots of theater this entire time (even when we were making BWP). I’m supposed to direct a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation in Hollywood in the spring, and I’m extremely excited about it as Vonnegut is my favorite author, and this play is an adaptation of my favorite of his books, adapted by Stuart Gordon (director of “Re-Animator”).
Besides that, I’m a freelancer, so I’m always directing or editing commercials, documentaries, and whatever I can get hired to make. Right now I’m working on a commercial. Nothing exciting.
DC: One last question from the translator: “Today in the eyes of some young feminists who are reclaiming the iconography of the witch in the context of girlpower, the witch is in some ways a feminist icon, maybe because she offers a way out of the virgin/whore binary. How do you imagine the Blair Witch feels about this? What are your thoughts on the relationship between women’s spirituality movements like Wicca, which take the witch to be a self-defining and empowered female archetype, and The Blair Witch Project, where the witch is the villain?”
BR: Well, there are certainly a lot of great feminist horror films out there. I don’t know if “Blair Witch” is one of them, and I don’t feel like it’s for me to say necessarily. My opinion of the Blair Witch, as stated above, is that “witch” was a pejorative applied to literally anything unexplained in the 1700’s, so it’s not about Wicca, actual witchcraft, or really about female-ness to me in the way that the witches in “Macbeth” are dark supernatural women who possessed mysterious powers.
In a way, I don’t think that whatever the “Blair Witch” is thinks about this at all in the way that a person would think about a topic – I think it’s a dark ugliness in those dense woods that takes what it wants when it feels like taking, neither a man nor a woman. But it’s worth further consideration!
Special thanks to Selin Davasse for help with any necessary translations.