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The Dizzy Spell of 'Blair Witch Project'

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 1999


Some movies make you erupt with giggles. Others make your eyes moist. But "The Blair Witch Project," a new documentary-style horror flick filmed with a shaky hand-held camera, is making viewers stomach-quivering, skin-crawling, bathroom-dashing sick.

Dizzy spells, queasiness, cold sweats and occasional vomiting have been part of the experience for some who've seen this sleeper hit of the summer, an eerie tale of isolation and fear made by two young filmmakers. The movie officially opens at theaters across the country today.

An average of one person a show at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, where the film opened earlier this month, has requested a refund because they were feeling woopsy, said Bob Jones, regional director for Loews Cineplex Entertainment. Theater managers in San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta report a similar phenomenon, even as the 87-minute independent film is selling out evening shows up to a day in advance at many theaters.

The audiences are mostly younger – teens to thirties – and evidently have a morbid attraction to fear and the nausea-inducing effects of the grainy, blurry camera work.

"Motion sickness from the camera work is kind of a side product of the film," said Jones, who oversees the Outer Circle. "We don't want people to sit there if they're feeling bad. But this is not happening to most people."

For some, like Mangesh Hattikudur, 20, the jittery camera was enough to make him feel wretched after a recent screening. Looking pallid and suffering from a headache, he stood outside a few minutes after the show. "The hand-held camera stuff made me sick," he said, clutching his stomach. He did not, however, actually hurl, he reported. His friends were no doubt grateful for that.

"What happens is the camera and the brain mismatch messages," said John Risey, a clinical audiologist at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic in New Orleans. "Because you are seated and you are still, your brain gets wrong information that you are in motion." (Risey has not seen the movie – yet.)

The brain then sets off those woozy, seasicky symptoms. Because movie screens are so large, your entire field of vision is involved and that makes your body feel as if it's in motion, Risey explained. A computer screen or a television would not have the same effect.

Other movies – like "84 Charlie Mopic," a 1989 Vietnam combat video-verite – have caused motion sickness before. Old-timers from the '70s recall warnings that "The Exorcist" could also induce stomach churning.

In "The Blair Witch Project," anxiety combined with the spasmodic camera could make the sickness worse and more frequent, Risey said. Unlike, say, the "Scream" movie genre, this movie's plot swirls around anticipation of fear instead of bloody stumps or hideous stabbings and decapitations.

Some equate the effect with the edgy, clammy feelings of panic disorder.

The story – packaged as reality, even though it's fiction – starts with a haunting preface in which three film students strap on camera gear and journey into Maryland's Black Hills Forest. They intend to film a documentary on a string of murders by an alleged witch. They never return.

The film languidly tells the story starting with man-on-the-street interviews with locals about the killings, cheap jokes about banal slacker culture, and then, finally, twitches into the heart of darkness: the crackling, creepy woods.

"The movie is a little bit like panic disorder because you are waiting for it to happen and you don't know when it will," said Alan Lipman, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. "I think for someone who is already a little bit edgy if you sit them down in front of 'The Blair Witch Project,' they could explode. There are other people who are sitting back in their chairs and saying this isn't scary at all."

He predicted that word of the movie's sickmaking aspects would only add to its appeal.

Moviegoers expecting fantastical monsters like Freddy Krueger in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or serious bloodletting may be unprepared for the psychological torture in "The Blair Witch Project," which feels all too authentic. And that could make the motion sickness even worse.

"I think a lot of people are expecting an ironic tone. What they are getting instead is a sense where you really don't know if it's real or not," said Lipman. "For people who have a propensity to react strongly to fear, that could be a surprise."

So call it "The Blair Retch Project," an exercise in experiencing fear while safely in your seat. If you aren't running for the bathroom.

In line outside the Outer Circle Tuesday, three teenagers from Bethesda didn't seem worried.

They came in lugging greasy turkey, mayo and tomato subs and a box of chocolates. Not exactly anti-nausea pills. (And not exactly permitted, although at 14 and 15 they shouldn't have been allowed in to an R-rated movie anyway. But never mind.)

They sat through the entire film – munching their lunch – but left feeling a bit of regret about their snack.

"I kinda feel sick now," said one, a baby-faced brunette with straight, shoulder-length hair and a bright yellow T-shirt. She and her friends sat down woozily on the curb, waiting for parents to pick them up. Behind them, a long line of healthy looking customers waited to buy tickets.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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