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Upon its release fifteen years ago, the distributors of The Blair Witch Project realized they had a phenomenon in hand. An innovative marketing campaign had built interest in the film by leading people to websites displaying fake news stories and information about the witch and the killings. Overall, the film cost less than $1 million to make and grossed $250 million. It spawned video games, comic books, a young adult fiction series, a soundtrack (that doesn’t play in the film itself), and thousands of commentaries on the “found footage” technique and the tendency of some to treat the events as real. Roger Ebert listed it among the “10 Most Influential Films of the Century” alongside Citizen Kane and The Battleship Potemkin.

Teens and twentysomethings drove its success, but it isn’t obvious why. “It’s the creepiest movie of the summer—and teens are flocking to it,” said the Daily News. But the traits we associate with youth popularity are absent.

The film’s plot is simple. Three film students, Heather, Mike, and Josh, propose a documentary about a local legend in the Maryland countryside but lose their way in the woods, are terrorized by some person or force, then end up in a ruined house and disappear. We never find out what happens to them and never see the perpetrator. The characters aren’t comely, clever, or skilled—just ordinary post-adolescents, free-spirited and jaded, though fragile underneath. They are frightened, not heroic. They don’t strategize, but instead bicker, uttering slacker clichés and obscenities, except for a brief interlude when Heather, scared to tears, confesses her errors to the camera.

The actors were unknown and the setting nondescript. The woods look the same from one scene to another. We see no sex or violence. There are only a few seconds of blood when Heather finds a piece of mangled flesh in a packet of sticks tied with a ribbon of Josh’s shirt. Finally, the enabling conceit of the film—it’s a video of their experience found after they disappeared—requires an amateur-like style, an unedited, shaky record by two handheld cameras. No color or special effects, no raucous music.

Consider other youth favorites then and now: the superhero genre, bombastic love stories such as Titanic, the puerile skits of Will Ferrell and Rob Schneider, raunchy tales like American Pie, the lurid, spectacular magic of Harry Potter films. Compared to them, Blair Witch looks cheap and boring. Why, then, did it become such a powerful youth hit?

The answer is simple but far-reaching. The film excites a moral response. Young people in the audience realize what the young people on the screen do not: the moral meaning of their situation. As Heather, Mike, and Josh enter the nearby town, interview residents, trek across streams, and make camp, they seem indifferent to the moral significance of the legend they are investigating. Watching what transpires and knowing the outcome (we learn of their disappearance before the action begins), those watching the film can’t avoid making judgments, even if half-consciously.

The impulse to judge begins with the predominant mood of the trio: irreverence. They don’t take their subject seriously. The legend includes an eighteenth-century woman accused of drawing blood from children, five men tortured and killed at Coffin Rock, and seven children murdered and disemboweled in the 1940s by an old hermit, but those horrors don’t affect the filmmakers. Residents in the town tell the crew that they stay away from the area, but the protagonists don’t hesitate. When a young fisherman calls the whole thing a “myth,” an older fisherman comments, “Damn fool kids’ll never learn,” and adds, “Anybody worth their salt knows this area is haunted.” The young one mumbles, “Aw, that’s bull_ _ _ _.”

We recoil at the mention of child corpses, but all it does to the protagonists is provide juicier reasons to run their cameras. Suffering and death don’t evoke a whisper of solemnity. They drink, smoke, and laugh, and they swear nonstop, every other sentence containing the F-word. A crazed old woman toting a Bible who recalls being confronted in the woods by a hairy womanish monster draws a smirk, not pity. At one point, Heather offers a somber rendition of the Coffin Rock killings, but that’s for the official documentary. When the camera stops, she reverts to frivolity.

Nothing is sacred. When crossing a creek, she encourages the boys, “Think about how cool the f_ _ _ing cemetery is going to be when we get there.” They encounter the seven rock piles, and one comments, “looks like an Indian burial ground,” but afterwards they don’t pause over its meaning (which relates to the seven children). Instead, they joke about Gilligan’s Island. One of them carelessly knocks over one of the piles. As their desperation waxes many hours later, Josh bellows an ultimate impiety: “F_ _ _ you, God!”

Everything has to go on film, too. When they stumble onto the stick-figure site, one of them mutters, “Jesus Christ, that’s f_ _ _ing creepy,” but Heather lingers as the boys order her to stop shooting and get out of there. As Josh tells her, “I see why you like this video camera so much. . . . It’s not quite reality. . . . It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”

The easy irony, self-dramatization, insensitivity, and virtual-reality tastes are commonplace among eighteen-year-olds. Why, then, did young audiences take pleasure in watching their peers on screen suffer?

Because the moviegoers wanted them punished. In their own lives, young viewers may not act better, but they know better, and when they become observers of ribaldry and thoughtlessness, they expect justice to be done. Yes, they commit the same sins, but they know that you shouldn’t mock rural folk and local lore, the F-word is degrading, treating abominable deeds as a pretext for your own performance is immoral, and you don’t curse the Lord! They smile when Josh farts in the tent. But they know that a moment of silence for the dead children is called for. They indulge sacrilege but maintain some respect for the sacred. They don’t like elders telling them what to do, but they want God to take care of them. When others over-assert the very adolescent urges they feel inside, they want to see them rebuked even as they identify with rebellion. And for all their immersion in video games and media, they crave real life.

This is to map the adolescent mind too sharply. In truth, these rival dispositions are fuzzy and fluid, mingling and competing in the minds of the young more or less dimly in the rush of other thoughts and sensations. One motive contradicts the other, and we shouldn’t expect a neat coexistence in the volatile teen psyche. But we can distinguish the contrary impulses, the part of them hoping Heather will escape, and the part inclined to ask her as the noose tightens, “Where is your cynicism now?” If you asked a fan, “Are you happy when Heather is struck down at the end?” he would reply, “Glad? No, it’s terrible.” But he still finds her fate compelling and memorable, and keeps thinking about it.

Here is the divided condition of young adulthood—to be drawn to irreverence but want piety’s affirmations; to trade in sarcasm but seek models of sincerity; to de-sanctify daily life but hope for spiritual elevation. The Blair Witch Project was a hit because it let viewers have it both ways. It did not wow young people with adventure or special effects. Instead it allowed them to work out this psychic battle between the impulse to profane and the hunger for the sacred.

The climax of the film isn’t the final deed of the “witch.” It is Heather’s remorse: “I just want to apologize to Mike’s mom and Josh’s mom and my mom and say I’m sorry to everyone. . . . I was very naive and very stupid and I shouldn’t have put other people in danger for something that was all about me and my selfish motives.” This is the heart of youth. It’s an admission of adolescence and a wish to overcome it. It’s the desire for spiritual discipline beneath the caprice and derision they otherwise do so well.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.