The Blair Witch Project is not only single-handedly responsible for popularizing the found footage horror sub-genre (and later, its sibling, the baffling POV footage sub-genre), but for revitalizing the horror genre in the pre-millennium days of Scream and I Know What You Did wannabes. Understandably, thanks to its forward-thinking viral campaign, unique (at the time) format, and legitimately scary storytelling, The Blair Witch Project was a massive success. As with most major pop culture entries, it was satirized, spoofed, often mimicked but never successfully replicated. Even now, as found footage and POV horror films have remained prolific in the wake of the 1999 film, only Paranormal Activity has managed to replicate that success.
And, as with all highly successful pop culture entities, building a franchise to exploit the fan base was inevitable. In 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 hit theaters, offering a different approach to deepening the mythology - instead of repeating the found footage format, director Joe Berlinger presented the sequel as a fictionalized retelling of real events that took place after the release of The Blair Witch Project. Book of Shadows disappointed audiences who just wanted more of the same, and although the commercial and critical response would indicate otherwise, this sequel is not a failure.
Berlinger's film is a metatextual reactionary piece - a reaction to the reaction. There's a duality in our response to immensely successful properties. As fans, we desperately want the story to continue in a sequel because we love that world so, so much, and at the same time, our high-brow selves would prefer that the filmmakers left well enough alone because these films are great as a singular entity. That a film can inspire such rabid devotion and desire to know more is proof of its triumph, but often our inclination to extend the life of a property is selfish and unreasonable. It's exceedingly rare for sequels to improve upon their originals - more often than not, additional entries offer diminishing returns.
Book of Shadows reacts to that demand by satirizing The Blair Witch Project fan base. The film itself is almost Godardian in the way it taunts its audience, though its approach is far more joyful and lacks that specific aggressive and cynical tone. The sequel follows a variety pack of Blair Witch devotees: Jeff, a former psych ward patient and opportunist who's directed his obsessive energies toward the legend of the Blair Witch (though he's only seen the film 17 times, which seems tame). Kim, a frequent Hot Topic shopper and stereotypical goth who claims to be psychic and likes to chill in cemeteries. Stephen and Tristen, a white bread couple working on a book about the history of the Blair Witch and the hysteria provoked by the film. And Erica, a self-professed Wiccan who acts like a 13-year-old who just saw The Craft and decided she was a witch, spouting all-too familiar phrases like "Wicca isn't evil. It's about nature."
Each character offers a caricature of various Blair Witch fans, all of whom you likely encountered following the rabid reaction to the original film - perhaps one of them is representative of your own reaction. Jeff is a film studio proxy, hawking replicas of cairns and stick men, along with branded merch to relentless fans who happily pay for these overpriced items, desperate to digest every piece of Blair Witch ephemera. Stephen and Tristen are scholarly researchers out to simultaneously prove and disprove the legend by dismantling fact from fiction. Similarly, Book of Shadows further blurs the line established by The Blair Witch Project, examining the deficit between what's real and what's fake, additionally delivering wry commentary on the perceived influence of horror and violent media on devoted fans.
There is, of course, an actual narrative, one that's deliriously wacky - the gang gets wild with drugs and booze in the middle of the woods, collectively blacking out and awaking to discover that their equipment and research has been destroyed. The plot becomes a Scooby mystery as they examine their own "found footage" to discern what took place in those woods during the hours they lost. The act of combing through the footage is a further comment on dedicated fandom, the need to sift through minutiae until we find what hasn't yet been found - or until we begin to see things that aren't really there. We go so far down the rabbit hole that fandom soon becomes fanaticism, and we become so committed to our discoveries and beliefs that the simplistic reality becomes an agitating interloper, threatening to destroy our constructed narratives.
What is real? What is fiction? Jeff and his pals see something no one else can see, a distorted reality in which atrocities were committed by an evil entity, provoking a modern witch hunt confined to their small group. Hysteria, like witchcraft, is a traditionally feminine concept, and the men zealously descend upon Erica and Tristen, whose actions are an irrational threat to the pursuit of rationality. Tristen has a miscarriage and Erica practices Wicca. We fear what we don't understand; it's no coincidence that both characters are women. In an act of taunting defiance, Tristen later holds the camera up to her own face, mimicking Heather's iconic, snot-soaked confessional from the original film. Her sardonic replication of that close-up gives the fans the duplication they demand by mocking their desire.
Book of Shadows presents an ouroboros of fact chasing fiction chasing fact, accessorized by Blair Witch fandom cliches, hilarious in both their simplicity and realism. It's a silly film, but one that was misunderstood in its initial release - this isn't a direct sequel, but a direct, rebellious reaction to the fanaticism.
The mythology of The Blair Witch Project continued to grow with a trilogy of video games (each predictably worse than the last), various comic books, and a series of eight (eight!) YA novels. You may or may not vaguely recall some of these items, perhaps because Book of Shadows definitively punctuated the franchise, tempering adoration for the original film. Instead, the horror genre soon became overstuffed with found footage copycats, each anxious to recapture that initial success - a reaction to a reaction.