Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Can The A.V. Club’s writers beat the Blair Witch—or at least their own loneliness—at its own game?

Illustration for article titled Can iThe A.V. Club/i’s writers beat the Blair Witch—or at least their own loneliness—at its own game?
Photo: Hunt A Killer

William Hughes: It was apparent early on that Halloween 2020 was going to be a weird one; as hopes of a solution to the COVID-19 crisis arriving by October evaporated, mental calculations around the country started running, hoping to figure out the logistics of how to do candy, costumes, and all the other important signifiers of this spookiest of seasons in a safe and socially responsible way. Fake horror can be a great distraction from real nightmares, but how do you achieve it while keeping everybody safe?

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As we so often do, The A.V. Club turned to our old pal The Blair Witch to give us a helping hand. (Claw, whatever.) As it happens, Blair Witch studio Lionsgate has teamed up this year with murder-by-mail company Hunt A Killer, offering fans of Burkittsville-based mayhem a Blair Witch-branded take on the company’s usual slate of subscription mystery boxes. Sensing the chance to get a little socially distanced horror into our own lives, five members of The A.V. Club staff (including myself, my fellow games writer Sam Barsanti, news editor Shannon Miller, Hunt A Killer vet Alex McLevy, and our resident Blair Witch-pert, A.A. Dowd) talked the company into sending us the first episode to make our way through. Then we blocked off a night in our schedules and dug into the mystery together via Zoom.

Hunt A Killer generously sent us each a copy of the materials for the first (of six) episodes of its Blair Witch mystery, allowing the five of us to pore over a variety of newspaper clippings, police reports, and other personal documents outlining the mysterious disappearance of young Liam Kent, who may or may not have done gotten himself Blair Witched. (Though it’d be a pretty weird hook for the series if he hadn’t.) Having our own individual materials made it far easier for everyone to divvy up code-breaking duties and investigations than it otherwise would, and it’s honestly hard for me to imagine this working in a socially distanced way without that split-up indulgence—especially since such a big part of the experience is in the tactile feel of stuff like unfolding the Burkittsville town map or flashing the cool (and only occasionally janky) included blacklight all over the materials in search of secret messages.

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That being said: The mystery itself was loads of fun, full of clues to pick apart, and plenty of little touches of flavor. As a detective fiction nerd, one thing I really appreciated was being given a concrete goal; having done “boxed mysteries” before, I’ve always been a little unhappy with the way things just sort of peter out once you’ve deciphered everything. Having an actual confirmation that we—or more specifically, our colleague Alex McLevy, who raced headlong toward a solution without the rest of us—had actually solved the question of where Liam had disappeared from was a satisfying touch.

What it wasn’t, though, was scary. I’ll confess, as I did to my fellow killer hunters before the game began, that I’ve never actually watched a Blair Witch movie. (Although I do know all the standard cultural signifiers: close-up confessionals, spooky arts and crafts, someone putting Baby in the corner.) So it’s possible I was missing some of the spooky subtext. (I did like a line about how the creature luring Liam into the forest to get BW’d knew his dead father’s last thoughts; that felt appropriately creepy.) But it might also just be a problem of introduction; presumably, the mystery will get scarier once we’re actually out in the woods ourselves.

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How about the rest of the team? Was anybody else’s spine feeling a little more chilled?

Sam Barsanti: I don’t know if my spine was chilled, but there were some spooky little flourishes here and there in the evidence that Liam Kent’s poor mother helpfully compiled for us that were nicely spine-cooling—like little Blair Witch symbols hidden in invisible ink, or ominous figures looming in the dark corners of pages. And yes, I am operating under the assumption that the documents, helpful newspaper clippings, and shiny tooth necklaces we all received were actual evidence from an actual witch-related disappearance, because—much like the original movie, which I didn’t even realize wasn’t based on a true story until many, many years later—I think that’s the only way some of this really works. So much of the stuff we got and the stuff we went through was there for flavor, or as red herrings to make us figure out what was important and what wasn’t, which means that a lot of the work we put in didn’t actually bring us closer to solving the mystery. It all still felt worthwhile, though, because it helped fill in who these people are and what the Blair Witch is up to—not that we saw any conclusive evidence that a Blair Witch was involved in this disappearance. (I’ve just decided that I’m going to take a page from every small-town sheriff in a horror story, including this one, and stubbornly refuse to accept that anything supernatural is happening here.)

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We spent a lot of time code-breaking while going through this box, but a lot of the messages we deciphered weren’t clues as much as they were spooky things to say in a hidden message. If you just want to solve the mystery, that stuff won’t really help you get there, but just solving the mystery isn’t really the point. The point is immersing yourself in this world and buying into the narrative, which I thought was a lot of fun (and we haven’t even gotten into our brief side gigs as sandwich detectives, which was a highlight for me). Now, if we could all get back to work, there’s a missing kid out there, and these ridiculous stories about a Blair Witch are distracting us from finding him!

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Photo: Hunt A Killer
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Shannon Miller: I’ll be honest here, I came in fully prepared to be the weakest link, largely because I haven’t participated in tabletop gaming for a while, I have a memory made entirely of swiss cheese, and when dealing with something that involves a number of cleverly cloaked clues, I like to take my time. I imagine that I was in the same position as someone who might consider themselves a beginner gamer, so I came into the experience representing those who wish to get into something like a collaborative gaming experience, but might feel a little intimidated by the prospect of playing alongside pros. What I liked about the first episode of this Burkittsville mystery is that the clues were manageable enough to place everyone—pros and novices alike—on the same playing field. Even with Dowd’s expert handling of Blair Witch lore, McLevy’s familiarity with the Hunt A Killer process, and William’s and Sam’s endlessly logged gaming hours under their respective belts, it still felt like five equally bowed heads trying to crack the same code, figure out the same map, and assess the same sandwiches. Truly a fun-for-all setup, which was a relief considering that other iterations appeared to be bogged down with clues that were a little too difficult, if my research was anything to go by.

What did make my experience difficult, however, was the blacklight “pen,” which flickered with little provocation. It’s not the biggest of deals when you’re simply marveling at all of the hidden symbols in Liam’s journal, or discovering the perfectly creepy man-monster hidden in a doodle. But when you’re actually attempting to solve one of the meatier blocks of coded text, the twitchiness of the light exacerbates the process in a way that I’m not sure is intentional. (But if it is, talk about setting the mood.) Aside from that, I agree with the assertions of my fellow moonlighting sleuths William and Sam: This is definitely a multiplayer journey that is immersive only if every participant has their own set of materials to work with, much of which was there to add some ambiance (for now, at least). Where we disagree is the level of scariness, for I am still just a touch haunted by some of the symbols hidden underneath the stuttering glow of my blacklight. Okay, it’s not too scary, but it is a spooky-enough touch.

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How did you guys feel about all that reading?

Alex McLevy: You’re not wrong that this involved a lot of text-based effort, Shannon. Luckily, it was just the right amount. Having played some Hunt A Killer before, I was honestly worried there’d be even more. Especially given this was the first act of the game, when there tends to be a lot of initial exposition needed to get things going, Blair Witch was admirably restrained in its deployment of reading materials. Sure, there was a journal we had to work our way through, and some pages of police interviews with the last witnesses to see our missing person before he disappeared, but overall things moved along at a decent clip, keeping the mystery fresh and engaging, and permitting for lots of sharing of theories and speculation.

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And maybe that was another big part of why I had so much fun with this game: The group dynamic of five people all working together kept it from feeling like I had to slog through it all by my lonesome. In particular, it sped along the process of using the code we uncovered to translate all those hidden messages—even if there had been three of us working on it, I suspect it would have taken a lot longer. The last time I played Hunt A Killer, it was just me and my partner; having four other friends joining in this time out made for a much livelier, less painstaking endeavor. So while I think the game is artfully constructed, had just the right hint of creepiness, and ended on a great cliffhanger for part one, I’m realizing just how much the cooperative nature of the medium is improved by the right number of fellow detectives. I’m not suggesting a “the more, the merrier” approach—I suspect too many people chiming in would quickly prove unwieldy—but five was arguably the Goldilocks sweet spot of just right. Dowd, what say you? Did the camaraderie feel like an essential ingredient, or was there some other element you liked even more than staring at our dumb faces?

A.A. Dowd: I’ll say this: Having multiple amateur detectives on the case definitely prevented the game from ever feeling like homework or a slog. We could divvy up the reading and code-breaking; I was grateful not to have to decipher every hidden message myself—a reasonably enjoyable task that might get a little old were any of us solely entrusted with that duty. (When it comes to puzzles, I find that a little goes a long way; no one would confuse me for Robert Graysmith.) Where the teamwork aspect really contributed to the fun, for my money, was when we were debating the testimony of witnesses and trying to establish a timeline of the kid’s movements. During that climactic exercise, it was easy enough to pretend that we really were investigators on the case: pacing around a cluttered office at 3 a.m., bags under our eyes, sleeves rolled up past our elbows, ashtray stuffed with extinguished buds, half-full boxes of Chinese food scattered across the table, staring at a cork board with lines of string, plagued with nagging suspicions of something supernatural afoot despite the zero tolerance for mumbo jumbo expressed by the chief (a.k.a. Sam).

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I do wonder, though, if we all might have found the game a little spookier if we didn’t play it together. I’m grateful, of course, during these isolating times, for some group fun—it was a genuine pleasure to spend a Friday night with colleague-friends, trading Slenderman jokes and debating the sandwich preferences of imaginary missing teens. But how much more successful would the game’s occasional low-key stabs at getting under our skin be if we didn’t have a four-person posse of backup to deflate the tension with wisecracks? Actually getting creeped out by a case file full of fabricated evidence and interviews might depend on feeling genuinely immersed in the materials, with nothing but your racing brain for company; I find, in general, that everyone is pretty good at freaking themselves out when left to the devices of their own overactive imaginations. Which is to say, the atmosphere of a Mario Party session is probably not terribly conducive to suspending your disbelief and buying into the verisimilitude of a fake mystery.

Truthfully, having seen two sequels, played the recent video-game adaptation (which actually gets referenced in this new game—hey, something useful did come from that punishing experience), and cracked the first chapter of an interactive missing-person-investigation simulator, I’m more convinced than ever that The Blair Witch Project was lightning that can’t be rebottled, at least in terms of the actual fright factor of this enduring franchise. But maybe that’s okay. The mythology of small town Burkittsville and the malevolent hag that haunts its woods is plenty ripe for creative extrapolation. And the fact that this latest spinoff actually doesn’t really try to mimic the appeal of the original movie, instead just using it as a springboard for its own thing, might be key to its success. Though I can’t lie and say I wouldn’t get some perverse appreciation out of a version of this game that just tasked us to yell at each other and try to find our way out of an imaginary forest or something.

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Any final thoughts, William, beyond promising me that you’ll actually finally watch the movie?

WH: I think you’re right, Dowd, that isolation would be the best way to get chills out of this material—but I was still delighted to have the social aspect in play. My only real complaint about the session (aside from one absolutely devious tuna-fish/peanut butter sandwich fakeout) was that it felt a little on the slight side. And that was really only because I didn’t want the good times to end. (Also, I wanted more and meatier puzzles, but that’s just my personal pathology.) And I hereby pledge to watch The Blair Witch Project before the year is out, so that my only exposure to the franchise will no longer be this game, and also the half-hour of Book Of Shadows I caught on cable in, like, 2003.

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