[To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the cult classic Heathers, we're celebrating all week long with "Heathers of Horror" special features highlighting our favorite horror performances by women with the same name as the iconic clique from the 1989 dark comedy! Check here to catch up on all of our "Heathers Week" special features!]
“I can’t believe we have to leave just when shit’s happening.”
Instead of screaming, that’s what Heather Donahue says after she, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams wake up to find three piles of stones arranged cemetery-style outside their tent in The Blair Witch Project. It may not be the typical response you would expect one to have in that situation, knowing that someone (or something) was close enough to your tent while you were sleeping to make ominous cairns, but Heather Donahue is no typical actress, and the character that she’s playing (a fictionalized version of herself), is far from ordinary, it’s extraordinarily real, and along with her co-stars Josh and Mike, it’s what makes the found footage film a supremely chilling viewing experience nearly 20 years after its theatrical release.
When they first step foot into the vast Maryland woods, Heather’s excitement is contagious. The earnestness behind her film project is as palpable as the fallen October leaves that crunch under the trio’s feet as they leave civilization behind to capture Heather’s ambitious vision for the definitive documentary on the Blair Witch. Right from the get-go, there’s no question that Heather is the one in charge, that she is the fearless leader who can navigate the pitfalls of independent filmmaking as well as the woods. Her determination is convincing, but it’s also her undoing.
After an eerie trip to Coffin Rock and an isolated cairn graveyard, the trio begins to realize that they are utterly and hopelessly lost in the woods… and of course, they are not alone. When the panic amplifies, the authenticity of Donahue’s performance grows with it. Instead of sharing in Josh and Mike’s justified frustrations, Heather wants to keep pushing forward. Much like Jason Creed (Joshua Close), the director of his own ill-fated horror movie in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Heather has to record everything that happens, even when what is happening would be disturbing enough to make many people forget about recording altogether. Heather’s obsession with the Blair Witch overshadows the very real threats of nighttime visitations, exposure to the rainy elements, and the ever-looming potential for starvation. It's also a driving force behind her insistence that they are not lost. Yes, Mike kicking the map into the creek certainly is a fatal blow that dooms them all, but it’s Heather’s overconfidence in the entire expedition that puts them into their precarious position in the first place.
That’s not to say that Heather is a bad person. She’s just a well-rounded character who makes mistakes, just like we all do in real life. Unfortunately, her mistakes happen to have higher stakes for all involved. And while Heather’s overzealous belief in her film project contributes to the group’s doom, it also helps keep them together longer than other groups may have fared in similar situations. When Josh and Mike turn on Heather, she doesn’t cower and crumble, but instead holds her ground. This isn’t just stubbornness from a leader not willing to admit their mistakes, it’s the calculated actions of a tough-minded director keeping her troops in line for their own survival. Heather maintains her leadership as director of the film project right until the bitter end, pushing herself and her friends past ungodly limits of endurance… until they meet their grisly fates.
Of course, being human, Heather does eventually succumb to the desperation of the situation. Everyone has their breaking point, and Heather’s is particularly heart-wrenching and realistic. After a full day of hiking, when the group arrives at a creek-spanning log they crossed the day before, Heather’s reaction is bone-chilling, as her mantra of “it’s not the same log” gradually changes to “it’s the same log,” all while Mike screams off-screen. Through Heather’s trembling voice, we hear the moment when she finally can’t convince herself anymore that everything’s going to be okay, when she finally cracks under the pressure of the Blair Witch’s presence and her own inability to get them safely back to the car. Heather’s earlier confidence makes this descent into despair particularly skin-crawling, her defeated tone just as haunting as the noises they hear outside their tent at night.
Even when things go from dire to deadly, though, Heather never gives up. Instead of retreating to the confines of her own mind, she takes ownership of the doomed film project, staring into the cold camera lens to offer her apologies to her parents and the mothers of Josh and Mike. Despite being parodied time and time again over the past two decades, this apology monologue (featuring a close-up of just the top half of Donahue’s face) retains its heart-crushing weight after all these years thanks to the wide range of emotions Donahue portrays in the scene: regret, sadness, and pure, unfiltered fear of what lurks in the darkness of the woods and her own mind. With two lines, Heather encapsulates the hopelessness of their situation: “I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them.”
Coupled with her tear-streaked speech when Josh angrily thrusts the camera in her face earlier in the film, this apology monologue makes a case for Donahue’s performance being one of the all-time greats in horror cinema. There’s nothing artificial about Donahue’s acting in The Blair Witch Project, and that’s what makes it so special. The character she plays is flawed, strong, naïve, hopeful, stubborn, determined, noble, and ultimately… real.
There are other ingredients cooking in the cauldron of The Blair Witch Project that make it an unsettlingly authentic viewing experience—the immersive way writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez cast and shot the film and the faux reality approach of the film’s online marketing campaign being key factors—but it’s the genuine performances that make the movie an all-too-real nightmare that is still haunting to watch almost 20 years after its theatrical release. Even in an age when anyone can use their smartphone to make a found footage film and upload it to YouTube, The Blair Witch Project stands tall as its own unmovable cairn in the milestones of horror cinema.
Although it may be overshadowed by the Blair Witch’s off-screen presence (for an excellent examination of the Blair Witch, read Emily Von Seele's previous retrospective), Donahue’s performance is a big reason why The Blair Witch Project continues to work as well as it does. Playing a fictionalized version of herself, Donahue created a wholly believable person, one who isn’t perfect, sure, but that’s what makes the performance so perfect. The fictionalized version of Heather makes mistakes (as do Josh and Mike), but if you think about it, she ultimately comes out victorious in the end. Along with Josh and Mike, she made the definitive documentary on the Blair Witch. She directed her film and captured the eerie footage long after the point when “shit’s just happening,” all the way until her hands couldn’t hold the camera any longer. Against all odds, she finished The Blair Witch Project and became just as much a legend as the Blair Witch herself.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead all week long for more "Heathers of Horror" special features, and check here to catch up on all of our previous features celebrating "Heathers Week"!