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The Missing Episodes of Doctor Who, Blair Witch's Legacy, and an Education in Cover Songs
A few pop culture rabbit holes for your Tuesday
Hey! Welcome to the fourth issue of Microfascination. Here you’ll find a disappearance, a performance, and a cover song.
Lost Episodes (And the Necessity of the Archive)
Anyone else feeling anxious about the state of streaming lately? There’s a frustrating impermanence to these platforms that’s become all the more apparent in recent months, as titles are removed and cancellations announced with very little ceremony. These are the unfortunate downsides of digital access, of course — streaming isn’t physical. It isn’t ownership. We can’t hold the cloud in our hands.
I was reminded of the missing episodes of Doctor Who. Apparently it used to be routine practice for broadcasters to empty out their archives back in the seventies. (Sometimes this is attributed to storage limits or rights issues, but the Wikipedia page — which is doing some incredible collaborative archival work here, by the way — also cites “the belief that there was no practical value to its retention.”) Ninety-seven episodes are still missing, although the fandom’s search continues via the vibrantly active message boards I was heartened to discover.
I’ve long felt that when I truly love a story or a song or a film, I have a duty to help preserve it. Sometimes preservation can look like spending money, but sometimes it simply means sharing that thing you love with someone else. In a climate that’s increasingly hostile to anyone trying to make a living as a creative, this small attempt at preservation has become a way of life for me. I can’t force corporations to care for art in the ways I wish they would — continued digital access, a DVD release, an opportunity for its creator to conclude the narrative arc — but I’ll do everything in my power to keep what I love alive, even if it isn’t much. Even if it’s writing a silly little newsletter. ;)
“My Obituary Was Published When I Was 24”: The Genius Marketing Legacy of Blair Witch (And Its Casualties)
Y’all, I love The Blair Witch Project. I was in high school when I watched it for the first time; my friend and I rented it from Blockbuster together and tried to keep a tally of all the f-bombs. (There are 154, in case you’re wondering!)
There’s so much that works about Blair Witch from a narrative standpoint: the early interview segments that establish the eerie mythology of the witch, the way the premise’s simplicity allows for a deeper focus on the familiar personalities of the central characters, the slow build of dread as the trio begins to realize they’re truly lost. In the end, what you don’t see frightens you more than anything that appears onscreen — the horror happens in your head. And on top of all that, the legacy of this film’s release is almost as fascinating as the story itself — in part because they’re virtually inextricable from each other.
In the summer of 1998, a new webpage appeared on the internet detailing the aftermath of the mysterious disappearances of three Maryland film students. When Blair Witch debuted the following year, marketing materials maintained that the film was composed from real found footage. Missing person flyers circulated. Viewers embarked on pilgrimages to the town of Burkittsville because they believed in the entirely fabricated legend of the Blair Witch. As the three actors used their real names in the film, their parents received an outpouring of sympathy from those who thought harm had truly befallen their children. (To be fair, the actors were listed for some time as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb.) The actor who played Josh once said, “I sometimes think [the studio] would have been happier if we had actually been dead.”
These days, the film’s exhaustive IMDb trivia page brims with fan attempts at distinguishing between “reality” and “performance” in Blair Witch. We know now that the production pulled strings from afar to affect their actors’ real moods by decreasing their rations over the course of the eight-day shoot and employing military training tactics. The safeword they used to signal they were about to break character? Taco.
There’s probably a whole separate essay I could (and indeed might) one day write about Heather Donahue. Blair Witch was originally envisioned as a film about three men lost in the woods, but the directors found the actress’ audition so compelling that they wrote Heather into the script. The sole girl of the trio, she tends to draw the most polarized comments in passing conversations about the film. It’s her face on the iconic poster, her eyes and nose in focus in the unforgettable tent monologue. She’s bossy and driven, willing to sacrifice her likability if it means getting to complete the documentary that means so much to her. As the events of the film unfold, her compulsive recording becomes a way of proving to herself that she’s still alive; the directors likened her obsession to that of Captain Ahab. Heather might remind you of someone you used to know — a former employer, a classmate from a long-ago group project. She might even remind you of yourself.
The use of the actors’ real names and identities undoubtedly contributed to the film’s runaway success, allowing reality and fiction to blur through nascent internet marketing in an uncannily effective way. “The whole idea was to be as close to yourself as possible,” says the actor who played Mike. This was great from a financial perspective — a film created on a $200,000 budget ultimately made $248 million. But for the actress who played Heather, it was another story:
“I was just in this position where I was the face of this thing that kind of blew up. And I was utterly unprotected, you know? … [The worst part?] Hard to pick. People being angry at you for being alive. This overarching feeling that it would have been more convenient for people if you were actually dead.”
She’s said in many interviews that sharing a name with the character caused her more harm than good in the end. “It’s a complicated thing to be dead when you’re still very much alive and eager to make a name for yourself,” she wrote in The Guardian years later. “Nothing I do will ever surpass what I did at 24.” She ultimately retired from acting to grow pot (and even wrote a book about it).
The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage movie, but it did admirably invigorate the subgenre by achieving an unprecedented level of virality. However, as someone who often finds myself wandering down “What happened to that one actress?” rabbit holes, I can’t help but feel that the success of the franchise is bittersweet, knowing what I know now. I hope the woman who played Heather is happier in her new life, but it’s hard not to mourn what was lost when the actress who literally carved out a place for herself in an all-male story quit acting.
While working on this draft I learned that she had changed her name to Rei Hance sometime after 2016, the year the last Blair Witch sequel was released. It seems she’s left Heather Donahue behind for good.
New Beauty: An Education in Cover Songs
A few days ago, Memoir Mixtapes published a short piece I wrote about The Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of “Landslide.” I wrote it near the end of last year following a frustrating streak of creative disappointment; inspired by the cover’s beauty, I ended up reading everything I could find online about the period of Stevie Nicks’ career in which she penned the song. Of course, this is far from the first time a cover has sent me down a rabbit hole.
Years ago I took a class on Bob Dylan. Our professor gave us the option of writing a formal paper — due at the end of the semester — or submitting a collection of observations on Dylan written throughout our time in the class. It’s probably not hard for readers of this newsletter to guess which one I picked (lol). I was a veteran procrastinator back in the day and knew the second option would allow me to pace myself, rather than writing the entire paper the night before it was due in an unhinged caffeine frenzy.
As I dove into the project, I decided to use covers as my angle. I would see what I could learn about Dylan and his music by listening to the many various re-recordings by other artists in the intervening decades. Of course, I learned about far more than just Dylan in the end. By studying the winding path his songs took through the decades, the different artists who recorded them and why they did, I was also learning about philosophy, politics, literature, countercultural movements, you name it. With Dylan covers in particular, you really start to notice just how cyclical history is. His timeless protest songs could be (and were) renewed in the face of virtually any conflict — like when “Blowin’ in the Wind” was repurposed during protests against the Iraq War.
Covers have been my way into more bands than I can count. A cover is a relationship by definition, marking some kind of connection between the original artist and a second musician who has found meaning in it. A cover might provide a method of paying respect to one’s roots or a framework for venturing outside of your usual genre. You can pick a single song and study all of its permutations, letting it lead you from one band to another, observing how it changes through the years.
Growing up, I taught myself about music this way. I came to many older musicians because the bands I heard on the radio also sang their songs. Pop punk taught me about new wave, acoustic crooners taught me about classic rock. When I liked a cover, it triggered a chain reaction — I had to seek out the original, learn more about why the musician I already loved had fallen for the artist behind it. I wanted to know where things I loved came from. What had made my favorite artists who they were.
Sometime last year I realized it’d been a while since I did that — traced a singular song through its lifetime. And then I stumbled across The Smashing Pumpkin’s cover of “Landslide.”
Some exciting news: I’m going to be in the Best Microfiction 2023 anthology! Deb Olin Unferth selected one of my weird little “Selected Google Searches” pieces for inclusion, to my complete surprise and joy. More on that later this year.
It was fun to hear from y’all after last month’s Beauty and the Beast adaptation recap. Shout-out to Eric for sharing his top three Cinderella adaptations — A Cinderella Story, Cinderella (1997), and Cinderella (2015), in case you were wondering — as well as Mark for making me aware of the following Jean Cocteau anecdote:
When asked what one thing he would carry out of a burning house, Jean Cocteau replied, “I would take the fire.”
Thanks for reading, as always — see you again in March!