Reviews > Culture

It's a fictional life

Culture | Blurring the difference between the real and the make-believe is making a big difference at the box office

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

The low-budget big hit movie The Blair Witch Project is a prime example of the fashionable artistic device of purposefully confusing truth and fiction. The film presents itself as raw video footage from a documentary being shot by three film-school students. They were supposedly investigating a legend about a witch who was said to haunt the countryside around Burkittsville, Md. While making the movie, they mysteriously disappeared. Their cameras, though, were found, having recorded an eerie sequence documenting ritual murders, child snatching, and the witchcraft abduction of the hapless filmmakers. Some Hollywood insiders supposedly at first thought it was legit. The website gives a complete history of Burkittsville and the film project, with no hint of the obvious-that the movie's home-video camera work and bogus historicity are nothing more than clever devices to make a conventional horror tale seem realistic. The film, made by enterprising independent filmmakers for next to nothing, became a surprise hit, tying into the vogue for "intelligent" horror flicks. But for the 197 citizens of the real-life Burkittsville, The Blair Witch Project is proving a horror of a different kind. People are flocking to the small, rural town, looking for the witch. That there never was a witch, or a legend, or a haunting, or murders, or film-school students nosing around, doesn't matter to people who can't tell the difference between fiction and reality. According to journalist Karen Timmons, an editor for Scripps Howard News Service, who happens to live in Burkittsville, the town is being deluged by moviegoers, asking for directions to "Coffin Rock," the scary house where the footage was supposed to have been found, and other sites shown in the movie. While some locals are giving the visitors a hard time by making up elaborate directions to places that don't exist, the community is not enjoying its unexpected publicity. Traffic clogs Main Street. Town signs are being stolen. The cemetery has had to be locked up. The town council has had to double its budget to pay the county sheriff's office for extra patrols. According to the postmodernist worldview, truth is not a discovery but a construction. What people think is true-from political beliefs to religious certainties-are "social constructions," projections of one's culture, determined by the people in power to keep the underlings in line. Other postmodernists present truth, meaning, and values as constructions of the individual, the function of personal preferences, choices, and desires. In other words, truth is essentially the same as fiction. Both are imaginative constructions. There really is no hard and firm line between what is real and what is imaginary. This is the worldview that has given us constructivist educational theories, in which children create their own values, make up their own spelling conventions, write their own textbooks, and construct their own math rules. Another movie is starting production in Montreal. Superstar John Travolta is bankrolling, producing, and starring in Battlefield Earth, based on the science-fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard is the founder of Scientology, a religion based on the premise that we are all reincarnated space aliens, survivors of an ancient galactic battle. The problems in our lives are due to negative energy-patterns that we have accumulated in our past lives. These can be resolved by hooking ourselves up to an electronic device and paying big bucks for Scientology counseling, which can clear our mental patterns. The religion is popular among those who can pay for its expensive "engram" treatments, from high-powered business executives to Hollywood glitterati, including Mr. Travolta. Mr. Hubbard, who founded his church in 1954, worked out his theology in a series of science-fiction novels, beginning with Battlefield Earth in 1983. The novel was a bestseller-largely, it turned out, because the Church of Scientology was ordering as many as 800 copies at a time from selected bookstores polled by The New York Times for its bestseller list. These artificially inflated sales put the novel at the top of the charts, which, in turn, attracted dealers and readers who buy bestsellers. Mr. Travolta downplays worries that his $80 million project will be propaganda for what many consider to be a coercive, fraudulent religious cult. "It's just good science fiction," he says. Precisely. But the point is that today many people base their beliefs on what appeals to their imaginations, what seems cool, and what they wish things would be. In other words, they would rather believe in fiction than unpleasant truths. People who consider themselves too sophisticated to believe in the Bible are basing their faith on science fiction, New Age novels such as The Celestine Prophecy, and their own imaginations. But they will only be bamboozled until they learn to tell the difference between truth and fiction.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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