For about four seconds, you're shocked, and then something tips you off. It all depends on what part of the tape you're watching. Maybe it's the way one of the "kidnappers" gets up close to the girl's head and casually explains, in a voice maximized for cold-blooded nefariousness, "You are being buried alive. You are going to die."
Maybe it's the drawling statement from one of the guys as they're kidnapping the girl: "If I'm gonna be a movie writer, someone's gotta show me what to write about." Maybe it's the moment when one of them says, with a straight face: "If you scream right now, we bury you half-alive." Maybe it's the "grave" that looks about two feet deep, so that getting unburied alive seems like a matter of doing a sit-up.
Or maybe it's the reality that pretty much no one buries anyone alive, period. And even if they do, they probably don't make a lame black-and-white VHS recording of it in which they announce their plans again and again because they're so, you know, evil.
Any vaguely analytical viewing of this now infamous videotape, created last month by at least one would-be filmmaker and his four friends in suburban Michigan, reveals almost instantly that the thing is the most thinly veiled of publicity stunts. If it somehow fools you until the end, the way the guys credit themselves as writers and directors is a pretty big giveaway. But some aspirations to Hollywood come with a price, and this one landed its five collaborators in the Lapeer county jail on charges of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit felonious assault. The subsequent legal shenanigans, including infighting among the defendants' attorneys over the release of the tape, along with a full complement of lurid coverage at the hands of "Dateline" and company, has all but guaranteed that, come this fall, Lapeer County is in for a textbook media feeding-frenzy trial.
The sole question at the heart of the trial is whether the subject participated willingly. Let's recap the bizarre chain of events as expeditiously as possible: Danielle Taylor, a 19-year-old Taco Bell cashier, lived with her sister on the outskirts of Flint, Mich. In February, she made the acquaintance of Travis Payea, a 20-year-old student at nearby Mott Community College, who harbored dreams of becoming a screenwriter and director. Payea lived in Flint with fellow student and horror-movie buff Jon Cockerill; the duo's house served as the gathering place for their crowd, which included friends James Carwile, Christina Lumm and Derek Faxlinger.
On the night of March 6, during what was, according to county prosecutor Byron Konschuh, Taylor's second or third visit to the house, she was -- either willingly or unwillingly -- bound, handcuffed, blindfolded, threatened with bodily harm, bundled into a car, driven to an open field in nearby Elba Township, placed in a disused firepit, and told she was being buried alive. Payea and his friends (except Faxlinger, who stayed behind at the house) then dumped a few shovelfuls of snow into the pit before letting Taylor know that the joke was over. Depending on whom you believe, Taylor either did or didn't party with the rest of the gang after being exhumed.
If Taylor hadn't had a doctor's appointment the next day, nothing more might ever have come of this. But her doctor, noting the bruises on her wrists and her complaints of general soreness, encouraged her to report the matter to the police, which she did. The following day, Payea invited Taylor back to the house for a screening of the tape. Despite strenuous requests by the state police that she have no contact with Payea, Cockerill and friends, she attended the screening, and given a spare moment alone with the tape, swiped it from the VCR and turned it over to the cops, who arrested the five on March 11. Only Faxlinger was released on personal bond. The others were held on $500,000 bail, following Judge Laura C. Bernard's assessment that the tape was "repulsive" and "sadistic." That description isn't really inaccurate, but a friend of mine has a better phrase to account for the movie and the decision to make it. "This," he said, "is a bad idea gone wrong."
Payea and company have benefited from strong support from people in their own community, many of whom seem to understand this incident as a case of some basically good kids exercising poor judgment. "You know what this is about?" asks Georgia Westover, a resident of nearby Davison who helped to organize a candlelight vigil for the accused. "You know the expression, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'? That's what this is, exactly." The line in the community runs that Taylor had a romantic interest in Payea and that when he rebuffed her, she took her revenge by turning the tape over to the cops.
Watching television footage of the April 6 candlelight vigil made me wonder whether it marked the first time in history a group of solid citizens had united to sing "Amazing Grace" in support of the creators of an amateur slasher movie. Westover and other members of the community are quick to point out that the accused have no criminal records. "They're filmmakers and artists and photographers and musicians," she says. "They're creative people who just thought that they would make a movie. You know, kind of like 'The Blair Witch Project.'"
Ah, yes, "The Blair Witch Project." In 1999, at the crest of the wave of "Blair Witch" buzz, some repercussions were clear. It was evident, for instance, that the entertainment industry and the viewing public would have to weather dozens of "Blair Witch" parodies. It was obvious that the world would have to endure at least one sequel that possessed only a fraction of its forebear's inventiveness; this requirement was fulfilled the following year with the cruddy "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2." A few people grasped the way that hitching the some of the protocols of Dogme 95 -- the manifesto of naturalistic filmmaking trumpeted by Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine and other artsy types -- to the horror genre had yielded tremendous commercial dividends. But no one quite apprehended the degree to which "Blair Witch" had anticipated and helped to usher in new entertainment trend; call it the drama of real suffering.
Realness was the currency of "Blair Witch." From its poker-faced, just-the-facts Internet marketing campaign to actress Heather Donahue's terrified, tear-streaked climactic monologue, the film's ace in the hole was its determination never to let on that it was a stunt. This refusal ran so far against the grain of the genre -- best typified by the endless self-referentiality of the "Scream" movies -- that it felt like a kind of revelation.
That summer of "Blair Witch," let us recall, was also the summer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Of course, Regis' show has become a dull copy of itself, so much so that it's hard to recollect how much fun "Millionaire" was in the summer of '99. But remember the spectacle of those first contestants, the way their sheer ordinariness rubbed up against Regis' twinkling celebrity and the high-tech spareness of the set? Remember their agony as they struggled for some clue deep inside themselves, something that could point them toward which country had won the most soccer World Cups, or which president had served in between Grover Cleveland's terms?
Prior to "Millionaire" and "Blair Witch," reality TV (such as it was) was dominated by the MTV/Bunim-Murray models of "The Real World" and "Road Rules," shows that were conceived as unscripted cinema-vérité soap operas. Petty squabbles and the occasional three-way might have given the shows their entertainment value, but the series' approach toward their subjects was fundamentally generous. However, the trajectory of reality TV since 1999 has adopted an increasingly sadistic arc. The first wave of shows, such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother," still essentially worked the soap opera angle, but they were spiked with challenges designed to exhaust or break down its subjects, such as eating bugs or living in forced confinement with insufferable housemates. The most recent shows, from NBC's "Fear Factor" to MTV's "Fear" to the absurd (and mercifully canceled) John McEnroe-hosted "The Chair," all have one thing in mind: emotional torture. Even that guiltiest of guilty pleasures, Fox's "Temptation Island," gets its mileage less from an emotional attachment to its characters than from the deeply personal abjection of its subjects in the face of infidelity. If we watch these shows, it's to see real people really suffer.
"The Blair Witch Project" exploited our taste for cruelty so artfully that it made its creators' reputations and handed them lucrative careers in the most glamorous industry in the world. The success of the film helped writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez cement what we might call the legend of the Hollywood outsider: Kids come from nowhere to astonish the industry with their taut, gripping, cheaply made and hugely profitable genre pieces. They took their place in a recent lineage that includes Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, though it's instructive to note that, unlike their predecessors, Myrick and Sanchez, having made some of the greatest virtues of necessity in movie history, found themselves creatively adrift when that necessity ceased to exist.
The drama of real suffering, inaugurated by "Blair Witch" and amplified by television, has effectively raised the bar of what constitutes viable entertainment. And so we reach a place where maybe/sorta/kinda kidnapping this girl you know and pretending to bury her alive constitutes a not entirely unlikely means of establishing a filmmaking career.
Make no mistake: The creators of "Blair Witch," or even "Fear Factor," aren't responsible for what happened to Danielle Taylor, any more than the creators of "The Basketball Diaries" or Doom II are responsible for the Columbine murders. But as this case demonstrates, the relationship between popular culture and daily life is far more plastic than is admitted by reductive theories that label entertainment exclusively as either the symptoms or the causes of youthful crimes and misdemeanors. Payea and company bear full culpability for whatever injuries Taylor has endured, but there's no question that those events are largely unthinkable without the models provided by pop culture. That's not an argument for censorship; it's a recognition that new forms of entertainment require new kinds of responsibilities from their audiences -- especially when those audiences have the technology at hand to go out and make their own entertainment.
What's utterly missing from Payea's tape is any sense of human responsibility. It's indicative of these guys' condescension toward Taylor that, at the end of the tape, one of them can't quite remember her name. Also missing is even the barest conception of filmmaking craft. It would make a better and thornier story to be able to say that, despite a willful disregard for Taylor's dignity, the movie represented some kind of artistic achievement, or at least a halfway amusing prank. It's neither. At first glance, it's tempting to group Payea and Cockerill with Mark Borchardt, the hapless subject of Chris Smith's documentary "American Movie," who shares both their northern Midwest geography and their devotion to horror flicks. But Smith's film demonstrated nothing so much as Borchardt's fanatical devotion to his calling, and the clips of Borchardt's film "Coven," to our limitless surprise, possess a distinctive and undeniable aesthetic.
No such vision is evident in Payea's tape, which suggests the quickest and shoddiest attempts at sensationalism imaginable. Payea's attorney insists that there was a script for the film, which has since vanished. It's hard to see how the rambling, repetitive series of threats to Taylor's life and admonitions that she share her feelings as she's confronted with her "fate" could constitute any kind of script. I picture the script more as a series of "good lines" scrawled on some legal pad, to be consulted when things got slow to keep the proceedings lively. The action in the early going is slack and unconvincing, either as drama or as prank. It must be said that Taylor's noncommittal responses in those early scenes tend to bolster the defense's case; her affectless, sluggish demeanor suggests a person going along with someone else's lame joke more than a woman who believes herself in real danger.
Once the group is in the car, things get queasier. Cockerill holds a knife to Taylor's throat, his eyes glowing creepily, thanks to the camera's "night vision" setting. (A complete and total devotion to this eye-glowing night-vision effect is the movie's sole technical distinction.) Taylor at this point is evidently scared, and given her apparent lack of acting ability in the prior scenes, I'm inclined to read her fear as genuine. And she may have had good reason to be afraid; despite the defense's repeated illustration of the Scotch tape along the serrated edge of the knife, Cockerill frequently holds the knife at her throat point-first. One bad bump or sudden brake on the wintry rural Michigan road, and Taylor's looking at an accidental tracheotomy.
Payea and Cockerill's movie, it must be said, has a single moment that feels worthwhile and genuine; it's probably the last moment they would select as a highlight. Throughout the tape, the dominant mode of exchange between the boys and Taylor is their asking her to express her thoughts and feelings: "Was your life good?" or, "What would you change about your life?" They adopt this cloying, touchy-feely approach to such a degree that the tape starts to feel like a sociopathic version of "Jenny Jones."
You can almost feel them grasping for that kind of unfettered confrontation of certain death that capped "Blair Witch" so dramatically. Taylor never quite gives it to them. She says all the right things, more or less: She loves her mom, she'll miss her family. But it doesn't play. It's not big enough. You get the feeling that Taylor's holding back, still confused about how scared she's supposed to be. They ask what she thinks of them, her supremely evil assailants. "I really don't have much to say to you guys," she replies.
But at one point, the strategy pays off, though I wonder if the filmmakers are capable of appreciating the moment. As she's lying on the floor of the house, Taylor begs them for a favor, and you can almost feel the guys thinking they've hit pay dirt: a final request, a desperate bargain for her life, a repenting of sins, something suitably outsize. Instead, Taylor says: "Take my car back to my sister!"
"And that's it?" Payea asks, the thud of disappointment heavy in his voice. "If you had one last wish to make? It would be that your sister have her car?"
"'Cause she has kids!" Taylor insists. "And I fucking need her to have that car ..."
I think that it's safe to say that if a script of this film exists, it doesn't include anything about Taylor's sister's car. But the poignancy of the appeal, its prosaic quality, its left-field unexpectedness and its basic human generosity all serve to rupture the absurd pretensions of Payea's movie more completely than any of the tape's own amateur blundering. In a movie that loudly declares its own "reality" with every frame, Taylor's plaintive request is the only moment that actually feels real. More than anything else, Payea's dismissal, his total incredulity, suggests that he has no understanding whatsoever of what storytelling is.
Much as Payea and friends are rotten filmmakers, I don't have it in me to call them kidnappers. Kidnapping is what happened to the Lindbergh baby, and to Polly Klaas. Even if what happened to Taylor fits the technical definition, it seems to me that her case is qualitatively different from what we understand the term to mean. But it seems equally obvious that a crime has been committed, even if (as seems likely to me) Taylor was told from the outset that it was "just a movie." It is in fact just a movie, but at a certain point she seems to stop believing it is. Payea, Cockerill and friends clearly realize this, choose to ignore it, and in fact use it as the basis for the impact of their movie. I think that's criminally malicious: If they're not kidnappers, they're clearly assholes. Given that their attorneys have chosen to try the case in the court of public opinion, that may be enough to convict them.
I approached this story by accepting the premise that Payea and friends were would-be filmmakers. Now I'm not so sure. They seem more like kids wrapped up in a giant role-playing game, living out simultaneous fantasies of being serial killers and being moviemakers. But even the idlest of aspirations make demands on one's character, and this unfortunate group might do well to heed the poet Delmore Schwartz's dictum: In dreams begin responsibilities. More than ever, the dreams spawned by contemporary entertainment demand such responsibilities from all of us. If things break the wrong way for Payea and friends, they may have a long while in a lonely place to consider what those responsibilities might be.