So Blair Witch primes us with information that someone drowned in the river due to what witnesses said was a white hand pulling the victim into the water. Then our group of stupid, stupid people starts crossing the river.
Ashley’s foot gets cut. Then weird stuff happens.
There are a few main details we should look at when talking about Ashley’s injury.
1. It happened in a river that’s maybe haunted
2. It happened in a river where we’re told there are leeches (thanks for reminding me, Habacuc Martinez)
3. We hear this unrealistic snapping sound
4. The thing in her foot moves into her leg
5. When she pulls the thing out it sort of looks like a centipede, like frayed rope, or plant-based
Now, Barrett and Wingard (writer/director) could have a perfect explanation of what this thing was and what it represented and how it ties into the lore of the Blair Witch. But we as viewers aren’t really privy to that information.
All we see is that Ashley’s injury has her close to death, then she removes a single thing, then she’s climbing trees like nothing ever happened to her, then she’s stolen by the witch. What ultimately ends up happening to her has no connection to her injury. She could have been doing anything else and still suffered the same fate.
According to Matt Patches at Thrillist:
Here’s where I extrapolate from Barrett’s teases based on gut feelings: Ashley is slowly turning into one of the Blair Witch stick figures. Lane reveals early on that there’s more to the Elly Kedward story than we previously realized; she wasn’t simply burned alive. The original Blair townfolk strapped her to a homemade vice, stretching her out into a shape resembling the “stick figures.” At the end of the movie, we see a tree-like creature running amok in Rustin Parr’s cabin. That’s not the “Blair Witch,” Barrett confirms, or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s Elly Kedward, now made of branches. We see hints that Ashley’s suffering the same fate, including above, when she yanks bark out of her slashed calf. If she survived the movie (death didn’t stand in Elly’s way, after all) it’s likely she’ll complete her transformation and become one of the Black Hills’ living plants.
According to the lore Elly Kedward IS the Blair Witch. So is Patches saying Barrett confirmed that Kedward and the Witch are two different entities? That could fit into the theory that the Witch isn’t the main source of what’s happening but aliens are.
Witch or aliens, neither really helps us with Ashley’s leg.
At its best, Ashley’s leg hints at a mutation subplot that’s totally unexplored in Blair Witch. Ideally, we would have seen her become a tree, or a stick figure as Patches thought, or another figure just like the Witch (who maybe isn’t the Witch)? Even then, it would have been kicked off from a river injury that was foreshadowed by a story about drowning. That’s not really what anyone would describe as “elegant” or “a logical progression”.
At worst, Ashley’s leg is a thrown-in subplot to have a moment of slow-burn, ew-that’s-gross body horror that the movie would otherwise lack. Which makes the whole thing a means of checking-off some horror genre trope, rather than anything meaningful to the plot, a subplot, or themes.
Personally, on first viewing I thought what she pulled out was a centipede creature and that made no sense to me. But the snapping sounds we heard would resonate with the tree snapping sounds we heard throughout the film. So I can see how that sonic match would then hint at some sort of tree transformation. Especially with the movement up her body, and the supernatural river (sigh). However, these elements are so minimally built upon and add up to nothing that the payoff seems confusing for audiences rather than meaningful. Why have her cut in the river and not by a thorn or branch, something actually…woodsy?
The film also complicated matters by mentioning the river had leeches. Audiences don’t really expect a line like that to be throwaway. So when Ashley has something in her foot, we think, “Is that a leech or something leech-like?” When she eventually pulls the thing out of her leg, we’ve been primed to see it as a creature moreso than twine or tree-related. That’s simple human psychology.
Ultimately, I wish they wouldn’t have been cute or coy. Just give me that moment where roots erupted from her foot, then from her thigh, then from her stomach, then out her mouth and eyes.
Side note: Perhaps the weirdest thing is that James, the EMT, does such an awful job taking care of his friend. He barely wraps her foot. He doesn’t check on her. When he’s told something in her foot moved, he doesn’t seem worried at all. Granted, there’s a lot of terrifying things going on. But given that his profession is medical care you would think he’d be sensitive to fever/delirium/blood loss/unexplainable movement/etc.