The Blair Witch Project
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The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 horror movie and famous paranormal hoax. Purporting to be the "recovered footage" of three documentary filmmakers who vanished in the forests of western Maryland, it was accompanied by one of the first major internet viral marketing campaigns, which served to spread its fakelore far and wide in the months before its release. It was a sleeper hit that made nearly $250 million on a microscopic budget,[note 1] making it one of the most successful independent films of all time, a pioneer in viral marketing and the "found footage" subgenre of horror movies, a monument to human gullibility, and a case study in how quickly and deeply an obviously false story can get its claws into the popular consciousness.
In 1994, three student filmmakers from Montgomery College, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, ventured to the town of Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly known as Blair) to produce a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch.[note 2] In February 1785, an elderly woman named Elly Kedward was accused of witchcraft by several children who claimed that she had attempted to lure them into her home and drain their blood. She was found guilty of witchcraft and banished from the town of Blair, presumably dying of exposure in the harsh winter. Over the next two years, half of the town's children, including all of Kedward's accusers, vanished, and by the end of 1786 the remaining townsfolk, deciding that Kedward had cursed the town, abandoned it and vowed never to speak her name again. Nevertheless, in 1809 a book titled The Blair Witch Cult was published about the incident, though conveniently enough, only a single, badly-damaged copy still exists, in the hands of a private collector. The town of Burkittsville was founded on the site in 1824, and over the next two hundred years a series of strange disappearances plagued the town:
- In 1825, a ten-year-old girl named Eileen Treacle vanished in Tappy East Creek. Eleven witnesses claimed that they saw a hand reach out of the water and pull her under. Her body was never recovered, and the creek was subsequently clogged with oily bundles of sticks that rendered it unusable as a source of drinking water for nearly two weeks afterward.
- In 1886, a nine-year-old girl named Robin Weaver went missing. The first search party sent out to find her also went missing. Weaver was found alive three days later, having returned to town with a story of an old woman whose feet never touched the ground. The first search party, meanwhile, was found weeks later at Coffin Rock ritualistically murdered, disemboweled with their arms and legs tied together and strange markings carved into their faces and hands. The bodies mysteriously vanished before they could be properly recovered.
- From November 1940 to May 1941, seven children were abducted. On May 25, 1941, a hermit named Rustin Parr walked into a store and confessed that he was "finally finished." Police searched his house, where they found the missing children ritualistically disemboweled. One boy who Parr had spared, Kyle Brody (who subsequently went insane from the experience), told police that Parr had forced him to stand in the corner of the cellar and face the wall while Parr tortured and killed a girl behind him. Parr confessed to the murders, claiming that "an old woman ghost" told him to kill the children, and he was soon tried, sentenced, and executed.
With this legend in mind, after interviewing the locals Donahue, Williams, and Leonard head out into the woods to visit the sites of the murders and disappearances. They were never seen again, a manhunt aided by over a hundred men and even a spy satellite producing nothing. Their tapes, film reels, and cameras, along with Donahue's journal, were discovered a year later by a University of Maryland anthropology class on a trip to the area, buried beneath the foundation of a hundred-year-old house. Forensic examination of the site indicated that the soil and rocks above and around the site of the discovery had not been disturbed previously, making the equipment an out-of-place artifact whose presence at the site could not be explained by conventional scientific and forensic knowledge.
After examination by the police, the tapes were handed over to the parents of the missing persons. Donahue's mother contacted Haxan Films to examine and help piece together the footage in order to figure out what had happened to her daughter and her friends.
That elaborate mythology we just recounted? All completely made up. There never was a Blair Witch. The book The Blair Witch Cult never existed. Eileen Treacle, Robin Weaver, and Rustin Parr were all fictional (Parr's name was derived from a near-anagram for Rasputin). Burkittsville is a real town in Maryland, but it was never known as Blair. It wasn't even one of those "based on a true story" deals where the true story turns out to be highly embellished but still based on something that allegedly happened to "a friend of a friend" before Hollywood got involved — every single thing about the "legend" of the Blair Witch was complete fiction.
In reality, The Blair Witch Project was the work of two independent filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. In 1997, working from a 68-page outline of both the legend and the events of the film, they hired Donahue, Williams, and Leonard for their improv experience (all dialogue was unscripted), and "directed" them by essentially sending them on an eight-day campout/scavenger hunt through Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland, all while depriving them of food and harassing them during the night in order to make their reactions for the camera more genuine.
After the film premiered at Sundance in 1999, it was acquired by Artisan Entertainment where executive Steven Rothenberg came up with the idea to market it not as a conventional movie but as a real guerrilla documentary depicting the last days of these three people. This included setting up a website, blairwitch.com, which detailed and fleshed out the aforementioned mythology while presenting it as historical fact and producing and airing a mockumentary on the Sci-Fi Channel, Curse of the Blair Witch, that did the same.
Between the website and the Sci-Fi Channel special, by the time of the film's release on July 30, 1999, the studio had Americans convinced that witches and ghosts were real, even as the film's stars were on the press circuit despite being officially listed on their IMDb pages at the time as "missing". Even years after the film's true nature was revealed, there were still many people convinced it was the real deal or, at the very least, that there was something to the legend that the film had created, providing sterling evidence that people will continue to believe something even if you debunk it with direct evidence showing exactly how it was faked. Consequently, "based on a true story" or a variation thereof has become the easiest, laziest way to shill a horror film, no matter how shaky the "true story" may be. Burkittsville (population: 180) briefly became a tourist trap as fans of the film descended on the town, something that the locals were understandably peeved at, especially after the cemetery was vandalized and the signs to the town were repeatedly stolen.
Sequels and spinoffs
A film whose mythology was deeply tied in to its own promotional website was not going to remain just one film for very long, especially after it became a box-office smash.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
A sequel was quickly cranked out in 2000, titled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Despite the title, no actual Book of Shadows appears or is even mentioned in the movie; rather, it was set in a "real" world where the original film and the hoopla surrounding it both exist. The protagonists are a group of fans of the original heading to Burkittsville in order to go on a "Blair Witch tour", only to find all manner of spooky stuff happening to them, culminating in a mind-screw ending that reveals that they may or may not have ritualistically murdered another tour group due to either possession by the Blair Witch or their own insane obsession with the original film. The high point of the entire movie comes two thirds of the way through when an owl crashes randomly through a window and dies in front of the protagonists; no explanation is offered. Like before, another Sci-Fi Channel mockumentary, Shadow of the Blair Witch, accompanied its release, purporting that the film was a fictionalization of an actual murder spree.
Book of Shadows was directed and co-written by Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker best known for the Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. His intention was to make a movie about the pop culture phenomenon that the original film became and how it blurred the line between fiction and reality to a potentially troubling degree, with the implication that there was no Blair Witch and that the main characters had lost touch with reality. However, the studio heavily re-edited the film and shot new scenes in order to make a more "traditional" horror flick that implied that there was a witch after all. The result was a nearly incomprehensible mess riddled with plot holes and bad acting that received a scathing reception from critics and fans of the original, seemingly killing off all possibility of future sequels.
Blair Witch (2016)
That said, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez remained committed to getting a third film off the ground. The world finally got that sequel in 2016, when Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett wrote and directed a film simply titled Blair Witch, without Myrick or Sanchez's involvement but with their approval. Unlike Book of Shadows, this film served as a direct sequel to the original, following Heather Donahue's fictional brother James as he, three of his friends, and a pair of local guides go into the woods upon finding clues indicating that Heather may still be alive. It was originally titled The Woods in order to cover up its connection to the original, the real title only being revealed at San Diego Comic-Con two months before its September release — a reversal of the original film's marketing strategy, if you will. It received a somewhat better reception than Book of Shadows did, in that the general consensus was that it was just a mediocre nostalgia throwback instead of a flat-out awful cash-in like its predecessor, with critics by and large saying that, for better or worse, it was basically a big-budget fan film with all that implied.
In order to further the "true story" conceit, D. A. Stern was hired to write a pair of "dossiers" in 1999 and 2000, one for the first film and one for the second, that offered a slew of fake police reports, pictures, interviews, and newspaper articles on the events of both films.
In 2000 and 2001, Bantam Books also published a series of eight young-adult novels titled The Blair Witch Files. They are credited to a "Cade Merrill", who was in fact the books' fictional protagonist, a cousin of Heather Donahue searching for her while investigating the legend and other people who succumbed to it (obviously, the books were ghostwritten, though Goodreads lists the actual authors for most of them).
A trio of survival horror games based on the films were released in 2000, each one focused on a different area of the mythology. Uniquely, the first game doubled as a crossover/spinoff/sequel to a 1999 horror game, Nocturne, with whom it shared a developer in Terminal Reality; they used the same game engine, and characters from Nocturne show up in major roles in the games. Reception was pretty mixed, with only the first game getting much respect, and the sequels seen as mediocre at best.
Another game was released on August 30, 2019, just in time for the film's 20th anniversary. This one is a first-person survival horror game in the mold of games like Slender, Amnesia, and Outlast, developed by the Polish studio Bloober Team.
It’s striking that the explosion in ghost hunting TV shows occurred in the wake of the box office success of The Blair Witch Project and that they tend to employ very similar cinematography (shaky, spooky footage of people rambling because they’re apparently scared and confused). If you check Wikipedia's list of ghost reality TV shows, it’s striking that only two of them launched before The Blair Witch Project. Now, obviously correlation does not imply causation, but given the lemming mentality in popular media of glomming onto anything that seems popular, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the wallets of producers and TV executives being tickled by a next-to-non-existing budget film making a boatload of cash and try to emulate it.
More benignly, The Blair Witch Project also kicked off the "found footage" boom in the horror genre. While the idea dates back to 1980 with Cannibal Holocaust, an Italian satire of "mondo" schlockumentaries that was presented as the lost footage of a group of documentary filmmakers in the Amazon, it came into its own here, demonstrating to a generation of filmmakers how to use the style to craft an effective feature film on a very tiny budget. Found footage became the "based on a true story" of the 2000s and early '10s as filmmakers ranging from fellow indies to big-budget studio directors used it to create an aura of gritty realism around their movies.
But is it any good?
The Blair Witch Project is, by all accounts, either among the scariest movies of all time (the fact that it convinced people it was real is a testament to its effectiveness) or a plodding, meandering bore that proves we're all a bunch of suckers. There is not a whole lot of middle ground between those two opinions. Roger Ebert gave it four stars even knowing full well that it was fiction, but it was also nominated for two Razzie Awards (Worst Picture and Worst Actress, winning the latter), and while its critics' score at Rotten Tomatoes is 86% and Certified Fresh, the audience score is only 55%.
If you do decide to watch the film yourself, just remember to take some Dramamine beforehand, because it did go the extra mile of looking like amateur footage in the production values as well. The camera work is shaky enough that it caused some viewers to vomit when it first came out. Also, your enjoyment will likely depend on your tolerance for watching three people yell (and curse) at each other as they slowly lose their minds as a result of getting lost in the woods (it may help to get drunk while watching). Virtually all the dialogue was improvised, meaning that, while it doesn't feel scripted (which went a long way in the "it's real" department), it also frequently goes off on long tangents between the scary moments. Also, word of warning: you never actually see the witch or even get a good idea of what she looks like.[note 3] Whether this is a cop-out done out of laziness, or a brilliant example of "less is more/nothing is scarier", is up to you.
And remember: it's only a movie.
- Legend tripping
- The McPherson Tape, another indie found footage horror film that was passed off as real, albeit this time without the filmmakers' consent
- Urban legend
- The Blair Witch Project (1999)
- Curse of the Blair Witch (1999)
- The Burkittsville 7 (2000)
- Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
- Shadow of the Blair Witch (2000)
- Blair Witch (2016)
- A mere $60,000, less than most major studio productions spend on bottled water.
- No relation to Tony Blair. That would be just mean. Besides, somebody already made that joke, and by all accounts, it wasn't funny then or now.
- Rumors that Todd McFarlane created a collectible action figure of the Blair Witch for his "Movie Maniacs" series have absolutely no basis in reality. No, we don't care that you have the action figure in your hands and that you're showing it to us right now. That thing is bullshit.
- "Interview with Heather Donahue." KAOS 2000, 14 August 1999 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- Lim, Dennis. "Heather Donahue Casts a Spell."] Village Voice, 13 July 1999 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- McNary, Dave. "Lionsgate's Steven Rothenberg dies." Variety, 20 July 2009 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- YouTube: Curse of the Blair Witch
- Clinton, Paul. "Fact and fiction: 'Blair Witch' team gets happy ending." CNN.com, 15 July 1999 (recovered 20 March 2016).
- See also: the alien abduction movie The Fourth Kind, and anything that Ed and Lorraine Warren have had their hands in.
- Fiore, Faye. "A town's 'Blair Witch' curse." Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- YouTube: Shadow of the Blair Witch
- IMDb: Joe Berlinger
- Kirk, Jeremy. "28 Things We Learned From the 'Blair Witch 2' Commentary." Film School Rejects, 18 October 2012 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- "GoodBadFlicks - Exploring Blair Witch 2 Book of Shadows."
- Brew, Simon. "Blair Witch 3 edging closer." Den of Geek, 15 January 2015 (recovered 16 January 2015).
- Brad "Mr. Disgusting" Miska. "Here What the 'Blair Witch Project' Co-Creator Thinks of the Sequel..." Bloody Disgusting, 19 August 2016 (recovered 21 August 2016).
- Brad "Mr. Disgusting" Miska. "'The Woods' is Actually 'BLAIR WITCH'! (Trailer)" Bloody Disgusting, 22 July 2016 (recovered 23 July 2016).
- Goodreads: The Blair Witch Files
- Steam: Blair Witch
- Ebert, Roger. "The Blair Witch Project Movie Review." RogerEbert.com, 16 July 1999 (recovered 19 January 2015).
- Rotten Tomatoes: The Blair Witch Project (1999).
- The Blair Witch Project Fuckin' Short Version