As the sun cast itself over the Black Hills Forest that surrounded the small town of Burkittsville, Professor David Mercer made his way through the thickets of the woods as he approached the excavation site. Many of the students from his anthropology class had already taken their places around an old derelict cabin that dated back to the Civil War more than a century earlier. Mercer had first developed an interest in the shack when a colleague at the University of Maryland told tales of slave children being led through the area by way of an underground railroad, and so brought his class to conduct a dig around the building. As they worked along the foundation line, a wall collapsed that unearthed a storage space that had remained undiscovered for more than a hundred years. But on closer inspection, the lecturer found that hidden within the darkness behind the wall was a backpack, one that looked too contemporary to have been discarded in such a long-forgotten place. Carefully unzipping the bag, they found an array of recording equipment, but the most curious items were several reels of film and digital cassettes. When the footage was finally viewed, Mercer could not believe his eyes. He had finally uncovered the truth behind one of the most infamous mysteries in recent history, but the reality was almost too fantastic to believe.
Almost a year to the day before this find, on another cold October morning, three film students from Montgomery College made their way deep into the woods to investigate a local legend known as the Blair Witch. Two centuries earlier, a woman from the town of Blair was accused by frightened citizens of witchcraft, following the disappearance of several children, and was banished into the wilderness, where her fate remained a mystery. By the end of the following year, a slew of tragedies had convinced the townspeople to abandon Blair, and almost forty years later a land baron from Baltimore established Burkittsville in the same location. Children once again began to disappear under mysterious circumstances, while the remains of a search party were discovery at the nearby Coffin Rock. Tragedy would return to the town in the early forties when a local vagrant called Rustin Parr surrendered himself to the authorities after declaring he was ‘finally finished.’ After interviewing many of the residents of Burkittsville, the film students travelled into the Black Hills Forest in search of evidence of the witch for a class project. All three failed to return from the woods, and in the weeks that followed the Maryland State Police launched a manhunt of the area. Four months before the discovery of the footage by the students of the University of Maryland, the search for the missing filmmakers was abandoned and the case declared inactive.
Hours of raw footage would be analysed by both the police and an independent production company called Haxan Films, with the latter compiling some kind of narrative into a documentary feature that they had christened The Blair Witch Project. Through its eighty-minute runtime, editors were able to document the fateful journey into the woods of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams. ‘We received a call back in the middle of 1997 from Mike [DeCoto; Montgomery College], asking us if we’d be willing to help a friend of his edit some raw footage,’ explained co-director Eduardo Sánchez in a dossier that was published to coincide with the film’s release. ‘He put us in touch with Amanda Donahue, and when we found out the whole story from her; well, we were more than a little intrigued.’ Released in the summer of 1999, the same season that saw audiences flocking to the latest Star Wars picture, The Blair Witch Project became an unexpected success, and the mystery behind the fate of the three students grew into an obsession for many cinemagoers. ‘The other thing is that, as we were reviewing the tapes, we were witnessing this transformation,’ added Daniel Myrick, the film’s second director. ‘From this student film about the Blair Witch, into a visual diary of the filmmakers; Heather turned the camera on her, Josh, and Mike in an effort, it seems to be, to leave some kind of record.’
Ever since the discovery of the footage in the fall of 1995, there had been accusations that their disappearance was a hoax, an elaborate publicity stunt that served to draw attention to a low-budget documentary. Ron Cravens, the sheriff of Burkittsville, had openly denounced the discovery as a fraud, telling journalists that, ‘whatever caused [the students] to pull this kind of stunt, it in no way lessons the anxiety that we all feel over their fate.’ The police had been joined by both volunteers and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the search for Donahue, Leonard, and Williams, who were last seen by two local fishermen on the edge of the woods. ‘I was fishing with my son-in-law – that’s Ed Swanson – up in the creek,’ recalled Bob Griffin during an interview with Buchanan’s Private Investigation Agency. ‘And here comes these three college kids, hiking along with their backpacks and their high-tech stuff. They asked me about the Blair Witch. I told ‘em. And then they walked off into the woods.’ This would be the last confirmed sighting of the three students, and their fates remained unknown until the footage was discovered a year later. And through the viewfinder of their cameras, their terrifying ordeal deep in the woods was documented for the whole world to see, their final moments captured on film in what would become known as The Blair Witch Project.
While for centuries there has been much scepticism surrounding the existence of witches and witchcraft, with their mystical arts and association with Satanism having first become popularised in Europe during the Dark Ages, there has been a strong belief among some that witches do exist in the purlieus of society. There have been references to witchcraft as far back as the Hebrew Bible, which depicted this practice as evil and deserving of damnation. In the Book of Micah, its author declared, ‘I will destroy your witchcraft, and you will no longer cast spells.’ Elsewhere, in the Book of Deuteronomy, it was written that, ‘Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritists, or who consults the dead.’ Even before America was declared a sovereign state and free from the rulership of Great Britain, a series of trials were held in the western state of Massachusetts, where more than two-hundred local residents were accused of practicing witchcraft and forced to stand trial in the city of Salem. Twenty of the defendants were executed before the state’s governor was recalled to England to answer for his actions. Witchcraft has remained a recurring theme in folklore the world over, with their sorcerous mysteries found in various cultures, and often used as the scapegoat when science has failed to find an answer. ‘If you can’t find an explanation for it, it must be the Devil’s work,’ scoffed local folklore historian Charles Moorehouse during the investigation into the disappearance of the Montgomery College students.
According to legend, it was in February 1785 when the town freak, Elly Kedward, was accused by several children of Blair of attempting to draw blood from them and, after finding her guilty of practising witchcraft, she was tied to a wheelbarrow and left to the harsh conditions of the Maryland winter. By the end of 1786, following a summer in which multiple parents had reported missing children, the residents believed the land was cursed and so abandoned Blair in search of a new home. Twenty-four years after the supposed death of Kedward, fear was further perpetuated with the publication of The Blair Witch Cult. The legend of the witch grew in the surrounding area, but this did little to dissuade Peter Burkett, a wealthy land owner from the nearby city of Baltimore, to establish a new town on the site where Blair once stood. The following year, more than ten witnesses claimed to have seen a hand reach out of the waters of Tappy East Creek to pull eleven-year-old Eileen Treacle into its depths. ‘Supposedly, according to the story, there was twelve witnesses who observed a ghostly white hand come up out of the water, and drag the child under,’ claimed Moorehouse in the television documentary Sticks and Stones: Investigating the Blair Witch. ‘The term Blair Witch was actually coined in 1809 when a book was published. I have seen this book, and the book is filled with bloodletting, all kinds of gore, witchcraft, paganism; basically, it’s a pack of lies. Don’t believe any of it!’
Following the unexplained death of Treacle in 1825, the curse of the Blair Witch would remain obscured in history until one day, sixty-one years later, an eight-year-old girl called Robin Weaver mysteriously disappeared, and a search party was dispatched to locate her. Weaver finally returned home, but when the search party failed to report back, a second group were sent to locate them. After more than a week, their mutilated remains were found bound together at Coffin Rock. The legend would be resurrected once more in 1940 when seven children were reported missing in Burkittsville. The authorities searched tirelessly around the Black Hills Forest, but after six months of investigations, an old hermit called Rustin Parr appeared one day in the town’s market and turned himself over to the sheriff. Accompanied by several deputies, Parr hiked back to his cabin that nested deep in the woods, where they uncovered the most unspeakable of crimes. Echoing the deaths of supposed Blair Witch victims, the police found the remains of seven children, each of which had been murdered in a ritualistic fashion and eviscerated. Parr had confessed to the crimes and, after receiving spiritual guidance from his priest, Dominick Cazale, Parr was sentenced to death by hanging. This latest sensational chapter of the Blair Witch legend was later immortalised in the documentary The Burkittsville 7.
The gruesome crimes of Rustin Parr would be another addition to the growing number of serial killers that have been active in the United States throughout the twentieth century. The horrors of child abduction, murder, and even cannibalism were first revealed trough the trial of Albert Fish in the thirties, who had raped, butchered, and devoured victims as young as three. While not as infamous as many of his contemporaries, Parr had claimed under oath that he had been ordered to commit the murders under the instructions of ‘an old woman.’ And for the residents of Burkittsville, Parr became their own local boogeyman. ‘It was one of the few times I had someone like that, a serial killer of that repute, in my own backyard,’ claimed Parr archivist Chris Carrazco. ‘Rustin was basically, up until that point, a pretty harmless guy. He was friendly, he was nice. All of a sudden, he became this monster: the Demon of Burkittsville, as they referred to him at times.’ The majority of the information pertaining to both the legend of the Blair Witch, and the crimes of Rustin Parr, were gathered together by historian and author D. A. Stern, who had compiled his research into a series of books that were published in support of The Blair Witch Project. One key witness in this trial was a young boy who claimed to the court that he almost became the eighth victim of Parr.
‘There was the damning evidence in the basement, there was the children’s things scattered throughout the house, and there was Kyle Brody,’ wrote Stern in Blair Witch: The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr. ‘That little boy, standing up in court and giving graphically detailed testimony about what Parr had done, sealed Rustin’s fate, more than any other single piece of evidence.’ But one person remained unconvinced by Brody’s story. Bill Barnes once worked as a librarian in Burkittsville and, in his youth, had followed the trial with great interest. ‘Kyle was a weird sort of kid. And, being like he was, some of the things he’d like to do, he’d like to catch cats and stuff them in a mailbox,’ he recalled. Brody, who passed away in 1971, was later committed to the Maryland Institute for the Criminally Insane, and in the decades since his testimony, several historians have questioned his series of events. Even those close to Brody would later confirm that he had always been a troubled child, but whatever happened at the home of Parr had changed him forever. ‘Kyle did all these things that were crazy, and yet he used to insist that there was nothing wrong with him,’ confessed his younger sister, Janine Brody, in the mid-seventies. ‘One Halloween, in between his junior and senior year at high school, I’d invited a whole group of my friends over to the house. He locked all of us in the basement; he wouldn’t let us out at all. He said it was for our own protection – that Rustin Parr was waiting for us outside. I remember talking with him, reminding him that Parr was dead. And he was shouting at me, practically crying, telling me that it didn’t matter, that you couldn’t kill Rustin Parr.’
Barely one year after the death of Brody, Heather Donahue was born more than two-hundred miles away in New York City, where she would spend the majority of her childhood. But during the summer, she visited her grandparents in Frederick County, and through her time in Maryland she heard tales of the Blair Witch. ‘They were always warning us kids not to go into the woods, that the Witch would get us,’ revealed her grandfather, Randy Donahue. After relocating with her parents in the early nineties, she enrolled at Montgomery College in Rockville, where her interest in the history of Burkittsville laid the groundwork for her thesis project. After recruiting recent graduate Joshua Leonard, who in turn called upon the services of his friend Michael Williams, Donahue prepared to embark on an excursion into the Black Hills Forest for a documentary she was developing on the Blair Witch for her course. ‘She had drive, and she had real talent. Real strong ideas, and not afraid to express them,’ praised her lecturer, Professor Michael DeCoto. ‘That’s the film Heather wanted to make.’ On 21 October, 1994, following one day of interviews with various residents of Burkittsville, Donahue, Leonard, and Williams left their vehicle by the side of Black Rock Road and headed into the woods, never to be seen again. For the next ten days, officers from Maryland State Police conducted an extensive search of the area, but no trace of the three teenagers could be found. Seven months later, the case was labelled inactive. The following October, footage was discovered in a backpack in a long-abandoned house that gave some clues to their fate, and in 1999, five years after their disappearance, their story was finally told with The Blair Witch Project.
I. Not Quite Reality
The cold autumn air was unforgiving as the four figures moved cautiously through the trees, navigating slowly across the uneven terrain as they gripped tightly to their flashlights. The early morning wind cut sharply through the branches, and as the ice cool breeze touched their skin, each of them felt a biting sensation. Dressed head-to-toe in camouflage attire, resembling some kind of paramilitary unit, they stepped as quietly as the twigs breaking under their feet would allow, and as they approached their target they switched off their lights in unison, plunging themselves into darkness. Allowing a moment for their eyes to adjust, they could scarcely make out the shape of a rudimentary camp ahead and so took their positions from a safe distance. From inside the tent they began to stir, with the young woman the first to become aware of an unwanted presence outside. She had heard strange voices and the sounds of breaking branches through the trees, but unable to cast any light with her camera, she had awoken the man closest to her. They stepped outside and shone the light into the void ahead of them, and yet despite the woods being alive with menace, they could find no trace of life. From their vantage point in the shadows, the four figures watched intently, satisfied that they had terrified their victims enough for one night. ‘Such a delicious and irresistible idea,’ one of the perpetrators, Ben Rock, would later admit. They discretely made their way back to the hiking trail, leaving their victims alone to brave the night for a few more hours.
In the summer of 1999, when the truth behind The Blair Witch Project was finally revealed, the world erupted with anger. Audiences, for the most part, had believed its authenticity, while critics had spent months debating if there was any truth to its claims, but once it had enjoyed a taste of mainstream success the myth could no longer continue. The Blair Witch Project was nothing more than a work of fiction. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams were merely paid actors, the legend of the Blair Witch and Rustin Parr had been created by the filmmakers, and the found footage was in fact a low-budget horror film. Long before the movie had seen the light of day, a website was created that served to further fuel their claims, with background information on the witch and the three alleged victims, thus whetting the appetites of cinemagoers that were desperate to witness the horrific story for themselves. Not since the dramatic radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles in the thirties, which sent listeners running from their homes for fear of an alien invasion, had a joke been played so spectacularly on the public. But now the knives were out, as the backlash against the picture and the world in which it had depicted began. Viewers, it seemed, were angry that the three missing students were not really dead, that the Blair Witch was a figment of someone’s imagination, and that evil was not roaming the hills of Maryland. Those who were behind The Blair Witch Project had wanted to manipulate their audience, and as the hysteria surrounding its release became palpable, they took a step back to enjoy the chaos they had created.
The Blair Witch Project was not the first of its kind, but undoubtedly it would prove to be the most successful, and therefore the fallout following the deception one of the more severe. But the concept of misleading the viewer into believing the documentary is authentic, or at the very least attempting to mimic the aesthetics of such a film into a narrative picture, are nothing new. This had been a staple of Italian exploitation cinema since the early sixties, and over the decades has resulted in several notorious features that courted controversy and disgusted mainstream critics. In fact, The Blair Witch Project follows a long tradition of convincing the audience that what they were seeing was real, and thus preying on their guilt and morbid fascinations for finding the suffering of others entertaining. But it could be argued that this is the entire purpose of news broadcasts; are they less to do with informing the public, and more to do with revelling in the pain and misfortune of strangers? This is at the heart of both the mondo films of the sixties and the modern found footage horror flick. When it was first marketed, it was the intention of the distributors to depict the events of The Blair Witch Project as factual, and so the terror that the three filmmakers were subjected to, and their subsequent ambiguous fates, were screened for the audiences’ enjoyment. Thus, if a found footage film was real, it would be the perfect example of schadenfreude, in which pleasure is derived from another person’s misery.
One can only imagine what audiences must have thought when they were first subjected to Mondo Cane in 1962. The original mondo documentary, or shockumentary, the film was an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste and was the creation of a trio of Italian filmmakers. A compilation of shocking footage from around the world that was intended to prey on the viewer’s xenophobia, it was constructed as an educational film that showed the more horrific aspects of humanity. Its format, which featured scenes of animal cruelty, the inherent barbarism of mankind, and the conflict between the civilised and uncultured worlds, laid the groundwork for what would become known as the mondo film, a succession of increasingly derivative pseudo-documentaries that gained cult followings throughout the sixties, many of which were created by the directing duo of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. While clearly not impartial in its political themes, Mondo Cane was an interesting exercise in filmmaking, and served to lay the blueprint for future films that attempted to blend the real with the fantastic. ‘In addition to documentary attributes, Mondo Cane is shot through with a macabre sense of grisly black humour, especially in relation to the rituals and practices of the western world, a rarity at the time, and one since acknowledged as being important and original,’ wrote Mark Goodall in Sweet and Savage: The World Through the Shockumentary Film Lens. ‘Erik Barnouw, for example, in his classic text Documentary, noted that the western documentary tendency for ‘colonialist predilections, by which white men buttressed assumptions of superiority’ was uniquely overturned by Mondo Cane, which responded to the question ‘were weird practices not available to filmmakers elsewhere – in Europe and America, for example?’ with considerable vigour.’
Its unexpected success gave rise to the mondo film, and in its wake the likes of Africa Addio exploited its unique formula in an attempt to gain similar notoriety, often blurring the line between fact and fiction. While the majority of this cycle would be produced in Europe, in 1978 American filmmaker John Alan Schwartz created Faces of Death. Taking the manipulation of Mondo Cane even further, Schwartz obtained footage of suicides and police shootings, and then shot additional scenes in order to further elaborate on the horror, such as following a girl falling to her death with the close-up of an actress lying on the sidewalk, artificial brains and gore protruding from her skull. Arguably its most notorious sequence involved the execution of a prisoner via an electric chair. After obtaining footage within the walls of the California Institution for Men in Chino, Schwartz then recreated a cell and electric chair in the loft of a friend’s home and, with the assistance of fake blood and toothpaste (the latter to simulate the foaming of the mouth), a paid actor convulsed and spasmed for the benefit of the camera. Its impact would be immediate and Faces of Death became a bestseller in the burgeoning home video market, resulting in the film finding its way onto a list of offensive titles published by the British parliament on 30 June, 1983 and being labelled a video nasty. Its documentary format, complete with a monotone narration, served to create what appeared to be an authentic depiction of death, and while it would ultimately launch its own franchise, Faces of Death proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the mondo film. But the success of both Mondo Cane and Faces of Death had proved that cinemagoers had a morbid fascination with witnessing natural disasters, torture, murder, and the conflict between cultures, and thus in the subsequent decades filmmakers would repeatedly attempt to replicate their winning formulas.
If there was one film that could be considered the precursor to The Blair Witch Project, it was Cannibal Holocaust. A low-budget Italian horror film that first popularised the concept of found footage, the film told the story of an American film crew who disappeared while documenting a cannibal tribe in the jungles of the Amazon. When their footage is finally recovered, their gruesome fates at the hands of the natives is revealed. The picture would prove to be so effective that its creator, Ruggero Deodato, was forced to prove that the protagonists of the film were paid actors and not victims killed onscreen in what would amount to a snuff movie. Making its way onto the same list of video nasties as Faces of Death, the most shocking moment of Cannibal Holocaust came when the crew found the body of a young woman impaled on a wooden pole, and the decision of its British distributors to adorn the artwork of their home video release with this graphic image would serve to raise concerns among the government and media on what negative impact violent films could have on the nation’s children. While not the first to exploit the European cannibal cycle of the era, Cannibal Holocaust would prove to be the most notorious, and in a desire to provoke and disgust even further, fellow Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi took the format to the extreme a year later with Cannibal Ferox. ‘I can’t find a single ounce of good in that movie,’ admits its star, Giovanni Lombardo Radice. ‘Bullshit from the beginning to the end.’
The shockumentary would return to the mainstream once again in 1992 with the arrival of C’est arrivé près de chez vous, more commonly referred to as Man Bites Dog. The black-and-white Belgian satire, which earned considerable praise at the Cannes Film Festival, followed the exploits of a serial killer who is accompanied by a documentary crew, often explaining his preferred methods of murder while carrying out the brutal acts. Described by the New York Times as an ‘assured, seductive chamber of horrors,’ the film was celebrated for its realistic tone and black humour, with many viewing it as a commentary on society’s obsession with the celebrity status of serial killers. ‘It’s a film about filmmaking, and the process of making a film,’ claimed co-director André Bonzel. By the time that Man Bites Dog received a general release, it had been more than thirty years since Mondo Cane shocked and repulsed the world, and the concept of faux documentaries were still proving a popular draw with the public. The more authentic a movie appeared to be, the more terrified and disturbed the viewer would feel. While lacking the gruesome images of Cannibal Holocaust, or the brutality of Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project would very much continue in the same tradition of manipulating the audience into believing that what they are witnessing is real, and with the arrival of the internet opening up even more possibilities, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick were ready to bring the shockumentary kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
A few years before their obscure low-budget feature took the world by storm, singlehandedly ushering in the era of online viral marketing, The Blair Witch Project was born as a humble idea between two university graduates. At the time of its inception, in the early nineties, the horror genre had fallen out of favour with the public after more than a decade of box office success, and now it had become nothing more than a dirty word. Spine-tingling, gruesome movies such as The Silence of the Lambs were instead branded as psychological thrillers, and most of the franchises that had dominated the eighties had been laid to rest. It proved to be a frustrating time for fans of creature features and splatter movies, and as the industry yearned for films that were more polished and sophisticated, audiences soon forgot about the carnage that they had so readily enjoyed in previous years. But two young souls that mourned the loss of horror cinema were Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. In 1993, the same year in which they had first conceived what was then referred to as The Woods Movie, horror fans were subjected to such repetitive and mediocre sequels as Amityville: A New Generation, Maniac Cop III, and Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, and so, inspired by the lack of creative terror, Sánchez and Myrick were determined to make horror scary again.
‘We thought about how there hadn’t really been any horror movies recently that had [truly] scared us. The horror idea led us to think about the documentary shows, or documentary-like movies, we saw as kids,’ explained Myrick. ‘All reality-based shows filmed in that specifically seventies grainy way. We thought, ‘It would be cool to do a horror movie, or just a movie, that felt like one of those shows.’’ In a discussion with Fangoria shortly before the film’s release, Myrick elaborated further. ‘We wanted to create something that was genuinely scary,’ he insisted. ‘A lot of films today are just shock-value films. We really liked The Exorcist, The Shining, The Omen; the classic psychological films of the day that had a residual effect on you when you left the theatre. We wanted to make something that would have that same kind of effect; a film that would make you think, and not spoon-feed you a nice, neat formula with closure. Everyone has their own personal boogeyman, and we felt that was a lot scarier than dressing someone up in a costume.’ Instead of embracing the postmodern horror that had begun to infiltrate the genre since the success of Scream in the winter of 1996, Sánchez and Myrick decided to resurrect the mondo film with their own found footage shockumentary.
More than any other movie of its ilk, The Blair Witch Project made the most of the formula by depicting the action through the cameras of the protagonists, thus shifting the perspective of the standard horror film from the perpetrator to the victim. If the audience are willing to accept the events on screen, then allowing themselves to become the victim makes the experience all the more terrifying. ‘The use of subjective camera is a style of the horror film,’ confirmed Scott Dixon McDowell in an issue of The Journal of Film and Video. ‘Horror films often use subjective images both to delay the shock of the monster image until the climax, and to stave off the inevitable revelation of the inadequate budget for monster effects. Oddly, conventional use of subjective camera forces the audience to take on the role of the stalking monster. In Blair Witch, the subjective camera locates the audience not in the monster’s position, but in that of the victim’s, thereby increasing audience identification and anxiety.’ But long before they had the concept of the filmmakers disappearing and their footage unearthed, or the mythology they would create surrounding the Blair Witch, there was just two film graduates that desperately wanted to make a horror movie. And with the likes of Richard Linklater leading the charge in a new revolution of independent cinema, Sánchez and Myrick knew that the only way their dream could become a reality was if they turned to guerrilla filmmaking and developed their project outside of the studio system.
II: Have You Ever Seen Deliverance?
Around the same time that university dropout Richard Linklater was wandering the streets of Austin, armed with an Arriflex SR2 and a loose script of vignettes he called Slacker, almost nine-hundred miles away in the city of Tallahassee, the Florida State Legislature announced its decision to launch a film programme at the state’s university that would provide support for those students wishing to pursue a career in filmmaking. 1989 proved to be a significant year in the evolution of independent cinema, as not only would the film that Linklater was shooting become a low-budget success story two years later, but Steven Soderbergh was already enjoying acclaim for his own ‘indie’ hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The impact that both of these films had on the American film industry allowed such filmmakers as Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith to break into the mainstream in the mid-nineties, and the formation of a film school in the heart of Florida finally provided wannabe directors on the West Coast the chance to hone their craft under the tutelage of seasoned professionals. Following in the footsteps of New York University, which had nurtured the creative talents of its film students since the sixties, Florida intended on providing the support and inspiration that would give birth to a new generation of imaginative and ambitious filmmakers. While not as celebrated as the University of California, Los Angeles, which was located just a stepping stone away from the bright lights of Hollywood, the new programme at the University of Central Florida would attract a plethora of young hopefuls, desperate for their chance to make the next motion picture blockbuster. And it was here that Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick first crossed paths.
Within the walls of the university, the two formed a close friendship as they shared their love of science fiction and horror films, and over the course of a few short years they developed several short films with a collective of likeminded fellow students that included a witch-themed effort called Fortune. Utilising the state-of-the-art equipment at their disposal, Sánchez and Myrick worked tirelessly to master the art of filmmaking before graduation. Once they had completed their studies, Myrick remained in Florida while Sánchez, who opted to stay on an additional year at the university, returned to Maryland, where he had spent much of his childhood. The two stayed in touch, and after various aborted efforts at making a motion picture, talks soon turned to the movies they had both grown up with. ‘We were hanging out one weekend,’ recalled Sánchez to Vice. ‘So we went out and rented a lot of the horror ﬁlms that had freaked us out as kids, and a lot of the more pseudo-documentary-style movies and TV shows, like In Search of…, Chariot of the Gods, and The Legend of Boggy Creek. These kind of movies, to Dan and me, were scarier because they were presented as reality. We both wondered, ‘Could you do that with a contemporary audience?’ All the ideas we came up with for the mythology, we just wanted them to be very rooted in reality. We wanted people to say, ‘Yeah, that sounds like that could be real, something happened.’ We didn’t want anything too outrageous; we didn’t want to draw too much attention to the mythology.’
From those initial discussions grew the notion that they create a supernatural tale in the format of a shockumentary, and so the concept of the film being told through the lens of the video camera was suggested early on. ‘The idea was somebody doing some kind of filming in the woods, and then coming up upon a really creepy house, and going inside it and finding all kinds of Satanic, ritualistic stuff,’ explained Sánchez. ‘Candles, pentagrams; that kind of basic Satanic stuff. Maybe something is happening in this place, and we shouldn’t be here. But then the camera continues and it can’t stop, and you’re stuck with these people. This camera just going down these hallways, and then you see a door at the end of the hallway, and you know you’re going to go in there… What is it? Is it a witch? Some kind of warlock? What the hell is it? And a witch, for us, was just kind of the only thing you could do. We liked the idea of it being centred in Maryland. And Maryland is close enough to the Salem witch trials; a really dark period of our history that a lot of people know about.’ The supernatural has been a staple of horror since the dawn of cinema, and witches in particular have been a recurring theme ever since the release of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan in 1922. As a tribute to this, Sánchez and Myrick decided to christen their union Haxan Films.
Tales of ghosts, witches, and demons have populated urban legends and folklore since time began, and while some may have had their roots in truth, over the decades or centuries this has gradually blurred with the fantastic in order to create an indistinguishable concoction of fact and fiction. The origins of Elly Kedward, whom the residents of Burkittsville would come to know as the Blair Witch, could possibly be traced back to the legend of Moll Dyer, an elderly lady in the Maryland region of Leonardtown, who, in the final years of the seventeenth century, was accused of witchcraft and banished into the wilderness after the locals blamed her of witchcraft following several unexplained occurrences. The weather was unnaturally cold that winter, much like in the story of the Blair Witch, and ill health and loss of crops due to the climate was used as justification for driving the lonely woman away from her community. Her body was believed to have been discovered several days later, resting against a rock that many now believe to be cursed. As a result of the legend, many tragedies or acts of nature that occurred in the area are often attributed to the spirit of Dyer, whose restless soul allegedly roams the area. According to author Lynn J. Bounviri, witchcraft was deemed a felony when this event had supposedly taken place, and a conviction could only be achieved through either the confession of the accused, or the testimony of no less than two witnesses. But with the story of Dyer, however, she was driven from the area by a lynch mob who had attempted to burn down her shack while she slept.
There are clear comparisons between Dyer, an old woman forced from her home by scared townspeople who believed her to be a witch, only for this to grow into the legend of a cursed entity roaming the surrounding woods, and that of Elly Kedward. As Sánchez and Myrick embellished upon their idea, the story of the Blair Witch, and the mythology surrounding both Kedward and Rustin Parr, continued to grow. ‘I grew up around the woods and swamps of Florida. For a long time, I had this idea of seeing a stick ﬁgure hanging from a tree, and it creeped the hell out of me,’ Myrick told the Guardian. ‘Ed Sánchez helped me work this into a thirty-five-page treatment about three students who go missing after heading out into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about a legendary witch.’ From there, they began to bounce ideas back and forth until a basic concept took shape. ‘The beat-by-beat storyline was worked through together. We knew the journey; the beginning, the middle, the end,’ detailed Sánchez. ‘Actually, we didn’t even know the end. We knew that something bad was going to happen in a house, but we didn’t know exactly what it would be. Each of us kept coming up with ideas for cool scenes. It really wasn’t a script, it was more of an outline, like a thirty-page treatment. We also knew we were going to improv the movie.’
The team that was assembled for what would become known as The Black Hills Project consisted of former classmates from the University of Central Florida, which would include Gregg Hale, whose short film Perpetual Motion had been screened for their class prior to his enrolment at the campus; Hale’s occasional collaborator Ben Rock; Robin Cowie, the son of a documentary filmmaker; cameraman Neal Fredericks; and sometime editor Michael Monello. ‘At the time, I was living near downtown Orlando, about a block away from my film school friend Gregg Hale,’ said Rock. ‘We’d attended two different film schools together, he’d produced my first short film, and we’d both made thesis films with genre aspirations. Gregg had taken a job in L.A. in the art department on the first season of MADtv, and he’d come back cash-rich to Orlando during the hiatus. One night, I was over at his house, catching up on what we’d been up to. I probably told him about The P.A.C.K., another Alabama-based low-budget monster movie, for which I’d just designed the monster for Dave Prior again, and Gregg stopped my yammering with an intriguing question: ‘Have you ever heard of the Blair Witch?’ he said. ‘Do you mean, the Bell Witch?’ I asked, assuming he’d gotten it wrong, and meant the famous spook story from Adams, Tennessee. He hadn’t. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The Blair Witch.’’
Another legend of superstition to haunt the western United States, the myth of the Bell Witch first emerged in Robertson County, situated on the northern Tennessee border close to Kentucky, where, commencing in 1817, a farmer and his family were terrorised by a mysterious presence. While at first the spectre appeared benign, its intentions eventually turned malicious when the children were abused through the night. ‘One target in particular was John Bell’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who was barely twelve-years-old at the time. Night after night, the entity pulled her hair, tied it in knots, and slapped her face as she tried to pull away,’ described writer Pat Fitzhugh. ‘With the passage of time, the entity developed a voice, that began in whispering and crying tones, and later developed the strength to be understood. The entity’s intelligence was remarkable. It knew every passage in the Bible, everything about a person’s past, and what people on the opposite side of the world were doing at any point in time. The entity’s character was enigmatic.’ Later identifying itself as Kate, the witch terrified the family for a total of four years, its attitude towards them eventually turning from hostile to at times affectionate. But finally, the Bell family instructed the witch that it was no longer welcome in their home. In 1894, echoing that of The Blair Witch Cult in 1809, a book entitled The Authentic History of the Bell Witch was published, ultimately immortalising the legend into the annals of American history.
One way that the Blair Witch legend would differ to those such as the Bell Witch was how its story continued to unfold into the twentieth century with the trial of Rustin Parr. ‘The interesting thing about the Blair Witch is that it’s one of the few American myths that virtually spans the history of the country,’ acknowledged Charles Moorehouse, a fictitious historian that was created as part of the Blair Witch mythology. ‘It’s my belief that what Parr did should not be considered part of the mythos. In fact, I’ve heard it suggested that he killed those children just to become part of the legend.’ Another expert on Maryland folklore that was conceived as part of the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project spoke in detail to the Buchanan’s Private Investigation Agency, the firm hired by Heather Donahue’s mother in the months following her disappearance. Bill Barnes, a former librarian and local history expert, gave a summary of The Blair Witch Cult, the book that had given birth to the legend’s infamous name. ‘Close to half the book is illegible because the paper’s rotted away,’ he claimed. ‘It starts with the author explaining how witches first came to America; how there was a group of them on trial in England who escaped on a ship, and then killed and took the place of some of the highborn women onboard. When they land, some go north to Salem, some go to the other colonies, like Maryland.’
While America was still under the rulership of the British Empire, it was forced to adhere to many of its laws, one of which was the legislation towards the practices of witchcraft. Following the passing of the Witchcraft Act 1542, any defendant found guilty of such a crime would be sentenced to death, but after an amendment to the law in 1604, at the behest of James I and his predecessor, Elizabeth I, witchcraft was declared a felony. This rule was finally reversed in 1735, fifty years before Elly Kedward was supposedly exiled from the town of Blair, when the British government relaxed its laws against those suspected of witchcraft. ‘Unlike colonial New England, Maryland did not have any strong democratic traditions,’ noted historian William H. Cooke in Witch Trials, Legends, and the Lore of Maryland. ‘Witchcraft prosecutions often worked from the ground up and were popular with the masses. In Salem, for example, the witch trials were supported by the majority of the people, but were looked upon with scepticism by the elites, including many religious ministers. The common people in Maryland were in many ways powerless to challenge the ruling elite; there was little incentive for demagogues to play on the superstitions and fears of the masses. The fact that Maryland was more religiously tolerant also may have played a role. While crimes such as blasphemy were on the statute books, people were free to pursue the Christian faith in any way that they pleased.’
As various myths and legends began to influence their concept, Sánchez chose to christen their monster the Blair Witch, its name derived from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, where his older sister had been a student. But instead of developing their story into a traditional screenplay, they instead devised a loose narrative that could be open to further adaptation and improvisation throughout the process of making the movie. ‘We knew it needed a structure,’ admitted Myrick. ‘If you back away from the film itself, it’s basically a three-act structure. We wanted it to feel real, but we didn’t want to go out there and shoot haphazardly. We had a very detailed story plan, where we outlined it as you would a script. And, in some ways, more detailed; mapping out, hour-for-hour, what they would be doing, where they would be, and the general gist of conversation at any point in time. It was effectively a script without the dialogue written in.’ Along with cinematic reference points like The Legend of Boggy Creek, Sánchez and Myrick used various elements of American folklore to further embellish their concept. ‘The Devil’s Triangle was a really good reference: a mysterious place where people reportedly disappeared; lots of conspiracy theories surrounding it, but no one has any real proof one way or the other. Civil War folklore, Native American folklore; a blend of stuff from that area of the country to ﬂesh out this whole kind of universe we were creating.’ With the detailed history of the Blair Witch laid out before them, Sánchez, Myrick, and their cohorts from the University of Central Florida were ready to take the next step on the journey that would lead them to The Blair Witch Project.
III. Here’s Your Motivation
Heather Donahue waited patiently until her name was called forth, her eyes darting from one young hopeful to another, each of which could potentially steal the job she had come to claim as her own. The advertisement she had stumbled upon in the pages of a trade magazine had shed little light on what was expected of her, and as she sat among the other potential candidates at the Musical Theatre Works in New York, she could not help but fear that she was auditioning for some kind of depraved underground film. Finally she heard her name echo across the halls of the corridor and she rose to her feet, making her way through the adjacent door to where two young men were perched behind a desk, notepads at the ready. Daniel Myrick greeted her with a smile, and after a moment’s pause he said, ‘Well, you’ve served seven years of a nine-year sentence. Why should we let you out on parole?’ After mulling over the question for a moment she responded, in a rather cold fashion, ‘I don’t think you should!’ This was not the response that either of the directors had expected. ‘I made up this baby killer character, who induced other prisoners to throw pacifiers on her lunch tray, because there’s nothing worse than a baby killer,’ recalled Donahue. ‘He said, ‘Okay, come back tomorrow.’ It didn’t matter what you said. If you answered the question without hesitation, you were brought back the next day. That just got me even more excited, because I had done improv movement theatre, and I had done improv comedy, but I had never done a full-length, improvised, long-form feature. That’s something I wanted to be a part of. The next day, they started using scenes that they had in their basic story outline; things that later became scenes in the film. They would give us set-ups and put the three of us in a room, like they did in the film. They would give us each a sheet of paper. We weren’t allowed to look at each other’s paper, so all you knew were your own instructions.’
While the initial meeting proved to work out well for the young performer, she had initial reservations about what the project could entail. Despite discovering the advert in the classified section of a theatre magazine called Backstage West, Donahue had no doubt heard enough sordid tales of sleazy auditions that there was a voice in the back of her head calling for her to leave and not look back. The ad had offered roles in a low-budget improvisational horror picture, but gave no specifics beyond this. ‘I remember saying to our producer, Gregg Hale, ‘This isn’t a snuff film, is it?’’ she confessed. ‘He said, ‘Listen, Heather, if this was a snuff film, don’t you think we’d come up with a better cover?’ But if you heard about this project, and you were a girl who was going to be sent out into the woods with two guys and a video camera, and ten guys watching from a hundred yards away; it sounds potentially deadly, right? I kept thinking, ‘If I die making this movie, I’m going to look really stupid.’’ While actors trying out for the film understandably had their reservations regarding its authenticity, the audition process had taken place over the period of a year, both on the East and West coasts. ‘I got so excited when I saw the ad,’ she said. ‘Most of the stuff that you see in there says, ‘Nudity required, no pay,’ which doesn’t really rock my world. The description of Blair Witch said, ‘Fully improvised feature to be shot in the woods. Will be physically arduous and emotionally taxing.’ Apparently, a lot of other people thought so too, because it was incredibly crowded when I got there. I sat there for hours, and they saw tons and tons of people.’
Strong heroines had been a staple of the horror film since the seventies, but the protagonist that The Blair Witch Project boasted was not the traditional final girl. The one depicted by Donahue was bossy, hysterical, and at times obnoxious, much like any other teenager, but with a genre that relied on the female lead to remain headstrong and likeable throughout the course of the story, this would cause the character of Heather to differ significantly to the heroines of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, or the countless other hip slasher films that populated the box office during the latter half of the nineties. ‘People coming out said they would have killed Heather themselves,’ noted an exasperated Eduardo Sánchez following an early preview screening. But this was not the tale of a group of horny teenagers who are stalked by a maniac in a mask. The reality of being lost in the woods and tormented by voices from within the darkness, as well as discovering unexplained souvenirs following a visit from the titular ghostly presence, brought both the characters and actors close to breaking point. The Blair Witch Project took the shockumentary formula and turned it against its own performers, forcing them to suffer as much as their onscreen counterparts. The versions of Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams that were depicted in the film differed to their real selves, but were authentic presentations of how one would react under such extreme and unusual circumstances. The casting call had warned that the roles would be ‘physically arduous and emotionally taxing,’ and that’s exactly what they proved to be. But this sadomasochistic approach to filmmaking only served to enhance the performances of the actors, and thus draw the audience into their nightmare. ‘We told them upfront,’ claimed Myrick, ‘’You’re going to be subjected to intense psychological treatment.’’
The filmmakers had clearly incorporated elements of themselves into the characters that they had presented to the performers during the auditions. Jane, who would later be renamed Heather after the actress cast in the role, was described in the character breakdown as having watched The Legend of Boggy Creek as a child, an experience which began her love for ‘strange documentary films.’ Jane was also a student at Montgomery College, the same establishment where Sánchez had begun his higher education studies. Sánchez and Myrick had designs on how their heroine would be portrayed; that was, however, until Heather Donahue came marching through the door. ‘They really had in mind this glowing, golden, luminous heroine, who was going to swing the guys over her shoulder and march them out of the woods,’ she laughed. ‘If you have to justify putting a camera in people’s faces – especially when they’re incredibly upset, tired, and just sick of it – you’re not going to be a saintly, martyr-like character. And that’s somebody that a lot of people are going to perceive as very annoying. So I wasn’t what they were looking for, but I ended up changing their idea of what they were looking for. I based the character on somebody who I worked with. She was one of those people who would just bark orders at people, totally oblivious to the conditions and lack of necessities. It all started the day after I graduated. We were in this warehouse in Pennsylvania. It was about a hundred-and-ten degrees. She didn’t even provide water for the cast or crew, and yelled at us for looking exhausted. I tried to similarly think of my character as, ‘She has a job to do. She has saved a lot of money for a long time for this project, and she’s worked very hard to make this a reality. She wants it to come off well.’ I ended up changing their minds about the heroine character, and they decided to cast me. Dan Myrick told me the deciding moment was when he saw something obsessive and slightly psychotic in my eyes at one of the callbacks.’
While Jane/Heather would understandably be the most vulnerable of the group, one characteristic she would share with Joshua – identified as John in the original backstory – was her tenacious appetite for filmmaking. In this concept, Jane and John had been fellow students at Montgomery College, and after graduation, she continued to pitch her passion project to him. ‘I was on another film shoot when I saw their ad in Backstage, seeking actors for an improve-based feature,’ recalled Leonard, who almost missed out on the audition in order to work on a documentary in Connecticut. ‘It sounded experimental and exciting, and I was determined to get involved. I even told them that if they didn’t want to cast me, I would do production work on the film, anything. So I was cast early, and I would work off the other players still auditioning. I would have to stay in character and improv for these five-or-six-hour casting calls; I was like a dishrag by the time the process was over…It was just a good recipe between these three dynamic, different personalities that all served their purpose. Obviously, Dan and Ed knew what components to add or subtract to make their film work, but that was all behind-the-scenes. A lot of the character dynamics we created on our own, but they then used what we had developed to help propel the story.’ Although the focus of the directors during these sessions was on finding the right actors who shared a chemistry that would translate well onscreen, the hostility that emerged almost immediately between Donahue and Leonard ultimately provided the film with another degree of emotions. ‘Tensions got high, we got hungry, we got uncomfortable, and we hurt each other’s feelings,’ he later confessed. ‘So we came up with a safe word for whenever we had to break character and remind ourselves this was just a job: taco. We regretted that by about day three. It just kept reminding us how hungry we were.’
The final character was one that many other children of the eighties could relate to, and that was the Star Wars fanatic Bill. Having built up a friendship with John during their time at college, Bill was recruited by his former classmate once Jane announced that her thesis project was to become a reality. Once Michael Williams was cast in the role, Bill, much like the other two characters, was renamed to that of the actor. ‘I didn’t really have any professional experience, other than training at SUNY New Paltz for four years,’ he said. ‘The casting call said, ‘Feature film to be shot in a wooded location.’ I think it said improvisational feature film. Improv and camping required. And I love both of those things, so I thought that was interesting. Improv? How do you improv a film? So I went to the open call, and there was a sort of sign hanging before you went into the room, a little 8×10 flyer hung up, like, ‘If you get this role you, will be subjected to uncomfortable physical situations, you will never be in harm’s way, you will be outdoors most of the time. If this is not your thing, please don’t audition.’ Ed Sanchez was sitting behind a table with a couple of other folks, and he just said, ‘You’ve just served ten years of a twenty year prison sentence, you’re up for parole; what do you have to say for yourself?’ So he didn’t watch my tape, he didn’t say good morning, he didn’t say anything; he just immediately went into improv.’ With Heather taking on the role of the documentary’s director, her initially enthusiastic crew would consist of Joshua on camera, and Michael handling the film’s sound, but as tensions continued to grow throughout their time in the woods, her comrades finally abandoned their duties, while Heather tried to remain detached from the reality of their situation by watching the events unfold through the lens of her camera.
But despite the determination of all three to win one of the roles on the film, the audition process was almost as gruelling as the shoot. ‘I ended up having five callbacks,’ explained Donahue. ‘People around me started asking, ‘What is this project? Why do you keep going back? Is it that good it’s worth wasting afternoon after afternoon?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, it is. I really want this part.’ I would tell them, ‘I’d be going out into the woods with these two guys, and we’d be taping everything, and there would be these directors, a hundred yards away from us, watching over us.’ My mother was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s no way in hell!’ Everyone around me started to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should do that project.’’ But even against the objections of both family and friends, Donahue refused to miss out on such a unique experience, and the moment she won the role she familiarised herself with her fellow characters, their role in the story, and the various concepts and themes that the film intended on exploring. ‘I knew that Mike’s character was the sound guy, Josh’s character was the camera guy, and I knew that my character was the director,’ she confirmed. ‘I wrote that whole piece in the cemetery; all those bits where my character’s reading the narration for her documentary. I did research on all kinds of symbolic symbols, and Wicca, and how to stay alive in the woods. I did a very good job of freaking myself out as best I could before we even got there.’ With plenty of mythology to indulge herself in, Donahue began to research the fictitious world that Sánchez and Myrick had created, but in order for the film to become a reality, the directors were forced, like many independent filmmakers before them, to find inventive ways to attract attention to the project and raise the required budget.
It had started as a joke. Having completed a successful marketing campaign in supper of his tell-all book, John Pierson, who had championed the early work of such independent filmmakers as Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, wanted to turn his attention towards cable television. Mainstream cinema was already receiving all the exposure it could ever need, but what about those struggling to raise budgets or find distribution? There were more students than ever in film school nowadays, but what prospects did they face once they graduated? ‘So what do I make of new technologies in the decade to come?’ he had posed in Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema. But little did he know of the technological innovations that were about to come, or how two young graduates that he would pledge his support to were the ones that were to lead the way. His book had become a critical sensation. He had told tales of those whose careers he patronised throughout the late eighties and early nineties, but what about those who had yet to make it? Perhaps he could somehow show his support through the medium of television. ‘It seemed like a natural evolution. The spirit of the show picks up from the spirit of the book, and the business side seemed obvious,’ he told Variety shortly after his concept, Split Screen, premièred in March 1997. ‘It was all sort of a prank at ﬁrst, but the longer it went on, the more it became a good idea.’ Pierson was about to bridge the old with the new; to celebrate the careers that had tasted success, while nurturing those that were still growing inside the creative womb.
Excited by the potential that his new vision promised, Pierson approached Hollywood star Robert Redford, who had founded an independent film festival in the seventies called Sundance, and in the two decades since its formation it had helped to launch the careers of Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Rodriguez. ‘The only clear thing in my head was that the show should have a magazine format, and it should be a way for filmmakers to get some exposure in shorter form, without having to make a feature,’ explained Pierson. ‘I thought that if we could find a system, and a structure, that could provide money for filmmakers to go off and pursue their stories, we would be getting the added value of all these individual voices.’ When talks with the Sundance Channel fell through, he pitched the project to the Independent Film Channel, and the show finally aired on 10 March, 1997 with an intimate discussion with Spike Lee. Throughout the course of the first season, Pierson would showcase the work of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, while also educating its young viewers on the value of screenwriting, but on the final episode of its initial run, which was broadcast on 15 August, he dedicated the show to a short film called The Blair Witch Project. ‘It was the investor’s reel. Before we shot the film, we thought it might be cool to do a proof of concept, based on the film school idea Ed and I came up with,’ recalled Myrick to Flavorwire. Having shot an eight-minute short, or an investor’s reel, they had used this as a pitch to Pierson, hoping that their ambitious concept might find its way onto his new show. And as a result, this would be the first time the world was introduced to the legend of the Blair Witch.
Sánchez and Myrick both knew that it would be impossible to raise the budget for their movie through word-of-mouth alone. Other filmmakers during this era had been forced to take extreme measures in order to finance an independent film – Robert Rodriguez had volunteered for experimental drug testing when developing El Mariachi, and Kevin Smith had maxed out almost a dozen credit cards for Clerks – but for The Blair Witch Project, its creators wanted to take a less-severe approach. ‘We produced a little eight-minute proof of concept video in Orlando. Its intention was to get a room full of doctors or dentists, who’ll give us money for the movie,’ said Myrick. But the filmmakers realised that if their idea was presented to the world on Pierson’s show as a work of fiction, then they would never be able to sell it as fact when the movie was released, and so it was crucial that from the get-go it was perceived as authentic. ‘The eight-minute trailer that John Pierson did, he played that as legit,’ remembered Sánchez. ‘He played it up that Haxan Films was going to acquire this footage, but it was just this eight-minute trailer we had produced. We hadn’t shot the film yet. We just did an overview of the backstory, and said that Haxan Films was going to acquire this footage.’ Barely eight months after its first screening, Pierson invited the creators back to the show for a follow-up episode called The Blair Witch: I Want to Believe. He was seduced by their concept and only too eager to lend his support, and with the $10,000 they received for both segments, they pooled their resources in order to reach their target goal. And with budget in hand, it was now time to commence preproduction on their long-awaited concept, but first they needed to entice the public with the legend they had created.
IV. Are You Not Scared Enough?
Standing proudly at the centre of Gathland State Park is a memorial, a relic of the Civil War, and a tribute to the heroic work of a journalist who had once called this area his home. Surrounding it is a vast sea of green fields and thick, ominous trees that at night create a foreboding fear. Not far from this natural wonder lies the village of Burkittsville. Established in 1824, much like in the legend of the Blair Witch, but in truth the community was founded in the southwest region of Frederick Country by Henry Berkett, and as the surrounding land was purchased by new arrivals, a village gradually began to form. Less than twenty years after its foundation, the area was besieged by a conflict between the Confederates, who supported the use of slavery, and the Union, who upheld the Constitution of the United States of America. During the Battle of Crampton’s Gap, the village was evacuated, only for its residents to return once peace in the area had been restored. ‘The history in the town is serious. There was a battle right here in our backyard, a Civil War battle,’ explained one of its residents, Catherine Cox, to Maryland’s WBAL-TV. With a census of less than two-hundred citizens, Burkittsville has remained a close-knit community and wary of invading forces from the outside world. One such invasion took place in 1999 when, seduced by the success of a low-budget horror picture about a mythic witch, fans encroached the community in order to see the infamous location for themselves. ‘There were people that were removing dirt from the cemetery and selling it online, and that really left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,’ insisted another local, Bill Susa. Little did the makers of The Blair Witch Project know what kind of impact their ambitious horror movie would have not only on the world, but also the families of this quaint corner of small-town Americana.
The first members of the Blair Witch crew had arrived in Burkittsville on the first Saturday of October 1997, nineteen days before principal photography was to commence with their three lead actors. It was producer Gregg Hale and his close friend, production designer Ben Rock, that were burdened with the task of finding suitable locations, and building the additional sites that were required for the shoot. While the base of operations was at the home of Eduardo Sánchez’s girlfriend, Stefanie De Cassan, in nearby Germantown, the most important location for the film was the woods where the characters would spend the majority of the story. Located south of Germantown is the sprawling Seneca Creek State Park, a six-thousand acre of wondrous wildlife and natural resources, including Clopper Lake that cuts right through its heart. It was this location that would serve as the Black Hills Forest, the home of the Blair Witch legend. The derelict house where Professor David Mercer and his anthropology class from the University of Maryland would discover the footage of the missing filmmakers was another important factor, and the site where the story would culminate, and after an exhaustive search the producers found an old building in Patapsco State Park close to Baltimore that provided the kind of aesthetics that the filmmakers required. The interior of the Griggs House was even worse than they had hoped, and so Rock was given the gruelling undertaking of revamping the property into one that best suited their needs.
Each film has its own unique story on how it came to be, and for The Blair Witch Project, while the preproduction process was a standard affair, the way in which the actors were to be guided through the action was anything but conventional. In order to generate genuine tension in their actors, and thus draw out convincing performances, then the filmmakers must have limited interaction with them. With no screenplay at their disposal, the actors were guided from one location to the next through the use of GPS units, while a supply of 16mm film stock and digital cassettes, along with confidential notes for each performer regarding their next day of activities, were left at each drop-off point. ‘I remember in a big production meeting in Stefanie’s living room, when producer Gregg Hale said this to the actors, ‘We’re very concerned about your safety, just not your comfort.’ Everyone understood, but someone had to say it out loud,’ recalled Rock in a multi-piece essay he wrote for Dread Central. ‘That always resonated with me, as most movies twist themselves into pretzels making the actors comfortable, even pampered, and we were intentionally doing the opposite and hopefully for good effect. For Army Survival School effect. In mid-October, 1997, that day was over a week out, and the three actors were still settling in, learning the craft of Ground Navigation from Gregg; learning the CP-16 from director of photography, Neal Fredericks; Mike was learning the dark art of running a DAT deck, and operating a boom mic; and Heather was also playing around with the Hi8 camera we’d bought for about $300 from the Germantown Circuit City.’
It had been four years since Sánchez and Myrick had first conceived a horror movie in the vein of The Legend of Boggy Creek when cameras finally began rolling on The Blair Witch Project. Shot almost in chronological order, in that the events onscreen play out in the same order as they had during principal photography, the first day of shooting involved Donahue talking to the camera and introducing the concept of her thesis film, before a late Leonard finally arrived at the house. While her co-stars were already clearly exhausted from all the preparation leading up to the shoot, Donahue remained in character and dictated to her co-stars, all the while documenting every interaction for the benefit of her camera. After picking up provisions for their journey, the filmmakers made their way to Burkittsville to interview several of the local residents. Among the real establishments that they would visit during their time in and around the village were the Silver Rail Diner, the Stups Market, and Staub’s Country Inn. According to author Matt Blazi, ‘Staub’s, known for its friend chicken and Battlefield Chili, had the aesthetic that Sánchez and Myrick were looking for. It was quiet, had a small town feel, and it wouldn’t be hard for Heather, Mike, and Josh to sit and prepare for the day without being rushed by waiting patrons.’ The first exposition, provided by Donahue, would take place at Union Cemetery, where she explained, ‘There are an unusually high number of children laid to rest here, most of whom passed in the forties. Yet no one in the town seems to recall anything unusual about this time. To us, anyway. Yet legend tells a different story.’
While the books penned by D. A. Stern, and the documentaries that accompanied the release of The Blair Witch Project, provided an intimate insight into the history of Burkittsville, formerly the town of Blair, during the opening interviews several of the residents provided further information to the viewer on the area’s disturbing history. The narrative that is depicted during this sequence is the story of Rustin Parr, an ‘old hermit’ that resided in the nearby mountains during a time when many of the local children mysteriously disappeared. After turning himself over to the police, Parr had confessed to his crimes. According to one account told by an interviewee, ‘What he did is he took the kids down into the basement by twos. He made one face into the corner, and then he would kill the other one. And then when he was done with that, he’d grab the one out of the corner and kill that one, too. He said in court that he couldn’t take the eyes on him. He could feel the eyes watching him. That’s why he made them face into the corner like that.’ This decision of Parr to make his victims face the corner while he murdered their friends could insinuate that he was ashamed of his actions, knowing that the crimes he was committing were wrong, but as he later claimed that he was acting under the instructions of ‘an old woman,’ perhaps he felt powerless to resist. None of these accounts are told from first-hand witnesses, even those that may have been children during the trial of Parr, and instead have been handed down as tales of folklore by older generations, often as horror stories to entertain their young.
Among those interviewed during this segment was Sandra Sánchez, the sister of co-director Eduardo, who took a minor role as a waitress at Staub’s, while a more memorable appearance came from Susie Gooch and her young daughter, Ingrid. Gooch had recounted a tale about two hunters that were camping close to the derelict house that, as legend told, the Blair Witch haunted, and were never seen of again. As she told this tale, her infant child, believing the story to be real, attempted to silence her mother by holding a hand over her mouth. ‘I love the mom carrying her baby, and I love the old man,’ laughed Donahue. ‘Those two were just people who I interviewed on the street. Looking back, there were just so many fortuitous little accidents in the making of the movie. How could I have possibly gotten that kind of response out of that little babe in arms? I mean, her mother first of all thinks that she’s heard of the Blair Witch, and then the baby picks her nose and eats it. That’s cinematic gold. You can’t create that; you have to just be around at the right time and watch that happen.’ In an interview with the First Class Horror Blog in 2020, Susie Gooch recalled her brief interaction with the documentary. ‘I had never heard of the Blair Witch before Heather asked me about it at the Silver Rail Diner in Brunswick, Maryland, where my scenes were filmed. It was my father’s birthday, 23 October, 1997, and we had taken him to Brunswick on the train as a birthday treat. As we were leaving the diner, the owner told me that three college kids were making a film for class and needed to interview people, but no one wanted to be interviewed. I’m a teacher, so my teacher’s heart compelled me to approach them to ask if I could help with their project.’
Another part of the mythology to be revealed at this point was that of Mary Brown. In much the same way that the townspeople viewed Elly Kedward in 1785, Brown was seen as the local oddball who lived on the outskirts of the community, and viewed by all her neighbours as a strange and suspicious old woman. Played to deranged perfection by sixty-three-year-old Patricia DeCou, everything about her home was that of someone who believed wholeheartedly in superstition and urban legends, with the gate of her trailer home closely resembling the stick figures that the characters would later find in the woods. The reason for the filmmakers’ interest in Brown was due to her alleged encounter with the Blair Witch during her youth. ‘To kind of make ends meet, my dad and I would go fishing down by Tappy’s Creek,’ claimed Brown during her interview with Donahue. ‘I was laying down on the leaves, upon the leaves, kind of watching my pole and looking up at the sky. And all of a sudden, I felt like something was near me. Kind of an eerie feeling. It was like a woman; only on her arms, and hands, and everything, it was like hair. Like real dark, almost black, hair. Like a horse. Like fur; like horse fur. Then on her arms, she had like a wool shawl over her. She didn’t say anything, but she just kept staring. And then she opened up her shawl, and under there was hair on her body, like a horse. And you could see she was female. It was just kind of, like, strange-looking.’ In keeping with the arrogant attitude of the American filmmakers in Cannibal Holocaust, who showed a clear lack of respect towards the natives of the Amazon during the making of their documentary, both Donahue and Leonard take great pleasure in mocking and belittling the clearly-disturbed Mary Brown following their interview, as they make their way back to the motel for their final night of creature comforts before they embark on their journey into the Black Hills Forest.
As the three awoke at the Hillside Motel on the morning of Saturday, 24 October, they gathered their belongings and said farewell to television, beds, and the luxuries of a shower, and gathered together into the car to make their way towards Black Rock Road, where they abandoned their vehicle and hiked into the woods. Their last contact with civilisation would come when they crossed paths with two fishermen, Bob Griffin and his son-in-law, Ed Swanson. With the exception of DeCou, the majority of the cast would be credited as themselves in order to lend the film a modicum of authenticity, and so both Griffin and Swanson were later referenced in the police reports that were created to further-embellish the Blair Witch myth. While Swanson dismissed then as fantasy, Griffin believed the stories that were handed down to him by older generations. His line that the ‘damn fool kids will never learn’ echoes that of both a Blairstown truckdriver and local soothsayer ‘Crazy’ Ralph in Friday the 13th, both of whom mocked the youth’s ignorance in refusing to adhere to the rules of folklore, and who ultimately pay the price for that arrogance. The story Swanson was told, as he recounted it, was that, ‘Some girl back in the late eighteen-hundreds, Robin Weaver, I believe her name was, supposedly just wandered off, disappeared into the woods. Three days later, she just appears back on her grandmother’s porch. And everybody’s mystified about it. She was babbling something about an old woman whose feet never touched the ground.’ While Swanson clearly saw the tale as ridiculous, the older Griffin was cautious about mocking stories of curses and evil spirits. ‘Anybody worth their salt around here knows that this area’s been haunted by that old woman for years,’ he insisted.
The other important scene of the day was Donahue’s explanation of the events that took place at Coffin Rock shortly after Robin Weaver returned to her family. As the legend goes, a search party set out into the woods to locate the young girl, and when they failed to return home, their bodies were later discovered bound together by the arms and legs, their remains disembowelled. ‘They went into the woods, prepared to find death. What they found was a desecration of humanity at the site which trappers have often referred to as Coffin Rock,’ read Donahue from her history book. ‘On top of the rock formation, the story of the torture inflicted upon these brave five men unfolded. Each was bound to the other, each man’s hand bound to the next man’s feet, forming a solid structure out of the men. Blood at the edges of the head indicate that this act had been committed while each was alive and able-bodied enough to struggle. In the torso of each man, the intestines had been torn out crudely. On each man’s sun-bleached face was inscribed indecipherable writing, cut into their flesh with an eerie precision.’ The shooting of this scene had proved problematic when the cast struggled to locate the site using their GPS coordinates, forcing Donahue to return to shoot additional footage the following morning. Even though they had spent their first night in the woods, the atmosphere among the three remained relatively upbeat, but the evening that followed would result in the crew visiting the site in the still of the night to terrorise their young cast, all in the name of entertainment. ‘All the weird kind of noises and stuﬀ is just us running around in the woods,’ admitted Myrick.
Every aspect of the making of The Blair Witch Project was unorthodox; from the use of GPS and day-to-day notes in place of a working screenplay, from the detailed mythology that had been created around a monster-in-the-woods premise, and the fact that a young actress had agreed to venture into the darkness of Seneca Creek State Park with two men she barely knew, with their actions to be directed by a group of delinquents spying on them from among the trees. ‘Heather’s parents were worried Ed and Dan might be taking her out into the woods to make a snuﬀ movie,’ revealed Leonard. ‘The initial reaction of my loved ones was that I deﬁnitely should not go into the woods with a bunch of guys I didn’t know,’ Donahue concurred. ‘My mom wanted to know if she could have all of their Social Security numbers. All of my friends pitched in to make sure that I bought a knife. I actually thought it was going to be much harsher than it turned out to be. I thought I was going to have to skin a squirrel.’ The directors were more than aware that their project could easily fail; too many things had to go as planned in order for it to work. The performances had to feel real, the mythology had to sound believable, and their methods of antagonising their actors had to prove successful. ‘It was very much an experiment that just happened to work,’ admitted. Sánchez. ‘We knew we were doing something special, at least production-wise. We knew, ‘Man, people do not make movies like this.’ All of us involved feel like we deﬁnitely had a good idea, and we executed it properly, but the rest of it was just kind of the planets aligning.’
V. I Just Want to Go Home
Drops of rain beat heavily into the ground, its incessant pounding echoing through the trees like machine gun fire. Tension had already mounted at basecamp, with the three young actors sat closely together in their tent. Heather Donahue had succeeded in angering both of her co-stars, taking the method acting approach of her theatre training to the extreme by adopting the dominant and unsympathetic personality traits of her character. But both Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams had ceased to feel enthusiastic about this unique filming experience and longed to return to the warmth and safety of their homes. All three were emotionally exhausted, and despite Donahue’s insistence that they remain dedicated to their roles, the animosity between them had become too much and so they reluctantly agreed it was time to retreat from their post and return to the world. ‘So Heather, Mike, and Josh abandoned all their gear at their campsite and walked out of those wet woods, found a house, [and] called us,’ recalled Ben Rock, who would spend the much of principal photography in the warm surroundings of Stefanie De Cassan’s home in Germantown. ‘Gregg scrambled and got them a hotel room, making them promise to not shower or eat any more than they’d been given by us that day. And all the pricey gear, the DAT and boom mic, the CP-16 film camera, the tent, and their supplies, all covered and left in the woods. We had to go get all of it and make it shoot-worthy the next day. At about 10pm that night, we all put rain gear over our camo and hiked in the slippery rain out to the middle of nowhere and rescued the gear. Mysteriously, to me this was fun. It was like being in the Scouts or something, but the night’s shoot was scrubbed, and we’d have to make up for it. If you watch the movie, you’ll notice that at about thirty-three minutes in the world moves from overcast and rain-soaked, to clear and dry.’
It was in the late hours of the fourth day of shooting with a tired and hysterical cast almost brought an end to the experimental project as they crawled from the nightmare of the woods to the closest house in search of salvation. Even as they eventually returned to their camp, tension was clearly building between Donahue and Leonard. ‘A lot of it was the surprise factor, and getting us to such a raw point,’ claimed Leonard. ‘They would starve us, they would jolt us, they would wake us up in the middle of the night, and that all added to a sense of paranoia. I didn’t walk around worrying that the Blair Witch was coming after me, but there was a sense of, ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen next?’’ The treatment had originally cited Williams’ character as the first to be taken by the unseen witch, but due to the dynamic between the three principals, Sánchez and Myrick eventually decided to dispatch of Leonard in his place. ‘At the time, I felt bad about my ﬁnal attack on Heather; when I turn the camera on her, and yell at her about what her motivation is,’ he confessed. ‘It was me, expressing frustration as both a character and an actor, but it worked on another level: the idea of us all as performers. The ﬁlm was inadvertently prescient about the idea of fifteen minutes of fame. The fear level on the night-time interventions wasn’t actually that high. Your body would have ﬁnally warmed up the sleeping bag enough for you to fall asleep; then you’d hear baby noises outside. It was more annoying than anything else: we’ve got to act now.’
As the crew observed the dailies each night, they would scribble down their instructions for the next day and leave them, along with the film stock and digital cassettes, at the next drop-off point. But after viewing the interactions between the cast, they decided to remove Leonard from the equation. ‘That day, my note said, ‘When everybody goes to bed tonight, stay awake, and once you’re sure they’re asleep, leave the tent. If anybody wakes up, tell them you’re going to take a piss.’ Ed, and Dan, and Gregg, and maybe Ben Rock, were there, waiting for me with ﬂashlights. And they said, ‘You’re dead, dude.’ And they took me out to a really nice meal at Denny’s.’ The cast had suffered through a flooded camp, personalities clashes, and the unpredictable nature of the shoot, but each evening as they tried to fall asleep, the crew would return to their site once again to wreak havoc. ‘When they wake up and there are rock piles outside their tents, we planted those, obviously,’ laughed Myrick. ‘The stick ﬁgures, we hung them. We just led them around on a twenty-four-hour-a-day stage play, really. We set up all the set pieces beforehand, and they would just follow our directions. They had a GPS unit we would pre-programme daily, just let them know where they were supposed to go, [and] the time they were supposed to be there. We shook their tent, we played sounds of little kids playing outside their tent, we made noises in the middle of the night, we led them to this crazy house at the end; we basically just played the Blair Witch.’
The next morning, Donahue and Leonard awoke to find Leonard’s sleeping bag was empty and so stepped out of their tent, to find no trace of their co-star. In a mixture of improvisation and exhaustion, Donahue screamed hysterically into the wilderness, hoping for some kind of response, but that was the last they would see of him until filming finally came to an end. In the narrative of the film, Williams attempted to calm down his companion and offer a practical solution to their situation. But by this point even the pragmatic Williams was starting to lose focus, and as they packed up their campsite for another day’s hiking, their spirits appeared well and truly broken. Leonard had disappeared on the seventh evening of shooting, but Donahue and Williams were forced to soldier on and complete the film, despite the fact that they no longer cared about their characters and would have given anything to be rescued from the woods. But they had retreated once when the rain had proved too much for them, and so they realised that they would not get away with this a second time. The end of the film was in sight, and all they had to do was remain strong and continually hit their mark. ‘I eat a lot, and it was no fun being down to just Power Bars,’ said Williams. ‘The last two days, I don’t think I ate anything. It was just common knowledge that we would be hungry, as the food got less and less. You just carried it around with you. And the cold was ridiculous; there was frost inside the tent.’
Even as she approached hysteria, Donahue continued to document everything through her camera, as if, as Leonard had pointed out, viewing it through the lens somehow disconnected her from the events. To add another degree of tension for the actors, once Leonard’s character had been killed offscreen, Sánchez sent the actor to a studio where his cousin, the film’s composer, Tony Cora, recorded Leonard’s screams. The following night, the crew returned with boomboxes that looped the cries of pain with pleas for Donahue and Williams to come to his rescue. But the psychological torture did not stop there. ‘We had this whole plan of having this guy; this creepy moment where there might have been an analysis, where if someone looks closely there’d be a little glowy, white humanoid ﬁgure in the woods somewhere,’ said Myrick. ‘We had a friend of ours dress up in white long johns, and be parked off in the woods just between the trees. And our hope was that as the camera was running, it would catch a little glimpse of this guy. That was what Heather was reacting to, saying ‘What the fuck is that?’ But we never got it to read on camera. I felt bad for the guy, because it was pretty cold that night, and he fell into the water. We had to take our clothes off to get to him. A lot of work for no end result, except for, ‘What the fuck is that?’’ Donahue and Williams had spent eight long, miserable days braving the cold, damp, and the unknown. The original advert’s promise that the experience would be ‘physically arduous and emotionally taxing’ was an understatement, but they still had the climax of the film to shoot.
The most powerful, and arguably its most iconic, moment came through a moment of improvisation. It was the final day of filming and the actors had once again been terrorised in the night. As the sun started to set over the forest, Donahue retreated to her tent with her camera to give her last will and testament, finally accepting that she was never going to escape the woods alive. ‘I just want to apologise to Mike’s mom, and Josh’s mom, and my mom. And I’m sorry to everyone. I was very naïve,’ she cried into the camera. ‘I am so, so sorry for everything that has happened, because in spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault, because it was my project. And I insisted, I insisted on everything. I insisted that we weren’t lost, I insisted that we keep going, I insisted that we walk south. Everything had to be my way. And this is where we’ve ended up. And it’s all because of me that we’re here now – hungry, and cold, and hunted. I love you mom and dad. I am so sorry… I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them. I’m going to die out here.’ This monologue, given during the final minutes of the movie, took the directors by surprise when they viewed the footage the following day, and it served as an unexpected emotional sucker-punch for the viewer. ‘We didn’t know it was going to be such a crazy iconic moment in our movie,’ admitted Sánchez. ‘We actually gave them the same direction. We told Heather, ‘You don’t want to freak out Mike, obviously, so take the camera and ﬁnd an area near the tent and basically say goodbye to everybody you know. You’re gonna die.’ We were feeding them ideas where they went as far as their character. At that point, Heather pretty much knew she was going to die, and then she went out and delivered this crazy, brilliant performance. It was one of those moments, as ﬁlmmakers, we hadn’t seen her shoot that because we basically left her alone, but when we saw that we were like, ‘Wow, this could be really powerful.’’
Even as the shoot neared its finale, the directors had yet to commit to an ending. Due to the budgetary restrictions, and the fact that the footage was to be presented as genuine, they could not reveal the witch, and so were forced to find another way to bring the story to a conclusion. Lured back out into the woods by the distant screams of Leonard, they stumbled upon the long-abandoned house of Rustin Parr. In the weeks leading up to principal photography, production designer Ben Rock had been hard at work revamping the inside of the Griggs House in Patapsco State Park, where they left artefacts of past crimes, and indecipherable writing scrawled across the walls. Sánchez and Myrick were satisfied with the performances of their actors, and were proud that their constant harassment of the cast had played some small part in this. ‘I think there was a lot of tension,’ admitted Myrick to Femme Fatales. ‘The tension between the three actors was palatable. Every now and then, they’d hit the camera. And you’re thinking, ‘They are about to kill each other.’ But they are forced to be together. The only thing worse than being there is being there and separated. That just contributes to that edge-of-your-seat unpredictability. ‘What’s going to happen next? Who is going to explode at who?’ So you’ve got that thing going on, and then you’ve got the Blair Witch out there, somewhere, who’s coming out every night.’ With the whereabouts of Leonard unknown, Donahue and Williams have no choice but to venture forward, and as they followed the sounds of his screams, they found themselves stumbling upon the house where they would both meet their fates.
While in the film this sequence appeared seamless, in reality the actors were transported from Seneca Creek State Park, where they had spent the last week braving the harsh autumn weather, to Patapsco State Park almost forty miles northeast, close to the Patapsco River. While Cora took shelter on the first floor of the Griggs House, blasting out the recording he had made with Leonard the previous day, Donahue and Williams slowly approached the house for the one segment of the film that was shot with the close participation of the directors. With Donahue having given her final monologue, the two are once again terrorised by the distant cries of their friend. ‘So we set up this tent, and we get these notes, and my note says, ‘When you hear a noise, follow it. And follow it all the way out until Heather joins you, and then once Heather’s with you, run all the way down, leaving Heather behind.’ And that note made me very nervous, because I assumed it was a hill, because we had been in the woods for eight days,’ recalled Williams. ‘So, I had to radio Ed, ‘Hey Ed, I don’t understand the note.’ And he said, ‘Mike, trust me, just trust me.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t want to screw it up, it’s the end of the ﬁlm.’ He said, ‘I promise, you won’t screw it up. You’ll understand when you see it. And that’s it, I can’t talk to you anymore, get off the radio.’ So, I go to sleep, wake up, and the noise I hear is Josh’s voice, on a boombox. It’s clear that somebody’s carrying a boombox through the woods. I follow the voice, the scene unfolds, Heather’s trying to keep up with me, I know I’m trying to get ahead of her.’
Convinced that their friend is alive and in need of their help, Mike is the first to enter the house, using the light of the camera to guide himself through the derelict rooms. Despite Heather’s pleas not to venture into the building, he continues on his mission, leaving her outside alone in the dark, until she reluctant agrees to follow. Hearing further cries from upstairs, they ascend to the first floor, with Mike hastily leading the way, but in the confusion he hears the calls once again from below and so rushes back downstairs. The cellar is even more foreboding than the rest of the house, and as we watch from the point-of-view of Mike as he steps onto the cold concrete floor, the camera suddenly drops to the ground, indicating that something has happened to the young filmmaker. Donahue, desperately screaming his name, finally makes her way down to the darkness, where she finds Mike standing in the corner facing the wall. This moment was premeditated at the beginning of the film when one of the subjects they had interviewed, portrayed by Mark Mason, told the story of Rustin Parr’s young victims, who were taken into the basement in pairs, with one being ordered to face the corner as the other was killed. ‘He said in court that he couldn’t take the eyes on him. He could feel the eyes watching him,’ revealed Mason. ‘That’s why he made them face into the corner like that.’ With this being presented as a throwaway comment earlier in the film, and with so much happening to the characters over the subsequent hour, the final moments of The Blair Witch Project would cause confusion for many viewers, especially as the last shot of the film, this time from Donahue’s perspective, once again insinuates the death of a character as her screams come to an abrupt halt as the camera is dropped to the ground.
‘Much debate had gone into the ending of the film throughout the process, and the final compromise concept was that the children Rustin Parr had killed would have done this,’ revealed Rock. ‘So after Heather’s camera went down, those of us outside the house were to run in and gingerly run around as if we were children who’d been freed. We all waited through the process of bringing them up the stairs, then down into the basement one at a time, and then we booked it in there. And when we did, Heather made that final scream you hear in the movie, that guttural manifestation, and we all ran into the middle of the house, and ran around on the wood floor like idiots. Only one thing: her light had died before she made it to the end. Those battery belts only gave us about thirty minutes of juice, and it was discharged, needing hours to recharge. She was exhausted, and both she and Mike needed food, and the battery needed to be recharged. We agreed to come back the next night. Heather had one question: ‘Would it be okay if I slept in a bed tonight? I’m holding the camera and I can just act tomorrow.’ A humane request. We went back to that house and picked up some random pieces the next night.’ The shoot had finally come to an end. They had survived eight nights and nine days in the wilderness, and now the footage was taken away to be edited, with the hope that something salvageable would come of it. And yet despite the nightmare experience of making the movie, Donahue was eager to return to the woods once again. ‘You’re not going to believe this, but this movie has actually made me a very avid camper,’ she later admitted. ‘I can’t wait to get my next movie, so I can buy myself a four-wheel drive and go off-roading. I was Little Miss Urban; I’d been camping only once before.’ It was on Halloween 1997 that Donahue and Williams were finally returned to the civilised world, but for the filmmakers the journey was far from over.
VI. Write Us a Happy Ending
While the eighties had been a decade of technological and communicative innovations, it was the nineties that saw the internet make its way into homes across the world, bringing the human race together in new and exciting ways. Before the information superhighway became dominated by such forces as Google and Amazon, it consisted mostly of independent companies and pop culture message boards, and while navigating among them may have proved challenging, with so little to choose from, blogs such as Ain’t It Cool News gave cinemagoers daily updates on their favourite movie stars and upcoming blockbusters. By the end of the Millennium, the internet had revolutionised our very way of life. ‘In terms of its impact on society, it ranks with print, the railways, the telegraph, the automobile, electric power, and television,’ confirmed writer John Naughton. One of the first movies to exploit the potentials of this new medium was The Blair Witch Project. An architect of the viral campaign that would ultimately launch the film into the mainstream was thirty-three-year-old Jeff Johnsen. ‘I thought it was real, and that’s what ﬁrst drew me in,’ he confessed. ‘When I found it was ﬁctional, I just thought they were geniuses. And I wanted everyone else in the world to get sucked into this.’ Prior to the release of the movie, no one had anticipated what kind of tool the internet could be in terms of marketing and promotion, and while in retrospect it would have seemed like part of a masterplan, in truth the postproduction, much like the filming itself, was semi-improvised. ‘I was the only one that didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. I would edit, and then I would just basically work on the website, and that was my life,’ said Eduardo Sánchez in an interview with Bloody-Disgusting. ‘The reaction I was getting from the shit I was putting on the website, for a completely unknown filmmaker from Orlando, Florida, it was like, ‘We’re really hitting a nerve with this.’’
With Hollywood as reluctant as ever to embrace a new medium, studios gave little thought to the power of the internet, but those who ran the small websites that populated the online community in the late-nineties could see that it was only a matter of time before the world at large joined this revolution. And The Blair Witch Project would be the first to truly exploit its marketing potential as it launched BlairWitch.com, which was presented as a fan-run blog that featured police reports and photographs, biographies on the three missing filmmakers, excerpts from Donahue’s journal, and a background on the legend of the Blair Witch. ‘It was in its infancy in those days. There was still a level of interconnectivity, because the internet was sort of coming into its own,’ recalled Daniel Myrick. ‘We didn’t have zeitgeist to social media, as we do now. However, people were finding ways to connect with each other through various other means. Our logic was that the internet was sort of the great equaliser. Our website was literally one click away from the Universal Studios website, so in that space all things were sort of equal. It was more content and concept-driven, rather than how flashy your site was, so we thought that was an interesting new paradigm shift. Fortunately for us, our fan base, that likes these kinds of movies, are pretty tech-savvy to begin with, so they latched onto it in that space early on, and helped kind of promote it by developing their own fansites.’ As the hype continued to grow, the film was yet to be shown to the public, and this only served to further fuel the myth that the footage, and thus the legend, was genuine.
In order to perpetuate the notion that the three missing filmmakers were never seen from again, the actors were instructed to remain out of the public eye until after the film’s release. While social media was yet to be a thing, and so their every moves were not scrutinised by the online community, the film website IMDb listed Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams as deceased. ‘It was fucking weird, because people would call up confused to my parents and say, ‘Is Josh actually okay?’’ revealed Leonard. ‘But in terms of my career, I didn’t have a career before the ﬁlm. It wasn’t like I was a hot commodity actor, who was all of a sudden listed as deceased.’ After several years of hard work it seemed like their ambitious experiment was about to pay off; that was until a feature film with a similar concept was released before they were able to find distribution. Ostensibly another found footage movie, The Last Broadcast told of two presenters from an investigative programme called Fact or Fiction, who mysteriously disappear while shooting a documentary on the legendary Jersey Devil, and how one filmmaker attempts to uncover the truth by searching through hours of recovered footage. The picture would receive a mostly negative response, and its release gained little notice until critics picked up on the similarities following the success of The Blair Witch Project. Both the cast and crew had expected their film to earn a modest profit on home video, before vanishing into obscurity along with countless other low-budget horror movies, but what happened next would take everyone by surprise.
During the final week of January 1999, at Park City, close to Salt Lake City in Utah, the annual Sundance Film Festival took place. Sánchez and Myrick had submitted their film for consideration, and while exposure at such a respected event would no doubt bring them some good fortune, after the film was screened they were approached by Artisan Entertainment with an offer to distribute the picture, with an offer of $1m. Ever since its inception, The Blair Witch Project had been an independent production in the truest sense, but now they were being courted by a Hollywood studio, with promises of merchandise and sequel potential. While no one involved in the project had believed the film could enjoy mainstream success, now this almost seemed inevitable. ‘We met with the filmmakers, and emphasised to them that the great conceit of Blair Witch is [that it looks like] a real documentary. People come in and they don’t know what’s going on,’ claimed one of the company’s presidents, Amir Malin. As the directors saw the faith that their new distributors had in their concept, the marketing possibilities now seemed endless. ‘With all the mythology we created, there are so many different areas of exploitation,’ admitted Myrick. ‘Like the book that’s coming out, the comic book, the Sci-Fi Channel. They’re all taking different approaches to this mythology. It’s not redundant material from the film. No novelisations. It’s a completely different angle. You know, investigative approaches to what happened to the three students, backstory, events that took place over the last two-hundred years in the Black Hills. There’s a lot of potential there, and I think they see that. Obviously, that’s why they’re exploiting it. But again, it’s all supply and demand: it comes down to what people want.’
The marketing campaign that would surround The Blair Witch Project proved ingenious. Embellishing on the historic information that was included on the website, two factual books were published prior to the film’s release, both credited to D. A. Stern. The first, The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier, provided an intimate breakdown of the investigations of both the Maryland State Police and Buchanan’s Private Investigative Agency following the disappearance of the three filmmakers, with samples of Donahue’s journal, interviews with family and friends, and background information on the Blair Witch legend. A second book, Blair Witch The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr, followed soon afterwards, which documented the recollections of Dominick Cazale, the priest that Parr had spoken in great length to during his trial in the forties. Television documentaries were also produced, which were staged as real examinations of the mythology; Sticks and Stones examined the legend of the Blair Witch, while The Burkittsville 7 further explored the trial of Rustin Parr. The marketing campaign would take a more bizarre turn with the release of a trilogy of computer games that began in 2000 with Blair Witch Volume I: Rustin Parr. The three adventures, which covered the crimes of Parr, the legend of Elly Kedward, and the massacre at Coffin Rock, failed to enjoy the critical success of their big screen counterpart, but served to generate attention to the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project. ‘I think the development and outcome was less than ideal for almost everyone,’ their designer, Joe Jing, told EGM. ‘Blair Witch movie fans weren’t necessarily gamers, and gamers weren’t necessarily clamouring for a game set in that world. Even Nocturne fans weren’t thrilled the game wasn’t a true sequel.’
Sensing the potential of an online viral campaign, Artisan seized the opportunity to expand on the existing website in order to reach a wider audience. ‘Our feeling was that that website could be expanded, and could be one of the focuses of a marketing campaign,’ claimed Malin. ‘What Artisan has proven, with a fraction of the marketing dollars studios normally spend, is that if your message is not connecting, all that money spent is for naught. This ﬁlm is going to wake up the ﬁlm community, and speciﬁcally the studio way of marketing and distributing films, which is basically a dinosaur business.’ When The Blair Witch Project was finally released in the summer of 1999, its creators still refused to believe that it could become a box-office success. The same month that it made its debut also marked the release of the sex comedy American Pie and Stanley Kubrick’s swansong Eyes Wide Shut, while the most anticipated movie of the season was the long-promised Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was still drawing in large audiences almost five weeks after its première, while The Matrix had tapped into the zeitgeist of the day. Earning a staggering $1.5m on its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project opened on just twenty-seven screens but against all expectations it came to dominate the box office. The critical reaction towards the movie, which is often reluctant to triumph a horror picture, was unanimous in its praise towards this latest cinematic sensation. ‘An intensely imaginative piece of conceptual ﬁlmmaking that also delivers the goods as a dread-drenched horror movie,’ declared Variety in their glowing review. ‘The Blair Witch Project puts a clever modern twist on the universal fear of the dark, and things that go bump in the night.’
But there was only so long that the makers of The Blair Witch Project could keep up the pretence that their footage was authentic, and the moment the truth was revealed, its three stars were catapulted into the limelight. In the blink of an eye they had gone from obscurity to the front page of the tabloids, with Donahue in particular paraded out to magazines, newspapers, and chat shows across America. ‘We went from total anonymity to the cover of Newsweek in a very short time,’ confirmed Leonard. ‘Artisan played the real-life disappearance angle as much as possible. We were speciﬁcally not invited to the Cannes premièred and, for a while, were listed as deceased on IMDb. Our parents started getting condolence calls. There are people who still don’t believe it’s ﬁction. I sometimes think Artisan would have been happier if we had actually been dead.’ Williams would also find the experience surrounding the Blair Witch hype as intense and unpredictable. ‘I never even fathomed a final product out of this thing: I never anticipated what it would be like,’ he told Fangoria. ‘The three of us went in with a feeling of, ‘Let’s go in and see what happens.’ I just felt that it was an honour, and an opportunity as an actor, to go in and shape something from the ground up. What has happened with it has just been amazing, and it’s very heartening that other people got it.’ In a season that gave audiences the latest blockbusters from Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves, it felt unprecedented that it would be Donahue, Leonard, and Williams that graced the cover of magazines, and remained the talking point for movie fans for months to come, but by the end of 1999 The Blair Witch Project had become a cultural phenomenon.
‘I am, to this day, often correctly mistaken for ‘the girl from The Blair Witch Project,’ who is also Heather Donahue, which is confusing,’ explained Donahue in the opening to her memoir, Growgirl. ‘I never saw it in a theatre after it played at the Sundance Film Festival. When it premièred at the Angelika in New York, I watched the line stretch around the block from across the street, because I was supposed to be dead…It wasn’t until ticket sales plateaued that the three of us, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard, and I, were resurrected. At that point, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe we were really the actors from the movie. They thought it was the next level of hoax. Despite the fact that the three of us were trained actors who also improvised and shot the film, the marketing angle positioned us as three random kids who were dropped in the woods. It was hard to convince people, both professionally and randomly, otherwise. At no point did any of us think that supernatural forces were really out to get us. I was no more afraid of the piles of rocks in Blair Witch than I was really awestruck at being inside a spaceship in Taken. We believed it into being. That’s what actors do. They disappear and re-emerge through someone else’s words. That’s another reason why I quit. I wanted my story back. What really scared me about Blair Witch was what happened after. It’s a strange thing to be told you’re not really an actress when that’s what you spent your young life training for. It’s even stranger to be told that your name isn’t really yours anymore, that it’s somebody else’s intellectual property now. The most basic things that a person roots a self to – name and occupation – were gone. I wasn’t an actress. I wasn’t Heather Donahue. I was ‘the girl’ from The Blair Witch Project, and I was supposed to be dead.’
By the end of its theatrical run, the film had earned approximately $248.6m against a budget of less than half a million dollars. The marketing campaign had turned it into a summer blockbuster, and the critics were in praise over its experimental nature and disturbing atmosphere, but once the truth behind the picture was revealed, there was a certain hostility from the public due to its lack of a monster or conclusive ending. ‘Pretty quickly, when the movie was released, there was this backlash that began about the ﬁlm,’ recalled Sánchez. ‘People were not expecting it to be what it was. People were expecting a much more conventional horror ﬁlm. When it did not deliver, because Blair Witch doesn’t deliver like a conventional horror ﬁlm, I think the backlash began because people were saying, ‘Oh look, they’re trying to fool us, they think we’re stupid!’ But by that time, the movie had made a lot of money and had a lot of success; by that point, it’s sort of like, ‘Who cares?’ But as ﬁlmmakers, it’s our ﬁlm and so it bothered us a lot more. For the audiences that did get it, it was a very intense and unique experience. For the people who didn’t get it, it was a lot of shaky video footage.’ The impact of The Blair Witch Project was immediate, and soon talk turned to the prospect of sequels, spinoffs, and other ways to exploit the concept. The film had not only revolutionised how Hollywood could market its products, but it would also inspire a new generation of filmmakers to shoot their own movies with minimal budgets and unleash them on an unsuspecting world.
Despite the phenomenal success of their first feature, Sánchez and Myrick had no intention of creating a sequel, but once they had signed over the product to Artisan, they had forfeited their right to refuse. But with neither wishing to participate directly, the task of creating a worthy follow-up fell to documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. The world was already familiar with the fact that The Blair Witch Project was a work of fiction, and so it was decided that the sequel would acknowledge its predecessor as a successful motion picture, and that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 would explore the fandom that had surrounded its popularity. While in concept it was a postmodern continuation of the mythology, is execution it was dismissed as little more than a generic teen horror that brought little new to the story. ‘It’s pretty common knowledge that we weren’t too enthusiastic about Book of Shadows, which came hot on the heels of Blair Witch,’ admitted Myrick to NME. ‘We thought it was made for all the wrong reasons, and was just trying to capitalise on the hype of the ﬁrst ﬁlm. I’m a big fan of Joe Berlinger, the director of that movie, but I thought he was kind of shoehorned into this situation that was pretty much impossible. That said, in defence of the ﬁlm, if it hadn’t had the Blair Witch name attached to it, I think it might have been better received. It was so diﬀerent, stylistically, to the first ﬁlm. I think it was always going to get beat up.’ Even as talk circulated of a third instalment, other filmmakers were eager to exploit the hype, with independent director Jim Wynorski creating a series of softcorn pornography spoofs entitled The Bare Wench Project. ‘I figured I’d go out on a weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and take four or five chicks up to the mountains, and just shoot it,’ he admitted. Other similar pictures soon emerged, including The Erotic Witch Project and the less subtle Bare Tits Project. Within a year, The Blair Witch Project had transcended the movie screen to become something far more powerful: a piece of popular culture.
VII. I Want to Make Movies
More than a hundred-and-thirty years had passed since the Battle of Crampton’s Gap tore the area of Burkittsville apart when The Blair Witch Project finally reared its ugly head at the end of the twentieth century. While it had remained a relatively obscure and overlooked community, the overnight success of the movie had convinced fans from across America to lead pilgrimages to the peaceful village in search of some evidence of the legend that had supposedly plagued this region since the eighteen-hundreds. Its popularity had brought unwanted attention to this corner of Maryland, and those that made their way here had little regard for the lives that they were invading. But as the visitors continued to arrive, the townspeople finally decided to embrace their new celebrity status and exploit it in the same way that the film had exploited them. Locals began to sell witch memorabilia and hikes into the nearby forest, but not all of its citizens were willing to accept this new way of life. ‘I’ve always felt like this was my hideaway,’ claimed one resident. ‘Now I don’t feel like that anymore.’ The filmmakers had been nothing but respectful and courteous during their time in the area, and when word made its way back to them of how their fans were behaving, they were understandably annoyed and filled with guilt at this turn of events. ‘We felt really bad when we started hearing stories about people vising the town, and just kind of being a little belligerent and stealing the Burkittsville signs,’ admitted Eduardo Sánchez. It was clear by this point that The Blair Witch Project had left a strong impression on its audience, and that the spirit of the film would remain long after it had retreated from cinema screens.
While the franchise came to an abrupt halt following the disappointing reaction to Book of Shadows, The Blair Witch Project would usher in the era of the found footage film, a variation of the shockumentary that was first popularised by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust almost twenty years earlier. In 2007, a big-budget science fiction horror called Cloverfield was released, which was depicted through the lens of the lead character, a concept further explored by cult filmmaker George A. Romero the same year with his latest zombie picture Diary of the Dead. Following the critical acclaim surrounding the Spanish feature [•REC], this was remade in the United States as Quarantine, and before long other filmmakers were attempting to exploit the formula. Arguably the most successful of these was Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. Produced in 2007 on a budget of just $15,000, the film’s box office takings and critical acclaim resulted in a franchise of its own, producing no less than seven sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. ‘Cloverfield, to me, was the first one that I was really like, ‘Wow!’’ revealed Sánchez. ‘Why did it take people so long? I loved the idea that it could be done on such a big scale. It was a different kind of film. [It] was scripted out. They made it feel very natural, but all the things that were being caught in that party, all the little moments, there’s no way that could really happen unless you had ten cameras in that party. But they did it well. The audio, you can tell it’s manufactured to sound bad. With Blair Witch, that’s all the audio we had. So there’s a little bit of a difference. There’s a little bit too much convenience in Cloverfield; at least, for me.”
The found footage formula, popularised by Cannibal Holocaust and brought into the new Millennium by The Blair Witch Project, would prove to be the perfect concept for a low-budget filmmaker. With a basic story and a camera, a movie can be made at very little cost, but when marketed correctly could enjoy considerable success at the box office. For the last twenty years, Hollywood has repeatedly attempted to recreate the impact of The Blair Witch Project, with varying degrees of success. ‘There is little argument that the blockbuster success of this low-budget ﬁlm about amateur ﬁlmmakers going missing in the Maryland woods marked the beginnings of contemporary found footage horror,’ confirmed author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. ‘Taken independently, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity offer signiﬁcant insight into the mechanics – both formally and ideologically – of found footage horror, and are as fascinating for where they overlap as much as for where they diverge. In the spirit of Peeping Tom, they construct the diegetic camera as a weapon, and linger on the banality of their isolation in locations feminised in different ways, and to different thematic ends. In this manner, they typify what Adam Lowenstein identiﬁed as ‘ambient horror,’ and both hinge on their rejection of glossy, highly produced spectacle horror.’ Among the other films to ride the coattails of the found footage phenomenon were the Norwegian monster movie Trolljegeren (Trollhunter), the British Host, and the American psychological horror Creep.
For those that ventured deep into the woods of Seneca Creek State Park in the autumn of 1997, only to be launched onto the pages of magazine covers two years later, the experience of both making The Blair Witch Project, and surviving its success, have been overwhelming. ‘It is something you have to live with, like a tumour, or a tattoo on your face,’ lamented Heather Donahue, who would abandon acting after her role in the 2006 horror The Morgue to become a published author and a grower of medical marijuana. ‘It’s just like this thing that’s always there. It had really receded in the background, and now with the new movie coming out [in 2016], it’s very much present for me and my family again, which is challenging for them as well. My mother is being asked again about sympathy cards. My sister, people at her work, are like, ‘Is your sister in that movie? Do you really have a brother named James?’ Well, no, but my dad is named James! And that’s on my Wikipedia page.’ For Leonard, who continued to pursue an acting career following his work on The Blair Witch Project, appearing in such cult favourites as Hatchet, the impact the movie had on both his life and career was undeniable. ‘In my life, I can chart back specifically to the release of Blair Witch and say, even if I’ve liked some of my jobs more than others, that I grew up fairly broke,’ he explained. ‘I scrapped around, I did whatever day jobs I needed to do to pay the bills as a kid. And I haven’t had to have a day job in a decade. I’ve been able to make a living in the film industry. That to me is a win…As soon as they set us up as the underdogs, there was almost no successful outcome that could have happened that somebody wouldn’t have found a way to tear everybody back down. Especially with us, it’s a perfect example. None of us were movie stars. We were all kids. Including the directors. They were in their mid-to-late-twenties.’
Although they chose to head in different directions creatively, both Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick have remained active filmmakers ever since their lives were turned upside down with the phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Sánchez reunited with Michael Williams seven years later for the science fiction-themed Altered, and most recently returned to the found footage genre as a creative consultant on 2018’s Butterfly Kisses. Myrick, meanwhile, gave a new spin on the shockumentary with his extra-terrestrial drama Skyman. ‘I think Blair Witch taught us a lot of things on every level: not only as artists and filmmakers, but also with regards to the business; how it works, the inner workings of Hollywood, for better or worse, as well as the mechanics of distribution and online marketing,’ explained Myrick. ‘First and foremost, we were passionate about the material, we were passionate about the project, we were passionate about making something that was truly scary; it didn’t have the pretext of being scary, but was something that paid off when you went in the movie theatre. So I think from the outset, it has to be something that you are both intellectually and creatively honest about, and I think that’s where great things can happen. That’s always applied, whether you’re writing a book a thousand years ago, or doing a web series today; if you’re truly involved and passionate about the project, then you’re going to deliver something really, really good, potentially…I’m a firm believer that if you’ve got a good story and you execute it well, it doesn’t matter what medium or form it’s on, people will engage it.’ It had all started with an idea to recreate the horror movies of their youth, but by the end of their experiment they had changed the industry. Movies would never be marketed the same way again, the found footage genre became a viable commodity, and for a brief moment the world was obsessed with a single question: ‘Have you ever heard of the Blair Witch?’