At the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, missing person posters and confused whispers circulated about a movie that was a compilation of real video footage shot by three hikers who were killed under strange and mysterious circumstances. It was very clear from the festival guides that The Blair Witch Project was a work of fiction, and it made the writer-director duo Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez the talk of the festival.
The Blair Witch Project’s theatrical release’s genius marketing strategy made the line between fact and fiction even blurrier. The $30,000 indie film became a $140 million blockbuster phenomenon and also helped popularize an entire “found”-footage subgenre in the process. The movie also managed to convince large audiences that the myth was real. The thing is… only part of the myth was real. Burkittsville, where the demonic spirit of the film lives, was an ordinary town in Maryland. What residents didn’t know was that the Blair Witch hype would haunt them for years to come.
Even the most ridiculous myths are born. They got to start somewhere. The Blair Witch legend began when Myrick and Sánchez mapped out a plan that would eventually become The Blair Witch Project. Step one was to pitch a video.
Produced in 1998, the film details the exploits of a witch named Elly Kedward, who was banished from the colonial town of “Blair, Maryland,” after being accused of trying to steal blood from children. A child “went missing” in the forest in the late 1800s, and when he returned, one of the search parties looking for him was found dismembered.
In 1940 Burkittsville, an old hermit named Rustin Parr, hailed down from the Black Hills Forest saying he was “finished.” He had just killed seven children in his woodland home and blamed it on the Blair Witch. The lost footage was discovered at the ruins of Rustin Parr’s house.
Ben Rock joined the team as a production designer for The Blair Witch Project. He recalled the myth’s origins and was, admittedly, “a little obsessed with anagrams back then.” Rock decided to take the name of British occultist Edward Kelly (he and John Dee were said to bring people back from the dead) and ended up with the witch’s name.
Rustin Parr’s name also didn’t come out of the blue. The name started off as an anagram from Rasputin. With a sketched-out back story, Myrick and Sánchez were free to drop victims into the middle of it.
Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard “disappeared in the black hills of the forest in 1991.” But before that, Myrick and Sánchez needed a starting point for the film. That’s when all the trouble in Burkittsville, MD began. This is how The Blair Witch Project literally made history.
Burkittsville is described as “a town rich in history and surrounded by beauty.” In 1999, the town consisted of just 75 homes, one post office, and a church within its limits. Locals refer to Main Street as “a testament to a simpler way of life.” You could barely find a bad look in Burkittsville, let alone a terrorizing ghost.
The Blair Witch legend flourished in Burkittsville because of a cemetery. A short 50 minutes away from The Blair Witch Project’s crew’s base in Germantown, MD, was the site of the 1862 Battle of Crampton’s Gap, one of the minor fights that led to the Battle of Antietam, which took place three days later.
The only remotely “creepy” aspect of Burkittsville was “Spook Hill,” an incline right outside of town where Civil War soldier-ghosts supposedly pushed idling uphill in late hours of the night and “the snallygaster,” a mythical dragon that once laid an egg in the hills nearby.
The real Burkittsville only appeared twice in The Blair Witch Project. Shots feature a “Welcome to Burkittsville” sign in the cemetery behind St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, “where the witch’s first victims were buried.”
That was pretty much the only part of the town shown. Burkittsville is a small town, and it takes just 15 minutes to go from one end of it to the other. In fact, the population is a mere 150, according to the most recent census data. (Other reports claim the population is 180, and some say 200). Myrick and Sánchez didn’t shoot the Black Hills Forest scenes in Burkittsville because there are no Black Hills Forest there. They were filmed in Patapsco Valley State Park.
They couldn’t even find real Burkittsville locals for the testimonials, so those were shot back in Germantown. But even a created shot has staying power as folks who are directly or indirectly tied to The Blair Witch Project would soon find out.
In 1999, “unofficial historian” Timothy J. Reese wrote: “For the record, there never was a ‘Blair Witch,’ nor was the vicinity of Burkittsville ever known as Blair Township.’” He continued, “Those claiming to have done their homework in this regard had better direct their gullible inquiries to the buffoons who crafted this fictional, cinematic nonsense. We locals would appreciate it if they took their fantasies elsewhere.”
After the premiere of The Blair Witch Project at Sundance, those folks doubled down. Artisan Entertainment bought the movie from the festival. It then commissioned Myrick and Sánchez to add more footage to the movie (including four alternate endings and mentions of Rustin Parr), and the fake documentary aired on the Sci-Fi channel (now called “SyFy”) the same week that the film came out.
Julia Fair worked for Myrick and Sánchez’s Haxan Films; she was responsible for creating props representing Blair’s witchy past. Fair made countless documents for the movie, including the “only” copy of a book called The Blair Witch Cult that serves as the provoking incident that made the character Heather so curious.
“I tried to put it in historical context,” Julia Fair revealed in 2000. “I researched the times and history of Maryland.” As it turns out, a man named Henry Burkitt actually founded the town of Burkittsville back in 1810.
In Fair’s history, back in 1824, a railroad magnate founded the town on the site of Blair so that he could develop limestone deposits in that area (there are no limestone deposits in Burkittsville or surrounding areas).
A year before the release of the movie, Fair realized what her work had created. In an interview from April 2000, Fair swore she would never visit that town again after a Burkittsville historian said to her, “You’re ruining the history of my county.”
Blair Witch mania hit Burkittsville like a storm. Residents of the town received tons of emails from complete strangers asking about the witch in the weeks leading up to the July 30th release of the film. A local named Larry Ott said he needed to ward off a ton of phone calls: “I’ve been postmaster since ’93, and I tell them that if all this happened in ’94, I think I would have heard about it.”
The city put its two police deputies on overtime so that they could patrol the cemetery, and it issued a message to all residents: “After viewing the movie, people may want to come out and see what Burkittsville is really like. We ask that you be cautious and reinforce safety precautions within your family.”
In response, for the first time ever, Burkittsville residents started locking their doors. The town mayor, Joyce Brown, had just begun her second term, and she was forced to address all the media attention and defend her town and its values:
“I’ve lived here for 35 years and have also inquired with some older citizens – none of them have ever heard of a Blair Witch,” she said. “We are a Christian community. We have two local churches that have been established over 100 years ago. We take our Christianity seriously.”
When The Blair Witch Project first captivated audiences, the mythology-heavy website was at the center of its ad campaign and pointing to Burkittsville. Tourists from around the country and even across the pond made sure to stop by for mystery and suspense.
Almost immediately after the movie’s premiere, one of the four “Welcome to the Historic Village of Burkittsville” signs disappeared. Eventually, Artisan Entertainment paid $1,143 to have it replaced, and this time, the sign was welded to metal poles.
The town clerk at the time, Michelle Beller, noticed some after-dark activity at the graveyard. Someone was leaving candles over the gravestones. Reportedly, Brown called up the president of the chamber of commerce from Amity, NY, to ask for advice.
The president of the chamber of commerce had dealt with a similar craze in 1979 when Amityville Horror came out… but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, Brown was told that people are fascinated by this kind of stuff, and there was no way to stop the thrill-seekers.
Some of the town residents were annoyed, and others capitalized. Just a few weeks after Ott spoke out about the fiction, he found himself in the Burkittsville postcard business. “Yesterday, I sold about a hundred,” he revealed that August. A local artist named Margaret Kennedy painted the film’s logo on T-shirts and sold them out of her art gallery on Main St.
After a fan posted pictures of stolen Burkittsville cemetery dirt on the Internet, Linda Prior Millard began selling “Blair Witch Rocks” with her 81-year-old mother Louise; they cost 5 bucks a pop. The mother/daughter business team also made their own “stickmen” figures (whatever that means): full size and refrigerator magnet versions. Linda didn’t even see the movie until the end of August and said, “I thought it was pretty stupid.”
Mayor Brown was staying cautious. That October, the town of Burkittsville actually changed trick-or-treating night from October 31 so that people could get their candy “without outsiders being involved.”
Brown finally acknowledged that The Blair Witch Project had a huge impact on the history of Burkittsville by putting a copy of the film in the official town record and welcoming movie enthusiasts. “We are friendly to [the fans], and they, for the most part, have been courteous to us,” she said.
Right across the street from the mayor, someone nailed a sign saying “THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT IS TOTAL FICTION” onto a telephone pole. However, the report still indicates that Burkittsville visitors trespassed on residents’ private property, videotaped people without their permission, and caused some property damage (on the church side, a pentagram was graffitied).
Even residence playing nice was reprimanded; Deb Burgoyne allowed curious tourists to use the bathrooms in her home until she was accused of jeopardizing her children’s lives by living in a town that historically haunts children.
By the year 2000, it seemed like the Blair Witch phenomenon was coming to an end. But reports of recreating the fictitious take continued to come in: “We’ve been walking for hours, and we can’t find a thing!” said one occult fanatic to The Washington Post.
But Hollywood was still intrigued. In January 2000, Blair Witch 2 was announced by Artisan Entertainment. Documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) was set to finish the movie for a fall release. Their first stop was Burkittsville. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 had a meta path, abandoning found footage, and it starts with the sudden popularity of Burkittsville. It’s a haunted story of mass hysteria.
What the producers of the sequel didn’t see coming was a Burkittsville ready-to-air grievances. A February report for The Baltimore Sun painted an eerie picture of Artisan’s first interaction:
“When the producers arrived at a town meeting Monday to pitch an idea of filming residents talking about the impact the original movie had on the town, they were repeatedly interrupted and insulted until they finally walked out… Yesterday, only a few residents of this town of 200… would discuss the fracas, and most who did talk wouldn’t give their names.” (It’s not that difficult to figure out which residents sounded angrier in their previous statements – it’s a small town.)
They’d come along and be peeking in people’s windows, asking them where the witch lived. There were even people holding candlelight vigils in the cemetery for the dead children,” said a man who wouldn’t reveal his name, just that he is the town’s historian. “And they wouldn’t believe it was fiction.”
It’s crazy to think how many fans really believed that this story was true. But even if The Blair Witch Project was true, why would they go to the town and look for the witch? It’s not a very good idea, especially if they saw the movie!
Berlinger had already stated in the meeting that his movie was a psychological thriller sparked by The Blair Witch Project fake-out, the memories of property damage, and invasions of privacy, which were overruled by the majority of the folks who attended the meeting.
One of the most shocking statements came from Sam Brown, a former town councilman married to Mayor Joyce Brown. He claimed, “We’ve already been raped, now they want us to be prostitutes.” Mayor Brown didn’t make a statement, just that she “can’t comment.”
Even though the mayor barred access, Bellinger shot some interviews with Burkittsville locals in the town in the late spring. Linda Prior Millard is featured in the movie, telling the true story of how she made actual profits by simply selling rocks and stick from her house.
Deb Burgoyne, on the other hand, no longer offers up her bathroom. But she did have her own story to tell. Burgoyne explained how she would no longer leave the house without makeup on because there were constantly video cameras around.
Mayor Brown issued another letter to the residents of Burkittsville that October. This time, it was to alert them that yet another horror movie was coming out that would use the town’s name for marketing and advertising purposes. Audry Standnick (Larry Ott’s postmaster successor) began getting countless visitors a day, asking if the Blair Witch’s legend was true.
Once again, they chose to put the “Welcome to Burkittsville” signs into storage. In the sequel, Jeffery Donovan’s character is shown to be the culprit in stealing the first wooden sign. What a fun little Easter egg!
During the week of Halloween, the Fredrick County Sheriff’s Office put two of their deputies out in the town again for some extra security. Sgt. Tom Winebrenner of the Sheriff’s office said, “The only times we’d have anyone specifically assigned to Burkittsville is, well, when we’re doing this.”
In October 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 turned out to be a critical failure. Nonetheless, Burkittsville felt a sense of relief. The only real scare were cease-and-desist letters from Artisan Entertainment.
Apparently, anyone who was creating Blair Witch merchandise without a license received a slap on the wrist, according to later reports. This included Margaret Kennedy, the local artist who was making and selling t-shirts. “It scared her so much, she gave all the shirts away,” according to Deb Burgoyne, who appeared in Book of Shadows.
Eleven years after the release of The Blair Witch Project, the town voted and decided to auction off the metal Burkittsville signs that Artisan bought in 1999. The town has been redesigned twice since then. Both times were intended not to resemble anything from the Blair Witch film.
Over the summer of 2016, director Adam Wingard, a legend in the indie-horror community, revealed his new movie The Woods at the San Diego Comic-Con. When the lights went down, there was a little surprise in the store. As it turns out, The Woods was actually the new Blair Witch sequel.
Years after Burkittsville received its own compensations by auctioning off the studio-bought signs for much more than their $1,500 cost, the fake legend of Blair Witch haunted the community once again. But the commotion wasn’t the same as the first time around.
A lot has changed since 1999. The Internet is an endless source of blurred truths and debunkery. The paranormal activity made “found footage” a household genre, and “viral campaigns” (movie marketing camouflaged as glitches) come with every new blockbuster. Burkittsville holds strong, striving to be peaceful as can be.
Each year, a few horror-film enthusiasts pass by. Mayor Deb Burgoyne has since replaced Mayor Joyce Brown. Yes, the woman who appeared in the Book of Shadows. The movie wasn’t even shown in Burkittsville; the closest screening was an hour away.
Since nobody predicted that The Blair Witch sequel wouldn’t be as successful as the first movie, the town residents prepared. In the days leading up to The Blair Witch release, side streets connecting to Maine were chained off, and the “Welcome” signs in Burkittsville were taken down.
To escape a potential frenzy, Mayor Burgoyne told locals to book hotel rooms by Middletown and Brunswick. Town residents try to avoid even the slightest uptick in Blair Witch fandom. Burkittsville was in a minor lockdown.
Town resident, Rebecca Remaley, lives near the cemetery and was getting sick and tired of the new movie. “We’re a welcoming community,” she explained to The Frederick News-Post. “There was just those instances where people seemed to forget that actual people lived here.”
It’s interesting to think about. Imagine living in a small community, and, suddenly, the entire world is fascinated by it because of a witch legend that never even happened there. You can’t blame fans for being interested; however, it is important to remember to be respectful because people do actually live there.
In 1993, Myrick and Sánchez wrote the first draft for The Bair Witch Project when they were both film students in Orlando, Florida. The original rough draft was only 35 pages. They wrote the script as more of an outline because they knew they wanted the dialogue to be improvised by their actors so the story would seem even more real.
The actors made a code word for whenever they wanted to speak out of character. If, at any point, one of them wanted to break character, they would say “taco.”
Actress Heather Donahue said that she remembers being backstage and reading an ad that said: “An improvised feature film, shot in a wooded location: It is going to be hell, and most of you reading this probably shouldn’t come.”
The directors wanted to test the potential actors’ improvisation skills, so as soon as a candidate showed up to audition, he was immediately told: “You’ve been in jail for the last nine years. We’re the parole board. Why should we let you go?” If the actor hesitated for even a moment, they blew their shot.
The shoot lasted eight days, and the three main actors were paid $1,000 per day. Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard made way more in the years following The Blair Witch Project’s release. Williams claimed he ended up making a nice $300,000.
Mike Williams revealed that the terrifying thing was hearing the sounds of children playing across the street from Eduardo Sánchez’s mother on three boom boxes blasting right outside of his tent.
Heather and Josh were initially supposed to be ex-lovers. However, the idea was scrapped before the shooting started. Ironically, there was a lot of tension building up between the two characters/actors. When Heather called Josh “Mr. Punctuality,” it was a joke referring to the fact that he was late that day.
Apparently, it was so “annoying” that the directors decided to kill off Josh first. Mike was supposed to be the first to die. Leonard was rewarded with Denny’s meal. This was good compensation since the actors were only given pieces of Power Bars and bananas while they were in the woods. He also got to go to Jane’s Addiction concert. It’s the least they could do after killing him off early.
The actors used GPS trackers to find their instructions every day. Production programmed wait points in the GPS device to locate milk crates with three little plastic canisters in them. Each canister contained notes on where the story was going for each actor’s character.
The actors would keep their character’s fate a secret from the other two, of course. As soon as they got their note, the actors were pretty much free to improvise the dialogue, as long as they followed the general instructions they received, obviously.
It costs a lot to get the rights for a lot of things. For some fun foreshadowing, the directors were really hoping to have the song. We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place by The Animals, playing in the car at the beginning of the movie.
Unfortunately, it was way too expensive and not within the movie’s budget. What they did have enough money for, though, was for Heather to quote the Gilligan’s Island theme song. They were also approved to show their Power Bars on camera.
What makes this thriller a little creepier is that filming concluded on Halloween night. On October 31st, 1997, the local Denny’s got a little extra business. Heather Donahue and Michael C. Williams were also taken there for their first hearty meal in over a week.
Williams described that emerging from the woods and seeing so many in costumes was “very surreal.” Am I the only one who is more shocked that they didn’t feed the actors? I mean, no offense, but their first hearty meal was Denny’s? They deserve a steak dinner after living off of Power Bars during shooting.
Believe it or not, the teeth in the wings were actual human teeth. Gross, I know. Edward Sánchez’s dentist reportedly supplied them. I know he is a dentist, but where did these teeth come from? Did he take random patients’ teeth? Also, the wig was Josh’s real hair.
Nineteen hours of footage needed to be cut down to 90 minutes. It took Sánchez and Myrick eight months to cut the movie down in time for its Sundance premiere. Their initial cut made the movie two and a half hours, but the scenes that didn’t make it to the theatrical version were used for the faux-documentary that ran on Syfy, as well as on the website.
Sánchez created the movie website himself. The co-director was the logical choice to build the website, considering he helped spread the Blair Witch myth to the world. Plus, he was the only person involved in the movie who had web-building experience.
According to Sánchez, he had so much free time and was available to work on the website because he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. I guess a girlfriend would have been way too distracting while he was working on the terrifying project.
Artisan, the now-obsolete studio that bought the rights to the movie, went to great lengths to keep their actors, Donahue, Leonard, and Williams, away from the press for a period of time. They also didn’t correct websites and reliable sources like IMDb, which claimed the actors were deceased.
A lot of people were led to believe that all three actors were dead, and it was no accident. It was a strategic marketing ploy to create more buzz about the film. However, fans were saddened by these fake-losses. Donahue’s mom even received sympathy cards.
Some of the audiences got physically ill because of the shaky camerawork in The Blair Witch Project. The regional director of Loews Cineplex Entertainment estimated that, on average, one audience member in each screening got sick and asked for a refund.
I had no idea this was a real thing. In 1999, I was a middle school kid and a huge horror fan. I vividly remember feeling so nauseous watching this movie that I couldn’t get through it. I ended up watching it again from start to end before I wrote this article, but I didn’t realize it made so many other people feel sick.
Only Josh is still working as a full-time actor. It’s been over two decades since The Blair Witch Project first came out, and a lot can happen in that time. People change, move on, and find other passions. Heather, for example, is currently working as a medical marijuana grower and is the author of a memoir.
On the other hand, Mike quit his job as a furniture mover on Late Night with Conan O’Brien as soon as The Blair Witch Project was released. However, he took the job again since he wasn’t making an acting income and needed to support his wife and kids.
The town of Burkittsville dealt with quite a lot, between vandalism and creepy fans. Burkittsville’s wooden welcome signs were stolen, as so were their replacements. Artisan Entertainment bought four metal replacement signs that have since been stolen or auctioned off. Debby Burgoyne, mayor of Burkittsville – population: 180, once woke up to find a movie fan in her living room.
Apparently, he assumed there was a tour. “It was crazy,” the Mayor told The Los Angeles Times. “People with cameras were everywhere. I made sure I had full makeup and a great nightie before I went out to get the morning paper.”
After the incredible success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it makes sense that they wanted to capitalize on it. However, it was clear to everyone. The 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was considered an obvious and shameless cash grab that barely had any involvement from Sánchez and Myrick.
The third movie was an Adam Wingard surprise to fans in 2016. However, the original directors have talked about another possible installment. They are reportedly throwing around the idea of a prequel, which would be set in the late 1700s.
Movie enthusiasts are used to hearing about blockbuster movies that have a massive budget to work with. It’s not uncommon for studios to spend millions of dollars on a movie. That’s why it’s surprising to find out that the Blair Witch Project didn’t have a budget at all.
One of the movie’s directors, Daniel Myrick, shared that the film’s budget was actually $300,000. The box office gross was almost $25 million, according to The Guardian. It makes sense, though, since it was a simple production filmed in just one location.
It’s not uncommon for movies to go through various titles before selecting one, and dedicated fans have very strong opinions about what could have been. The Blair Witch Project is no exception.
The thriller had a few other titles under consideration, but one that they almost went with. According to IMDb, the original name was The Blair Witch Tapes. I’m not really sure why but there is something about “project” that fits the movie so much better. Plus, it sounds spookier than “tapes.”
Heather Donahue played one of the three main characters, but she wasn’t sure if making the movie would be a good idea at first. She was kind of scared about filming in the woods. And who could blame her?!
The actress explained, “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. My mom wanted to know if she could have all their Social Security numbers. All of my friends pitched in to make sure that I bought a knife.”