On a cold November night in 1999, I found myself nestled inside of a pop-up camper in the middle of the woods. Surrounded by the sounds of breaking branches, the bitter Lake Michigan wind, and nothing but leafless trees as far as the eye could see, I crammed into a sleeping bag in front of a TV/VCR combo player and put on the tape my parents had bought in case of rain. My mom had picked up the film the day before and it sat on my kitchen counter, following me like a haunted house painting with wandering eyes. It seemed like no matter where I stood, the tearfilled eyes of Heather Donahue were staring back at me, desperate for help.
“In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…A year later their footage was found.” Considering I was only nine years old in 1999, it didn’t take much to convince me of anything. Thinking I was clever, I hopped online to “Ask Jeeves” anything I could find out about this movie. What I found was a website researching the missing documentary crew, television news reports, and eyewitness reports about the mysterious disappearance and the mythos of the titular Blair Witch. At nine years old, I didn’t have access to an online forum, nor were there any kids in my grade that had seen the film. My imagination ran wild with theories that I had no one to share with, and I spent the next three years convinced that what I watched was real, that there really was a Blair Witch stalking the grounds of Burkittsville, Maryland, and that there is a missing documentary crew that no one seems to want to try and find.
Sure, I had heard whispers that the film was “fake” but much like Santa Claus and professional wrestling– it was real to me, damn it. There was nothing anyone could say to me that could make me change my mind. The Blair Witch was a real entity that has been terrorizing for centuries and I wanted nothing more than to see her. I began obsessively drawing the stickman figure on all of my homework, an act that got me sent to the principal’s office for creeping out my overly religious teacher on more than one occasion. I chose to believe that the sequel was just a cash-grab made to profit off of the suffering of this real life tragedy, sort of like CHERNOBYL DIARIES or THE FOREST. I would arrange twigs in the neighborhood to make stick-men and I must have watched that VHS tape at least twenty times, pausing to try and see if I could find her in the forest. In hindsight, I couldn’t see anything at all. But back then? I could have sworn down to the timestamp of where Elly Kedward was hiding.
I was twelve when I finally accepted that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT wasn’t a real documentary and that I’d been obsessing over a work of fiction for the last three years. I was at a birthday party and a friend mentioned wanting to watch it because it was so scary. I gleefully offered my theories and tried to convince my friends it was a real film when the birthday girl’s older brother pulled up an interview with the actors after the fact discussing life after the success of the film. They weren’t missing. They were actors. I had been duped.
To say I was devastated was an understatement. This was worse than finding out my parents were really the Easter Bunny. This was worse than finding out John Lennon had died a decade before I was born and therefore could never be my husband. (I was a weird kid, guys). The Blair Witch was the first mystery that I allowed myself to be consumed by. This was my JonBenet Ramsey. This was my OJ Simpson murder. I spent my tween years convinced that three people were missing and couldn’t wrap my head around why people didn’t want to find them. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was the first conspiracy theory I had ever full-tilt believed in, and then the air was sucked out of the room and I was left feeling like an idiot.
Falling for the “found footage” scam sincerely influenced the way I question media and instilled in me the desire to always research, research, research before ever believing something as fact. Seventeen years later, I look back and completely understand how I could have been fooled and don’t feel quite as embarrassed. The marketing campaign for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT completely changed the way we market cinema and yet will never be able to be replicated. The only thing to come close in the last decade was the reveal that THE WOODS was actually a BLAIR WITCH sequel. When it comes down to it, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is a lot like the cameras that shot the film. To quote Josh Leonard, “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
*All Images: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) Lionsgate Entertainment