21 Haunting Facts About The Blair Witch Project: Hungry Actors, Nauseous Audiences and Those Rocks

In 1999, Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez emerged from the wilds of independent cinema with a horror phenomenon on their hands

By Natalie Finn 14 Jul, 2020 5:00 PMTags
The Blair Witch Project, 1999Lionsgate

In 1997, two directors and three unknown actors disappeared into the woods, toting handheld cameras and a concept.

Two years later, their footage scared up almost $249 million.

Now it's been 21 years since The Blair Witch Project in all its haunting, low-budget glory landed in theaters and launched a new genre of horror movie: found footage. (The idea wasn't conjured out of thin air, but it certainly didn't become a full-fledged thing until 1999. Same with that shaky, hand-held camera technique. That took some getting used to as well, and there were reported occurrences of nausea and vomiting.)

Boosted by a rather ingenious marketing campaign that teased the film entirely as the product of tapes discovered in the woods of Burkittsville, Md., after an unknown but presumably horrible fate had befallen three student filmmakers, The Blair Witch Project benefited from the kind of organically grown anticipation that's hard to duplicate these days. Not to mention, no one was racing to Facebook or Twitter to spoil the fun.

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Horror Movie Stars: Then and Now

The movie spawned its own online universe, including a companion "documentary," Curse of the Blair Witch, probing the "events" in the original film, as well as countless imitators and spoofs, Heather Donahue's infamous up-the-nose monologue being ripe for parody.

Related: Macaulay Culkin Joins "American Horror Story" Season 10

What it mainly did upon arrival, however, was not only terrify audiences, but also make them question what they had just seen. By the time they were actually sitting in the theater, most moviegoers knew they weren't watching real people in peril, but they still weren't entirely sure of what was happening—making The Blair Witch Project a movie that merited watching and then rewatching to catch what they missed the first time.

 

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In honor of the groundbreaking film's 21st anniversary, here are at least 21 things to know about the production and what really happened in those woods. Sorry if you have nightmares, again. 

(Needless to say, SPOILERS AHEAD)

Years in the Making

Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez met as students at the University of Central Florida School of Film. In and around 1993, they were talking about horror movies—and the recent drought of truly great ones—when they thought about the potentially terrifying consequences  a group stumbling upon a house in the woods and not being able to resist going inside, despite knowing that something appalling was happening.

Over the next several years, they came up with the Blair Witch lore, hired a few unknown actors who could do improv, scraped some money together and production got underway in October of 1997. The movie was shot over eight days, in Germantown, Md., Seneca Creek State Park and the Griggs House, in Patapsco Valley State Park. They wrapped on Halloween.

Meanwhile, 1994 is the stated year in which "student filmmakers" Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard hiked into the Black Hills of Burkittsville and never came out. Their footage was found a year later.

"There's a common misunderstanding that not a lot went into it," Myrick told The Guardian in 2018, "but it took two years of effort to make it look like it was just shot by three students over a long weekend."

The Legend

"I named it 'Blair' because my older sister had gone to Blair High School, and it was kind of just this name that just popped into my head," Sánchez told The Week in 2015. "It's really crazy now because it's such a perfect name. But like a lot of things, I had to choose a name, and that was the one that was there at the time."

The back story is briefly touched upon before things get weird for Heather, Josh and Mike in the woods, but Myrick and Sánchez have said they wouldn't mind fleshing out the lore in another film. As it's pieced together by the townspeople in The Blair Witch Project and in the companion documentary, Curse of the Blair Witch: In 1785, a woman named Elly Kedward was accused of witchcraft in Blair, Md.—later Burkittsville—after she was discovered pricking the fingers of children to let their blood. She was found guilty at trial and banished to the woods, where she was tied to a tree in the dead of winter and left there. By the following winter, half the town's children had disappeared.

In the late 1800s, a local tells Heather, a child named Robin Weaver disappeared into the woods, then reappeared three days later on her grandma's porch, "babbling something about an old woman whose feet never touched the ground." His fishing companion added that he once saw, up the creek, "a white misty thing" rising "right out of the water." 

A party of five men had gone out searching for Robin. They were found at what came to be known as Coffin Rock, one man's hands bound to another's feet and so on, each gutted and with indecipherable writing carved into his face. By the time the search party who found them went to get help and they all returned, the bodies were gone. 

Then children started disappearing in 1940. An old hermit named Rustin Parr came out of the woods one day and told the townspeople, "I'm finally finished." No one knew what he was talking about, but then police searched his cabin and found the bodies of seven kids. In court Parr said he had only done what the old lady ghost had told him to do.

Another woman tells Heather that she had heard a tale about two hunters who were out camping and then disappeared without a trace. Additionally, the not-so-"crazy" Mary Brown says she was out fishing with her father one day when she felt a presence, then saw what looked like a woman, cloaked in a shawl that she opened to reveal hair all over her body, like a horse.

The filmmakers stumble upon seven piles of rocks in the woods. Later they return to their campsite to find three piles, one for each of them.

Prepare to Be Uncomfortable

Myrick and Sánchez wrote a roughly 35-page screenplay mapping out everything that happened to the characters, but left the dialogue to be improvised. They also assumed their movie would star three guys.

"Dan, Ed, and Greg set up improvisation scenarios for us, so when I went to audition, they said to me, 'You have served half of your sentence for killing your baby. Why should we let you out?'" Donahue, who at the time was a founding member of an improv troupe and an experimental theater company in New York, told Vice's Broadly in 2016. "And I looked at them and said, 'I don't think you should.' And I think I was the only woman who actually said that, and so I got the role."

Williams answered an open casting call he saw in Backstage Magazine for an "IMPROVISATIONAL FEATURE FILM!" referred to at the time as "The Black Hill Project." "EXTREMELY CHALLENGING ROLES; to be shot under very difficult conditions," the ad promised.

"[Heather] gave us this awesome blend of smarts, improvisational skills, and a little bit of this crazy diligence that we needed in our actors, to push forward through the duress that we knew we were going to subject them to," Myrick told The Week. "We teamed her up with Josh, who was lobbying to be in the movie early on, and Mike Williams, who we found through the audition process in New York. They just had great chemistry together; the right blend of humor and conflict, and the right look."

Basic Training

The filmmakers started sending fake flyers advertising events in Burkittsville to the actors to make their "project" feel more real. Donahue read up on witchcraft and how to survive in the woods. Leonard, who had experience behind the camera, was logically cast as the cameraman and Williams was playing the sound guy.

I did a very good job of freaking myself out as best I could before we even got there," Donahue told The Week.

"All they told me was that they wanted me to be the one that was more scared," Williams said.

Scare Tactics

Using GPS trackers, the filmmakers steered Donahue, Leonard and Williams to their different locations, where they would drop off the footage they had shot with 16 mm cameras and pick up new individual instructions along the way. "We were out in the woods, but [the actors] didn't know it," producer Gregg Hale told The Week. "We were camouflaged, and we built little hiding places where we could be close to them and see them. We were out there, but they really weren't aware we were out there."

Myrick told Broadly., "All the weird kind of noises and stuff is just us running around in the woods. When they wake up and there are rock piles outside their tents, we planted those, obviously. The stick figures—we hung them. We just led them around on a 24-hour-a-day stage play, really…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."

"This is f--king crazy s--t," Heather observes breathlessly as they come upon the grove of stick figures.

Indeed.

The Elements

The actors slept in tents and ate less and less food each day, just as they would have if they were on a real camping trip and had gotten lost.

"We didn't have to skin squirrels or anything," Donahue told The Week. "It was kind of a daily-use park. We had to stop shooting for families going past on their bikes."

Leonard quipped to Broadly., "I was probably too stoned to be scared."

One night after it had rained all day, however, the trio couldn't get a hold of the directors and wouldn't sleep in their soaked tents, so they made for the road and knocked on the door of the first house they saw. "They were weirdly nice enough and trusting enough to let us in," Donahue recalled, "and they gave us hot cocoa. We ended up staying in a hotel that night."

The actors had a code word—"taco"—they used when they needed to stop being "Heather," "Josh" and "Mike" for a minute and return to reality. It eventually just made them hungry.

Weight of the World

Playing the director and the only one who really cares about the Blair Witch in the first place, Donahue was given more information about the legend than her co-stars—so when they asked her questions, Leonard and Williams really were looking for answers.

Candid Camera

Really, why does Heather insist on continuing to film, even when it's obvious that they're lost in the woods—and when Josh and Mike both repeatedly demand that she turn the camera off. "No, I want to mark this occasion," she says defiantly.

"I had actually done a student film two years before with a young female filmmaker who definitely had a lot of bravado," Donahue told Broadly. "I had to think, 'What kind of woman would actually keep the camera running through horrible times?' A normal person would have stopped filming, so I had to take that character to that extra driven edge." 

Twist!

Originally it was Mike—the first one to start cracking up when they get lost—who was going to disappear first, but because Josh and Heather were fighting a lot, Sanchez and Myrick decided to dispatch with Josh first. "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.'"

And so Josh disappears, only to be briefly heard—or so Heather and Mike think—at the movie's chilling conclusion. "Ed and Dan and Gregg and maybe Ben Rock [the production designer] were there, waiting for me with flashlights," Leonard recalled. "And they said, 'You're dead, dude,' and they took me out to a really nice meal at Denny's." (Heather and Mike got to go to Denny's too after meeting their own grim fates.)

On the Nose

"I'm sorry to everyone. I was very naïve…What is that? I'm scared to close my eyes, I'm scared to open them. We're gonna die out here."

Heather entirely improvised her haunting final monologue, in which she acknowledges they're probably done for (Josh is already gone) and apologizes to all of their moms for getting them into that mess.

"I was so proud of that moment, because it's everything you're not supposed to do as a film actress," Donahue told The Week. "The snot was flowing, and it was unflattering, and it was just true, and ugly, and messy, and sloppy. And I don't think people get to see that kind of thing very often. A real good ugly cry on screen."

Die Hard

The frenzied final sequence in which Heather and Mike go in the house looking for Josh, frantically search, are briefly separated and Heather ends up finding Mike standing with his face to the wall—a foreshadowed sign that the other person in the room is about to die—wasn't shot in one terrifying take.

"Heather's shrieking in the house, and it looks like she's losing her mind, but we shot that over multiple takes and over two days—that was one of the most traditional segments of the movie," Myrick recalled to Broadly. "We had to really set and reset and be careful walking through the house so that nobody got hurt. It was much more orchestrated. Nobody was scared. They were tired! The real fear that registers on their face is just pure performance."

Changing Course

It wasn't until Sánchez and Myrick began editing the 80-plus hours of footage that they decided the film would only be what Leonard, Donahue and Williams shot. Originally they planned on making a "documentary" that would be investigating the trio's ill-fated excursion, featuring actors playing the lost filmmakers' parents, etc.

Planting the Seed

The Blair Witch Project website treated the subject matter deadly seriously. It included a timeline of events leading up to Heather, Mike and Josh's disappearance, as well as local news interviews about the case and fake police reports. As if it were true crime, Blair Witch enthusiasts flocked online to talk about the Witch and what happened to Heather, Josh and Mike. Before the movie had even screened, 10,000 people had subscribed to the mailing list.

"The internet was new!" Williams recalled to The Week. "So if you think back, some of the things you read on the internet, you go, 'Oh, that must be true. I saw it on the internet.' Just like when newspapers came out. You believed what you read."

The movie premiered at a midnight screening during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 1999. The actors, all of them making their feature-film debuts, were described as "missing, presumed dead" in promotional materials. Once it had acquired the rights to distribute the film after Sundance, Artisan Entertainment even got IMDb to play along. The actors' parents started receiving condolence calls and sympathy cards. A police officer called Myrick to offer his assistance in finding out what really happened to the lost filmmakers. The actors got to witness the movie blow up at Sundance, but they weren't invited to the screening at the Cannes Film Festival that May.

And even after people were aware that it was just a movie, plenty still thought it was a movie about something that had really happened.

Cue the Backlash

Twitter didn't create outrage culture.

"Pretty quickly when the movie was released, there was this backlash that began about the film," Sánchez recalled to Broadly. "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."

Added Myrick, "There's this cycle with publicity where you over-saturate and over-promote and it becomes fashionable to not like what everyone else says they do like."

The Aftermath

Donahue, Leonard and Williams—who got along but went their separate ways after filming—recalled having a tough time with all the attention that came with the movie's juggernaut-level success.

"I'll tell you what, it was kind of terrifying," Williams said. "In the middle of it, it kind of got so big that I didn't know if I was coming or going. They're pulling you every which way…I had a great time with it—but I want to say that Sundance was about as much excitement, and as much attention as I felt comfortable with. After that, I didn't feel comfortable for a couple of years." Added Donahue, "Hard to pick [the worst part]. People being angry at you for being alive."

"There are people who still don't believe it's fiction," Leonard told The Guardian in 2018. "I sometimes think Artisan would have been happier if we had actually been dead."

The Horror

Despite a lot of critical praise, The Blair Witch Project was still nominated for Worst Picture at the Golden Raspberry Awards and Donahue "won" the Razzie for Worst Actress. She told Broadly. in 2016, "I think that was partly because of the character being judged, rather than the performance. She was a very driven woman who didn't wear mascara and was on camera in 1999."

As she has pointed out multiple times, "A pile of rocks is not inherently scary. We had to believe in the fictional circumstances, like you do in any acting job really."

On the flip side, Myrick, Sánchez, Hale and co-producer Robin Cowie won the John Cassavetes Award, honoring debut features made for less than $500,000, at the 2000 Independent Spirit Awards. Cowie and Hale were also named Most Promising Producer in Theatrical Motion Pictures at the illustrious PGA Awards.

Their Real Fates

All three stars of The Blair Witch Project continued to act, but Joshua Leonard is the only one still doing it for his day job, most recently in the horror film Depraved, and he's in the upcoming sci-fi drama Bliss with Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson. He has also been on dozens of TV shows over the years, including Bates Motel and Scorpion.

Donahue hasn't logged any acting credits since 2008. She wrote a memoir that came out in 2012 called GrowGirl, about life after the Blair Witch and her post-acting adventures in the marijuana-growing business. She wrote in her book that the Blair Witch marketing may have done too good of a job convincing people that she and her co-stars were just random kids, making it difficult to be taken seriously as a real actress afterward when she tried to get work.

Williams popped up on the CBS drama FBI in 2018, nine years after having a guest spot on Law & Order: SVU. In 2015, The Week reported that he was working as a school counselor and teaching acting.

Curse of the Blair Witch

Beware the rabid creature that is a studio with an unexpected blockbuster on its hands. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (starring future Burn Notice leading man Jeffrey Donovan) was rushed into production in time for an October 2000 release—and it made $47.7 million. It only cost a reported $15 million to make, but... 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic score of 15 (the original is at 87 percent and 81).

The spell was broken, just like that. Director Joe Berlinger said that his vision for the film—about tourists who go to Burkittsville after seeing The Blair Witch Project—was compromised in postproduction. (The sequel was nominated for a host of Razzies, but it couldn't beat Battlefield Earth.)

"That's not to say that my director's cut would have garnered a better reaction from critics per se, by at least I could have stood by the film for representing my vision and if people hated that version, it would have been less painful because it's what I would have wanted to be seen," Berlinger told Deadline in 2016.

That being said, the Paradise Lost director disputes the generalization that Blair Witch 2 was a flop. "It grossed $48 million worldwide on a $10 million budget and did over $25 million on DVD… Pure gravy on DVD," he said. "I know because my DGA residuals on this film paid for my daughter's college education."

They're credited on IMDb as executive producers and for creating the characters, but Myrick and Sánchez otherwise washed their hands of Book of Shadows. They wanted to do a prequel, which was fine with Artisan, but they also wanted to wait a beat—which wasn't part of the studio's plan. So, the pair willingly stepped aside.

"We gave a few notes on earlier drafts of the script, and they didn't listen to any of them," Myrick recalled to The Week. "So we said, 'Okay. Well, invite us to the premiere when you're ready.'"

Fumbling the Footage

2016's Blair Witch, billed as the direct sequel to the original, fared slightly better critically, but not much, and it was still a box office bummer with $45 million. Slicker than the original but hewing close to the same concept—only this time it's Heather's little brother, James, leading a group into the woods to try to figure out what happened to her, and his friend brings a camera along—the scariest part is the prologue at the beginning, when you're informed that what you're about to see was assembled from "memory cards and DV tapes found near Burkittsville, Maryland in the Black Hills Forest on May 15, 2014."

That doesn't get old.

The History Books

The film's reported budget has varied, with $60,000 being the number that gets kicked around the most—but just like editing a movie to make the result look entirely spontaneous, it's a little more complicated than that.

Sánchez told Entertainment Weekly in 2009 that "the original budget to get the film in the can was probably between $20,000 and $25,000. Then, once we got to Sundance to make a print and do a sound mix, we were probably more in the neighborhood of $100,000." Then the studio put around $500,000 into it, ordering a new sound mix and asking them to shoot a less ambiguous ending. "So," Sanchez concluded, "the budget of what you saw in the theaters was probably $500,000 to $750,000."

They stuck with their original ending in the meantime.

Myrick told The Guardian in 2018, however, that The Blair Witch Project cost about $35,000 to shoot and ended up costing about $300,000 overall to put out.

Regardless of the final figure, it went on to make $248.6 million worldwide and remains one of the highest-grossing independent movies of all time, with one of the biggest-ever returns on an initial investment.

Inspiration Point

While most moviegoers had never seen anything quite like The Blair Witch Project before, it's not the first ever found-footage movie. The cineastes at Bloody Disgusting recommend 1989's UFO Abuction, made for $6,500 and purported to be the home-video recording of an 1983 alien invasion in Connecticut during a 5-year-old's birthday party—which sounds pretty cool. It's 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, however, about the fate of a documentary crew that's gone missing in the Amazon, but not before they managed to film their own gory demises, that is credited with the distinction of being the first found-footage movie.

Now the list of found footage films is long and has expanded to include the kind of footage recorded every day, right in our bedrooms sometimes, on Skype, Snapchat, nanny cams, etc. At least the Paranormal Activity franchise (encompassing six films to date) was kind enough to use stationary surveillance-type footage instead of the stomach-churning technique that The Blair Witch Project employed and got away with because it was the original.

"We had a $300 camera and another one we got for free, so it's funny to me when a big studio tries to make something look s---ty and sound bad," Leonard told Broadly. "It cracks me up, but I can see how it's a good story telling technique for the right story."

What they went through "was definitely feral filmmaking, which you can't do if you have a craft services table and real safety all around you all the time," Donahue said. "That poses a challenge to a lot of current found footage films. You'll just never quite capture the wildness or what the Internet was then."

"I guess we did a good enough job with it, and people bit into it hard and believed it," Myrick said in a 2014 interview for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Academy Originals. "That created this sort of new genre of found footage."

"It shows that the right idea can still be as big as anything Hollywood has to offer," Sánchez added.

On a summer day in 1999, with a line wrapped around the block, E! News enlisted Heather Donahue and Michael C. Williams to chat up unsuspecting moviegoers at L.A.'s Nuart Theater—and they got rave reviews.

"I thought it was real until I just saw them standing here," said one young man who was about to see The Blair Witch Project for the second time, having just watched it the day before. "You did a good job."

Added his companion, "For something that wasn't real, it looked real to me."

The Blair Witch Project will be streaming on Peacock starting July 15.

(Peacock is part of our parent company, NBCUniversal.)