A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is "The Blair Witch Project" a true story?

October 20, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

When I first heard about the new movie "The Blair Witch Project," it was from a friend of mine who swore up and down (and still does) that the entire story is true. Even though I have read a few reviews about the movie, all of which have stated that the film is fiction, there is still some doubt in people I speak to as to whether the story is based entirely on fiction. The only truth I know about "The Blair Witch Project" is 1) yes, there is a Burkittsville, MD and 2) yes, there is  some folklore about witches who lived there around 1700. So, as so many were fooled by H.G. Wells' radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds," are we being fooled by an ingenious marketing campaign promoting "The Blair Witch Project" or did I just entirely miss the most fantastical mystery of the 1990's?

First to answer the three most asked questions about "The Blair Witch Project" (hereafter TBWP) :

  1. No it is not true.
  2. Yes, it is all fiction
  3. Josh did it.

There are more stories tied up in TBWP than you can throw a bundle of twigs at. You will rarely find anyone who, after seeing it remains indifferent to it. You either love it or you feel cheated out of your popcorn money. Even among those who love it, there is a great difference of opinion as to what actually happened in the movie. But love it or hate it, TBWP would still be a remarkable film because of the way it was made, the way it was marketed, and the tremendous amount of backstory that is showing up along with it.

More answers :

  1. It is a figure based on an old nordic rune called "the burning man."
  2. The piles of rocks were Hebrew burial cairns. When they find the seven it indicated the seven children who were killed earlier, leading you to draw your own conclusions when they find three the next morning.
  3. Rustin Parr did it.

Go back to 1992. Two film students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sachez, have the idea of making a fake documentary in the spirit of the old "In Search Of" television series. During the next four years they write up an extensive story about a woman, Elly Kedward, who lived in the late 1700's in the area which is now Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly known as Blair). According to the mythology, she was targeted as a witch, exiled, and abandoned to the surrounding woods. Since then, strange events occur in the area involving missing or murdered children every 40-60 years.

In 1996, in order to add texture to the germinating film, Myrick and Sanchez decided to add footage about three student filmmakers who get lost while attempting to track down the legend. They enlisted three young actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, and basically engaged them in a type of guerrilla filmmaking.

  1. Her fence is made of twigs and sticks to make you suspect that she is possibly the reincarnation of Elly Kedward.
  2. The witch is still alive and she did it.

The actors were sent out into the woods equipped exactly as the characters in the movie are, with two video camers and a DAT audio recorder. They were given their characters, told they would be given instructions, told to film everything, and sent out into the woods with the actual filmmakers hiding about 100 yards away. They would be left directions every morning in sealed film cannisters and were told to react as they would normally. This went on for eight days with the actors never knowing what was going to be thrown at them next, how the filmmakers were going to try to scare them next, or even what directions the other actors had been given.

During the editing stage, this footage is what began to reshape the film into what it is now. In essence, the entire film was ad-libbed with no written dialogue, and almost all of it was shot by the actors themselves. The remaining footage, which tells most of the backstory, was later re-edited into a one-hour special which aired on The Sci-Fi Channel entitled "the Curse of the Blair Witch."

  1. It's Futhark.
  2. It's Josh's tongue. If you follow the supernatural interpretation, it indicates that the witch has stolen Josh's voice and that is what they are hearing at night.
  3. Strangers from the town did it.

The marketing of the film, however, is how it acquired its greatest notoriety. "Star Wars" was supposed to be the big hit of the summer season. For some upstart little indie film to knock it out of the ballpark was unheard of.  In June of 1998, Myrick and Sanchez set up a website dedicated, not so much to the movie itself, but to the backstory. When it premiered at the Sundance film festival, "missing" posters appeared all around town showing the three lost students. To further confuse matters, the characters in the film go by the same names as the actors playing them. Consequently, viewers initially were never sure whether they were watching actual documentary footage or not.

The buzz continued and the picture was picked up by Artisan Entertainment for a song when all the major studios had passed on it. They continued the hype by purposely opening the film slowly and in very few theaters in its first release, thus making it difficult to get into and more of a "must-see" event. The strategy worked, and turned a small, independent picture, originally budgeted at about $35,000, into possibly the number one most profitable film of all time (percentagewise, at least).

Still, some die-hard believers want to insist that it is a true story. Burkittsville still gets volunteers offering to help find the "missing" kids. So to put the matter to rest, at least as far as The Straight Dope is concerned:

  1. Heather Donahue is still very much alive.
  2. Josh Leonard is still very much alive.
  3. Mike Williams is still very much alive.
  4. Steven Spielberg did it in a fit of jealousy.

Okay ... maybe we're going out on a limb with that last one.

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