1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.
To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with horror master, Ann Hale, reflecting on the movie that perfected viral marketing, The Blair Witch Project.
20 years ago, the faces of three missing Montgomery College students, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, were plastered across televisions and newspapers everywhere. They had gone missing in the Black Hills five years prior while filming a documentary on local legend, the Blair Witch, for a school project. A year later, a backpack full of their footage was found and pieced together to form the story of what really happened to them out in those woods and, now, they were releasing that footage to the public.
For anyone who doubted the legitimacy of the story, there was a short documentary on the Blair Witch that aired on television. There was also a website where you could read about the missing students and the evidence found during the search party. On this site, you could find history about the town of Blair, information about the woman accused of being the witch, bloody photos of murdered men in the woods and information about a local child murderer, Rustin Parr, who claimed to hear the voice of the witch.
I was 15 years old when I saw Heather, Mike and Josh’s faces on the front page of my local newspaper. After scouring the website, my best friend and I were convinced that the Blair Witch had gotten to them and that the footage was going to prove it. So, when my friend got her hands on a copy of the film, we curled up together under a blanket on a large computer chair and watched the terror unfold. It wasn’t until months later, when I saw the three missing students walk out on the stage at the MTV Movie Awards, that I realized I had been duped.
But that’s just how good the marketing was for the film. Without those stories, without Heather, Mike and Josh going into hiding for months, without the website of terrifying mythology and witness accounts, The Blair Witch Project would never have succeeded as a found footage film, paving the way for perhaps dozens of found footage films since.
For the past 4 years, I have joined in on a tour called The Blair Witch Experience, run by The Blair Witch Project superfan, Matt Blazi. On this tour, fans get to spend the night at the motel that Heather, Mike and Josh stayed in before heading into the woods on that fateful day. Matt books the exact room they stayed in and projects the film onto the wall. He thoughtfully stocks up on every item the trio bought at the convenience store and keeps them in the room for us all to enjoy. The drinking can cause some shenanigans, as I have woken up Saturday morning to a rock pile outside my motel room door.
On day two, we run a caravan of cars from one filming location to another, visiting the graveyard, different interview locations and then to the woods to check out Coffin Rock with director Eduardo Sanchez. Ed then leads us through the woods and up a steep hill to where the tent was pitched and the rock piles were left to scare them the next morning. We then head to the stickman forest, where Heather, Mike and Josh found themselves surrounded by dozens of stickmen hanging from the trees.
Together, we replenish the forest with handmade stickmen, each year trying to make one larger than the last. If you find yourself in those woods, you’ll find a stick man about twenty feet tall leaning against the trees. That night, we camp out in the woods together, watching the film once more while sharing s’mores and funny stories. Blair Witch historian Dan Karcher brings out props, costumes and various memorabilia for us to peek at. Blair Witch fisherman Ed Swanson comes to hang out as well and there is a traditional FaceTime with Mike Williams so he can see how much the group has grown each year.
On day three, we march through a snake filled field to the ruins of the Rustin Parr house, which was demolished years ago. The basement remains buried under the dirt, but I believe Blazi’s dream is to unearth it. The ultimate goal is to stand in the corner where Mike stood at the end of the film, but, until then, fans can leave with a brick or a piece of the foundation that was never cleaned up after demolition.
20 years later, and the film is still important to many of us. For some, it simply holds childhood memories. For others, The Blair Witch Project paved the way for some of their favorite horror films. For me, it is the friendships I have made because of it.
I suggest pitching a tent in the safety of your living room, turning off all of the lights, and watching The Blair Witch Project with some friends to celebrate this milestone anniversary. Then maybe check out The Blair Witch Experience Facebook page for updates on how you can help hunt for the Blair Witch.