How The Blair Witch Project convinced a generation that the found footage horror film was real

Let us take a trip back to a simpler time. The year is 1999. Bluetooth technology was officially announced, MySpace was released on the internet, people were in the grips of Y2K hysteria and a few critics actually thought Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was a good film. It was a year of changes and new ideas. The internet played a crucial part in the development of both. In fact, the internet  encouraged it.

The same year, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were two aspiring filmmakers who directed a low-budget indie film called The Blair Witch Project. It was a film about three teenagers, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, who were film students making a movie about the myth of the “Blair Witch”. As part of their documentary, the students decided to camp in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, in the hopes of capturing something that may prove the Blair Witch’s existence. They were never seen again. It wasn’t until police found the video cameras owned by the missing kids that we learn of their fate and what happened in the Black Hills.

The film was released to a high praise amongst critics and grossed $250 million on a budget of around $25,000, bringing the “found footage film” concept into the mainstream. And for this success they have their brilliant, now infamous marketing campaign to thank. In short, it made people believe that the film, and the Blair Witch myth, was real.

The most memorable piece of advertising used by the filmmakers was the distribution of “Missing” posters during the Cannes film festival. They were distributed everywhere, containing images of the missing kids, as well as their height, weight, eye and hair colour. Many believed that the missing posters were real. Overall, it was an extremely effective way of creating hype for The Blair Witch Project. But it was only the start of what the filmmakers and the studio behind them had in store.

The 'Missing' posters distributed at the Cannes Film Festival.
The ‘Missing’ posters distributed at the Cannes Film Festival.

Due to the internet being in its relative early stages of use, the access to information was limited compared to today; it wasn’t so easy to fact-check stories. The Blair Witch Project’s online marketing was thus able to gain a legitimacy that would be impossible in the current digital age. To achieve this, the directors created a website that would not just serve as a blatant advertisement for the film. Instead, it would sell their audience the mythos surrounding the movie and encourage visitors to investigate, share, and discuss the information. In many ways, they pioneered viral marketing.

The website contained legends, journal entries, photographs from police photographers investigating the missing kids and fake newspaper reports. For any fans, this reinforced the idea that The Blair Witch Project was a true story. The creation of this website allowed an audience to extensively read the history and mythology behind the Blair Witch. After scouring the Blair Witch website, users would discuss and debate many aspects of the Blair Witch myth on several message boards. The filmmakers also took to message boards and spread rumours to help amplify the discussion surrounding the film. Due to all of these conversations taking place on an extremely young medium that allowed users from around the world to participate, interest in the film grew on a global scale and people believed that the Blair Witch was real.

The Blair Witch website.
The Blair Witch website.

The marketing scheme for The Blair Witch Project was a battle of many fronts. So, instead of just making a movie and trying to make people believe that it’s real, why not make a documentary that states everything in the movie is real? Documentaries never lie, right?

Curse of the Blair Witch was a mockumentary that sold itself as a documentary. It was written and directed by Myrick and Sanchez and aired on the Sci-Fi channel. Similar to the website, the mockumentary was comprised of interviews with friends, relatives and teachers of the missing teenagers. A brother of one of the missing men shared memories of his brother’s ability to push his mother’s buttons, while a teacher shared his memories of the teenager’s original pitch for their film. It made the characters feel human. The mockumentary also contained interviews of residents from Burkittsville, Maryland, the town in which the film takes place. Residents discuss how they believe the stories of the Blair Witch while accusing their local sheriff of not doing enough to save the kids.

Alongside interviews with residents and friends, the film contained stories about the early history of the Blair Witch and several sightings and deaths that were linked to her. These stories were shared through journal articles, news articles, and drawings from the same decades as the sightings and deaths. The film was used to convince people that the missing kids were real and missing in the woods surrounding Burkittsville and educated audiences about the witch they may have taken them.

The cover for the 'Curse of the Blair Witch' mockumentary.
The cover for the ‘Curse of the Blair Witch’ mockumentary.

Reinforcing the theme of legitimacy surrounding The Blair Witch Project was not limited to websites and mockumentaries. The directors went the extra mile and incorporated into the film itself. The movie was about three film students who wanted to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, and since the film is comprised of footage they recorded, the directors used the found-footage method of filmmaking to provide the film with an extra layer of realism. Back in the nineties, found-footage was not as popular, or over-used, as it is today. It changed the horror genre as we know it.

So, with a large percentage of an audience not knowing that found-footage films were a style of filmmaking, many believed that they were actually watching footage filmed by three missing kids, instead of a fictional movie. To cater to this idea, the directors made the actors use their real names within the film instead of creating original names. But surely it wouldn’t be hard to research and discover that these were just actors then, right? To counter snooping fans, the directors went to the actor’s IMDB page and edited their entries to state that they were “missing, presumed dead”. This wasn’t enough for Myrick and Sanchez. They also restricted the actor’s interactions with media outlets. Doing so played into the narrative that the actors on screen were not actors, they were real people. Some people were so convinced that these kids were actually missing that the mother of Heather, one of the main characters in the film, received numerous sympathy cards from fans sharing their condolences.

The famously stolen signs from Burkittsville.
The famously stolen signs from Burkittsville.

The effect of the marketing wasn’t just seen at the box office or in sympathy cards,  but also in the town of Burkittsville. Fans swarmed the town after the film was released. Many wanted to see the town where the Blair Witch took place, others wanted to be a part of the legend. The town became that packed with tourists that residents were unable to park their cars on the street.

Some residents took advantage of the influx of people by selling anything and everything Blair Witch. Though, some fans didn’t want to buy little trinkets. They wanted bigger and better things. Overeager fans dug up dirt from the towns local cemetery, others vandalised tombstone. Dedicated fans stole the wooden town sign on three separate occasions. Eventually, the town resorted to changing the signs to steel in order to stop people from stealing them. One of the weirder events was when a local woman found a strange man standing in her living room. Upon asking what he was doing in her house, he informed the shocked resident that he thought her house was part of a tour.

Some argue that The Blair Witch Project doesn’t hold up today and that may be because its was a product of its time. I don’t disagree with that statement. It is, after all, no longer 1999, and no one uses MySpace anymore. Today, we know that the film and the myth of Blair Witch are fictional. A quick search on the internet tells us this. But, imagine living in an age where the internet was still in its infancy. Information was as easily accessible and you couldn’t rely solely on the internet as a research tool. That, and the marketing strategies used by the filmmakers, created a perfect storm that has never been replicated (though some have tried). People believed this movie was real. They believed those children went missing. And, most importantly, 17 years ago, they believed in the Blair Witch. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez deserve a pat on the back.

The film’s sequel, Blair Witch, is released in cinemas tomorrow.

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