Horror without Borders: My Blair Witch Project

|Chris Ryba-Tures|

Sun streams through the woods outside Burkittsville

The Blair Witch Project plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, October 22nd, through Tuesday October 24thVisit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

Somewhere between Planet Hollywood and Hooters, on the top floor of the Mall of America, I was stopped dead in my tracks. It was 1998. I was seventeen, sporting a bleach-blonde Eminem haircut, a brand-new Marilyn Manson “Antichrist Superstar” ringer tee from Hot Topic, and black leather 8-hole Doc Marten’s that were finally getting that perfect mosh pit scuff on the toes. I want to tell you that my friends and I had just seen Dark City, but, it was more likely The Wedding Singer or, maybe Armageddon. We were headed to the parking lot to trade sips from a Gatorade bottle filled with a mélange of booze pilfered from our folks’ liquor cabinets (likely), bum around the arcades without actually playing anything (more likely), and/or get in a few furtive glances at the Hooters girls before just going home to sit in one of our basements (most likely). As my friends disappeared down the hall, I stood alone in a corner, transfixed by a horrible, fearsome power I didn’t understand… but wanted to; a power that would soon lure me deep into the darkest wilderness of my imagination without a clear map, with scant clues as to why I was there in the first place. 

I was held captive by a poster for something called The Blair Witch Project. Until that day, I’d never downed a cocktail of excitement and dread like this: A grainy, reversed image of a forest; the naked trees skeletal, the midden below pitch black fading into a fog. A small, grotesque stick figure burned bright red in stark contrast with the rest of the materializing nightmare. But it was a series of short lines of text that really tied it all together with a rough hempen cord and left it swinging from a naked tree branch: 

Tagline from the Blair Witch Project Movie Poster: “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.”

My imagination went into overdrive, warp speed, ludicrous speed, plaid. All I could do was stare. When I finally heard my name shouted from down the hallway, the spell was temporarily broken; I returned to my familiar surroundings and I ran to catch up with my friends. I tried to explain what I saw, what I felt, but the words failed me—and now, at 42, that’s still the case as I try to describe the very personal, very expansive, very generous horror of The Blair Witch Project. We went on with our night, but part of me was still there in the corner, alone-but-not-quite-alone, mesmerized, staring off into those ghostly woods. For me, The Blair Witch Project had already begun.

Over the next few weeks, crude approximations of the stick figure sigil populated the margins of my Social Studies notebook as if sketching the thing, what I could remember of it, would reveal some secret origin or meaning. I’d scrawl “The Blair Witch Project” in jagged Nu Metal scriptseeking similar illumination. The phrase had scope and intention. It didn’t feel like the title of a movie. It felt like something more significant, something inhumane conducted in the unhallowed halls of academia, like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Something real, but too horrible to be believed. The Saint Paul Public Library had plenty on witches and witchcraft, but nothing to really go on in terms of the witch in question, so I was left to wonder about the nightmare woods, populating it with all the real and imagined horrors of my subconscious: Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories illustrations and that horrible old woman Lois who yelled at me and my sister when we were little; the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling and all those kids who died in collapsed caves along the Mississippi River; getting lost in the winter woods during a middle school camping trip at Long Lake and nearly falling through the ice. 

A bundle of rocks is collected in a nest in a tree.

Even as the acuteness of my obsession faded—I was seventeen after all—The Blair Witch Project persisted. Months later, it began appearing in little blurbs here and there in the magazines. Rumors that the footage was real began stacking up like cairns. Pictures of the missing student filmmakers—Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams—were tucked into a tiny corner of Rolling Stone. There was no way these people could be actors; Josh looked like my cousin Michael in Saint Cloud and Heather looked like my friend Joe’s sister, a sophomore at UMD. Nothing about this felt like a movie. With each new bit of information, I was called back to the woods, carrying with me the pieces of The Blair Witch Project that I’d been gathering for months. But whatever was added—a picture, a blurb, a TV clip—it just extended the surrounding wilderness infinitely outward, pushed the trees closer together, animated the shambling forms lurking behind them. But I kept collecting, wandering through desolate thickets, soaking my boots in creeks, and setting up camp for another night as I trudged closer to whatever it was I was seeking.

After a string of seemingly endless days, The Blair Witch Project was finally playing, opening weekend, at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. My sister, whom I’d lured into the woods with me, and I stood in a ticket line that wrapped around the block. In the ways you can only catch soundbites from those around you, it seemed everyone in line was working off of the same scant information but extrapolating wildly different stories, theories, and Projects from it. It was really amazing. Skeptic or believer, no one knew the truth—if the footage was real or fake, if the students were real people or actors, if there really was a Blair Witch. We all stood in the middle ground together, on the corner of Lagoon and Hennepin, the precipice of revelation. 

Fuck, it was exciting. 

Then it started. Those same lines that captivated me all those months ago, stark white, shaking ever so slightly, cast a pall of silence over the entire theater. We meet Heather, Josh, and Mike, amateurishly dicking around with their cameras and each other, having the slightly hammed-up, banal kind of conversations we all do when the red light of the camcorder is blazing. The reality sets in almost instantly. Just as quickly, we’re given a taste of what most likely would have been the final film: Heather’s monologue about an abundance of child deaths in the area, followed by a number of interviews with definitely-not-actor locals about Blair Witch folklore. Each interviewee spins a different yarn. A good-natured old timer gets suddenly serious as he recounts the story of a child-killing hermit named Mr. Parr, which is colored in by a working Joe who says Parr “took the kids into the basement by twos and made one face into the corner and he would kill the other one.” A brassy mother, despite her daughter’s protests, tells a story about two hunters who went missing around a cabin the witch supposedly haunts. The wildest story is delivered by “Crazy” Mary Brown who recounts a fantastic and deeply troubling run-in with the horse-hair-covered woman in the woods as a child. And perhaps most haunting, is the pair of fishermen who discuss “a woman whose feet never touched the ground” and “a white misty thing.” Each story is like a dying flashlight briefly illuminating a form before plunging us back into a darkness we’re desperate to escape. We know something is out there, but what that something is, exactly, is up to us to decide.

Two fishermen, one young, one old, stand in a creek comparing Blair Witch stories.

For the entire 81 minutes of the footage, we’re taken along with Heather, Josh, Mike, and the echoes of these folktales on long stretches of strung-out tedium, creeping dread, unsettling discoveries, boiling tensions, crushing despair, and blind terror. We’re shown flashes of horrors we don’t understand other than that something is very, very wrong and getting wronger with every step. We, like they, doubt what we see, what we hear, but we can’t disbelieve it. Something is closing in on us.  

The final moments are some of the most bracing I’ve ever seen put on film (and a thousand curses on anyone who spoils it for you). Uptown Theater held its breath until the credits rolled. 

            It was only a movie. 

            It was only a movie? 

            It was only a movie. 


            But it was more than that. 

It didn’t matter if what was up there on the screen wasn’t really real. Today, 25 years later, my Blair Witch Project still hasn’t ended. The makers of this film gave us something special: an artfully ambiguous story with just enough substance, creativity, and trust in us—the audience—to make our own. It’s a nightmare that can be as deep and frightening as our imaginations will allow. We were only given a few glimpses into something much bigger, much darker, and much more terrifying than what’s on screen. Something that might just go on forever.

Edited by Finn Odum

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One Comment

  1. Well done—as usual! I have never seen it, but am now intrigued and motivated. But, will I be able to handle it…..:-)

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