“History is nothing more than the belief in the senses, the belief in falsehood.”-Frederich Nietzsche
Obviously I’ve been wanting to do something scary, since it’s October and basically a law of nature that you have to scare yourself into a frenzy this month. Last year I went to Salem, MA with a group of girlfriends and did all the touristy witchy things. This year my friend and I wanted to do another trip to a haunted place. We were trying to decide between Sleepy Hollow or Harpers Ferry, both notoriously delicious spots for dark tourism. I didn’t know much about either one, so I dove headfirst into the hidden depths of the internet to find information.
While looking at a map of the Harpers Ferry area, I happened to see a town labeled Burkittsville. I gasped.
“Is that THE Burkittsville??” I exclaimed. “The one from the Blair Witch??”
The Blair Witch 2, Book of Shadows, is one of my favorite psychological thrillers of all time. I re-watch it at least once every year and can quote almost the entire movie. It’s set in Burkittsville, Maryland, like the original Blair Witch Project and the second Blair Witch 2 (why isn’t it called #3??). In the movies Burkittsville is a back-woods podunk town full of dumb hillbillies with missing teeth. I can vividly hear Sheriff Cravens’ bumbling accent, yelling at the tourists that the witch isn’t real. I wanted Sheriff Cravens to yell at me like that!
Most exciting of all, I found primitive tree houses for rent in the haunted woods outside Burkittsville. My friend doesn’t go camping often, but she jumped at the chance to do so in this famous forest. What would we hear in the woods late at night? Would we awake to find creepy stick figures hanging from the trees around us??
Now I need to say that I’m well aware that the movie is not a true story… which is frankly the coolest part about it. As any film geek could tell you, The Blair Witch Project was ground-breaking. The first reason is that everyone believed it was real. We can chalk this up to both the directors and the advertising strategy.
The directing strategy was basically to drop the actors off in the woods and say “go”. There were no rehearsals. The actors had little contact with the outside world and had no idea what was coming as the directors created the freaky scenes around them. Horror Geek Life.com calls it “a taped recording of a live performance: improvised, impenetrable, and stirring.”
That’s pretty cool, but the advertising scheme was even cooler. Mastermind Julia Fair went to extreme lengths to convince audiences of the documentary’s veracity. She created falsified historical documents including historic deeds, letters and court records. Due to her intense research, every detail is convincingly accurate. Long before the movie even hit the screen, a fledgling website was created which described the film as a real investigative project run by local college students. The website presented “historic evidence” and a lively chat page, drawing over 2 million hits before the movie was even released.
Julia Fair somehow convinced the Sci-Fi channel to air “The Curse of the Blair Witch”, which featured the unused video segments for the film. When the Blair Witch Project debuted at the Sundance film festival, the town was plastered in very convincing “Missing persons” signs containing the actors’ faces. The world was so thoroughly duped that the actors were marked as “deceased” on IMDB! Their parents even received condolence letters in the mail.
Even now, 22 years later, there is still misinformation surrounding the history of Burkittsville. That’s some really impressive faking, and more importantly, some incredible story-telling.
The second reason the film made history was its “found footage” style – basically the idea that these were home videos created by the deceased which were later found and contained evidence of the events leading to the person’s death. This style had been used in the past – particularly in the 1970s– but after the Blair Witch it really took off and became a bonafide subgenre of cinema. As Horror Geek puts it, “It wasn’t something that hadn’t been done before, but it was something that captured the sign of its times, wrapped it up in twine, and cast a spell on the world.”
The film cost almost nothing to make and has grossed an incredible $140 million and counting – the most impressive profit in movie history. And it did all this with what is essentially home video equipment. THIS, my friends, is possibly the most important and longest-lasting impact of the film. Aspiring film-makers everywhere realized they could make a successful film without expensive high-tech equipment. Home videos weren’t just for kids anymore… cueing in the YouTube revolution.
The Maryland Center for History and Culture has accepted fans of the film with open arms. They opened an exhibit dedicated to the film and invited Julia Fair to speak. A representative from the organization said, “The Blair Witch Project holds a special place in our hearts here at the library, because of a connection, albeit false, to our collection.” It’s worth pointing out that the website is full of stories of Maryland witches that really did exist.
In summary, this movie franchise is flipping cool, and Burkittsville should be honored to have been featured in it! But were they? Nope. They complained about the uptick in tourism. Complained!! Can you believe it?? Someone literally handed this town the opportunity to make a fortune, without even doing anything, and they snubbed it.
I was majorly disappointed to find the town didn’t have a single gift shop or museum dedicated to the Blair Witch. Not even a plaque. These people are stubbornly in denial and I’m just totally irked by it. Whatever, I still took a photo with the town sign.
The tree house in the woods also turned out … not scary. Ours was one of many treehouses set semi-close together, sharing a common bathroom area. The place was overrun with loud children and lousy parents, which meant the vibe was anything but spooky. One kid threw a rock at me right in front of his mom, and she didn’t even scold him. In fact, she was holding a dog and commented, “I can’t believe I didn’t train this dog better.” Train the dog?? What about your kid? Come on, lady.
I will say, however, that I adored the shower at the tree house camp. It was in a little wood cabin without a roof – so you could look up and see the leaves and the sky. It was really charming and relaxing. Also interesting was that the owners had chosen to mark runes on some of the signs – perhaps they are of Norwegian descent? This definitely had potential to add a cool, creepy factor… if only there weren’t so many screaming children.
We were surprised to find some cool civil war ruins right up the road at Gathland State Park. Curiously, we parked and wandered around to read the signs and watch some men prepping to do a re-enactment. The plaques were written in such a way as to make the entire war sound like an interesting game of chess. I’ve always thought that memorials should commemorate the people who died in the battle, not the “strategy” of the generals. Plus, having recently read a 2,000-page book on the subject, I was well aware that the civil war battles were one big cluster-F in which men walked blindly into showers of bullets and “strategy” really didn’t apply.
On the bright side, Harpers Ferry was definitely worth seeing. The historical sites were really well-done and the hills and rivers were stunning. We especially enjoyed the historic candy shop, where I splurged on historically accurate sugar plums, bourbon balls, and pistachio shortbread. In addition to candy, the store also sells games – including an old fortune telling game called Black Cat. We brought a copy back to the tree house with us to play around the campfire.
We enjoyed a free wine tasting at Snallygasters and then participated in an evening ghost tour. My mom had done this back in the day and highly recommended it. She said it involved peeking through windows at actors in period costume – which sounded like a really unique experience! Unfortunately, they’ve apparently done away with the theatrics and is now just an ordinary telling of ghost stories in front of old buildings. But it was still fun.
Back at camp that night, I decided to do some yoga in the moonlight. I was balancing precariously on one foot when I looked down to see a giant toad sitting on my yoga mat. I landed to the side of my mat, then sat and talked with the little guy for a few minutes. Eventually a stick bug crawled by and then the toad left me to pursue its dinner.
Other than that, the scariest thing I saw was this wax replica of John Brown taking aim at my face.
- “The Blair Witch is Back!” from the Maryland Center for History & Culture
- “Witch Crafted”, by Carl Schoettler for the Baltimore Sun
- “The Blair Witch Project at 20: Why it Can’t be Replicated” by Jake King-Schreifels for the New York Times
- Case 24: The Mystery of the Blair Witch Legend, from the True Hauntings podcast.
This post is available for your listening pleasure on the Boose on the Loose podcast, streaming now on Spotify.