Sticks and stones: The Blair Witch Project celebrates 20 years of horror


On January 25, 1999, a small, independent horror movie premiered at Sundance. It was shot mostly by the actors themselves on a reported budget of about $60,000, and was almost immediately snapped up by Artisan Entertainment for $1.1 million.

Twenty years later, The Blair Witch Project is still remembered for breaking new ground in the horror movie world and for making “found footage” popular. It wasn’t the first found footage movie by any means, with 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust and 1998’s The Last Broadcast preceding it…but it was, by far, the most successful.

The Blair Witch Project began as a 35-page screenplay written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, calling for mostly improvised dialogue. According to Myrick, the cast originally consisted of three men, but actress Heather Donahue made such an impact during her improvisational audition that one of the characters became a woman.

Heather was instructed that she was a prisoner who had been convicted of killing her baby, and asked why she should be released. Her answer: “I probably shouldn’t be.”

Completing the cast were Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard, who claims he was hired mostly due to his ability to use a camera. The three were taken to the woods in Maryland for the eight-day shoot and were left notes to guide them through their improvised dialogue. These notes included instructions such as “Heather, you’re sure that to get out of this mess, you go south. Don’t take no for an answer.”

The Blair Witch Project – Michael C. Williams – Courtesy Haxan Films

The actors were free to make character-driven decisions, with the directors intervening only when they deemed it necessary. At night, the crew would do unexpected things, such as suddenly shaking the tent, playing the sound of children laughing, placing little rock piles outside the tent, and hanging those creepy stick figures in the trees.

Heather’s iconic final monologue scene was shot with no one else around, and the directors didn’t even see it until they were reviewing footage later. They had simply told her that her motivation was to not scare Mike, and to go someplace alone to say goodbye to her loved ones. It’s a powerful moment, and a shot from the scene was used as the film’s poster.

Before TBWP opened at Sundance, Myrick and Sanchez made a brilliant marketing move by building a website that featured made-up police reports, fake interviews, and a completely fictional legend. The actors’ bios on IMDb listed them as “deceased”, and they were not allowed to attend the Cannes premiere. Flyers were distributed at Sundance, asking people to come forward if they had any information about the “missing students.”

The Blair Witch Project – Heather Donahue – Courtesy Haxan Films

The Sci-Fi Channel even aired a mockumentary called The Curse of the Blair Witch, and people completely believed this was a true story. In today’s world, The Blair Witch Project would be considered viral based on this publicity ploy, and it definitely boosted the flick’s “must see” factor.

Despite its huge success, the movie was polarizing. Some people strongly disliked TBWP due to the shaky camera work, characters they saw as unlikable, or the loose ending, while others (myself included) were excited by the fact that this was a completely unconventional, original horror movie.

Released in July of 1999, The Blair Witch Project was an instant sensation, clearing over $250 million worldwide and becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time. While one would think this would make super stars of the actors, unfortunately that was not the case.

Heather Donahue said her mother received sympathy cards from people who believed the movie was factual, and that people would approach her in the street, demanding their money back and telling her they wished she was dead. Although she would go on to appear in a handful of small films, she quit acting in 2008 and is now a medical marijuana grower.

Joshua Leonard has appeared in several movies, most recently 2018’s Unsane, and Michael C. Williams appeared in a 2000 episode of Law and Order, along with a few other television series and some independent movies. All three of the actors expressed regret at using their real names in TBWP.

The Blair Witch Project – Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – Courtesy Artisan Films

More from Horror Movies

The movie itself inspired two sequels, 2000’s extremely disappointing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and  2016’s Blair Witch, a direct sequel that used a clever marketing technique. Shooting under the faux title The Woods, the connection to TBWP was kept a secret until it was screened at San Diego’s Comic-Con.

Blair Witch received mostly mixed reviews and was considered a box office disappointment. Personally, I enjoyed it, appreciating the fact that it kept to the spirit of the original, while including modern touches such as GoPros and a drone.

So, what does the future hold for The Blair Witch franchise? Without a doubt, there will be 20th anniversary screenings across the US between now and July (Enzian Theater in Central Florida is hosting a screening this weekend, with a Q&A panel of unspecified “cast and crew members”). And rumors have been flying around that a possible television series may be in development. Yours truly will be digging out her DVD and having a personal screening very soon!

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Were you a fan of The Blair Witch Project? Will you be watching it in celebration of its 20th anniversary? Tell me what you think in the comments section!