The Blair Witch Project: The saga and legacy of the first viral hit of the modern age

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Sep 14, 2016, 7:57 AM EDT

It’s hard to believe its been 17 years. I can still remember the buzz and crackle of my old dial-up modem, and the minute-long wait for AltaVista (Google who?) to load so I could pop in my question: “Is The Blair Witch Project real?”

It was still weeks before the release, and at 14 years old, I was already plotting how I would get into the R-rated screening at the local cineplex. Judging by the $248 million it raked in at the box office against a $60,000 budget, I wasn’t alone.

The Blair Witch Project came out of nowhere — and though the movie, itself, was certainly a unique thrill ride, it owes a whole lot of its success to its mockumentary-style promotion and guerrilla marketing campaign. 

The world of 1999 was a different place. Movies were marketed with trailers. If you had the Internet, you connected to it over a 56K modem. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was dominating the box office, while Blair Witch would be facing off with w. DVD was getting off the ground, but just about every home still had a VCR.

The story is almost legend at this point: A few aspiring filmmakers shot the horror film in eight days, starring a handful of no-name actors on the aglet of a shoestring budget. Writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were inspired by horror documentaries, and adopted the found-footage style out of bare necessity: The actors literally shot the film themselves with the handheld cams, and the filmmakers edited the final 90 minutes from around 19 hours of usable footage.

Their goal was to sell the finished product as a TV movie (think Sci Fi Channel original), but when Artisan Entertainment stepped in to snag the rights, the studio had a different goal in mind. The film screened at Sundance in January 1999 as a surprise hit, and at that point it became obvious this project was more than some glorified TV movie. Everyone was starting to figure out it was a paradigm shift for filmmaking and horror at large.

More than just a TV movie


Artisan saw potential in the ultra-low-budget thriller, and decided to use the Internet as a marketing tool to build some buzz for the project. Since Myrick and Sanchez had already framed the film as a faux documentary, they doubled down on the gimmick and built a web site to beef up the “legend” of the Blair Witch. The website (which still stands to this day!) included some background on the legend of the witch, some fake newspaper clippings about the disappearances in the film, as well as fake police photos of the “evidence” from the case.

But they didn’t stop there. In addition to all the background, they also included some interactive aspects that were wildly ambitious for the era. From the website, you could access some pages from Heather’s journal (that was “recovered” along with the footage), some audio files supposedly found with the footage, and even some “real” footage from the recovered reels.

It’s classic world-building — and the Internet was still young enough for people not to be sure if it was real or fake, so they swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The marketing campaign worked so well because it didn’t look like a marketing campaign. The website played like something put together by a few aspiring filmmakers trying to get the word out about their indie horror documentary. It didn’t look like a studio project, and the web site provided no obvious indication it was an elaborate viral marketing campaign. So (a lot of) people believed it, or were at least curious enough to check out the movie.

What’s even more amazing is the fact that The Blair Witch Project managed to pull all this off in a world without social media. It didn’t spread with hashtags or Facebook shares. The myth of the Blair Witch cropped up across early chat rooms and forums, with horror fans spreading the word and conspiracy theorists scrambling to figure out whether the film was real or fake. 

The studio even teamed up with the Sci-Fi Channel (aka Syfy these days) for a well-timed fake documentary to help fan the flames of the Blair Witch mystery. Dubbed Curse of the Blair Witch, the made-for-TV faux documentary (about a horror film framed as a fake documentary, itself - meta, right?) was billed as the “Uncensored investigation that takes over where the project left off.” The TV doc included some footage from the film, as well as interviews with actors claiming to be witnesses and players in the narrative. It effectively fanned the flames, and successfully confused the situation even more, enticing viewers to hit up the local theater and take a chance — if only to see what all the fuss was about.

Blair Witch becomes a franchise


For that all-too-brief period in the late 1990s, The Blair Witch Project was the pinnacle of horror, scoring reviews touting it as extraordinary, and one of the scariest films of all time. It was also at that point the freaky, little horror flick suddenly became a franchise — and started expanding accordingly. 

A sequel was quickly commissioned, though Book of Shadows played more like a traditional studio project and positioned itself as a psychological thriller wrapped in a horror film. The plot focused on a group of people fascinated by the story of the Blair Witch, so they set out to explore the Black Hills themselves. Production was apparently a mess, and it showed. The studio made quite a few changes to director Joe Berlinger’s original cut (much to his chagrin) to add more jump scares and violence, and it just didn’t flow. At all.

Despite the problems, Book of Shadows made just under $50 million on a $15 million budget — so it was a financial success — but the franchise had a tough time recovering from the critical beating.

Lucky for fans, the Blair Witch saga was also expanding into the video game realm at this point. A three-part series of Blair Witch games arrived on PC in late 2000, which hit the creepy sweet spot between Resident Evil and Myst. The games were fairly well received, and dug into the backstory surrounding the Blair Witch story. And we mean dug deep, telling stories in the 1940s, the Civil War era, and the late 1700s. The saga looks at historical stories involving the famous witch, and the final installment — The Elly Kedward Tale — focuses on the original origin story, as players take on a former priest looking into the mystery of a woman accused of witchcraft. 


Once it was a hit, the first film also spawned The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier, a tie-in book that dug deeper into the film’s fake history. So, if you wanted to know more about the mythos, this was the ticket.

If that wasn’t enough, there was also a young adult novel series (you know, for all the tweens watching this R-rated horror fest) that focused on a cousin of Heather Donahue, who investigates the Blair Witch mystery in an effort to figure out what really happened to Heather, Mike, and Josh. The Blair Witch Files book series spanned eight books, published by Bantam from 2000-2001. If you’re so inclined, you can still track down copies on eBay from time to time.

The Blair Witch also made the jump to comic book during the height of witch-mania, with Oni Press dropping a one-shot to promote the film in August 1999, featuring some tie-in short stories. A four-issue Blair Witch Chronicles series hit in mid-2000, ahead of a tie-in comic for Book of Shadows called Dark Testaments (by Charlie Adlard, of The Walking Dead fame!) on Image Comics. 

Then...pretty much nothing.

The horror genre moved on, and found footage became a trope unto itself (one that’s mostly played out). The mid-budget indie model has become a staple these days, spending a few million (instead of a few thousand) dollars to crank out a flick cheap enough to still turn a hefty profit. It’s changed a bit, but it’s a model Blair Witch Project popularized.

Fast forward more than a decade, and we've come full circle.

It’s hard to sneak out a film based on such a big franchise, but Lionsgate did a pretty good job by shooting the super-secret new sequel under the title The Woods. They even promoted it under the fake title, only revealing the ruse after Blair Witch held its first screening at San Diego Comic-Con.

It was a fitting twist for a franchise that pioneered the concept of grassroots marketing. Sure, it’s a studio ploy — but it’s a studio ploy at its best. The Blair Witch might’ve gone Hollywood, but it’s at least keeping some of the shock and awe that made the franchise so successful intact.

So, head to your corner and get ready — the Blair Witch is back.