Predicting that the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years was going to be number one at the box office in 1999 wouldn't make you a fortune teller. However, if you'd said that a movie with a budget of $60,000 would crack the top 10 at the start of that same year, it might have raised a few eyebrows.
Twenty years ago, "going viral" didn’t have the same connotations that it does in 2019. Social media platforms (including Instagram and Twitter) have changed the marketing game, but back in 1999 the potential of the internet was still relatively untapped in this department. Enter The Blair Witch Project. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, it is one of the first movies to utilize the internet to create a myth that would eventually become a legend.
The marketing of this low-budget horror is as infamous as the unsolved missing-person case that provides the narrative framework of the faux documentary. The blend of true crime elements with a witch story dating back to the 18th century was a recipe for success that stirred the public imagination. A New York Times article from that summer discussed why witches and the occult are so popular in culture, citing Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as recent examples, while examining why the witch is still viewed as an unseen menace several centuries later. Meanwhile, the marketing of The Blair Witch Project utilized good old-fashioned human curiosity focusing on the unknown. It offered a take on a centuries-old myth with new technology as the delivery method.
Shot over eight days in 1997, first-time directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez cast three unknown actors — Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — as the leads. They used credit cards to top up the budget. The Blair Witch Project would go on to make nearly $250 million worldwide and spawn a number of sequels, all of which would never quite replicate the success of the original film. Hollywood loves to reboot, but some legacies are impossible to repeat — and in the case of this found-footage horror, the timing was everything.
The internet as we know it was born 10 years before The Blair Witch Project came out, but it would take time for it to become what it is now. We take it for granted that a lot of people have a computer in their pocket, but back in 1999 it was a different story. A year prior to the release, the filmmakers set up an official website to add to the illusion.
The marketing campaign also labored on this idea, with the title card informing viewers that the events from the fall of 1994 were real and that the three college students featured in the film had never been found. Casting unknown actors proved to be vital to the narrative. If the movie had starred anyone from The WB, the jig would be up.
Myrick and Sánchez could hardly have anticipated what would happen when their little movie hit the Sundance Film Festival at the start of 1999. They simply saw this as their ticket to Hollywood, thinking it would be a launch pad into other gigs. Instead, it became the sleeper hit of the summer and the 10th-highest-grossing film of 1999 in the United States. Sometimes the stars align to turn an unknown entity into a huge hit.
Scary movies cycle through trends, from the slasher flicks of the 1980s to '90s meta-horror. In a post-Scream world, The Blair Witch Project goes back to basics, evoking folklore fears from the Mayflower era and before. At one point Heather says, “This is America” with no hint of irony or awareness, as if this simple statement means nothing bad will happen to them in the woods — woods she herself knows are stained with blood. Sarcasm and snark are not embedded in the dialogue; instead, we witness a slow descent into fear as the trio find themselves lost, stalked at night by an unseen presence, with the only evidence left behind in piles of rocks and creepy stick figures hanging from trees. Gallons of blood are not necessary to scare the hell out of an audience when imaginations can run wild. As Janet Maslin’s New York Times review notes, “Like a cabin built entirely out of soda cans, The Blair Witch Project is a nifty example of how to make something out of nothing.”
Sticks tied together shouldn't be that scary, but a benign object gains power when a witch could be involved. Production designer Ben Rock took inspiration from The Wicker Man and a runic figure called the Burning Man in creating the twigs that would terrify the trio. As part of the promotional campaign, 500 of these effigies were sent out to press, and it eventually became a collector's item — but at the time, a single figure fetched up to $300 on eBay. Everything this movie touched turned to gold.
First came Sundance, where the movie sold for $1.1 million, followed by the Cannes Film Festival, where Myrick and Sanchez won the Prix de la Jeunesse. It was a glitzy event the cast did not attend in order to maintain the ruse. Even IMDb had Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams briefly listed as deceased, something Donahue had an issue with:
“That was the only point where I was, like, 'O.K., people, let's establish where the parameters of the film and the marketing could go.' One of the residual effects of the far-reaching and very effective marketing plan is somebody somewhere assumed it was real. Lots of people still think it's real, and now when you tell people it's not real, they think you're trying to trick them. It's this conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy thing that's happening.”
It was a perfectly executed marketing campaign. It didn't matter whether audiences did or didn’t believe it was real; the mere question ensured people would line up. Before opening wide at the end of July, The Blair Witch Project had a limited release on July 14. At the 27 locations, the movie broke every previous attendance record at all but one of the theaters, making $1.5 million in its opening weekend. Critics loved the movie (it sits at 87% on Rotten Tomatoes), and it didn’t matter that audiences were split (the CinemaScore was C+), because the intrigue levels made sure theaters were packed.
I had just turned 17 when The Blair Witch Project came out, and I went to see it opening weekend with a big group. It wasn’t released in the U.K. until October, which now seems like a ridiculously long time after its domestic release; however, in a pre-social-media landscape, it was easy to avoid spoilers. By then it was obvious it wasn't a real documentary, but I was still incredibly excited to finally see it.
There is no way to recreate the anticipation of that opening weekend viewing experience in a packed theater, but I recently rewatched The Blair Witch Project for the first time since 1999 to see how it holds up. Of course, as it is horror, opinions will differ (and I scare relatively easily), and my feelings toward this movie are tainted with adolescent nostalgia.
The end packs less of a creepy punch, but those nighttime sequences still caused me to peek through my fingers, proving that less is always more. The group's arguments about maps and petty squabbles are still incredibly annoying, but overall, not showing who or what is messing with them increases the fear factor. While a lot of the film's dialogue was improvised, notes left for the actors by the directors guided the overall direction of the story. “Heather’s note would say: ‘Keep going south. Do not falter. You know the way home. Stick to the plan,'” explained Myrick.
The sequels that followed couldn’t replicate the phenomenon or box-office takings. Throwing more cash at this story just seemed to sink it further. A breakout movie didn't necessarily lead to a breakout career, as the directors and stars have failed to star in or make anything of this magnitude since. While it wasn’t the first horror to deal with found footage — Cannibal Holocaust takes that title — it is hard to downplay its impact. Cloverfield cost a lot more money, but its campaign utilizing the internet has Blair Witch Project written all over it.
“This movie really did change my life,” Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli told The New York Times in 2016. “I watched The Blair Witch Project, made by a couple of young guys with no money and no connections, and it makes a quarter of a billion dollars. I thought maybe there is a way to do something totally outside the system.” Since filmmaking began, each decade has a handful of horror movies that define it; for the ‘90s, The Blair Witch Project ushered in a new era. While it would later be parodied in Scary Movie, Dawson's Creek episodes, and late-night talk shows, those tributes only reveal the film's wide-ranging reach. I can’t tell you anything about the follow-up chapters in this franchise, but the twig figures, handprints on the wall, someone standing in a corner, and that extreme closeup of Heather’s snotty face are iconic.
Witch stories continue to endure, inspire, and transfix, but The Blair Witch Project showed how to marry folklore with the internet in order to create a cultural phenomenon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.