Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror film. This column aims to provide a non-sensational look at these influences by examining their history through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of the satanic and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
There is something powerful about the forest. It’s a specific feeling that you get when setting foot in a dark, damp wood. The crunch of leaves beneath your feet or the rustling of leaves somewhere in the distance evokes a specific emotion. It’s exciting, scary, and mysterious. So much of this is tied with our primal natures and the vestigial voice at the back of your mind saying, “you are prey here, beware!”
The setting to the stories we tell our children. The boogeymen, goblins, and creatures waiting in the dark for someone to go astray. Among these, of course, are the forest witches. These foul, decrepit creatures who have long since abandoned their humanity in favor of more dark and sinister consorts. Fortunately, the Gretels and Hansels of the world have nothing to fear.. as these are just stories. The danger, it seems, actually lies in when those stories grow the ability to take on a life of their own…
When Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick set out to film a groundbreaking piece of horror that would change the landscape of the genre forever, they had a goal in mind. Create a mythos that can be expanded and explored in future entries. With 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, they accomplished just that. The first in what would become a long list of modern found footage films, The Blair Witch Project was one of the highest-grossing films of all time – with a budget of only $60,000. Paired with an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, it’s no surprise that Artisan Entertainment would seek to progress the franchise through a sequel.
The mythology and its presentation are masterful. Drawing on the deep folklore of New England, and the fears embedded in the collective unconscious, Myrick and Sanchez created the Blair Witch of the Black Hills Forest. Named for the “original name” of Burkittsville, Maryland, the Blair Witch became an amalgamation of occult lore and local history. Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch, was named for 16th-century occultist and alchemist Edward Kelley, a man who claimed he could summon spirits among other fantastical abilities. By creating a central figure, Sanchez and Myrick could attach as many stories as they wanted while also maintaining a cohesive narrative. Due to the improvisational nature of the film, the mythos grew organically, with only specific aspects being planned out, such as Coffin Rock or the Burkittsville Cemetary.
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Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, however, received a mostly negative reception. The film took what was established in The Blair Witch Project, and went in the opposite direction. Instead of centering on the mythos and superstition that drew appeal through its mystique, director Joe Berlinger took a more grounded perspective, and in doing so, lost some of what made The Blair Witch Project so successful. Before the sequel, though, there were three mockumentaries that delved deeper into the Blair Witch and Black Hills lore. Curse of the Blair Witch, Sticks and Stones: An Exploration of the Blair Witch Legend, The Massacre of The Burkittsville 7: The Blair Witch Legacy, and alongside Book of Shadows came Shadow of the Blair Witch, all of which expanded the Blair Witch lore with interviews and explorations into “local legend.” With tie-in comics and novels, it was clear that there would be more to this legend than initially planned.
This article was originally going to be an exploration of the story of Elly Kedward and her banishment from the town of Blair after being accused of witchcraft and bloodletting. The idea was an examination of the superstitions of the time and the damage those irrational fears caused to innocent, often helpless people. As I read more about The Blair Witch, its lore, and its legacy, it became apparent that the original focus of this article was playing out in modern-day, with the town of Burkittsville albeit in a somewhat different sense.
The success of The Blair Witch Project and its franchise came at the expense of the real town of Burkittsville. It’s clear from interviews and even the tone on the Wikipedia page for the town, that the attention from the film became burdensome. The fact that many of the scenes in town and a majority of the film, in fact, were not filmed directly in Burkittsville just added insult to injury. Although a commercial failure, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 did manage to address some of the issues present in the Blair Witch franchise; namely the fanatical nature of some of its fans.
Burkittsville experienced an influx of ravenous Blair Witch fans, eager to learn more about the local legend and perhaps procure a souvenir or two – including dirt from the local graveyard and the town Welcome sign. For many, small acts of vandalism such as this are insignificant, but for a quiet town with a population of less than 200, one could imagine it would leave some of the residents a little upset.
To Blair Witch fans, Burkittsville became home base to a very real legend. Despite the film being acknowledged as a fabrication by the time of its release, The Blair Witch Project’s viral marketing campaign paired with the highly convincing and familiar nature of the lore, made it believable enough to some fans. Burkittsville had never been known as Blair, its cemetery did not hold “an unusual amount of infants,” and there was no Rustin Parr or Elly Kedward … until The Blair Witch Project and its franchise brought them into being.
While it’s true that The Blair Witch Project brought some unwelcome attention to the small town of Burkittsville, the fact that a low budget film with a tiny cast and only a couple of cameras was able to spawn an entire mythology is fascinating. Type “Blair Witch” into the YouTube search bar and awe at the amount of creativity and world-building that The Blair Witch Project has generated. Every day, the mythology grows and adds to the fervor of those devoted fans.
The Blair Witch Project was not real and neither was the story behind it. But mythos and lore are powerful. They inform our perspectives and evoke emotions that are intertwined with those stories. Next time you walk through a dark forest, remember the story of The Blair Witch. Remember that it was made up by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez for a low budget horror film. Did reminding yourself of that fact make that uneasy feeling go away?
What are your thoughts on The Blair Witch Project and its franchise? What piece of the lore is your favorite? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, or the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group!