Witch Country: Burkittsville and the Long Shadow of 'The Blair Witch Project'
By By Max Robinson
Sep 24, 2016 at 12:51 AM
Paul Gilligan, former Mayor of Burkittsville
As we crept through the woods behind the deactivated Granite Nike Missile Base in Baltimore County, Joe and I stopped for a noise—a rifle firing in the distance.
For the first time on our two-day journey, I felt a pang of real, instinctive panic in my gut. Something bad could happen to us here. We'd hit the middle of a hot Sunday afternoon in September and Joe's car was parked off of Hernwood Road, which runs through a quiet suburb. We were looking for the remains of a house, the Griggs House, the one seen at the very end of "The Blair Witch Project." In 1999, moviegoers everywhere watched as a man stood silently facing a corner in the home's basement while a woman screamed.
An indie cobbled together by directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick on a shoestring budget that would go on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide, "The Blair Witch Project" had no special effects, starred a cast of total unknowns, and was filmed almost entirely in rural Maryland. It boasted the second highest domestic gross for July of 1999, coming in second after the Julia Roberts romcom "Runaway Bride," oddly enough, also shot in Maryland. The movie follows three college students as they self-document their journey into the fictional Black Hills Forest of Burkittsville, the site of numerous supernatural phenomena and murders over the town's lifetime.
Over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, audiences watched as invisible forces and tensions drove group members Heather, Josh, and Mike to petty infighting, exhaustion, and eventually terror before their implied deaths at the hands of a supernatural tormentor, presumably the ghost of a woman named Elly Kedward. While "The Blair Witch Project" largely coasted on atmospheric dread, the movie's final moments are really what it is remembered for. Heather and Mike, lured by their lost companion's screams, enter an abandoned house they've stumbled upon deep in the woods. The film doesn't end with a jump scare or crazy monster effects, nothing cheap like that. Audiences were left hanging at the moment something unseen knocks Heather to the ground just as she comes across Mike standing in the corner, a callback to one ordinary Burkittsville resident's account of the Blair Witch myth in the film's opening. The powerful ending is all the more remarkable for its simplicity. We never see who or what is chasing these characters, but we know it got them.
“The Blair Witch Project” was the first movie in the found footage form to become a household name. A pseudo-sequel from acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” was released the following year but panned. In classic horror movie sequel tradition, the more conventionally filmed follow-up forgot what made the original so compelling: “Blair Witch Project” was a spooky video artifact that felt like it could have come from the real world, our world. The film is so fascinating because it lives on the edge between what’s real and what isn’t. The actors played fictionalized versions of themselves on screen and improvised their own dialogue off a bare-bones script. “Heather Donahue” was played by an actress named Heather Donahue, and so on. And it was even set around an actual town, Burkittsville. In those hazy pre-Wikipedia days of the internet, people fell for the lie. Even if you didn’t believe that a major studio would actually release what could be considered a recovered snuff film, everything about “The Blair Witch Project” is sinisterly designed to help audiences imagine they are watching the final days of three real people.
“Blair Witch,” a more direct sequel that picks up 20 years after the original film, is out now. Screenwriter Simon Barrett was torn between two instincts when it came time to pen a sequel to the 1999 film. “I wanted to lean into the fictional,” Barrett says over the phone. “With Burkittsville, I did do research on the actual town but it was like, ‘Let’s not make these people’s lives any more difficult than the original film kind of already did.’ To me, it was like, ‘Let’s embrace the kind of fictional version of Burkittsville, formerly the township of Blair.’”
With the sequel out, it seemed like an appropriate time to visit the town of Burkittsville and the areas where the movie was shot. Joe and I set out to spend the night there, unsure of what we would find.
Contrary to how it's presented on screen, very little of "The Blair Witch Project" was actually filmed in the town of Burkittsville. Instead, neighboring Maryland towns such as Knoxville and Adamstown doubled as the Frederick County township seen during on-the-street resident interviews in the film's opening. The film's conclusion was shot just about 30 minutes outside of Baltimore in Granite. But in the summer of 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" was an international phenomena and the small town—the 2010 U.S. Census put the population at 151—became a celebrity in its own right, attracting attention from the media and would-be witch hunters from around the globe.
“I was living in Burkittsville when the first film came out,” Burkittsville Mayor Debby Burgoyne said in an email. “We started getting visitors and inquiries before the movie came out because of [the] Blair Witch ’documentary’ on the Sci-fi Channel. The marketing of the first movie was genius.”
Tourists soon invaded the cozy historic town on weekends, some uncertain if the film was real or not and searching for the non-existent Black Rock Road. The tiny Burkittsville post office was flooded with letters while the town government fielded endless phone calls, with some callers offering to help local officials with search parties for the missing filmmakers. Vehicles would roll slowly down Main Street during the day. One of the town's wooden welcome signs, seen briefly in "The Blair Witch Project," was stolen; others were preemptively removed. Metal replacement signs were offered by the filmmakers as a gesture of goodwill.
Desperate, a handful of residents created a “Witches of Burkittsville” website previously found at burkittsville.org to correct the record. The site—complete with dancing clipart of a witch on its homepage—functioned as a hybrid FAQ/town blog. The Frederick County Sheriff’s Department even contributed a fact sheet debunking specific portions of viral marketing material found on “The Blair Witch Project’s” own website regarding the missing filmmakers. “Please,” one bulletin pleads, “leave the Angie Donahues of America alone, you will not find one who lost her daughter Heather to a witch!”
While Lionsgate, the studio behind the new movie, made a point of not mentioning Heather Donahue's full name in "Blair Witch" per the actress' request, the Maryland town still serves as the tale's spooky backdrop.
“The fact that there happens to be an actual Burkittsville ...I hope they feel good about that,” Barrett offers jokingly. “Because it’s built into the legend now and I’m certainly not going to change that.”
Seated legs crossed on the back lawn of her home, Andrea Cox is dwarfed by the wooden structure behind her, an old springhouse. "A lot of my neighbors started getting really weird emails," she says, explaining how she first became aware of "The Blair Witch Project."
“The internet was different a long time ago and there were not disclaimers on a lot of those earlier sites, the publicity stuff,” she says.
Ms. Cox is the town's de facto information officer and was one of several people who worked on the "Witches of Burkittsville" site back in 1999. She points out that most of the people who developed the page have since moved or died: "It was something that basically drew fire. And that's why it was [ultimately] in cooperation with the Sheriff's office."
Cox insists that the hype surrounding "The Blair Witch Project" was jumpstarted by hungry news outlets. "The press was up and down the street. Yeah, the marketing and the fake police reports, they got some attention," she says. "But it was mainly people emailing and asking stuff, not showing up."
Today, Burkittsville.org is something of a haunted house itself: hosting of the page has expired and the URL directs to a Hindi porn site. The site, in its original unaltered form, fittingly only exists today in archived form as a digital ghost. Still active are Burkittsville's official .gov page and Burkittsville.com, a website completely unaffiliated with the town which features an embedded trailer for the new film (misidentified, bizarrely, as "Into the Woods"), along with Amazon ads for Halloween costumes. The owner of the page, a man named Bill Swartwout, said via email that he lives an hour outside Burkittsville. He says he's hoping to eventually sell the site and focus on building up another staked digital domain: PortCovington.com.
As Joe and I pull into Burkittsville just shy of 2 p.m. on Saturday, we realize we're doing what the clueless protagonists of a horror movie did: We're the people who shouldn't be coming into town coming into the town anyway.
Our first stop that day had been the town's cemetery, one of the few actual Burkittsville shooting locations seen in "The Blair Witch Project." It was 103 degrees on the car's thermostat and the gnats wouldn't let up as we wandered in search of the tombstones Heather Donahue used for visual flavor in her never-to-be-finished documentary. The large marker for the Flook family, visible during Heather's hammy opening narration, had been replaced with a nicer stone at some point in the last 17 years but the dirt pile in the distance behind it somehow remained unchanged save for a layer of sod. Piecing together context clues, we finally located a grave reading "Infant Pfeifer" which was used for a quick establishing shot in the film. Joe and I tried to tread lightly and speak quietly—there was a gravedigger excavating a fresh plot on the far end of the cemetery.
These days, the closest former Burkittsville mayor Paul Gilligan gets to witches is brooms.
“I do my own brooms,” he tells us, one hand clutching a cigar, the other patting the finished broom models to his right. “Because most of the broom makers are gone from the area.”
Gilligan is the proprietor of P.J. Gilligan Dry Goods, a nearly 200 year-old store on Main Street specializing in Civil War-era soap, clothing, and sundries. Aside from a cider distillery up the road, it's Burkittsville's only actual business.
Firm but warm in his demeanor, the 31-year Burkittsville resident takes the "Blair Witch Project" attention in stride: "You've got a town that is well over 200 years old. Settlement in this area goes back to the 1740s, that's how old it is. And that was the first time I ever really heard the town mentioned anywhere. It's just a quiet, out of the way place that people come and kind of want to live their own life. The town was never noted for anything other than a few instances in the history books. What it did was to bring attention to [Burkittsville]. I actually took it as kind of fun."
Gilligan wasn't the town's mayor during the filming of "The Blair Witch Project" or the resulting hysteria but he was in office in 1994, which he points out is the year the faux-documentary is intended to take place: "What's surprised me is the durability of the story. Now there was that initial bump obviously right after the movie and that lasted for a while. But by and large as it tapered out, there was always someone every month who'd come in and ask about the Blair Witch. They're usually young people, 17, 18, 20 years old. And then in the past year or two years where the interest came was foreign travelers. They actually looked up where it was and came to Burkittsville. If you had to pick a country where they came from, Germany was the big one."
Gilligan maintains that it's less the actual film that continues to bring in the curious as it is the film's marketing tools, like the 44-minute "Curse of the Blair Witch" documentary shown on the Sci-Fi Channel in the months leading up to its release.
“People enjoy a story,” he says. “The faux-documentary they released, that was actually perfect. It told the story, it built up the interest, it put it in a real place. Because the movie itself was about kids running around in the woods. But building up a place, a place people can go out and touch? That was a nice sales job.”
Gilligan is happy to answer questions about Burkittsville's infamous non-resident because it enables him to inform visitors about the town's actual supernatural lore.
“You start moving into, ‘Where did it get the reputation from?’ Then you have to tell more about the Civil War and there was a large battle that came through the area,” he says, referring to the Battle of Crampton’s Gap, a small Union victory in 1862 that saw an estimated 1,420 casualties between both sides. “There were lots of dead and wounded in the area. And so what we had were these natural stories that developed 150, 160 years ago of hauntings. Because every house had to have six or seven wounded and when they died they had to be dragged out and put into the fields. Well, spook stories are going to come out of that.”
The primary source of Burkittsville's scary stories isn't hard to find. You'll drive through it on your way out of town. Spook Hill, a short patch of Main Street on the northwest end of town adjacent to a red barn, Spook Hill is Burkittsville's sole bit of genuine supernatural real estate. The story goes like this: If you put your car in neutral at the bottom of the hill and wait, you'll begin rolling backward up the hill. Local legend credits the phenomena to the spirits of restless Civil War dead pushing cars up the hill, their remains buried in the neighboring field. It felt a little unnerving sitting in the car watching ourselves drift backward. It was as if Burkittsville, somehow, naturally pulls you back into town if you don't keep driving. The actual scientific explanation for Spook Hill — a rare geographical oddity found nearly all over the world that's also known as a "gravity hill"— is a lot less exciting. In a nutshell, Spook Hill isn't actually a hill at all but merely appears that way due to an optical illusion created by the surrounding area. So if you put your car in neutral, it's going to roll backward. But it only feels like you're rolling up hill because you don't have a good view of the horizon.
For those looking for an authentic Blair Witch camping experience, we have some bad news. Seneca Creek State Park, the real life Gaithersburg woods that stood in for the movie's invented Black Hills Forest, doesn't host a campground or overnight guests (at least not legally). Your next best bet is Little Bennett Regional Park, 20 minutes away in Clarksburg. While the characters of "The Blair Witch Project" were isolated out in the Black Hills, the campground was hopping with mid-September with campers getting in one last trip to the great outdoors before the end of summer when we arrived. As Joe and I put up a tent and built a fire that night, it was kind of creepy to hear kids' voices laughing in the distance even with the area so full of people. Heather, Mike, and Josh also heard children's laughter as hands banged on their tents in "The Blair Witch Project" shortly before Heather's infamous snot-drip camera confessional. But the occasional car driving by or loud campsite radio reminded us that we weren't exactly roughing it in stoic solitude.
A few hours and more than a few beers later, Joe and I passed the time discussing our favorite horror movies and ranking the best Batman comics of the last couple years. Then it happened. Joe told me about an experience with Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) he had back at another newspaper years prior. According to him, a series of maids quit working in the paper's office after claiming to have heard their names uttered while working before work hours. Joe had even placed a tape recorder in the locked building overnight only to find noises that he couldn't explain. In my experience, everyone has some kind of story like this even if they don't believe in the supernatural. Something unexplainable happened to them or someone they knew, something they remember for the rest of their lives. Did these women hear a leaking faucet or a hissing pipe and mistake it for something calling them? Did something shapeless and invisible actually call to them from the dark? Your rational brain says no of course not but your gut, your leftover instinctive R-brain, isn't quite so certain.
Late in the night, a tree, a heavy one, broke and fell with a booming crack somewhere out in the woods. Even barely awake I wasn't ready to chalk this one up to a ghost witch but I slept poorly the rest of the night. We drank cold coffee the next morning and left early.
It took three hours and about six miles of walking but, after comparing it to stills from the film to be sure, we found it: a secluded acre of Seneca Creek Park where, to the fascination and horror of "The Blair Witch Project's" intrepid explorers, eerie stickmen had hung. We struggled to follow the vague instructions of a map posted by a user named Monrozombi on the Blairwitch.net message boards, reached a secluded pine grove where the figures had supposedly been placed. The stickmen were long gone now—we held out the distant hope that maybe one or two would be lying around still—but what was there was almost as inexplicable: The remains of an old bathtub, rotting rubber tires and an unidentifiable piece of rusted farm equipment. We found garbage, just not the specific garbage we'd been hoping for. Somehow I doubt movie audiences in 1999 would have been too freaked out by industrial refuse people hauled out into the woods but it was still a surprising sight a mile deep into the woods.
Joe and I trekked back to the car through a soybean field, exhausted and wolfing down shitty pizza at a nearby gas station. To Monrozombi, a message: Your map was a piece of a shit.
A few hours later, Joe and I found ourselves in the overgrown field that had once been the Griggs House. Following coordinates helpfully provided by Google Maps and corroborated by a couple of websites, we reached our destination and found…nothing.
The foundation, we discovered as we walked around, was beneath us but completely obscured by weed growth that had yet to be killed by the cold weather that's just around the corner. What had once been someone's home, an outpost of humanity in the Maryland of a time before planned communities and highways, had been hidden from view by the inevitability of nature. Kicking at the ground with my foot, I felt an unseen brick before we once and for all called it a day. I was tired and needed a shower. Looking for nothing was surprisingly hard work.
The following weekend, "Blair Witch" opened to a disappointing $9.5 million box office and mixed reviews. "The Blair Witch Project" was lightning trapped in a bottle, a singular shared moment of confusion and hysteria that demanded global attention. What mere horror movie sequel could compete with that, especially when Tom Hanks—Tom Hanks!—was playing Captain Sully Sullenberger the next theater over in a movie Based on True Events?
On paper, maybe our journey sounds like a waste of time. A weekend trip that took us to an unassuming town made famous by a horror movie that's on screen for maybe all of three minutes, a night spent in witch-less woods and a sweaty afternoon of bug bites, back pain, and thorn bush cuts. But Burkittsville, Spook Hill, even the remains of a long gone house…out of the way places like this are important. It's the America we can only see out of the corner of our eye, the unseen crumbling foundation we can feel but not quite find beneath our feet. "The Blair Witch Project" was just a movie but it created a sense of place, something that feels real even if it isn't exactly. If you don't go look for yourself, how can you know for sure it didn't happen?