Bewitched, bothered but not bewildered; Town: Burkittsville residents brace for a renewal of the 'Blair Witch' brouhaha as the video release and Halloween approach.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If this is in regards to 'The Blair Witch Project,' ah, it is fiction. However, we welcome you to our community. You'll see we have rich farm lands, mountains and a quaint village. So, we are looking forward to meeting you.

-- Burkittsville town council's recorded phone message.

BURKITTSVILLE -- It's been a ghost town here lately. "Beware this House is Haunted" is the scariest sight, and that's just an early Halloween decoration on one of the Victorian homes on Main Street.

The really spooky occurrences -- tourists from Buffalo or Cleveland showing up to buy 21-cent postcards devilishly postmarked "Burkittsville" -- are gone. The guest book in Margaret Kennedy's art gallery hasn't flipped a page in weeks. At the other end of town, Linda Prior's "Blair Witch Stick Man" magnets haven't moved from her house.

"It's like the carnival," Prior says. "It's fun when it comes to town, but it's nice when it leaves."

The carnival, though, might be coming back to town. Just when Burkittsville thought it was safe to unlock its doors again, "The Blair Witch Project" -- the surprise-hit horror movie set here -- is due out on video Oct. 22, a week before you-know-what.

"Halloween and the video should crank it all up again," Kennedy says in her art studio on Main Street. Her shop window is still dressed in "Burkittsvillabilia," including "Blair Witch" T-shirts. She expects her souvenir business to come alive again later this month.

Anticipating Halloween crowds, the town council this week approved $200 worth of extra police patrol for the village. Also, they decreed, the local children will not be trick-or-treating Halloween night but on an undisclosed night.

"The children need time to do their normal activities without outsiders being involved," says Burkittsville Mayor Joyce Brown.

The mayor does plan to place a copy of the "Blair Witch" video in the town's archives. "None of it is true. However, the movie is [located] here, and years down the road, we want something for people to see."

Linda Prior's "Blair Witch" goodies surely will be back in demand. Borders bookstore in Frederick has ordered 50 of her mossy "Stick Man" magnets -- modeled on the scary totems seen in the film -- to give out to the first 50 people buying the "Blair Witch" video. Prior and her 81-year-old mother, Louise, have been invited to the bookstore for a video release party at midnight Oct. 21. Party eats will feature a "Blair Witch Sandwich Special" (ingredients to be named later).

The main attraction, however, will be the appearance of Linda and Louise, two locals who have run with the whole "Blair Witch" craze.

"They knew when to capitalize on this. That's really wild," says Ginnie Sulcer, Borders' community relations coordinator.

Burkittsville's postmaster, Larry Ott, has been asked by a video store to round up a hundred postcards for the video's release. And a rafting and outdoors outfit from Tennessee plans a Halloween "Blair Witch Hike" and overnight camping in Burkittsville -- a place once simply and innocently known for its Civil War heritage and "rich farm lands, mountains and quaint village," as the recording says.

Filmic fame

The village made the pop-culture atlas when "The Blair Witch Project" opened this summer. The mock documentary of three filmmakers searching for the fabled Blair Witch in the forest near Burkittsville became the monster hit of the summer. The low-budget movie has posted $140 million at the box office (and produced the requisite backlash; it's hard to find anyone now who'll say they liked the movie). In Baltimore, "Blair Witch" ran for seven weeks at the Charles and grossed a record $222,000 for the theater.

One hundred and seventy-five years after Burkittsville was founded, the town was found again in 1999 by four and more scores of tourists and journalists, all wanting a piece of the village, which might as well have been renamed Blair Witch, Md. Both cemetery signs were promptly heisted. And someone stole a "Welcome to Historic Burkittsville" road sign seen in the movie; luckily, the town has three other such signs.

Mayor Brown, seeking advice on handling unsolicited celebrity, placed a call to another infamous town -- Amityville, N.Y., the site of a mass murder that inspired the "Amityville Horror" movies. The chamber of commerce president there told Brown there's no way to stop souvenir-seekers.

So if you can't stop them, charge them.

Kennedy sold "Witch Way to Burkittsville" T-shirts, and Prior's "Stick Man" magnets did well at Internet auction on eBay. Prior's "Blair Witch" rocks (mysterious piles of stones figure prominently in the movie) were sold at $4 per rock per person, and there were many takers. "They are nuts, ain't they?" says Prior, who resembles somewhat the diminutive, haunted-house cleaning woman from "Poltergeist."

Did anyone make any money off "Poltergeist" by selling rocks? Hardly. But it happened in teeny-tiny Burkittsville, where the buried might outnumber the living, where gas stations and restaurants don't exist, and where the closest thing to a mob scene is an afternoon crafts tour. Main Street doesn't have a center line and doesn't need one.

And, yes, Virginia, they never locked their doors at night -- until the movie hit the fan. A town council meeting was called, at which it was suggested that folks should be more careful now they weren't alone anymore. Then the movie finished its first run, and the crowds left Burkittsville. No real harm done.

"We didn't want people coming in here and changing our town," says Prior, "and they didn't."

Guest book magic

Now, in early October, Burkittsville seems surprised to see any visitors -- as if the town were expecting company next week.

"You would have come five minutes earlier, I might have killed you," says gallery owner Kennedy.

Five minutes ago, she was painting. She prefers not to be interrupted. If you lose your place while creating abstract art, you could easily never find your way again, she explains. Your painting can get lost in its own forest, never to be found alive.

Her studio is lined with her own art, none of which enticed a single visitor during the "Blair Witch" mania. Still, in her guest book, 10 pages are filled with names of visitors since the movie came out; the other 10 pages took 12 years to fill. "One day I'm going to sit and read this guest book and ask myself, 'Did this really happen?' " Kennedy says.

Although the movie hasn't boosted art sales, Kennedy still sells $10 "Witch Chasers," pouches of garlic, lavender and white stones. She removes a stone and handles it like a diamond. The ensuing question is too easy, but in Burkittsville, it still has legs. Does Kennedy believe in witches?

"There's something there, yeah. I'm not about to try and define it," she says. "If you can laugh at it, it won't get you." She laughs. Now, the person you should speak to is Larry at the post office, Kennedy says, before locking up and driving off to her doctor's appointment.

Getting in the spirit

Past the German Reformed Church (donations are being collected to repair its steeple) and bird houses on stilts and the headstones of the cemetery (always with those double-dated reminders that people back then died so much younger), Burkittsville's post office stands at attention. Larry Ott, the postmaster, does not mind being interrupted at work, turns out. Rural postmasters, like bridge tenders, can use the company.

"Things have really slacked off," Ott says, as if he might have lost a dog.

In the wake of the film, he sold thousands of white, standard postcards postmarked Burkittsville. He says he feels lucky his postmark stamp wasn't stolen. During the "Blair Witch" mania, "Someone took my Ruritan Club calendar when I was at lunch," Ott says. "They left a dollar on the counter for me."

He misses all the folks from out of town stopping in to talk: "It picked up the pace around here." The postmaster got into the spirit of things by seeing "The Blair Witch Project" -- his first movie-going experience since "back in his drive-in-theater" days. Mainly, he wanted something to say when yet another reporter asked him whether he'd seen the movie.

Ott didn't like the movie and isn't interested in any video. But he's looking forward to another round of attention. Because the fact is, Burkittsville and "Blair Witch" aren't done with each other, as long as there are videos and sequels and small towns and big movies -- and that old black magic.

Quick, hide the signs.

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