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Urban Legends: The Blair Witch Project


An ingenious campaign had moviegoers scared stupid.

In just 2 sentences, the teaser trailer for The Blair Witch Project sets up one of the highest concept premises in film history:

"In October of 1994, 3 student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later, their footage was found."

Barely 30 seconds long, the teaser is largely comprised of a black screen punctuated by the staccato whimpers of the main character, Heather. She assumes fault for the entire as-yet-unknown disaster and apologizes profusely. The tension builds until we finally see her tear-filled eyes peering into the low-quality handheld camera.

"I am so... scared," she whispers.

And with that, millions of minds whirled at the possibility: Is this thing for real?

Thanks to exceptional production values and a nearly flawless marketing campaign, rumors swirled around The Blair Witch Project well before its release. Three unknown actors were hired by directors Only guided by a GPS system and clues strategically placed throughout the forest, the actors made their way through filming one of the most successful independent productions of all time on a budget of roughly $25,000. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez to undergo a grueling 8-day shoot in the woods.

The script was a loose 35-page guideline with little dialogue in order to keep the reactions spontaneous and real.

The Blair Witch Project

By keeping costs low, settings cheap, and effects sparse, The Blair Witch Project took on a realism reflected in the story itself. Say what you will about the camera work and the acting -- it really felt like 3 scared college students in the woods.

But for all the creatively simple techniques that propelled the shoot, the website was what drove the Blair Witch urban legend home.

The film was released in 1999 when speculation still outpaced fact-checking on the Internet -- which the website used to great advantage. The teaser prominently featured the official Blair Witch website address, almost daring the audience to verify the facts. Presented more like an amateur memorial than a studio promotion, the site posted numerous photos and local news clips related to the students' disappearance. Photos of the abandoned car, missing-persons flyer, and Heather's on-set diary were presented with straight-faced realism.
The Blair Witch Project

Even listed each of the main actors as "deceased" -- either by studio request or because they were fooled themselves.

Artisan Entertainment (LGF) ensured that the most crucial step was carried out: No interviews or promotional appearances of any of the 3 main characters. The occasional "beyond the grave" interview slipped through, but this guideline was mostly successful.

All logic was dismissed in the face of such plausible evidence. Why would the parents allow the footage to be seen? ("They wanted their children's story told.") Why can't any record of the missing students be found elsewhere? ("Local government tried to keep the embarrassment under wraps.") Why hasn't the Blair Witch legend been heard of before? ("Zombie amnesia curse.")

The Blair Witch Project
Upon release, The Blair Witch Project was an immense success. Earning mostly favorable reviews from critics -- if only for the memorable final shot -- it went on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide and become the most heavily parodied film since Star Wars.

Audiences, however, had a decidedly mixed view of the film. While some marveled at the imaginative and effective story, others complained of a lack of scares and on-screen action.

Or it could be, people resented being fooled.

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