In the summer of 1999, The Blair Witch Project frightened moviegoers with its unusual found-footage filming technique and distinctive marketing campaign, which convinced everyone that the movie's stars were dead. Of course that last part wasn't true. Neither was any of the "Blair Witch" mythology. The indie filmmakers had simply made it up for the movie, and repeatedly said so. But that did nothing to stop a horde of particularly devoted fans, who soon set their sights on the small town at the center of The Blair Witch Project: Burkittsville, Maryland.
Burkittsville certainly has its history. A preserved historic village, it was established in 1824 and served as the battleground for the Civil War skirmish at Crampton's Gap, a prelude to the more famous Battle of Antietam. It also has some eerie legends. Just ask the locals about "Spook Hill," a mysterious stretch of road that inexplicably pushes cars uphill -- even when the driver has no feet on the gas pedal. But a beastly dead woman who commands hermits to murder children was never part of their backstory, so it came as quite a shock to the less than 200 residents of Burkittsville when strangers starting pouring in with questions about the Blair Witch.
After seeing what happened to Amityville, New York once The Amityville Horror hit theaters, the local leaders of Burkittsville knew to brace for tourists. The town council approved extra hours for a sheriff's deputy and sent a notice out to residents warning them of a potential stampede prior to the Blair Witch Project release date on July 16th. But the town was cautiously optimistic about the publicity. Local shop owners hoped to boost business, while the historical society president looked forward to discussing real Burkittsville history with curious visitors.
Unfortunately, those "curious visitors" were big on vandalism.
By the day of the movie's debut, someone had already left markings on the tombstones in the local cemetery. Later, that cemetery would become the site of creepy candlelit vigils, held by fans for the movie's fake victims. The "Welcome to Burkittsville" sign was stolen again and again. Residents were constantly pestered by reporters and fans alike for insider information on the fake legend. One visitor wandered into the mayor's living room, thinking there was a tour. But that wasn't even the worst of it. The Baltimore Sun reported that an unknown man began videotaping children, which made some parents fear a copycat killer like the film's fictional Rustin Parr.
The town couldn't properly capitalize on the sudden influx, either. Naturally, local shops began selling themed shirts, postcards, and maps in an attempt to turn a profit. Some had success, like one woman who literally sold rocks and dirt from her front yard. But others were served with cease-and-desist orders from the movie's distributors, Artisan Entertainment. This move struck the town as especially rich, considering they weren't paid a cent during the Blair Witch Project production or even asked for permission to film. Artisan made just one concession: it reimbursed Burkittsville for the stolen welcome signs.
Given all the bad blood, the people of Burkittsville were unsurprisingly hostile about the sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In fact, when producers attended a town meeting to ask if anyone would participate in a filmed interview for the new film, they were practically booed out of the room. Although some residents did eventually consent to the interviews, their comments were pretty mixed.
Now, Burkittsville is preparing yet again for chaos as the latest chapter, Blair Witch, enters theaters. The welcome signs have been taken down as a precaution, and the sheriff's deputies are upping their hours once more. While the mayor and town council members remain cheery about the tourism prospects, some residents remain scarred by fans who trampled their town in the early aughts. "There's a certain amount of curiosity. I get that," one local told The Frederick News-Post. "But I'd still prefer that people not come."
Feature Image via YouTube