A “Real Life” Scare


Tyler Davidson

The Blair Witch Project was a revolutionary movie that was made on a small budget and a viral internet campaign and became one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Davidson)

In 1997, three actors disappeared into the woods for eight days to film a fake documentary. Twenty years later their footage became one of the most iconic movies of all time.


The Blair Witch Project was made by two unknown directors with a cast of three unknown actors to make a movie with unique concept of a “found footage” film. The movie was low-budget and was mainly improvised by the actors. Not only would this concept be hard to pull off, but the directors also had funding issues. The movie overcame the odds and made 248 million dollars despite only having a budget of sixty thousand dollars. But, the movie was not an overnight success. The directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, first thought of the idea as college students in 1991. In 1996, Myrick and Sanchez started working, but they couldn’t begin casting until ‘97. 

“We used American contemporary folklore as a reference point. The Devil’s Triangle was a really good reference, a mysterious place where people reportedly disappeared, lots of conspiracy theories surrounding it but no one has any real proof one way or the other. Civil War folklore, Native American folklore—a blend of stuff from that area of the country to flesh out this whole kind of universe we were created,” said director Daniel Myrick in an article published on Vice. 

The directors then started to cast for their movie. They knew that the actors would have to improvise huge chunks of the dialogue featured in the film. The dialogue had to seem real to make the concept work. In order to find the right actors, the directors asked the applicants improvisational questions, like, “You have served half of your sentence for killing your baby. Why should we let you out?” If they hesitated even for a second they were not considered for the role.

“The [actors] would come into the room and we would immediately start grilling them with certain questions. We told people during the audition, ‘As soon as you come into the room, the audition starts.’ That worked for a lot of people, and it didn’t work for others. There were a lot of actors that came in and just didn’t understand,” said director Eduardo Sanchez in the same Vice article. 

“[Heather] was the only person out of the tons of people that I saw over the course of the year, that, when asked ‘Why do you think you should be released on parole,’ she looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘I don’t think I should be,’” said Myrick in another article with Vice.

The directors finally cast Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard to be the characters in the film. These actors played a character given the same name as themselves. After casting, it was time to film. The directors took the actors out into the woods on an eight day shoot. Sanchez and Myrick gave the cast an idea of what was going to happen but most of the movie was still improvised in order to make the reactions and acting as realistic as possible.

“We took them to the location, and we had to pack their bags, and we kind of set them at the beginning of the filming off on their own, and most of the time the only time we would talk to them was if something went wrong, or there was a big question that had to be answered immediately. We tried to follow them for the first few days, but that didn’t work. It was just too hard staying out of their way, and also you couldn’t do anything else. All you could do was watch them. We started watching the footage when we got back, and we liked what we saw, and we thought everything was working, so we kind of abandoned the idea of watching them. So it was mostly just kind of guiding them through the directing notes, and making sure that everything was going according to plan,” said Sanchez to a Vice Reporter on how they moved the movie in the right direction.

“The scenes were driven by notes that were left in 35mm film canisters throughout the woods, so we had a GPS that was programmed by the producers and directors, they had mapped out the whole locations. They pre-programmed what they called waypoints into the eight days. At each waypoint station, we would look at a GPS, and it would say, ‘waypoint number 3, waypoint number 4 is three km away,’ so you would look up in the compass and at the next waypoint there would be an event happening there,” said actor Michael C. Williams, who played a character with the same name in The Blair Witch Project, in an interview with Vice.

This whole system was set up by the directors to make the production feel real. One of the people working on the movie infamously said, “Your safety is our primary concern, but your comfort is not,” to the actors. The producers made the actors camp out in the woods in order to make the actors irritable and uncomfortable. They also limited the amount of food given to them to create the same kind of illusion. By doing this, the actors really felt the situation that their characters were in. They could relate to the situation making it easier to be angry and act how their characters should.

“It was an eight-day shoot where they were really camping out in the woods. It was by design to push them and to elicit genuine responses for them. Over time, we sort of rationed back their food so they were hungry. Obviously not starving or anything, but you get irritable whenever you’re not eating full meals every day, so it was a little bit of this method kind of survivalist approach that we prepped them on in advance,” told Myrick to a Vice reporter.

Once the movie was finished, the group had to market the movie. The directors released a forty-four minute documentary about the Blair Witch called The Curse of the Blair Witch only five days before the release of the actual movie. The documentary reinforced the rumors that the movie was real found footage. The fake documentary included interviews and an inside look at the “investigation” for the three missing students. It also helped establish a fake folklore type background for the Blair Witch making the movie more believable. In addition to this, a website was created featuring interviews and photos from the “footage”.

It also had a timeline of the events for the Blair Witch lore. There have even been stories that the directors joined online forums to spread information about their story. Even the IMDb pages for the actors in the film listed the actors as missing and presumed dead.

“These days, we’d be able to label all of the above ‘just marketing’ and swiftly click away – but back then, Bonsai Kittens (a famous internet hoax website, claiming that miniature kittens were being cruelly reared in jars) was still a year away, and our inherent suspicion of all things internet wasn’t quite so sharply tuned,” said Rebecca Hawkes, a reporter for the Telegraph, in her 2016 article explaining why people fell for this marketing strategy.   

Many people left the theaters believing the Blair Witch to be a real found footage film. The actors’ families began to receive sympathy cards from people who had seen the film. In fact, there have been reports that close friends to some of the cast believed them to be dead after seeing the movie. Even after the directors and actors revealed that the movie was not real people still believed that it was.

“[The Blair Witch Project] made me scared to go outside. It also made me more aware of my surroundings and I’m never going in the woods at night. ” said junior Carly Alexander.

It has now been twenty years since The Blair Witch Project aired for the very first time. The movie used a combination of trusting people and marketing to hype up the movie. If the movie was made today, a web search could tell you that it was fake. This combined with the acting and lack of jump scares makes the movie great. Instead of using jump scares, the movies build tension which makes it scarier. As this film turns twenty, it will forever be remembered as a small movie who made big changes to the horror genre.