Cult film 'Blair Witch' was tourist horror show for small town
It's been 11 years since the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" set their horror movie in a tiny Maryland town and touched off an onslaught of cult-film tourists.
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BURKITTSVILLE, Md. — It's been 11 years since the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" set their horror movie out here in the middle of nowhere and changed this little town of 180 people forever.
To this day, tourists occasionally wander through Burkittsville and ask, "Where's the witch?"
"There isn't one," the townspeople say, fatigued. "It isn't real."
The 1999 movie shot in eight days on a shoestring budget made a mint. It got four stars from Roger Ebert and went down in Hollywood history as a cult classic.
All Burkittsville got out of the deal was a spooky reputation, a convoy of weirdos offering to exorcise the place and four metal "Welcome to the Historic Village of Burkittsville" signs that rusted in the rain.
The reputation they can't do much about. It's hard to convince people you're not haunted when you've got a cemetery in the middle of town, tended by a guy named Happy.
The rusty signs, however, are another story.
The citizens of Burkittsville will decide in an election Monday whether to sell the signs — bought for them by Artisan Entertainment, the studio that distributed the independent film — on eBay.
If they vote to keep the signs, it won't be because they love "Blair Witch" lore; they hate "Blair Witch" lore. It will be because Burkittsville, which looks almost exactly the way it did in the Civil War, never throws anything away. An outhouse used by one resident until the county shut it down 30 years ago is still standing; the mayor wants to turn it into a garden shed.
What is perhaps most amazing is that there are people who would pay money for anything related to a movie about three college students who meet their scary demise in the Maryland woods while filming a documentary about a witch who kills little kids and drinks their blood.
Town leaders think Burkittsville could make $3,000. That's small compensation for all the trouble caused by a film that grossed $249 million. But it could pay to fix some broken sidewalks.
The fourth sign isn't for sale, because it was stolen by souvenir-crazed movie buffs. And that is just the beginning of a tale with this moral: Never let Hollywood make a horror movie in your town.
The independent filmmakers never asked Burkittsville's permission. If anybody noticed the day the "Blair Witch" crew showed up in the fall of 1997, nobody said so. People here like to mind their business and leave well enough alone.
Burkittsville, one mile square and an hour's drive from Washington, D.C., has been operating this way for 200 years: Whenever possible, don't change anything. A suggestion a few years back to put speed bumps on Main Street sparked a war between those who wanted cars to slow down and those who wanted the street to look like it did when Abe Lincoln stopped to water his horse.
So one can imagine the shock when, in the summer of 1999, residents started getting e-mail from total strangers asking "Is the witch still doing things?" and describing the woods outside of town as treacherous, even though everybody knows if you walk long enough in any direction you will eventually run into a person or a cow.
Soon they figured out their town was in a movie — actually just the graveyard and a two-second shot of one of the gray and blue welcome signs posted at the four entrances. But that was enough.
Burkittsville was swarmed. Cars and tour buses jammed Main Street. Residents couldn't get into their driveways. Souvenir hunters dug up cemetery dirt. Tombstones were vandalized. Kids, accustomed to riding their bikes with no hands down the farm alleys, were instructed never to play outside alone.
Debby Burgoyne, the current mayor and a Girl Scout leader, found a strange man standing in her living room one morning. He thought there was a tour.
"It was crazy," Burgoyne said. "People with cameras were everywhere. I made sure I had full makeup and a great nightie before I went out to get the morning paper."
The wooden welcome signs, suddenly an iconic symbol of the movie, were promptly stolen. The townspeople were stunned. Crime here, what there is of it, tends more toward broken windows.
The town replaced the signs with four more. Three were stolen before Larry Beller, then-city councilman and a cement truck driver, took the fourth to his house for safekeeping.
Burkittsville switched to metal signs, a little too 20th century for residents' tastes but harder to steal, or so they thought. The movie company picked up the tab, the town's only compensation, if you don't count the $20 Nicole Beller, 9, made selling green lemonade to the tourists, or the money made from rocks and dirt Linda Millard dug up from her front yard, which people actually bought.
It wasn't that Burkittsville didn't try to make the best of its unwelcome fame. Margaret Kennedy, a local artist, sold T-shirts with little stick figures like the movie logo until Artisan Entertainment slapped her with a cease-and-desist order.
"It scared her so much, she gave all the shirts away," Burgoyne said.
So Burkittsville gladly accepted the check for the metal signs, but they didn't completely solve the problem. Thieves cut down one with a hacksaw. Another was discovered wrapped in chains, as though someone intended to rip it from the ground with a truck.
"Damn, these guys are aggressive," said Paul Gilligan, a local farmer and former mayor.
The movie was ingeniously marketed as a documentary shot by the main characters — ill-fated
students Josh, Mike and Heather. A lot of people thought the legend of the witch who snatched children in the dark of night, then gummed up waterways with greasy sticks, was real.
Anyone who said such a witch existed in, say, Glendora, would be laughed out of town. But in Burkittsville, the residents concede it wasn't that hard to believe.
Burkittsville is charming. Everybody knows everybody else. There is no grocery store, no restaurant, no stop light. Milk is delivered in glass bottles. Mr. Pry and Mrs. Handley drive the school buses; Jerry delivers the mail. And on New Year's Eve, the whole town turns out to ring the church bells, one resident at a time.
Burkittsville is also quirky. A deer went berserk once and crashed through Margaret Kennedy's front window, then out the back one, while she was watching TV.
A red barn on a parcel of land named "Four and a Half Barrels of Rum" mysteriously moved 30 yards off its foundation decades ago. The only man in town still alive to explain it won't, collapsing in fits of laughter whenever asked.
And Burgoyne's dog once dug up what looked like a giant leg bone in her backyard. "Please don't tell me that's human," she said, before discovering her 1850s house once belonged to a large-animal veterinarian.
"Blair Witch" madness wanes
Time and a cold snap eventually ended the year of "Blair Witch" madness. The film studio made a sequel, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," which bombed, but some of the residents landed cameo roles, which they used to describe what a pain the first movie had given them.
Years passed and the town came to accept that, like Amityville's horror and Roswell's UFO, Burkittsville would be forever linked to something weird.
The metal signs rusted. One of the locals designed four beautiful wooden ones that don't look anything like the one in the movie. They have not been stolen, to everyone's delight.
Burgoyne came up with the idea of selling the three rusty signs, to compensate Burkittsville for its biggest ordeal since the typhoid epidemic of 1910. Since nothing here happens without consensus, the town council decided to put the question to a vote: sell all the signs, some of the signs or none of the signs. They are making a special election box. Everybody gets a ballot, even the kids.
The Holy Grail — the only remaining original wooden sign exactly like the one in the movie — will be donated to the South Mountain Heritage Society whenever Burkittsville gets around to it.
The mayor briefly lost track of it the other day, but it turned out all right, as most things here do, safe and sound in the disembodied red barn, its rugged foundation still 30 yards away, unexplained and unchanged.