Before the Project, There Was the Curse

A Look Back at Curse of the Blair Witch, the Fake Sci-Fi Channel Documentary That Tried to Add Some “Fact” to The Blair Witch Project’s Fiction.

I’ve spent much of the past few days trying to remember the first time I saw The Blair Witch Project. I must have seen it in theaters – it was something of a cultural prerequisite in the summer of 1999 – but try as I might, I cannot recall the specifics of when I saw it or who I saw it with. On the other hand, I have no such trouble remembering when I first saw the Sci-Fi Channel documentary Curse of the Blair Witch. That television special I watched on the couch with both of my parents; afterwards, my family argued passionately either for against the validity of what we had seen. Curse of the Blair Witch was hype and bluster, and the Monagle family was buying shares in bulk.

With a new Blair Witch movie in theaters today, many people are reflecting on their experiences with the original film and its impact on Hollywood. I find myself oddly nostalgic for the success of Curse of the Blair Witch instead. Hollywood had certainly lied to us before, but the very nature of the film and its promotional material – a documentary which seemed to support the immediacy of the footage from The Blair Witch Project with local interviews and historical facts – made at least one imaginative teenager stop and wonder if there was any truth to this fiction. This was years too late for me to be exposed to the marketing tactics of Roger Corman and years too early for the phrase “sponsored content” to enter into my vocabulary; what Curse of the Blair Witch was documenting seemed too grand a scale for what amounted to a simple movie trailer.

In its original form, The Blair Witch Project was meant to incorporate many of the fake newsreel footage and interviews found in Curse of the Blair Witch. According to filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, one of the major influences on the film was In Search Of…, the cable television series that investigated mysterious and paranormal events in world history. In contemporary interviews, Sanchez described the show’s blend of fact and fiction as something that he found truly terrifying. “We used to watch that show, and it would just creep us out,” Sanchez said in an interview that ran in The Gazette. “And the reason, we realized, was that it could be true. Nobody really knows what happened. So we thought: What if we could make a fictional movie that did that, one that convinced the audience what they were watching was real.”

While the final product does include some onscreen interviews with local figures, the original treatment for The Blair Witch Project included a great deal more of the pseudo-documentary format that the two filmmakers used to great effect in the Sci-Fi Channel special. All this changed after the two men saw the footage collected by their actors. “It didn’t take us long to realize that the movie was in the footage they were shooting,” Myrick told the Daily News in 1999. “All the third-party stuff was getting in the way.” While the filmmakers may have set out to be horror’s answer to Christopher Guest, this decision provided them with a much scarier final product, not to mention the launch of two decades of found footage imitators.

When the opportunity arose for the filmmakers to revisit their idea, they decided to stay local. Both men were graduates of the University of Central Florida; when the time came to shoot the documentary portions of Curse of the Blair Witch, they chose DeLand, Florida, a city less than an hour away from their original campus. According to a profile in the Orlando Sentinel, two of the main figures in the mockumentary – Sheriff Ron Cravens and the Burkittsville historical society spokesperson – were played by a DeLand police officer and historian, respectively. The article noted that neither man was given a script for his on-camera dialogue; instead, the filmmakers would provide them with the general outline of the backstory and allow the two men to authenticate their dialogue through their own experiences as cops and historians.

Little touches like this go a long way towards making Curse of the Blair Witch feel like an authentic work of documentary. The historical “evidence” may be what gives the short film its much-needed sense of history – including the fictitious archival documents and nineteenth century eyewitness accounts – but it is the local personalities created for Curse of the Blair Witch that gives the whole production an element of truth. The character of Dottie Fulcher, for example – a local search party volunteer who self-aggrandizes her own role in the events and claims to have begged the sheriff for years afterwards to reopen the case – offers us just the right mixture of superstition and small town authority. Anyone from a smaller community like Burkittsville will recognize her particular brand of regional crazy.

While Sanchez and Myrick were wise to cut The Blair Witch Project down to its streamlined version, they do demonstrate an impressive knack for mythmaking throughout Curse of the Blair Witch. The legend of the Blair Witch is woven neatly between several periods of American history in the film: the Salem witch trials, the rise in popularity of American true crime stories, and even the intersection of drug culture and Wiccan culture from the 1970s. The inclusion of scenes from Mystic Occurrences – a fictitious 1971 television series hosted by a bare-chested stoner with a love of herbalism – is one of Curse of the Blair Witch’s most inspired touches. Sanchez and Myrick know they do not need to sell us on the specifics of the Blair Witch so much as the longevity of witches in popular culture. To that end, Curse of the Blair Witch makes it possible to believe that these local legends persist to this day.

After watching the television special again for the first time in nearly two decades, I find that I appreciate the craftsmanship of the documentary even more than when it first aired on television. I also find myself more annoyed than ever at the gullibility of my fifteen-year-old self. Of course the documentary was not real; if there were even a shred of legitimacy to it, don’t you think Curse of the Blair Witch could have done better than a Sunday 10:00 PM EST on a second-tier cable channel? Furthermore, both Sanchez and Myrick had previously played the film at festivals and spoken to the process of getting The Blair Witch Project off the ground. In the heady days of Web 1.0, anyone with a website and television special seemed to speak with absolute authority.

While the newest Blair Witch rode its own release gimmick into theaters – the early marketing material for The Forest suggested a Blair Witch imitator, not a direct sequel to the original film itself – there will likely never be another piece of fiction and marketing quite like Curse of the Blair Witch. These days, it seems that nearly every History Channel or A&E special is just another variation of the same paranormal format that Curse of the Blair Witch lovingly sends up. Just another way that Sanchez and Myrick were ahead of the curve, I suppose.

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Matthew Monagle :Matthew is a columnist for Film School Rejects and the host of After the Credits, a weekly review podcast. He is also the Weekend News Editor for ScreenCrush.