No, we’re not interviewing the monster behind one of the most famous found footage movies of all time. What we have for you instead is a deep dive into the mythology behind the movie that made you afraid to visit the entire state of Maryland. We spoke to director Ed Sanchez, producer Mike Monello and historical fabricator Julia Myrick before their talk at the Library of Congress, about the infamous website, the home grown marketing campaign, the fan fiction and all the tiny details that made people lose their mind over The Blair Witch Project.
When it comes to the Blair Witch, one of the defining features that sets it apart from other movies of the time is its mythos. It’s kind of fascinating because often times when you look at horror movies that try to deepen the story, you get a lot of backlash. They’re not necessarily films that are considered popular. Think of remakes where they try to go in and explain everything, like Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Whenever you get more information than you want, those films tend not to do very well. Why do you think the Blair Witch is different? Why do you think there was such a voracious need to know the full story?
Ed Sanchez: I think it was just the story that Dan [Myrick] and I came up with was kinda perfect for mythology building. The idea that the movie was about this filmmaker that was obsessed with the Blair Witch and thus went out and shot a film and disappeared. So for us, it was like, we have to make this mythology deep enough that the actress playing Heather, who ended up being Heather Donahue, is going to have enough information to feel like this is real, you know, like this is real in her head. I think people get really impatient with movies that explain too much. And I think Blair Witch, if you really actually look at the movie, doesn’t explain much at all. You have to go back and there really is no explanation for what happens, but you can uncover the facts about the mythology.
It was the perfect idea to have a website, to have a documentary, to have a comic book. It was a really great idea for all this marketing that came after, but for me and Dan, the big thing that we wanted to do was not over explain anything. Even to this day people ask me, “What is the Blair Witch and what happened to these kids?” and I say, “Well, I just know that something bad lives in these woods.” It doesn’t have to be physical, it’s some kind of weird mojo that I can’t explain, Dan can’t explain, but it’s something that was there before before Blair. Before all the stuff happened with the witch, you know the Native Americans knew about it. It’s this mythology that goes deeper than most films, but also we didn’t put it all into the film. We left it open-ended where you can make up your own theory about what happened. Because even you said, as soon as you explain too much it loses its mystery and it becomes boring.
Mike Monello: I actually think that’s that’s core, but there’s another aspect too which is how people experience the mythology. I mean the first part was what Ed was talking about when we were making Curse of the Blair Witch. Ed was always saying that there has to be question. That you never answer a question, right? That there’s pieces of evidence that might bolster one side or another slightly, but it can never answer it. A mythology is filled with questions, it’s not answered. And I think some people mistake answers or reasons or something that happened for a mythology and that’s not it, that’s more of a history.
The other thing to think about here is that, unlike Halloween, people interacted with the Blair Witch mythology before they saw the movie. There was the website that was incredibly sparse and really only begged more questions. And you had the dossier which, correct me if I’m wrong Ed, came out right before the movie.
Ed Sanchez: Yeah it was right around the same time.
Mike Monello: Right, and you had Curse of the Blair Witch, which aired on SCI FI Channel [Ed. note: now the SyFy Channel] several times before the movie came out, so a lot of people received the mythology. They were getting the puzzle pieces, but they weren’t seeing the whole picture. It wasn’t until they saw the movie that they could put the pieces together and understand how Rustin Parr and that story made sense with the film. It was this big puzzle and this movie was the missing piece, but even when you got that missing piece there was still tons of questions That were not answered. Or once you got that missing piece it just created more questions. And I think that’s really key.
Julia Myrick: I think one of the big mistakes people can end up making once you get used to the machine of the film business is, you’re going to get executives saying, “Please explain everything.” If I explained everything then all this logic isn’t going to work. Ghost stories are interesting because they’re ghost stories. Ghost stories aren’t interesting because you tell the backstory first. Blood Mary isn’t interesting because of the history of Bloody Mary, she’s interesting because she shows up in the mirror.
You experience the mystery and for the people who want to delve into the mystery, which ended up being quite a lot of people, that ended up being accessible to them. That drove more and more of this intensity of experience but it is that sparsity, that fear, that unknown that is the most important aspect of the story.
When it comes to doing this kind of work, fabricating history, taking a story and going in the opposite direction, what is that creative process like?
Julia Myrick: It was so much fun coming into the end of it because we had this museum piece that went along with it and describes all of the history leading up to Blair Witch itself. In the Curse of Blair Witch, the documentary that Mike was the producer on, we’re also fleshing out the material. Christian Gueverra was fabricating the documents and Ben Rock, who was instrumental from the very beginning, was delving into the story of the Bell Witch.
It was interesting getting into the historical details of the time period and saying okay this is how it would tie in here and the history of Maryland and all that stuff. It’s been a long time since, but it’s fun to be a part of crafting this backstory to something that already has this emotional driver. It would be like someone coming up to you and saying, “Please tell me the lead up to this Bloody Mary story,” and you’re like, “Well, let’s look at the 1700s and 1800s okay so you said this happened here, so lets look at the documentation of that time period and how people will describe things.” It’s just a really fulfilling experience
Ed Sanchez: Yeah it was fun. Dan and me kind of left the mythology, at least when we were making the film, to Julia and Ben and there was a lot of mythology going on outside and we just gave them rules like, we want an episode every 50 years or so, you know the basic history. You know Burkittsville became Blair became Burkittsville and that’s where the history of Burkittsville starts.
We wanted each instance of the mythology to be believable. To be kind of hard to believe, but also physically possible. We didn’t want it to be like they woke up and everyone was dead. We didn’t want it to be that kind of crazy thing. We wanted it to be this folklore of somebody said that this kid disappeared and there was only a foot of water in the creek. It could’ve been the kid drowned or it could’ve been supernatural. It doesn’t have to be the Blair Witch. That was the key to us. Keeping it very nebulous or as much as we could, you know?
Julia Myrick: When you’re creating something that people want to believe in, it’s an interesting position. At the time we really didn’t know that Blair Witch was going to be so huge, and yet there were indications already. Like private investigators calling and that sort of thing. So it begs the question of, how moral do we need to be in what we’re crafting?
Dan and Ed and I all said the same thing. We’re not here to hurt anybody, we’re here to tell an interesting story. It needs to be believable to a degree, but we don’t want anyone to waste their time. That’s the first level that you start thinking about. So going in, you’re like okay here’s this story that happened at this time. Rustin Parr was hanged, that was one of the issues we had to get around. Like what’s the legal ramifications? If you kill a bunch of children would you be hanged for that? How would that happen? Oh, this is very light for hanging in United States history, so let me work around that. Then it gets into, who’s names do I use for this? Should we use real people? No, absolutely do not use real people’s names. Should I use real places for this county court house? All of that sort of stuff. And so what struck me was trying to be careful with the material so you crafted a good believable story, but one where at certain point people would sort of not believe it. But also how easy it was to have people want to believe the material too. They were like I want this to be true and I want to build upon what you’re doing and I want to add to it. Even within the film itself, like Ed, didn’t you just go see the woman with her baby where she was like, “Oh yeah, I know that story,” and the baby’s like, “No, no, don’t say it,”?
Ed Sanchez: We just had the Blair Witch Experience that the fans do every year. It gets bigger every year, the fans love it, and we just go to some of the locations and then we end up where the stick-figure forest is and we build stick figures and we leave them there all year round. We built a huge one this year. We’re really proud of it. It’s a great experience but yeah, the little girl who’s now a woman and the woman who is in the movie, none of us filmmakers met her. That was someone that Heather had interviewed I think in Brunswick. We actually had a hell of a time trying to find her. Right, Mike? Like trying to find out who she was. They didn’t have a release and we tried a bunch of stuff to find who she was but we had never met her. So she came to this Blair Witch Experience and I didn’t know that she was gonna be there and I was like, “Oh my god, I love you guys,” and I ended up asking them questions for 15 minutes. Why did you do that? Why did you make up all this shit about the Blair Witch? And you know she said she felt bad for Heather because Heather was trying to interview a lot of people, but no one really knew about the Blair Witch. So she kind of just made it up. Then Ingrid, her daughter, she said that that’s what she would do all the time. When she was tired and wanted to go home she’d be like, “Stop talking, mom.” It’s one of those moments that played perfectly and we couldn’t have directed and it’s just one of the many things that happened while we were making the movie. You know these happy surprises that ended being really great parts of the movie.
Julia Myrick: It’s an interesting example of how people will participate in the story. She knew nothing, she felt sorry for Heather. She was like, “Sure there’s a Blair Witch.” So if you viewed it like it was a rumor you’d say, “Oh, sorry, yeah, I heard about that rumor, I heard that was true.” And now suddenly you have more evidence and why would she say that if it wasn’t true? Obviously this is really the story in this area and then other people were like, “Oh, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this story. I must not be paying attention.”
Mike Monello: If you think about it, that’s driving our political discourse. I mean you know what happens now is people see all kinds of memes. They’re getting information from memes that are kind of false. People will mock up fake Facebook posts from someone denying whatever it is or changing the story and then people walk around and go, “I saw this it’s real,” and they don’t remember where and they don’t remember how and they don’t know that they saw it from a meme on Facebook, which was nonsense or whether it was reported in actually news. And and that’s how the disinformation that we’re surrounded by happens, it’s the same process.
Julia Myrick: What was also interesting was the journalists wanted to be part of the story as well.
Ed Sanchez: I mean that was really a key for the buzz growing around the movie early on. We had submitted to a couple of festivals and we think that somebody at Sundance made a dub of the VHS tape that we sent them and just made copies. The idea that people were spreading this tape around almost like The Ring you know, like the tape from The Ring. It’s almost like there’s so many stories, especially in the industry, because you can get copies of anything within the film industry as long as you use it for professional things. So people were getting these VHS copies of Blair Witch and when I first met Robert Rodriguez because he told me, “Man I saw the movie and then I took the VHS as soon as I finished it and I went to my sister’s house and I told her that it’s totally real and then I sat there and watched it with her as she totally freaked out.” And that’s a common story of people introducing the VHS to people or people taking people to the movies and saying, “Oh my god yeah this is real,” and kind of getting in on the joke.
Julia’s right that people genuinely loved to be a part of it because it was just a good old fashioned ghost mystery. People really felt that they could easily be a part of it and I think a lot of people pushed it and that really helped build the buzz of the expectation of the movie.
Julia Myrick: I also feel like when people get information from obscure sources, they trust obscure sources the most, right? They’re like I found this, I stumbled upon this. Someone had a tape in an unusual way and is now part of an inside secret. And the inside secret must be true because it was hard to find, right? Even though you may be getting this information from a very odd place that normally you wouldn’t trust, for some reason that odd place makes it even more likely and very true to you. Whereas, if it’s packaged and commercialized… And now audiences are much more savvy so you would have to get things to them in an even more obscure way than we even did before.
I’m glad you guys mentioned politics, memes and these kind of murky sources. I was reading an interview with the folks behind Ghostwatch (aka ’92’s War of the Worlds) and the director was saying that she doesn’t believe that these kind of movies could be made anymore because they aren’t scary. I think with the way that people are haphazard about their news sources and their sourcing of any information… These are the kind of films that are going to start hitting people hard. Especially when you look at young people and how they film their activities day in and day out. If you are constantly utilizing Snapchat, or Instagram to film your everyday life, it’s no long insane that someone would film their entire trip into the woods or that someone would film something weird happening in their house at night. You know? You no longer have to cross that threshold to explain that to kids because they already get it.
Julia Myrick: Yeah that is true, that is interesting because I know Dan and Ed were like how are we going to justify? There’s so much work put in to Heather’s motivation to continue filming in a deathly situation. You’re right, of course you’re filming you’re own death right? Oh you’re falling off a cliff and you’re snap chatting yourself all the way down.
Ed Sanchez: Yeah I mean why not? People videotape themselves committing crimes all the time and don’t think about it. It’s a lot more acceptable now than it was back then.
Do you think if the movie would’ve came out today, do you think it would’ve been scarier than when it was originally released? Or do you think it would be about the same?
Ed Sanchez: I was just talking to a UK podcast about Ghostwatch. He was asking if we had seen it before we did Blair Witch, and I hadn’t seen it and Dan hadn’t seen it but, we obviously saw it after. I think Blair Witch came out at the perfect time. Mike and I talked about where the Internet was, and the fact that you could check things out, but you really couldn’t check things out. And not that all the information on the Internet is 100% accurate now, but if you go to a respected source, you can get pretty accurate information. Back then it was kind of just a free for all, you know? I think it was like the perfect place because now once you said you know Heather Donahue disappeared, everybody would check Facebook and all the social media platforms so you’d have to do this whole thing of hiding the actors or whatever. It was just the perfect time and the perfect film and it was a very small film and it was this experiment that just worked. And so I think found footage movies have changed since then. I think there’s just a kind of different vibe. You’re right as far as the idea that there still is room for something in the vein of Blair Witch, and the vein of Paranormal Activity to work.
Mike Monello: I agree. The mythology would have to be delivered in a different way. You definitely couldn’t play the, is it real? Is it not real? angle. That was definitely a different time.
When you look at some horror stories that came from the Internet like Slender Man or Five Nights at Freddy’s, these are stories, these are mythologies that have been created by communities. It’s not that different. Someone started that and then a bunch of people built on. That’s really the same process as Blair Witch. When you look back you into the Internet time machine and look back at some of the fan sites that originated around Blair Witch, there were some people that were extending the mythology. I remember there was one guy that played the role of the private investigator and was writing his own stories investigating the mythologies of the Blair Witch and people were playing with the mythology in their own way. And the Slender Man stories and the Five Nights at Freddy’s stories are all doing the same thing. They’re just being told in a different way. So people people love these kinds of mythologies and these kinds of stories and they they love to play in those worlds. So I think you can do it, it’s happening now it’s just happening in a different way.
Julia Myrick: People would jump in and they would extend the mythology just like the mother and her kid for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s for a kind reason, sometimes it’s because people want to be the center of attention, sometimes it’s because they enjoy being part of something that’s entertaining, but it made it feel even more real. They created it and released this world-wind, this driving force and it just keeps going.
Ed Sanchez: With fan fiction and fan cuts and fan films and all of that. You know the stories that take root in imagination. This is not behavior that came out of the internet, this is something everyone has done before the internet. As kids we would sit down and we would draw Star Wars comics and things like that. We were making up our own stories. We just couldn’t share them. The only thing the internet did was allow people to share them. Those behaviors haven’t changed. It’s just the Internet has connected us all and made the sharing more visible.
You guys have brought up the marketing machine around Blair Witch a couple of times and I’d love to ask you a little bit about that. Obviously, you had the website, you had the missing persons flyers, it was a full thing. Did that make you more aware of marketing power when it came to your next projects? Did you more think of it as a necessary evil?
Ed Sanchez: That’s just what indie film makers do when you have nobody pushing your movie and you’re the only one that’s going to be pushing it. All the stuff that we did prior to Sundance was just us trying to be our own marketing department with the limited resources we had. We did the flyers and we did the posters for Sundance and we had the website up before Sundance. So we did all of this. It was a very home grown thing. Then Artisan bought the movie and they became really great partners. They really understood the idea. It was really a great experience and it kind of spoil us. It’s very difficult to get that kind of collaboration between film makers and the studio these days. Unless you’re doing a big tent-pole movie. As an indie film maker you have to constantly promote what you’re doing.
Julia Myrick: What I was struck by from the very beginning was was how lucky we were to see. We could really see the gears turning in terms of why this marketing was needed. From the very beginning it all started with Split Screen. Dan and Ed had basically a teaser on Split Screen and they had a bulletin board on there where people were talking. Immediately that got flooded with people. So nobody was really talking about it before because they were like oh yeah a little indie TV show with these little indie films, there’s not much to say about them. Then Blair came on and everyone was like, “I want to know about this… Where is the website for this?” And Ed got the website up and they’re like, “You don’t have enough information up here what’s this what’s this?” And so a lot of it was we have to keep these people’s attention because we clearly got them.
Mike Monello: You know what Julia… John Pierson actually called us up, do you remember this Ed? John Pierson called us up and told us we had to put a website up because this discussion on the Split Screen forums was getting to be too much. Talk of Blair Witch was overshadowing everything else and it was, in his mind, ruining the indie film community. I remember sitting down with Ed and we were like what are we gonna do? And Ed, you had a Microsoft web packet. And what you see is what you get builder and a thing where you would hit a button and it would deploy a message board system for us. We did not start the website with the intent of marketing. And I know it’s viewed as marketing, but I think it’s really important to recognize that I think if we had sat down and said, “Okay we gotta build a marketing strategy for this website.” I’m not sure the website would have been done the way it was done. The reality is the website was put up as a request from John and then you know to Julia’s point, once people came into our little forum to start talking and hanging out, it became, “Whoa what are we going to do now?” The film wasn’t even near done and we’ve got an audience that we now have to entertain. The website and what was put on the website was material that wasn’t originally made for a website. It was originally made for Heather Donahue and Mike and Josh to be able to improvise from and have this background story. When that stuff started going on the web, it was much more organic. It was it was in reaction to the audience, which is why I said the mythology was kind of built out in the public, in reaction to fans that were experiencing it.
Julia Myrick: In the early days of the Internet I felt like an audience participant at the same time. So I would get all excited to see what the ideas were. One of the ideas was, I don’t know if this was Ed’s idea, was a hidden pixel that would turn into a clickable link that would have hidden material, the stuff that was recovered by the police. Mike has spoken about this a lot with his marketing. You have these mavins, these obsessive information gatherers who would sit and go across every single pixel in the screen. And they got so excited about this and they kept on coming back. And now a days you’d be like nobody’s going to release information about dead children with hidden pixels, that’s that’s obviously a con, but at the time people we’re very excited about it. At some point, I’m pretty sure it was an obsessive person that was a pixel clicker, got onto a radio show and started talking about the mythology and talked about the website. So one morning we all woke up and I think it went from 100 to 200,000 views over night and I thought the counter was broken on the website.
Ed Sanchez: It shut down the server because there was too much traffic.
Julia Myrick: And you’re like what’s going on? I don’t understand what happened. It just spread like a plague after that and then you had all these people on the forum talking talking talking and you’re just trying to keep up with their enthusiasm.
Mike, I want to go back to what you mentioned with Slender Man and Five Nights at Freddy’s. I feel like this is something that’s come up in the last three maybe four years… Why do you think we are getting a resurgence of this urban legend-based, folklore-based horror? You have the Slender Man stuff you also have Channel Zero, you have the Lore podcast, which is now an Amazon show. Why do you think this resonates now?
Mike Monello: That’s a good question. In the case of Lore, but even in the case of YouTube, what we have is is people speaking to each other and and making media for each other. Even something like a podcast, which can sound professionally produced, most podcasts are just people with an idea who get put a little bit of money together and start telling a story. These are just really intimate forms of storytelling, right? Podcasts are different from radio and and we’re starting to see a podcast form emerge. Usually when people listen to podcasts they have headphones on and that means the person is right in your ears as opposed to just in your car or on a speaker in the room. The kind of storytelling that comes out of podcasts is very intimate and I think this kind of story, this kind of mythological story works really well in that intimate setting. It’s kind of like that classic campfire story where everyone is leaning in to hear the speaker, to hear the person telling the story. You’re not being shouted at, it’s being whispered. And I think that this kind of folklore, mythological story works best in that way.
The Lore Amazon show is kind of interesting in that it starts off with an animated segment, and then it goes into a live-action segment, but the the narrator is like a podcast narrator speaking to you as opposed to speaking through a film. So we’re seeing these these types of storytelling emerge and I think people are discovering both what’s the right story to tell and what’s the right format to tell it in. We have so many more opportunities. It’s not just a 30 minute sitcom, a 60 minute drama, a 90 – two hour featured film, a book, a short you know now they can take. You can write a five page fan fiction and put it out on a platform that reaches millions of fans, you know? The formats are changing.
Blair Witch really created a new sub-genre of horror that we’re still seeing play out. I mean you know people jump between found footage and first person and all of these other kind of sub-genres, but there are still just so many stories that are being told that are based off of Blair Witch, are there any stories or ways of telling stories that you would like to see in horror right now that you’re not?
Julia Myrick: This is silly because it’s not just what I want to see, but it’s what I want to see it pulled off because I can’t figure out how you would pull. Blair came from a very natural place and so now what I want to see is a group of clever people, which I think would have to be a group of 50-60 people, creating a story from their location and saying, oh this is true. And they’re building it on Facebook and they’re bringing in crowdsourcing and building it from there with the goal that you want to feel like you’re apart of this creepy scary story and you’ve been included in the group. And you know, Mike has actually done some interesting things like that.
Ed Sanchez: Yeah, yeah, Mike’s on the cusp of this thing this type of stuff really.
Mike Monello: I think where there’s going to be real potential is things that are much more participatory. Like when you go online you expect to be able to input something on your computer and have something come back. Which means that things like Netflix are amazing, and there’s a lot of traffic running through Netflix, but Netflix is still a passive experience. Once you click start you just sit back and watch. We’re seeing the Steven Soderbergh choose your own adventure thing that HBO is doing, and we’re seeing experiments in participatory and interactive storytelling. Even these mainstream companies experimenting with VR, which I’m not convinced is necessarily the best storytelling tool. We’re seeing Netflix working with interactive children’s programming and the word is that it was a successful experiment and we’re going to start seeing programming for adults that is interactive.
I think that interactivity is going to be amazing for horror. It’s going to take a while, but someone is going to be able to exploit that. The thing about horror is that almost every horror movie starts off with somebody inviting the horror in, and I think that once you add that participatory element, it’s going to be amazing. I think we have the possibility of doing that now, but the big challenge is the economic challenge and the financial model. People could do that now on the web but they don’t because there’s no way to monetize it. Once these platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBO, once they start developing their platforms to include participatory activity, then I think there will be a way to monetize it and I think we’re going to see an explosion of this type of storytelling. It’s going to be pretty intense. I suspect that a great horror storyteller will probably be one of the first out of the gate to exploit it and make everybody go, “Oh that was amazing.”