In 1997, two directors and three unknown actors disappeared into the woods, toting handheld cameras and a concept.
Two years later, their footage scared up almost $249 million.
Now it’s been 20 years since The Blair Witch Project in all its haunting, low-budget glory landed in theaters and launched a new genre of horror movie: found footage. (The idea wasn’t conjured out of thin air, but it certainly didn’t become a full-fledged thing until 1999. Same with that shaky, hand-held camera technique. That took some getting used to as well, and there were reported occurrences of nausea and vomiting.)
Boosted by a rather ingenious marketing campaign that teased the film entirely as the product of tapes discovered in the woods of Burkittsville, Md., after an unknown but presumably horrible fate had befallen three student filmmakers, The Blair Witch Project benefited from the kind of organically grown anticipation that’s hard to duplicate these days. Not to mention, no one was racing to Facebook or Twitter to spoil the fun.
The movie spawned its own online universe, including a companion “documentary,” Curse of the Blair Witch, probing the “events” in the original film, as well as countless imitators and spoofs, Heather Donahue‘s infamous up-the-nose monologue being ripe for parody.
What it mainly did upon arrival, however, was not only terrify audiences, but also make them question what they had just seen. By the time they were actually sitting in the theater, most moviegoers knew they weren’t watching real people in peril, but they still weren’t entirely sure of what was happening—making The Blair Witch Project a movie that merited watching and then rewatching to catch what they missed the first time.
In honor of the groundbreaking film’s 20th anniversary, here are 20 things to know about the production and what really happened in those woods. Sorry if you have nightmares, again.
(Needless to say, SPOILERS AHEAD)
“I guess we did a good enough job with it, and people bit into it hard and believed it,” Myrick said in a 2014 interview for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Academy Originals. “That created this sort of new genre of found footage.”
“It shows that the right idea can still be as big as anything Hollywood has to offer,” Sánchez added.
On a summer day in 1999, with a line wrapped around the block, E! News enlisted Heather Donahue and Michael C. Williams to chat up unsuspecting moviegoers at L.A.’s Nuart Theater—and they got rave reviews.
“I thought it was real until I just saw them standing here,” said one young man who was about to see The Blair Witch Project for the second time, having just watched it the day before. “You did a good job.”
Added his companion, “For something that wasn’t real, it looked real to me.”