Think twice before looking for witches in Burkittsville

Looking for hell in all the wrong places: Part 2-Too beautiful to die

By David A. Chiodaroli

Staff Writer

In 1999, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez released The Blair Witch Project, arguably the scariest movie about college kids fighting over a map since, well, ever. The movie gained notoriety for the fact that it was shot entirely on a handheld VHS camcorder, used a cast of unknown performers, and passed itself off as a real tape found as part of a police investigation. In the end, this method of filmmaking, which was done to overcome the film’s shoestring budget, helped The Blair Witch Project stand out at the box office, and also make a ton of money in the process. The film made close to $300 million off a budget of $60k, and exposed a generation of young people to the legend of the Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland.

Except that none of it was true. Despite what my childhood friend insisted throughout my youth (I know you’re reading this, Sam), not only was the movie a work of fiction, but the legend of the Blair Witch didn’t exist before the film came out. That didn’t stop legends of fans from visiting Burkittsville, which went from a sleepy farming community of less than two-hundred, to a stop on every horror fan’s mid-Atlantic road trip practically overnight. The result was mixed, according to Burkittsville resident Jodie Brumage, who works at the town’s historical society.

“Overall, I’d say that the impact was both good and bad,” Brumage tells me. “The initial impact was probably the bad part.”

Brumage tells me that Burkittsville was unprepared for the onslaught of tourists who flooded the town after the film’s release. With the unexpected spike in visitors came numerous reports of vandalism, leaving the town’s residents more than a little annoyed with Tinsel Town. It’s easy to see why; traveling through the streets of Burkittsville, you get the sense that it is a town suck in a time capsule. Buildings from the 19th century abound up the narrow, two lane roads, while the town cemetery is filled with generations of long dead townsfolk spanning back several decades. Yet despite its antebellum charm, I should suspect that visitors looking for a creep factor would be disappointed.

You see, Burkittsville is very well maintained; the streets are clean, the houses are kept in picturesque condition, and the aforementioned cemetery has been cared for with a sense of dignity and respect not known to other places of eternal rest. As my girlfriend and I walk up and down the streets, window shopping and admiring the stunning views of the Appalachian Mountains, I get the feeling that Burkittsville doesn’t deserve to be associated with a film that launched a genre that many cinephiles have come to loath. In the years since The Blair Witch Project’s release, the found footage genre skyrocketed in popularity, then plummeted down to earth, with a series of lackluster movies that used the found footage gimmick as a substitute for lazy filmmaking.

Ironically, Brumage tells me that the bulk of the problems associated with the movie happened after the much-reviled sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch Project 2, was released. While the original was mostly shot outside of Burkittsville, Book of Shadows saw much of its principle photography take place in the town, exacerbating an already difficult situation. All of this culminated in the town’s residents creating its own advisory board called FACT, or the Film Advisory Committee of the Town, which keeps track of various reports made to the police associated with Blair Witch tourists.

Despite all of this, though, Brumage insists that the film’s lasting impact has been positive for Burkittsville, which has adjusted to its influx of tourists and now welcomes them with open arms.

“We’re almost twenty years out now from the release of the original film,” Brumage says, “and the good is that it brings lots of people to Burkittsville.” He goes on to say that the town is “at a point now where we could look at it for its historical value, and that Burkittsville had a part in that.”

Before we leave, I learn from my colleague Ricky of a nearby hill where, apparently, if you put your car in neutral, the ghosts of long dead Civil War soldiers will push it up. Naturally, my girlfriend and I decide to check it out, but alas, despite doing everything I was supposed to do, my car rolls backwards, not forward. Perhaps the soldiers were on leave for the weekend, or maybe they have a bias against Kia and decided I wasn’t worth their time. But perhaps it, like the Blair Witch Project, is just a legend, a figment of the imagination that is now an integral part of a town too beautiful to die.

Photo by David A. Chiodaroli

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