The Blair Witch Project was a fictional horror movie, but due to its innovative marketing techniques, many viewers walked away thinking it was a true story. The 1999 found-footage film was written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The Blair Witch Project created a viral storm of suspicion but it has been credited as influencing a new segment of horror in the decades that followed.
Presented as a documentary, The Blair Witch Project followed Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, three young, aspiring filmmakers. The trio traveled to Burkittsville, Maryland to hike the Black Hills area in order to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch, a ghost that haunted the area after being banished for practicing witchcraft. The local lore suggested that the witch, Elly Kedward, had forced a hermit, Rustin Parr, to kidnap and kill eight children in the 1940s. After the filmmakers disappeared, the recovered footage led viewers to believe that they were lured and killed by the witch while filming their documentary.
When Myrick and Sánchez were developing a movie in the early '90s, they realized that documentaries on the paranormal were much scarier than typical horror movies. This notion inspired the way they tackled The Blair Witch Project but rather than allowing audiences to know that it was pure fiction, they decided to trick potential viewers. Prior to the film's release, a website was set up that featured fake police reports indicating that the events were true. At festivals and early screenings, flyers and missing person posters were handed out to lead audiences into believing that the students featured in the movie did disappear, and that The Blair Witch Project was a true story.
The buzz created by these marketing campaigns created a nation-wide debate whether it was a fictional found-footage project or a real-life event. For over a year after the release of The Blair Witch Project, the creative team kept up with the fictional story, stating that those featured in the film were still missing or presumed dead. It also helped that Myrick and Sánchez developed extensive mythology behind The Blair Witch Project. Besides creating the fabricated legend of the Blair Witch, they created a mockumentary, Curse of the Blair Witch, that aired prior to their movie's release. This added fuel to the fire leading audiences into believing that Elly Kedward and Rustin Parr really existed. In reality, the names were anagrams of historical figures with Elly coming from Edward Kelly and Rustin taken from Rasputin.
Over time, the truth about The Blair Witch Project came out but that didn't stop its legacy. The movie was one of the most successful independent films in recent memory, much of which was credited to the hype stirred up by the marketing. The film also inspired a number of other found-footage projects within the horror genre. Since the movie's 1999 release, it has spawned an entire franchise including Blair Witch sequels, books, comics, and even a Blair Witch video game.