On this day in 1999, The Blair Witch Project, a low-budget, independent horror film that will become a massive cult hit, is released in U.S. theaters.
Shot with shaky, handheld cameras, the documentary-style movie told the story of three student filmmakers who disappeared into the woods and were never heard from again, although their footage was later discovered. With the help of a Web-based viral marketing strategy–a relatively new concept at the time–The Blair Witch Project generated huge buzz over the question of whether or not it was based on a true story. In fact, the story was entirely fake. Fake or not, it didn’t matter at the box office: The Blair Witch Project grossed some $250 million worldwide and was featured on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines.
The Blair Witch Project followed the young filmmakers as they went into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. The filmmakers got lost and experienced a series of scary events and unexplained phenomena, such as strange noises and piles of stones being inexplicably re-arranged. The trio never returned to civilization, but their film equipment was supposedly found and the footage they shot became The Blair Witch Project. Unlike other horror films that featured bloody scenes and special effects, The Blair Witch Project scared moviegoers through implied terror and violence.
Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who met as film students at the University of Central Florida, wrote and directed The Blair Witch Project. The two filmmakers had their lead actors–Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard–improvise their lines based on private messages each actor received during filming. To make The Blair Witch Project seem more realistic and heighten the psychological tension, Sanchez and Myrick reportedly did things to agitate the actors during production, such as shaking their tent and cutting back on their food supply. They also had the actors do their own filming, and the resulting grainy, black-and-white footage became a Blair Witch trademark.