Avoid the twigs. That’s what David Hochman told himself on January 24, 1999, after a midnight showing of a little indie film called The Blair Witch Project. It was a typically chilly night in Park City, Utah, where Hochman was covering the Sundance Film Festival for Entertainment Weekly, and the movie he’d just watched was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. It opened with a prologue that read: “In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. … A year later their footage was found.” What followed was spliced-together bits of shaky Hi8 video and black-and-white 16mm film footage from the wilderness, punctuated by the three students’ increasingly paranoid arguments, desperate screams, and, eventually, their demise. Hochman left the Egyptian Theater and wandered through the woods to his condo, terrified and wondering whether he’d just watched a snuff film, or an entirely new genre of horror flick.
“That first night it was like magic,” he remembers. Magic enough for him to get inside his head. “You felt like something was going to be out there. I remember sending notes to my editor that night, saying: ‘This is going to be something. I don’t know what it was, but this is going to be something.’”
That “something” was a cultural phenomenon that fundamentally changed the way we interact with entertainment. The Blair Witch Project’s principal photography cost a mere $35,000, but it went on to gross about $248.6 million at the box office—an indie film record at the time. Stylistically, cocreators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez conjured a new level of verisimilitude by embracing the equipment and amateur camerawork of the masses, spawning (or at least popularizing) the “found footage” horror subgenre. Promotionally, they extended their storytelling to both web forums and television “documentaries,” upgrading the concept of word of mouth to straight-up virality, and laying the groundwork for future internet folklore. As Adweek noted in 1999, the “little indie that could” left Hollywood “scrambling to figure out if guerrilla marketing on the Web is a blessing or a curse.” Out of nowhere, a troupe of University of Central Florida grads seized the reins of the internet and forged a new path for modern-day moviegoing.
“They moved the boundaries of make-believe from the margins of the movie screen out to people’s homes and cable television,” explains Doug Rushkoff, the media theorist who coined the term “viral” in his 1994 book, Media Virus! “The movie no longer started with the lights going down in the movie theater. They broke the rules of make-believe.”
Twenty years later, as streaming companies rush to embrace internet fandom and increasingly rely on digital communities to boost their content, Blair Witch’s rollout is now seen as a crucial lesson in modern movie marketing. It was a moment when the setting, characters, and story lines of a film could find new life on separate mediums, pushing fans to engage with entertainment on a deeper level. Its influence was personal, rooted as much in the strength of its fan base as it was in the mythos of the story. How did its creators pull off such a monumental viral sensation when the term “viral” was barely mainstream? Like a lot of online phenomena, it was mostly an accident.
From the very start, The Blair Witch Project was meant to be a contemporary urban legend. Myrick and Sánchez met at the University of Central Florida’s film school in the ’90s, and bonded over their love of Big Foot and In Search Of…, the late-’70s unsolved mysteries show. They’d hang out at each other’s apartments and watch documentary-style movies like Ancient Astronauts and The Legend of Boggy Creek. “We just liked those old reality-based shows and how they kind of creeped us out as kids,” Myrick told Rolling Stone in 1999. “So we wanted to make a horror movie that kind of tapped into that. That fear.” Together, they dreamed up a witch named Elly Kedward. “The idea was somebody doing some kind of filming in the woods, and then coming up upon a really creepy house and going inside it and finding all kinds of satanic, ritualistic stuff,” Sánchez told The Week in 2015. “Candles, pentagrams—that kind of basic satanic stuff.” (Myrick and Sánchez did not respond to interview requests.) “We called it the woods movie, like shorthand,” says Michael Monello, a UCF classmate who, along with a few others, would reunite with Myrick and Sánchez to produce the project. “We would all say, ‘Hey, we should make that woods movie.’”
A few years out of school, the two fleshed out the idea and decided to shoot it independently under their collective, Haxan Films. They planned to tell their story in the form of a documentary, padded with faux news clippings and fake interviews that discussed how the missing filmmakers’ footage had been found in the abandoned home of Rustin Parr—a man who killed seven children in his woodland home in the 1940s and blamed their deaths on the so-called “Blair Witch.” (The Blair Witch, according to the eventual official canon, was exiled from the colonial town of “Blair, Maryland,” after being accused of letting blood from local children in the late 1800s.) After cutting an eight-minute promotional reel of that concept, they showed it to an indie film rep named John Pierson. “I said, ‘I can’t believe all of this. I’ve never heard about it,’” Pierson recalled telling Myrick in a 1999 Chicago Tribune interview. “And he said, ‘John, we made it all up.’” Pierson was so impressed that he invested $10,000 in the movie. He also ran two segments of the footage on his IFC television series, Split Screen, in 1997. “I think John started to get a little concerned about the way he was playing it,” Monello says. “And so at the end of the [second] segment he says: ‘So are the Haxan guys pulling our leg or is there really a witch out in the woods of Maryland killing film students? Go to SplitScreen.com and let us know.’”
In 1995, the internet was just transitioning from government-funded research project to commercial entity; in 1997, when Haxan Films was putting its promotional materials together, the general public was just learning how to use it. Only 23 percent of Americans were going online regularly, according to the Pew Research Center, and most were using painstakingly slow dial-up connections to do it. People found their way around the web via folksy browsers like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Google wasn’t founded until the following year, so users relied on search engines like WebCrawler, AltaVista, and Lycos, and discovery-focused services like Yahoo.
Before social media as we know it, people gathered in the forums of individual websites dedicated to their professional interests and hobbies. Many users were just learning how to make personal websites, and relied on kitchy web hosting services like GeoCities. (In 1997, the company had over 700,000 “Homesteaders.”) Those who were interested in pop culture also connected in the comment sections of gossip sites like Ain’t It Cool News, bulletin-board-style online communities like Echo, or cable TV companion sites like SplitScreen.com.
All that is to say, in 1997, there were fewer obvious destinations to talk about horror flicks on the internet than there are today. But still, with the help of Pierson’s call to action, curiosity about the Blair Witch mythos began to spread online. Every time IFC reran that Split Screen episode, the show’s online community board was flooded with people who wanted to know more about a creepy old witch and her alleged victims. It became so disruptive that Pierson called Monello and told him to build a website. “He’s like, ‘Your Blair Witch fans are destroying my film community and I need a place to send them,’” recalls Monello. “‘They should be over on your site anyways.’”
By then it was 1998 and the Haxan Films team was in the process of editing the movie. It was still arranged to include the docu-style backstory of the Blair Witch. YouTube didn’t exist, and their team didn’t have the resources to stream a video on the rudimentary website Sánchez had made. (The quality of online videos in the late ’90s was usually terrible, thanks to bad latency and low bandwidth.) Instead they lifted images and details from the story line and presented them as pieces of evidence. They posted pictures of rusty 16mm film cans and waterlogged Hi8 tapes that they claimed were found by University of Maryland anthropology students. A collection of stills from the film was captioned “twelve photos recently released by the Frederick County Sheriff’s office.” At one point, they even scanned pages of what they said was Heather’s journal, after it was found “buried beneath a 100-year-old cabin in the woods.” “A lot of the mythology was built by building the website,” Sánchez told The Week in 2015. “It got to the point where you had to fill in the gaps.”
One of the final gaps was Haxan Films’ role in the mystery. They decided to introduce themselves as the film company contracted by the parents of the missing students to edit the fabled tapes, and investigate the events they depicted. Modeling the site after Kevin Smith’s “View Askewniverse”—a website that hosted discussions about the connections between Smith’s movies—they frequently popped into forums to offer new tidbits related to the so-called investigation. “We had written ourselves into the mythology,” Monello says.
In today’s parlance, Haxan Films created an “expanded universe” for Blair Witch, long before anyone really knew what that was. They filled out a story line with enough rich details to fuel endless discussions. Soon enough, people became scholars of the mythology, and built their own websites to sift through the clues that blairwitch.com fed to them. The creator of one page called “The Blair Witch Project Chronicle” explained exactly how he became enamored of the legend: After his teenage son showed him the movie trailer, he searched for “the blair witch project” online and stumbled upon the website. “As I browse the history of the legend, which tells the creepy story starting with the witch’s first attacks on children, I slowly realize that I have goosebumps,” he wrote.
These days, every two-bit beauty blogger and their mother preaches the virtues of “engagement”—the online marketing principle that says interacting with your followers is the best way to get more of them—but in 1998, the Haxan Films guys were just touched that people were paying attention. “As an indie filmmaker in Orlando, Florida, with no prospects of where [their film] is going to be sold, just kind of having anyone interested in your work is very flattering,” Monello says. “We were able to talk to people, but still kind of maintain the world that we were building. We made intentional marketing decisions, but interacting with fans online was not an intentional marketing decision.” Meanwhile, Pierson was redirecting hordes of people on the Split Screen listserv to blairwitch.com.
Haxan Films did, however, do a few things that are now considered part of the core curriculum in the internet hype machine handbook. First, it created an email newsletter to update fans on the progress of the film—a communications channel that allowed them to speak more frankly about the filmmaking process without ruining the mythos they’d built over on blairwitch.com. Second, they made merch branded with the logo of the twig figure that was heavily featured as a prop in the film. “Basically that was our Nike swoosh,” Monello says. Third, the team turned to the channels they knew to be most accessible: their extended network.
Ahead of Sundance, Kevin J. Foxe, an executive producer on the film, held a screening in the East Village and invited friends, family, and every publicist he knew. To make things festive, the crew collected sticks from a nearby park, made them into their signature twig man, and hung them in the lobby above the snack tables. “We didn’t realize how psychologically traumatic it was for the audience,” Foxe says. “People just wandered out like zombies and didn’t eat the food and kind of freaked out when they saw the stick figures and wandered off into the Village.”
Separately, Foxe tapped into yet another underground distribution network when he printed a 35mm version of the film for Sundance: bootlegs. As someone who’d worked in post-production, he knew that office employees often made screeners for themselves. “I talked to the guys who just worked for $5 in the back room,” Foxe says. “I said, ‘Make copies, show it to your friends, do whatever you want.’” An unfinished version of the movie eventually made its way online, only further authenticating its “found” nature and fueling conspiracy theories around the mystery of the Blair Witch. In January, just ahead of the 1999 Sundance Festival, Ain’t It Cool News made its first mention of Blair Witch. The day Foxe hopped in his car to drive from L.A. to Utah, he turned on the radio to hear Kevin and Bean, an alt-rock L.A. morning show, talking about the movie. “I just listened to this going, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy! It’s crazy.’” He spent his 10-hour drive intermittently checking the number of visitors on the Blair Witch website, which grew from around 10,000 to 60,000. Though that was only a fraction of the estimated 16 million AOL members that existed around that time, it was still significant for a team with no mainstream exposure. (Especially considering that only 41 percent of American adults used the internet, and the most popular online news attraction was weather.) By the night of the movie’s January 24 screening, 100,000 people had visited the website. News outlets began picking up on the buzz. The legend of Blair Witch was taking root before almost anyone had seen it.
Though the record of Blair Witch’s initial underground fandom has mostly been lost to fallen GeoCities and broken URLs, its Sundance debut is part of cinematic history. Immediately after that eerie midnight screening, Artisan met with Haxan Films and purchased the distribution rights of the movie for $1.1 million. What Haxan Films had seen as a fun online side project, Artisan saw as the ticket to the film’s commercial success. And part of the deal they inked involved a roadmap of the marketing plan.
Myrick and Sánchez’s team would still play a role in fostering the burgeoning Blair Witch community online, but Artisan would use its resources to supercharge those efforts. As Jeff Gordinier would note in an Entertainment Weekly cover story a few months later—and as The Ringer is currently celebrating—1999 was a banner year for movies. Blair Witch was set to come out smack dab in a cyclone of summer blockbusters (Wild Wild West, American Pie, Muppets From Space) and pedigreed dramas (Summer of Sam, Eyes Wide Shut), meaning it had added pressure to stand out. On April Fools’ Day, Artisan relaunched blairwitch.com with more clues, and kicked off a college screening tour to stoke hype for the film among the young and internet-savvy. (Personal laptops were not yet widespread among college kids, but students were still more likely to have access to the internet.) The following day Artisan “leaked” the movie’s official trailer on Ain’t It Cool News and then to MTV. In July, they premiered a Blair Witch Project comic book.
In the year 2019, Artisan’s game plan is almost exhaustingly familiar. The slow, steady release of new, “exclusive” content to handpicked news sites and fan communities is in the fabric of every major movie release today. Casting rumors, set photos, costume previews, and the excited blog and social media posts that follow are standard practice; the rise of meme marketing has only bolstered the hype. A Star Is Born generated significant conversation online by way of its memeable trailer this past summer, and Bird Box recently capitalized on the gimmicky nature of its blindfolded characters, inspiring countless memes and igniting a viral challenge on YouTube and TikTok. In general, Netflix has banked its promotional strategy on teen fan bases and the average internet user’s fear of missing out. But in 1999, appealing to the online community—or even acknowledging it existed—was entirely new marketing territory.
“They were really using the idea of extending the film into these auxiliary products,” Dan North, a historian who has written about the “found footage” marketing campaign of subsequent films like Cloverfield, tells me. “They weren’t just using those to sell the film. They were using them as part of the experience.”
Haxan Films was intentionally ambiguous on its website for the sake of compelling storytelling, but Artisan’s marketing campaign manipulated the truth much more aggressively. Using the same documentary-style footage that ran on Split Screen, it aired a one-hour Blair Witch special on the Sci Fi Channel that was presented as truth, a week ahead of the movie’s premiere. (M. Night Shyamalan attempted to recreate this marketing stunt with Sci Fi for his 2004 film, The Village. But that time, Sci Fi was forced to admit it was an elaborate hoax.) They released a soundtrack for the film that was presented as a copy of the mixtape found in Josh’s abandoned car the weekend he and the two other filmmakers disappeared. Artisan even arranged for the three main actors’ IMDb pages to say they were “missing, presumed dead.” “That was decided without our knowledge even,” Foxe tells me. According to Foxe, and past interviews with Sánchez, Haxan Films had mostly agreed they would withhold context from—rather than lie to—the public, but Artisan pushed that line. “On the internet, it’s easy to establish your own reality,” John Hegeman, Artisan’s executive vice president of worldwide marketing, told Adweek that year. “That’s what makes it so much fun.” (Lionsgate, which bought Artisan in 2003, declined to comment for this story.)
Soon Foxe began to realize how powerful misinformation on the internet could be. He recalled a screening event in L.A. where he and Heather Donahue struck up a conversation with a fellow partygoer who believed Donahue had died in the film. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t convince him otherwise.
“I said ‘This is Heather, you’re talking to her,’” Foxe says. “He wouldn’t believe it. She showed him her ID. He’s like, ‘No, no, no, you’re not.’” It goes to show just how deeply people believed what they read online at the time. If IMDb said that Heather Donahue was dead, and a handful of confused media outlets and GeoCities sites confirmed it, then that was enough to convince this partygoer that she was dead. “The internet was the truth,” Foxe says. “It was like a second library.” Years later, Donahue is still grappling with what it felt like to be part of that phenomenon. “It’s quite a thing to crawl out from under: To have your obituary actually written when you’re 24, in both literal and figurative ways,” she told GQ in 2016. (Donahue did not reply to a request for comment.)
In Media Virus!, Rushkoff theorizes that, as the landscape to distribute information becomes more technologically advanced, stories that contain screens within screens will spread more swiftly than static reports. A story like the Rodney King beating didn’t become huge simply because it revealed police brutality, it became huge because someone caught that police brutality on tape. “In other words, once you’re watching media about media, you’re moving into the viral landscape,” Rushkoff tells The Ringer. “It’s like that moment in the dressing room when you see yourself in the mirror behind yourself at the same time, and you get a million yous down an infinite tunnel. Media just loves media. If you have a media story, the media can’t help but cover it.”
With Blair Witch, every element of Artisan’s marketing exploited so-called “found” pieces of media that could be passed around from online user to online user. And when it came time for the movie’s nationwide premiere, fans had devoured so many breadcrumbs that they were hungry for a whole sandwich. This was apparent to Haxan Films when they sent their email listserv the movie’s opening weekend theaters. “We started getting tons of people saying: ‘Hey, that’s not anywhere near me. How can I see the film?’” Monello says. “Our response was: ‘Call your local theaters and ask them to play it.’” This kind of rallying cry to fans is a common way to drum up publicity for a film today—especially for titles like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians that showcase a long-overdue diversity in their casts. But in the case of Haxan Films, it was mostly a happy accident. Fans phoned nearby theaters, which relayed their messages to regional managers, who sent in requests to Artisan. Week after week, the film opened in more locations. It was ultimately the 14th-highest-grossing film of 1999—earning more than American Pie and Big Daddy. Neither a horny teen movie nor a major Adam Sandler–led comedy could compare to the draw of found footage in the woods. As Myrick told Variety in 1999: “We were at the right place at the right time.”
The same subversive techniques that were heralded as ingenious marketing in 1999 are now also considered to be the nexus of mass media’s dysfunction. The Blair Witch Project rose to fame by blurring truth and fiction, exploiting the internet’s communication channels to deceive the public and profit from it. And though it would have been impossible for either Haxan Films or Artisan to predict the problems that would plague media in 2019, the film is an undeniable predecessor to viral hoaxes like “the Momo challenge” and the scourge of misinformation that still plagues social media platforms. “I hate to say it but we played a part of that,” Foxe says. “Were we the harbinger of fake news? I hope not. I don’t know what’s harmless or harmful anymore. I’ve lost track of everything. But that’s what you do, right? You start to slowly erode the trust factor.”
Still, in Monello’s eyes, Blair Witch is set apart by the quality time spent by fans dissecting the fantasy of the story. They wanted to weave elaborate theories, cross-reference evidence, and creep themselves out, years before they’d see the movie. It was a way to pique people’s imagination during a time when the internet was still largely devoid of video, and mostly used for straightforward information-gathering. In a way, the Blair Witch site was a precursor to both the rich fan-run subreddits and studio-sponsored brand “activations” of today. It should be no surprise that Monello is now the founder of Campfire, a New York–based marketing agency that has created immersive experiences for shows like Westworld and The Man in the High Castle.
“I think it was easy to look at the website and the fan base online and call it marketing,” Monello says. But he insists that when Haxan Films first made the Blair Witch website, it was mostly just fans interacting. “The story that was missed was how the internet was going to connect fans.”
A network of enthusiastic followers could have the power to directly influence the content its members want to consume—whether that comes in the form of a superhero series cribbed from a beloved comic book series or a Twitter thread that goes viral.
“The idea that fans are now connected was going to be so important to the future of the film industry,” Monello says. “It was going to change the kinds of movies that Hollywood was going to make.”
Long before the rise of Russian troll factories and easily manipulatable social media giants, Blair Witch exploited a budding online media ecosystem for the sake of pure amusement. It piqued the imagination of America and put Hollywood on notice, teaching viewers to demand more from their entertainment companies, and entertainment companies to cater to the most obsessive factions of their audience. Now, content creators big and small are practically required to maintain a constant conversation with the internet. This strategy has been especially beneficial to streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu. But 20 years ago, it was a groundbreaking idea that reshaped the way the public watched movies. Blair Witch extended storytelling beyond the physical confines of a movie theater, into discussion forums across the internet, supplemental TV specials, and, of course, on late-night walks through the woods.