Driving into Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg Thursday night, I found it impossible to ignore the signs on the trees: “MISSING. On October 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams hiked into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary film on a local legend, ‘The Blair Witch.’ They were never heard from again. One year later, their footage was found.”
Call it suburban legend folded into cinematic enigma. The Blair Witch Project suggests that student filmmakers who set out to make a documentary on a Frederick County witch who snacks on children ended up as the second course. The film, produced by Haxan Films and distributed by Artisan Entertainment, spooked everybody who saw it at Sundance and drew screams of approval at Cannes. The Web is full of speculation about what the documentary actually documents, producing another wave of hype. Which is precisely why DC 101 was flooded with calls from people who wanted to attend a free screening in the woods where the station suggested the three students supposedly disappeared.
Whether you believe the film is fiction or fact—as some fans maintain—the obvious intention of the film’s co-writers/directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez was to scare the crap out of us. I can’t say the same for the premiere. Maybe it was all the shiny, white DC 101 banners throughout the park or the citronella flames flickering softly in the breeze, but I didn’t feel like fleeing in terror, even for a second. Amid coolers, beach blankets, and lawn chairs, the atmosphere was reverie, not anomie, largely because the audience had mostly won the prized tickets in a call-in contest.
DC 101’s DJ John Ballard explained, “People were begging us to let them buy tickets to this. I think a lot of people are buying into it.” The fact that the stars/missing persons are Montgomery College film students made its burgeoning success almost scary for one Gaithersburg woman: “It’s gonna be a cult classic, and we’re like, right in the middle of the beginning of this cult.”
Not all filmgoers were frightened out of their wits. A 70-something park ranger overseeing the doings noticed something else about the film: “I thought it was made by the mafia. I haven’t heard the ‘F’ word that much since Goodfellas.” —Amanda Fazzone