That Literally Happened!, a new show from BuzzFeed News on Facebook Watch, is revisiting some of the most memorable moments of the ’90s. In this week's episode, we're tackling scary movies.
Horror films today are constantly billed as scarier than any movie before, but one movie released 20 years ago gave audiences such a huge fright, some left the theater wondering if what they watched was actually real.
The Blair Witch Project premiered in 1999, captivating audiences with a unique filmmaking technique known as “found footage.” The low-budget movie followed three friends — Heather, Mike, and Josh — into the woods as they set out in search of the paranormal, with handheld cameras in tow to record what they found.
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Many audience members were unfamiliar with the technique before Blair Witch, leading to some consequences unique to the pre–social media era.
The movie’s marketing campaign was designed to convince the public that the footage was real through extensive online lore around the fictional legend of the “Blair Witch” and missing posters featuring the actors distributed at screenings.
“So people definitely believed that the film was real,” Blair Witch star Michael C. Williams told BuzzFeed News. “Even people that knew my family back then.”
Williams explained how his relatives began receiving condolence messages from friends who saw the film and truly believed he had met a grim fate in the woods of Maryland.
“I think we probably pissed a lot of people off,” Williams remembered of the reaction after the truth was revealed. “But imagine pissing people off when they find out you’re alive! They’re angry about that. That’s odd.”
Even after the creators and stars of the movie admitted it wasn’t real, rumors of the actors’ deaths persisted.
“So it was pretty easy to figure out, but the truth is that people want to believe there are forces in the world that are acting on our lives that we have no control over,” Michael Monello, one of the producers of the film, told BuzzFeed News.
The movie wasn’t just a unique experience for audiences. The creators and stars of the film shared some of their behind-the-scenes memories from the low-budget production.
Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made a point of minimizing their interactions with the actors throughout filming and making the experience as authentic as possible by forcing them to camp in the woods.
“Somehow they trusted us enough to let us, you know, kind of mess with them and build this world around them,” he explained.
All of the dialogue in the movie was improvised, with the actors only basing their performances on notes delivered to them in film canisters — sometimes pitting them against one another with conflicting directions.
The production was so loose that the directors weren’t even sure about the film’s climactic ending scene until days before shooting began.
“We had no idea how we were going to end the movie, and what we knew is what we didn’t want,” Myrick told BuzzFeed News. “We knew we didn’t want like a frickin’ alien to come out of the woodwork or some bad witch costume or something like that.”
Ultimately, Myrick and Sánchez landed on the unsettling ending in the Blair Witch house, with the characters being attacked by an unseen force off-camera. But the actors were still kept in the dark until they set foot in the creepy abandoned building.
Michael Williams explained how horrible he felt knowing that his direction was to run from his costar Heather inside the haunted house, leaving her terrified and screaming.
As Williams reached the basement of the house, he recalled being thrown to the ground by one of the film’s producers.
“And I remember just feeling this sense of relief, and he’s whispering in my ear, ‘Get up! Go stand in the corner! Go stand in the corner!’” he explained of one of the most iconic and lasting scenes of the movie.
The tough on-set experience of the actors paid off in the end, capturing raw emotion that terrified audiences. The film made nearly $250 million in its run despite being shot on a paltry $60,000 budget, and its influence on popular horror movies can still be seen 20 years later.
Williams still works as an actor, but is focused primarily on his work as a middle school guidance counselor. Joshua Leonard has continued to act steadily, appearing in shows like True Detective and Bates Motel. Heather Donahue no longer acts and found a new career growing medical marijuana in 2008. She published her memoir, Growgirl, in 2012.
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