Fourteen years ago, an innovative film called The Blair Witch Project, directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, proved a surprise hit and forever changed the horror genre. It remains to this day one of my favorite horror films. It’s also a metafictional film, revolving around a made-up scenario that is presented as fact: the mysterious disappearance of its three main characters. If you didn’t know that The Blair With Project was a fictional movie, you might easily mistake the case presented in the movie, and especially the mythology surrounding it, as a real missing persons case.
This article is not a review of the movie, but rather an analysis of what the “Burkittsville” or “Blair Witch Three” case would be like if it had really happened in real life.
A disclaimer: I do not believe in ghosts or the supernatural. Although that’s the main point of the movie, I’m going to analyze this fictional case exactly the way I would analyze a real-life missing persons case.
What do we know?
According to the movie and the buzz around it, the story goes like this: nineteen years ago this week, on October 20, 1994, three students from Montgomery College, Maryland–Heather Donahue, age 22, Joshua Leonard, age 23, and Michael Williams, age 24–traveled to Burkittsville, Maryland on a filmmaking project. Donahue was reportedly working on a documentary about the “Blair Witch,” a colorful bit of local folklore. After spending the night of October 20-21 at a local motel, the three young people hiked into the nearby woods. After conversing with two fishermen on the morning of October 21, a Friday, the filmmakers hiked into the Black Hills area. Due to their conversation with the fishermen, they were believed to have been headed to “Coffin Rock,” a nearby landmark. This was the last anyone saw of the three.
Four days later, on Tuesday, October 25, local police discovered Joshua Leonard’s car parked on Black Rock Road. Aside from evidence that the three had traveled in it and likely left it there intentionally, there was no relevant evidence found.
If this was a real case, these clues would be pretty straightforward. We would know where the three were going, where they had last been, and authorities could probably narrow down a search area with reasonable precision. The search itself would be a massive undertaking, very heavy on manpower, as you’d have to search a pretty large swath of dense forest and physically look over every inch. But if, after such a search, no trace of these three were found, you would indeed be left with a pretty unusual mystery even by the standards of missing persons cases.
The Geography of The Blair Witch Project
As it turns out, the filmmakers fudged a bit on the real-world geography of the setting, which would have been crucial in trying to solve the case. Geographically the most important clue would be the location of Joshua Leonard’s car. I could find no “Black Rock Road’ in the vicinity of Burkittsville, Maryland, and there does not appear to be a “Black Hills Forest” officially named in the area, though there is a “Black Hill Regional Park” near the city of Germantown. What I take to be the forest referred to in the movie is the forested area to the north of Burkittsville, Maryland, which you can see in this Google Earth shot.
The “Blair Witch” forest. Burkittsville is at the bottom left. Click for a larger version.
The real film was shot in Seneca Creek State Park, some distance away in Montgomery County, Maryland. Although it looks very forbidding in the movie, this would be a difficult place to get lost in for very long in real life. The park is barely a mile and a half wide and ringed pretty much on all sides by populated areas. Here is a Google Earth shot of the filming location (again, click for a larger version):
What Could Have Happened?
In real life, this case would indeed be mysterious. An accident of some kind in the woods would be the leading theory if we were dealing with one person, but the fact that there were three–all young, in good physical shape and apparently not intoxicated, addled or with other compromising conditions–would complicate this theory. Essentially, you would be looking at a situation perhaps where one of the three suffered an accident, such as falling into a river or something along those lines, and the other two went to aid him/her and suffered the same or similar fate. In almost all cases like this, however, you’d have at least one body turn up, if not all three. Then it wouldn’t be a missing persons case and it would be easy to piece together what happened. In real life I would tend to discount this theory for the same reasons I disbelieve the “River of No Return” story in the real-life Bickwit/Weiser case.
The next universe of possibilities would involve foul play. Natural elements can easily swallow up one person without a trace, but if we’re talking about three people who vanished together, this suggests some conscious design to make sure they were never found. If the three young people met up with bad people and were murdered, why, and what was done with their bodies? Unless the forest was a hangout for drug dealers or other miscreants, the chances of murderous mayhem occurring there–and mass murder to boot–are essentially random. We’d therefore be thinking in terms of serial killers or other forms of random violence, which is grisly to contemplate, but at least possible.
What would the “found footage” do to the case?
Of course, the twist in The Blair Witch Project is the detail that a backpack belonging to the three, containing film footage they shot in the days surrounding their disappearance, is found a year later in October 1995, and this is the footage you see in the movie. It depicts the three getting lost in the woods, becoming increasingly hostile and distrustful of one another, and frightened by incidents they seem to interpret as the “Blair Witch” stalking them. The final portion of the footage may or may not suggest that at least two of the three were murdered.
In spinning the mythology, The Blair Witch Project website describes the “found footage” thusly:
After an initial study of the bag’s contents, select pieces of film footage are shown to the families. According to Angie Donahue [mother of one of the disappeared], there are several unusual events but nothing conclusive. The families question the thoroughness of the analysis and demanded another look. The families are shown a second group of clips that local law enforcement officials consider to be faked. Outraged, Mrs. Donahue goes public with her criticism and Sheriff Cravens restricts all access to the evidence; a restriction that two lawsuits fail to lift.
Not to be a wet blanket, but if this were a real case and I saw the footage depicted in the movie–particularly the “murder” scene in the cabin–I would probably agree with the police and begin looking for evidence of fakery. This would definitely complicate the case, though; now not only do you have to account for three missing able-bodied young adults, but you also have to explain who would try to fake “evidence” of their murder, and for what reason.
If they were murdered, what killer(s) would incriminate him/her/themselves even slightly by shooting footage of the crime and leaving it for police to find? Logically that makes little sense, and even mad-dog serial killers who murder for pathological reasons are almost always rational in the way they plot, commit and try to conceal their crimes. This alone would suggest the “murder” footage is faked. But beyond a pecuniary motive in doing so, what would be the point? The only conceivable people who would have anything to gain from inducing a pat conclusion of “Oh yeah, this proves they were murdered” would be the Burkittsville Three themselves–which would suggest they vanished voluntarily and left the footage behind as a red herring.
In the real world this would be extraordinarily farfetched, but that doesn’t mean it might not have happened. If this was a real case, I would expect it to engender a tremendous amount of publicity, which would mean you would have unconfirmed “sightings” of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams being reported for years afterwards, probably none verifiable. This case with all its strange trappings would easily attain the sort of fame that the McStay family case has engendered in real life.
The Blair Witch Project is a spooky, well-made, entertaining movie. Part of its entertainment value lies in its unique ability to draw you into its mythology as a participant rather than just a passive observer. I’m convinced that’s why the film grossed $248 million at the box office–an extraordinary, nectar-of-the-gods return on an initial investment of $22,000. As a fictional missing persons case, it’s less plausible than most real cases, but it’s very clear that if a real case did have these characteristics, it would be an extraordinarily baffling one.
I don’t believe in witches, but if this was a real case, there is little else I could come up with that would be any more plausible as a solution.