The thing that devoured Burkittsville

Movie: The press and the tourists descend on the tiny town in the wake of the success of `The Blair Witch Project.'

August 09, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

BURKITTSVILLE -- A specter haunts the picture postcard hamlet of Burkittsville in the Civil War country of Frederick County and its name is "The Blair Witch Project."

"The Blair Witch Project" is the summer's surprise superhit movie, a candidate for the scariest film to screech out the millennium with. Made for about $30,000 by a pair of post-graduate Gen-X moviemakers, the "B.W. Project" has racked up $36.1 million in three weeks at a rate that makes "The Runaway Bride" look like she's in a crawl space.

Shot like a home video documentary and cooked by a hyperactive Web site -- 2 million-plus hits -- and a Sci-Fi Channel info-promo, the "B.W. Project" recalls the impact of Orson Welles' fake "War of the Worlds" radio newscast.

In 1938, Americans reacted hysterically to invading Martians; 61 years later we're scared silly by the Blair witch.

Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez shot scenes in the Burkittsville Union Cemetery, where some of the witch's victims are supposed to be buried, and a couple of frames of one of the four signs that said "Welcome to Burkittsville." One was stolen as soon as the film opened so the town put the other three in storage.

But Mayor Joyce Brown says most of the tourists on the Blair witch hunt have been "polite and considerate of our property."

"Personally," the mayor says, "I have seen more reporters than visitors."

Still, new chains and padlocks close the cemetery gates to automobile traffic, and Frederick County sheriff's deputies park outside the graveyard as the sun sets beyond South Mountain.

Michele Beller, 37, the town clerk who's lived here all her life, says someone early on scrawled chalk marks on a couple of tombstones.

"And the weekend the movie was first released we were sitting around on the porch and one of the kids said `Look! There's something up there glowing in the graveyard.' I said. `Oh, God, here we go!'

"So we looked and there was something glowing and my husband went into the graveyard to see what it was and someone had lit a candle, put it in a bag and set it on top of one of the stones."

Most of the townsfolk (Burkittsville's population is 214) seem more bemused than alarmed by the influx of visitors. Although when a reporter asked Louise Prior, who offers Burkittsville postcards on eBay, about a visit, she replied with an e-mail plea: PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE!!!!!!!!!! THANK YOU.

And hardly anyone in town has seen the movie. Amy Smith, 16, a local beauty queen, went last weekend when it opened in Frederick.

"She said `Oh, it's stupid,' and I said, `OK, why did your mother say you slept with the lights on?' " Beller says.

On a warm, sunny midday afternoon, Burkittsville is a charming and lovely town with two church steeples rising above the trees and rooftops. The cemetery rises on a hill behind the churches, the defunct Resurrection German Reformed Church, which now houses the South Mountain Heritage Society, and the faintly Georgian St. Paul's Lutheran Church.

Both churches and many of Burkittsville's 72 homes -- about two-thirds date from before the Civil War -- served as field hospitals during the Battle of Crampton Gap, a prelude to Antietam in September 1862. The only ghosts in Burkittsville until now have been the Civil War dead.

See for himself

Shortly after noon, Robert Roakes, 18, a chunky mechanic with a thorn tattoo ringing his right biceps, rolls up to the cemetery gate in his gleaming yellow Dakota 5.9 R/T. He saw the movie the night before and practically drove straight up from Woodbridge, Va.

"It was hard to make it home, I was that much shaken," he tells Beller. "Don't go see it at night. I don't know if it was real or not, but you won't catch me back in these woods because of what happened to them."

"Nothing happened to them," Beller assures him. "None of that's true."

"What's your last name?" Roakes asks. "It wouldn't be Blair, would it?"

Beller assures him there are no Blairs in town.

He wanders off into the cemetery in search of the graves of children dispatched by the witch who lured them into her house to drain their blood.

Mayor Brown says there are no witches in Burkittsville.

"I've lived here 35 years and never seen a witch," she says.

Lisa Vivino, an ice hockey mom, drove her three kids all the way down from Verona, N.J., to wander around Burkittsville, which in fact is not a big wander. She screened the film for sex and violence before taking her children. She only found fear.

"They were terrified," Vivino says. Her kids sort of nod agreement. Lauren, a wide-eyed girl of 10, wears a Blair Witch T-shirt. Chris, 16, wears a Yankees cap. And Eric, 12, wears an amused smile.

A very fit blond woman who manages a municipal pool in Montclair, N.J., and coaches ice skating, Vivino is a true believer: "I found myself more frightened two days later. It sticks with you. I said we have to find this town."

But there was no way she was going to sleep here.

"Not here," she says. "I'm too afraid to stay in this town."

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