Witch crafted

Julia Fair made up an entire history for 'The Blair Witch Project,' complete with yellowed documents and paraphernalia. Soon, she'll be here to explain her conjured artifacts on display at the Maryland Historical Society

April 27, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

From Civil War notables to Harry Truman and the Duchess of Windsor, the Maryland Historical Society has celebrated plenty of history-makers in its 156 years, but apparently nobody has yet lectured on the art of making up history.

Now comes Julia Fair, historian of the twitchy horror film "The Blair Witch Project," a purported documentary that frightened millions of moviegoers last summer. She'll lecture on faking history for a fake documentary.

"There are now real answers about the true fake Blair Witch history," she says.

Fair will be at the Historical Society Sunday afternoon in conjunction with the Maryland Film Festival, which opens today. Much of her "Blair Witch" paraphernalia is included in the Historical Society's elaborate and exhaustive movie-struck exhibit "Filming Maryland, a celebration of films made in Maryland," which runs until Oct. 8.

Shot like a film school documentary for about $35,000 and percolated by a hyperactive Web site that received more than 2 million hits before its opening, "The Blair Witch Project" scared people silly and made an amazing $140 million, the largest percentage return in history. And the accountants are still counting.

"Blair Witch" professes to be made from movie and video footage found a year after three student filmmakers vanished in the woods near Burkittsville in Frederick County while trying to document the legend of the Blair Witch.

Given a certain suspension of disbelief, the film is convincing as a documentary and -- helped along by the Web site and screaming crowds in the theaters -- it convinced lots of people they were watching real events.

The Historical Society received more than 300 requests to see manuscripts and documents cited in the film or on the Web site, especially a copy of "The Blair Witch Cult." This rare book, which supposedly tells the tale of a town cursed by an outcast witch, was allegedly displayed at the society. In reality, the book was a children's book battered, aged and gussied up by Fair. The Historical Society had to create a form denying any Blair Witch artifacts existed in their archives.

"People wouldn't believe us," says Abby Lattes, the society's publicist. "They said, `So, that means you won't let us see it.' "

But now on exhibit are several documents and some of the video film packs, film canisters and audio tapes lost by the missing filmmakers, all of which were created for the back-story of the film with Fair's help. She's an excellent researcher of the false, fake and fictitious.

"I guess we can say we now have the real fake manuscript on display," Lattes says. "History is nothing more than the belief in the senses, the belief in falsehood." -- Frederich Nietzsche

When we caught up with Fair, 23, on her cell phone, she was cruising through Orlando, Fla., where she lives. She was getting her grandmother's 1930s wedding dress in shape so she can wear it at her own wedding. She's marrying Dan Myrick, a "Blair Witch" director, in July. But she doesn't say where or what day. Maybe she wants to avoid the Witch.

The Blair Witch is a vengeful old haunt who has orchestrated the disappearance and murder of children in the neighborhood of Burkittsville every few decades since 1785, the year she was found guilty of witchcraft and banished from a town called Blair, which preceded Burkittsville.

Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wrote, directed and edited the film and made up the Blair Witch.

"I tried to put it in historical context," Fair says. "I researched the times and the history of Maryland."

In the history Fair helped make up for "The Project," Blair was abandoned by the townsfolk who feared it was cursed after their children disappeared.

Burkittsville, according to Fair's film history, was founded on the site of Blair in 1824 by a railroad magnate who wanted to exploit limestone deposits in the area.

But there are no limestone deposits, no Black Hills Forest for anybody to disappear in (much of the film was shot in Patapsco State Park), no earlier town called Blair, no missing children or filmmakers and no witch.

"There is a true history of Burkittsville," says Fair. "There were really two farmers who founded Burkittsville."

The real Burkittsville is a charming, sleepy, crossroads hamlet where Civil War wounded were treated during the Battle of Crampton Gap, a prelude to Antietam.

Myrick and Sanchez actually filmed only a few scenes in the Burkittsville cemetery and a shot of the town sign "Welcome to Burkittsville," which was promptly stolen when the film opened and became an unexpected and unlikely smash hit. The residents were a bit unnerved when a steady stream of fans flowed through town in search of Blair witchcraft.

Fair has never been to Burkittsville and says she's not going. "They'd kill me," she says. A local historian told her, "You're ruining the history of my county."

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