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A town's 'Blair Witch' curse

COLUMN ONE

In tiny Burkittsville, Md., the landmark horror film was nothing but a hassle for residents. Tourists clogged streets, signs were stolen. Now they're hoping an EBay souvenir sale will bring a little compensation.

May 31, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Burkittsville, Md. — — It's been 11 years since the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" set their horror movie out here in the middle of nowhere and changed this little town of 180 people forever.

To this day, tourists occasionally wander through Burkittsville and ask, "Where's the witch?"

"There isn't one," the townspeople say, fatigued. "It isn't real."

The 1999 movie shot in eight days on a shoestring budget made a mint. It got four stars from Roger Ebert and went down in Hollywood history as a cult classic.

All Burkittsville got out of the deal was a spooky reputation, a convoy of weirdoes offering to exorcise the place and four metal "Welcome to the Historic Village of Burkittsville" signs that rusted in the rain.

The reputation they can't do much about. It's hard to convince people you're not haunted when you've got a cemetery in the middle of town, tended by a guy named Happy.

The rusty signs, however, are another story.

The citizens of Burkittsville will decide in an election Monday whether to sell the signs — bought for them by Artisan Entertainment, the studio that distributed the independent film — on EBay.

If they vote to keep the signs, it won't be because they love "Blair Witch" lore; they hate "Blair Witch" lore. It will be because Burkittsville, which looks almost exactly the way it did in the Civil War, never throws anything away. An outhouse used by one resident until the county shut it down 30 years ago is still standing; the mayor wants to turn it into a garden shed.

What is perhaps most amazing is that there are people who would pay money for anything related to a movie about three college students who meet their scary demise in the Maryland woods while filming a documentary about a witch who kills little kids and drinks their blood.

Town leaders think Burkittsville could make $3,000. That's small compensation for all the trouble caused by a film that grossed $249 million. But it could pay to fix some broken sidewalks.

The fourth sign isn't for sale, because it was stolen by souvenir-crazed movie buffs. And that is just the beginning of a tale with this moral: Never let Hollywood make a horror movie in your town.

***

The independent filmmakers never asked Burkittsville's permission. If anybody noticed the day the "Blair Witch" crew showed up in the fall of 1997, nobody said so. People here like to mind their business and leave well enough alone.

Burkittsville, one mile square and an hour's drive from Washington, D.C., has been operating this way for 200 years: Whenever possible, don't change anything. A suggestion a few years back to put speed bumps on Main Street sparked a war between those who wanted cars to slow down and those who wanted the street to look like it did when Abe Lincoln stopped to water his horse.

So one can imagine the shock when, in the summer of 1999, residents started getting e-mail from total strangers asking "Is the witch still doing things?" and describing the woods outside of town as treacherous, even though everybody knows if you walk long enough in any direction you will eventually run into a person or a cow.

Soon they figured out their town was in a movie — actually just the graveyard and a two-second shot of one of the gray and blue welcome signs posted at the four entrances. But that was enough.

Burkittsville was swarmed. Cars and tour buses jammed Main Street. Residents couldn't get into their driveways. Souvenir hunters dug up cemetery dirt. Tombstones were vandalized. Kids, accustomed to riding their bikes with no hands down the farm alleys, were instructed never to play outside alone.

Debby Burgoyne, the current mayor and a Girl Scout leader, found a strange man standing in her living room one morning. He thought there was a tour.

"It was crazy," Burgoyne said. "People with cameras were everywhere. I made sure I had full makeup and a great nightie before I went out to get the morning paper."

The wooden welcome signs, suddenly an iconic symbol of the movie, were promptly stolen. The townspeople were stunned. Crime here, what there is of it, tends more toward broken windows.

The town replaced the signs with four more. Three were stolen before Larry Beller, then-city councilman and a cement truck driver, took the fourth to his house for safekeeping.

Burkittsville switched to metal signs, a little too 20th century for residents' tastes but harder to steal, or so they thought. The movie company picked up the tab, the town's only compensation if you don't count the $20 Nicole Beller, 9, made selling green lemonade to the tourists, or the money made from rocks and dirt Linda Millard dug up from her front yard, which people actually bought.

It wasn't that Burkittsville didn't try to make the best of its unwelcome fame. Margaret Kennedy, a local artist, sold T-shirts with little stick figures like the movie logo until Artisan Entertainment slapped her with a cease-and-desist order.

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