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BLAIR WITCH: Bewitching History

 The anticipation preceding the low budget fright-film, The Blair Witch Project, owes a great deal to the elaborate backstory created by the filmmakers and shoved onto the internet, helping to build a faux-scenario onto which the audience could project their own dark fears, says ANDREW L. URBAN.

It begins like this: "February 1785: Several children accuse Elly Kedward of luring them into her home to draw blood from them. Kedward is found guilty of witchcraft, banished from the village during a particularly harsh winter and presumed dead." The filmmakers call it the Timeline, and it is very similar to the technique used by writers and actors and directors when creating a backstory for characters. The backstory need never be evident in the actual film, either in spoken form or in any other way - but it can help 'ground' the actor for his characterisation.

"The fun that can be had in creating a mythical witch is endless"

Similarly, the Timeline created about the events that manufactured a mythical witch in "a community two hours drive from Washingon DC" establishes intricate details that help build an apparent reality. And it doesn't matter that none of this is ever on the screen; it's a 'ghost' device quite appropriate to the film. Very clever from a marketing point of view, even if unintentionally so.

The first rule when creating a fantasy that can pass as reality is to change as little as possible; hence the perfectly normal name of Kelly Edward is corrupted into a slightly odd Elly Kedward, which in the context assumes a sinister aura. And we're off…. (The only real names that appear in this story are those of the three actors, who don't take character names - a nice irony, and another element in the making of the illusion.)

The fun that can be had in creating a mythical witch is endless. And simple: "November 1801: The Blair Witch Cult is published. This rare book, commonly considered fiction, tells of an entire town cursed by an outcast witch. 1824: Burkittsville is founded on the Blair site."

This is great sleight of hand! The carefully assembled but artificial backstory declares the possibility that the Blair Witch Cult book is considered fiction - but then gradually builds a case history denying the denial, drawing us in even deeper, having tackled the furphy issue head on.

    "feeding our imaginations"

The backstory now begins to grow more complicated, feeding our imaginations:

"August 1825: Eleven witnesses testify to seeing a pale woman's hand reach up and pull ten-year-old Eileen Treacle into Tappy East Creek. Her body is never recovered, and for thirteen days after the drowning the creek is clogged with oily bundles of sticks."

Oily bundles of sticks, for those who haven't yet seen the film, are indeed significant; this is a nice touch, to echo the detail from the Timeline to the film.

And a while further along the Timeline, this touch of genius:

"May 25 1941
An old hermit named Rustin Parr walks into
a local market and tells the people there
that he is "finally finished."

After police hike for four hours to his
secluded house in the woods, they find the
bodies of seven missing children in the
cellar. Each child has been ritualistically
murdered and disemboweled. Parr admits to
everything in detail, telling authorities that
he did it for "an old woman ghost" who
occupied the woods near his house. He is
quickly convicted and hanged."

The grisly stuff had already begun, back in 1886, adding horror to the paranormal.

So just before the final entry in the Timeline, the story has reached this:

"October 20 1994:
Montgomery College students Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams arrive in Burkittsville to interview locals about the legend of the Blair Witch for a class project. Heather interviews Mary Brown, an old and quite insane woman who has lived in the area all her life. Mary claims to have seen the Blair Witch one day near Tappy Creek in the form of a hairy, half-human, half-animal beast."

"a thousand darkened cinemas around the world"

Even little glimpses of this Timeline would fuel the fervour of young film fanatics eager for new thrills, especially in this overworked but under developed genre. Recent screams will fade away as the Blair Witch strides, unseen, vaguely heard and wildly imagined, across the screens of a thousand darkened cinemas around the world.

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Andrew L. Urban talks to Blair Witch Director

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