Burkittsville, MD

September 20, 2007 — Burkittsville, MD.  Home of the Blair Witch.  Sort of.  This article’s going to be a hard one, I know.  It’s about a miniscule town of no intrinsic notoriety that eight years ago for sudden, random reasons became known worldwide as home to a fictional character from an international movie phenomenon that saturated popular culture thoroughly enough and recently enough to make it not that interesting of a topic anymore.  Plus, it's been exactly that long since visiting the town was a cool thing to do.

That's okay, though. Perspective is always a great excuse for being late to the party. Give me a chance, and I’ll see what I can do with it.  Between you and me, though, I think I’ll be lucky to hit 1,000 words.  And sometimes my desk chair chafes me.  I think it’s because of the fake leather.

Despite those strikes against the topic, I feel impelled to write about Burkittsville and The Blair Witch Project anyway, for personal reasons...that I’m about to share with the Internet.  I started following the web whispers about the movie project long before it hit theaters for the mere fact that it was a horror movie set in Maryland.

You see, at the same time I was a horror movie fan set in Maryland.  Other states might be used to being film locales, but unless it’s a John Waters flick, Marylanders don’t get to revel in that too often.  Also, about a year or so after the movie’s release, I found myself living only a couple of minutes from the actual town of Burkittsville.  In fact, my town shared an exit sign with it.

And, I just found out by researching this article, I also lived for a short time directly across the street from one of the non-Burkittsville filming locations in the interview montage at the beginning of the movie. Oh, and on top of all that, it turned out that Rustin Parr and I had the same taste in wallpaper.

First, a bit about The Blair Witch Project.  People often judge this film using the standard of a narrative story with crafted dialogue, a measurable plot, and composed scenes.  Stop doing that.  For tons of reasons.  The relevant one here, though, is that the film was more of a film experiment than a scripted movie.  In other words, it was “something interesting to try.”  Actually, those are really good words.  I would love for people to say that about anything I do, success or failure.

Others try to write the film off as having already been tried as Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 or The Last Broadcast in 1998.  To them I say, well, this:  Cannibal Holocaust was a fictional movie that used raw footage of some people’s end days as a centerpiece.  The Last Broadcast was a fake documentary that used raw footage of some people’s last days as a centerpiece.  The Blair Witch Project was just unadorned raw footage of some people’s last days.  Um, centerpiece.  Now that I phrase it like that, I can see how one’d get confused, but it’s a valid and unique enough idea that somebody should’ve given it a shot.  Nothing like weighing in on an argument a decade later.

Second, a bit about the town.  Burkittsville managed to exist for about 180 years without anybody ever hearing about it.  That’s no surprise.  The town has basically no commerce and is literally a cobble-stoned intersection of about 200 residents.  Your college dorm was more populated, and it at least had vending machines.

Set in that bit of Maryland that just starts to taper as it stretches west, it’s near the border of both Virginia and West Virginia...and not so far from Pennsylvania, either.  It’s a pleasant, rural part of Maryland that, though not exactly the fictional Black Hills of the movie, is still surround by nicely forested hills and open swathes of farmland...that would be completely terrifying if you were lost in them at night.

The town is basically made up of a pair of churches and a strip of houses.  At the aforementioned intersection lies Union Cemetery, the only part of the town actually filmed for The Blair Witch Project.  Most of the rest of the film was located 40 miles away in state parks closer to Baltimore and DC.  Burkittsville itself is definitely old enough and backwoods enough to make it a credible basis for supernatural folklore.  Also, as in most parts of this most border of states, the Civil War clomped its brogans all over the place, so the area’s seen its share of war death.  Three minutes down the road from Burkittsville (just past an abandoned church outside the downtown) is Gathland State Park, with its towering War Correspondents Memorial and its many “The Civil War was here” signs.

History for some reason always equals ghost stories, and Burkittsville has its share, I’m sure.  The only one I know is Spook Hill (like the abandoned church, located on the road between Burkittsville and Gathland State Park). On this hill, it's said, if you put your car in neutral, mischievous Civil War dead will push it uphill.  I’ve never been able to make it work, though.  The dead are unreliable, in my experience.

You can get to Burkittsville off Route 340, which connects Frederick, MD, and Harper’s Ferry, WV.  Just take the Burkittsville/Brunswick exit and then turn in the exact opposite direction of the Sheetz (which is the only time I’ll ever give that direction...Sheetz is a road trip oasis).

Third, a bit about the town’s relationship with its Blair Witch affiliation.  No surprises here.  Some embrace it.  Some decry it.  All think it a little foolish.  It’s enough of an issue, though, that they have to mention it on their web site.  Go there, but I’ll sum it up for you:  “We’re significant because of the Civil War.  We’re significant because of our rural character.  Don’t ask us about the Blair Witch.”

Apparently, visitors pilgrimaged to the town during the summer of the movie’s release and then two months later at the ensuing Halloween, stealing signs, graffiti-ing churches, vandalizing tombstones, and buying souvenirs from residents.  It was a bad enough experience for them that it caused the town to turn down the opportunity to be a shooting location for the sequel.  Although I wasn't there for that original monster mash, I did make it for the furor of the sequel’s release when Burkittsville hired a private militia, preemptively vandalized itself, and changed its town slogan to “Oh no, not again.”  Where was I?  Camping in a nearby woods, of course.

Fourth, a bit of an epilogue.  It might be procedurally backward, but I re-watched the movie the night after returning from Burkittsville.  Right when I got to the climax scene at Rustin Parr’s house...the one with the bloody children handprints), I realized this article would be incomplete without a visit to that house.

After a bit more searching than I thought I would have to do, I discovered it was called the Griggs House, and that it was located behind an old Nike missile radar base in Patapsco State Park just outside of Baltimore in Granite, MD. Unfortunately, it was torn down a few years back.

Last, an actual epilogue.  The Blair Witch Project isn’t the first time a storyteller created an imaginary ghoulie and then given it an actual geography.  Washington Irving did it with the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1820, around the time of the founding of Burkittsville, incidentally.

Sleepy Hollow was a semi-fictional name he gave to an area just outside of an actual town called Tarrytown in the Hudson Valley region of New York.  That area eventually became known as North Tarrytown and retained some of the landmarks featured in the story.  These days people love to visit it for that explicit reason.  And North Tarrytown not only loves the attention, they revel in it.  In 1996 North Tarrytown officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow.  Its high school mascot is a headless horseman.  The residents chuck flaming jack-o-lanterns at each other when they get bored.  Check out its web site in comparison to the Burkittsville web site that I sent you to earlier.  Maybe Burkittsville should take a lesson.  Then again, maybe I shouldn’t make suggestions to entire towns.

Ha.  1,400 words.  Not that anybody’s made it this far to know.