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On The Blair Witch Project’s 20th Birthday, Heather Donahue is the Film’s Unsung Hero

On The Blair Witch Project’s 20th Birthday, Heather Donahue is the Film’s Unsung Hero

Three young documentary filmmakers go into the Maryland woods to make a movie about a witch and are never heard from again.

At least until their footage turns up a year later and reveals their terrifying ordeal and enigmatic fates. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s found-footage horror The Blair Witch Project follows Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mikey (Michael C. Williams) across enormous emotional arcs as their project begins all fun and games and ends in a battle for survival against unseen forces in the woods of the Black Hills.  

Filmed entirely by the actors using handheld cameras, The Blair Witch Project heralded an entirely new sub-genre of horror film inspired by technological developments of the late 90s. It was also the first to engage a viral marketing campaign that fooled audiences into thinking the movie was actually real and the three youngsters really had gone missing. The Curse of the Blair Witch “documentary” aired on a loop on the then-SciFi channel and also came with an eerie website featuring news clippings as well as various aspects of the creepiness that ended up in The Blair Witch Project.

Photographs of Rustin Parr — the man who killed Blair children in the 1940s — as well as possible etchings of the Blair Witch herself and the gruesome unsolved murders at Coffin Rock were presented as if they were real, adding an entirely new level of horror to The Blair Witch Project. Many people went to see the film not knowing the corresponding “documentary” and website were fiction. That combined with the shaky handheld camerawork had audiences literally getting sick during Blair Witch Project screenings. 

Filmed on a budget of $60,000 and eventually pulling in a record-breaking $250 million in profits at the box office, The Blair Witch Project remains the highest-grossing film of all time even now 20 years later. While the found footage genre has certainly developed into far more sophisticated productions, especially with the leaps and bounds of cameras, camera phones, GoPro equipment, and more, The Blair Witch Project remains completely iconic. 

A big reason for its lasting impact actually isn’t the unique handheld camera formula and the film’s brilliant move to keep the horrific events mostly out of eyeshot and earshot. Heather, Josh, and Mike were all trained stage actors whose performances are so natural and nuanced on camera it’s easy to forget that they are improvising their roles and characters almost the entire time. Directors Myrick and Sánchez utilized method acting techniques to maximize the impact of the film, leaving the three actors to fend for themselves in the woods for the eight days of filming while being terrorized by the rest of the production crew often without warning. You can literally hear the trio lose hope until that frenetic climax in Rustin Parr’s house. 

Heather Donahue’s work in The Blair Witch Project, in particular, stands out as especially powerful. Her arc begins with her as a confident team leader with an excellent idea for a film. After she and her colleagues get lost in the woods Donahue alternates between strength, panic, grief, and ultimately a reckoning with herself about her poor choices that put others in danger. The most remarkable thing about Donahue’s work in this movie is that she is rarely seen on camera. She brings depth and emotional nuance to Heather’s character through just her voicework and breathing. Her panicked breaths are so authentic I often have to stop myself from hyperventilating along with her. Her screams make my blood turn cold and gooseflesh pop out everywhere, even after seeing this film dozens of times over these past two decades. 

It’s extremely unfortunate that Donahue’s power and vulnerability as the main female character were dragged mercilessly by audiences and (male) critics alike. In particular, the scene where Heather is apologizing into the camera — a livestream or Instagram Story before there was such a thing — as she weeps a river has been mocked and belittled regularly for 20 years. But I’ve personally always found it tragic and darkly beautiful. Heather is an emotionally messy chick to begin with. That is okay. And in real life when people cry, snot happens. Capturing the rawness of that moment, as well as the abject terror seen in Donahue’s eyes as they dark around the haunted woods gives me chills every time. This scene to me makes The Blair Witch Project so real. Much more than the fake documentary and website ever did. 

But Heather Donahue wasn’t only vilified for her crying scene. She became the repository of a metric crapton of sexist hatred, being unfairly targeted to the point where her career and life were affected. Because casting agents weren’t able to separate Donahue from her disliked character in the film, her acting career never properly took off as it should have. Sadly, The Blair Witch Project also heralded the modern era of trolling, and especially of supposedly unlikable women characters. Donahue was undoubtedly an incredibly talented actress, and because of how people negatively perceived her character Heather in The Blair Witch Project that shadow follows her to this day. This puts a huge stain on The Blair Witch Project’s otherwise vital addition to the American cinematic tradition. 

The Blair Witch Project might not be the best version of the found-footage film — its 2016 sequel Blair Witch actually gives the original quite a run for its money. But since The Blair Witch Project was the first of its kind, its place in the horror canon will always be secure.  

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