'Witch' hangs around for a spell

It's just after dusk about eight minutes from my house -- a good time and place to watch the tourists. Cars with license plates from such far-flung places as Minnesota, Georgia and Indiana drive from one end of town to the other looking for landmarks. Generation Xers sporting black T-shirts and cameras pad enthusiastically down the sidewalk. Out-of-towners gawk.

It's a familiar feeling for anyone who lives in a major city. The problem is, I don't. Last winter, I put my Washington, D.C., condo on the market, got married and semiretired from a career in politics. Burnt out on the urban warrior life -- and the constant visual backdrop of strolling Bermuda shorts -- I was ready for greener pastures, which I found outside D.C. near a little town by the name of Burkittsville, Md. Sure enough, I got 'em. Until The Blair Witch Project, that is.

Pedestrians used to be a rare sight in Burkittsville, which has a population of fewer than 200 residents. But these days, they're all over the place. They're looking for the graveyard and other spots featured in the blockbuster movie about three students who disappeared in the woods while filming a documentary about a fictitious witch. The tourists come with the idea of re-creating the "Blair Witch" experience and meeting the colorful locals who were featured in the movie, which was made by five guys from Orlando known collectively as Haxan Films.

;;Of course, those of us who live in the Burkittsville area wonder where these people are, too. Sure, we recognized the brief pan across the acres of farmland that flashed on the big screen. But the wild-eyed characters who live in trailer parks or fish at Coffin Rock don't live here or anywhere else in the Valley, as we like to call the Middletown Valley. And it's impossible to get lost in the woods around our area for more than a day. The creepy part of the movie was actually not even filmed here.

Oh, and there's no witch, either.

Until recently, the only spook in our midst was the Snallygaster, an ancient legend spun by the German immigrants who settled in the Valley hundreds of years ago. The Snallygaster is supposed to be a large, pterodactyl-like bird that swoops down and steals small children who are bad.;;

But the new visitors don't want to hear about the noncelluloid Snallygaster. They want to run around in our sparse woods and scare themselves silly. My friends Lisa and Ralph live right in the center of the action, on Main Street in Burkittsville. "We've had kids running around the graveyard yelling and screaming," says Lisa, who hasn't seen the movie. "People's cars were egged on Friday the 13th. We even have traffic on the weekends. This is a nice, quiet place, and everyone makes it seem evil."

Lisa and Ralph were interviewed on television and tried to point out to reporters the town's unique Civil War history -- President Lincoln once paid a visit to wounded Union troops here -- but the only sentences that made the broadcast were her fretting about where all the visitors were going to the bathroom and Ralph's offhand remark about the town's large bat population. "That was our few seconds of fame," Lisa says. "We just cringed."

Some of their neighbors, though, are cringing all the way to the bank -- and with good reason. They're not happy that the filmmakers raked in millions off "The Blair Witch Project" without paying Burkittsville a dime for its starring role. In fact, the movie is actually costing the town money, because it has had to boost police patrols on the street with the flocks of gawkers.

; ;

So people like Larry Beller, a member of the town council, believe there's no shame in a little shameful profiteering. Beller and his wife, Michele, sell T-shirts off the front porch of their house. Their 9-year-old daughter has hawked "Witch-Ade" for 25 cents a cup. "I'm waiting for the sequel," Beller says.

They've made about $300, a portion of which will go toward buying new playground equipment for the town park. Beller says the people of Burkittsville recently turned down an offer from a communications firm to do a commercial and really cash in on the "Blair Witch" hooplah. But townies are commodifying their 15 minutes in other, more personal, ways.

Down the street, Linda Prior has a table set up in front of her house almost every day. She sells Burning Man stick-figure facsimiles from the film, postcards, crocheted blankets and rocks -- real Burkittsville rocks. On a good day, she can sell $100 worth of merchandise in 10 minutes.

Prior has been featured in the local paper, the Middletown Citizen, on local television stations and in Newsweek magazine. "I've met people from all over the world," she says. "It's enjoyable. My mother sits out here with me sometimes and loves to talk to all the people who come by." For the record, she saw the movie and hated it.

Artist Margaret Kennedy also has a steady trickle of curious visitors to her Burkittsville art gallery, Brushmark. "I've lived here for 12 years, and this is the most action I've seen," she says.

Kennedy had postcards made of a painting she did that offers a convincing take on what the Blair Witch's frightening visage might look like. Along with her own art, she also offers Blair Witch merchandise crafted by other local artisans and neighbors: T-shirts, framed black-and-white photographs of the cemetery and "witch chasers," black cloth sachets of lavender and garlic that, according to legend, repel witches. And there's even a kid who's giving his own tours of the graveyard. So much for the idyllic rural life. Witch or not, something is haunting the valley.

Living in a famous place is not the same as being famous -- but it's better than nothing. Back when I first moved to a working farm minutes from Burkittsville after 12 years in Washington, none of my friends had heard of my new home. In tones that suggested they thought I had joined a cult, my city friends would ask, "So, what is it you do out there?"

I tried to describe farm life as a PBS special, embellishing the chores of gardening and animal husbandry as if they were a life-or-death struggle. "Oh, those horses," I would enthuse into the telephone. "Someone left the gate unlocked, and they stampeded down the drive in a cloud of dust. Luckily, we turned them back before they reached the main road." Every now and then, one of those urban pals would venture out to our li'l farm to see what country life was like. Somehow, though, those visits eventually dwindled to nothing.

Now "The Blair Witch Project" has reinvigorated our lives -- and we're milking it for all it's worth. Friends are calling to hear about the media invasion in our midst; the Maryland state troopers have beefed up patrols of our quiet country lanes, arresting hippie thrill-seekers who are running around the woods smoking dope. Recently, my husband came home shaking his head in disgust. "I just got into an argument with this guy who kept insisting the Blair Witch really exists," he said. "I kept saying, ‘Listen, I live there. There's no witch.' But he wouldn't hear any of it."

He sighed, and I nodded sympathetically. Yet the notion hung in the air, unspoken between us: cool, huh?

Even more than the sudden rush of celebrity, "The Blair Witch Project" has cast a kind of spell over our lives and forced us to look at our community with different eyes. Is it life imitating art, or is there a taint of danger in the air? Who's to say that something or someone hasn't been hunted out here?

Maybe this place has always been scary, and we just never noticed. Just the other day in our pasture, I stumbled across a deer leg that had been gnawed and then discarded, the hoof intact. In the past, I would have ignored it. This time, though, it stopped me short, and I peered suspiciously into the woods for the unseen predator. The find was worth a phone call to one of my friends in D.C. (OK, not exactly a witch's cemetery, but strange, don't you think?)

Recently, a man who was evidently a neighbor of ours snapped and went target-shooting with his 12-gauge while joy-riding around in his Ford pickup. He shot two people, gave one victim his business card, and was on his way to shoot a third before police arrested him.

Surely there's some way we can blame the witch for all this insanity.


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