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BLAIR WITCH 2: The Making of a Monster

BY CK KIMBALL  JANUARY 25, 2024

BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, the sequel to 1999’s found footage juggernaut The Blair Witch Project, tried to tell an audience that wanted the Blair Witch back a cautionary tale it didn’t want to hear.

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I first watched Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 when I was fifteen years old. Too young to drive and living too rural for the internet, I’d often put the same VHS on over and over. I knew Book of Shadows wasn’t a great movie but something about it was engaging to me. It really FELT like there was a mystery to uncover in this unanimously maligned follow-up to The Blair Witch Project. I really didn’t have that much going on. However I would discover that the discordant script was a symptom of choices made as the concept of “internet campaigns” was discovered. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in an odd way reflected the shift to a new era in the 2000s.

Joe Berlinger’s one and only horror film, 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 had everything against it before its predecessor had even been released to VHS. It was an odd sequel, rushed into production despite the resistance of co-writers, directors and editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Anyone who actually remembers the first sequel to the 1999 surprise hit The Blair Witch Project recall an incomprehensible plot and an aggressive separation from the found footage element that set the original apart in the first place. But the failure of Book of Shadows can mostly be traced back to the futile attempt to recapture the lightening in a bottle success of the original. What Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 could have been, as the commentary on mass hysteria driven by media it was intended to be, becomes a greater missed opportunity in story-telling each, social-media soaked, passing year.

The Blair Witch Project is an indie film fairy tale. A low budget “Hail Mary” that became a cultural zeitgeist. It wasn’t the first “found footage” horror movie, that honor goes to the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1980). But The Blair Witch Project became the poster child for the found footage sub-genre, paving the way for future franchises like Paranormal Activity and surprise hits like Dead TV. The sequel to The Blair Witch Project could have set the tone for the genre it had reinvigorated, taking its experimental spirit in far new directions.


Instead it was Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

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Even to those who have never seen it, The Blair Witch Project is as ubiquitous to horror as Friday the 13th or dumping blood on a prom queen. The simple plot of three documentary filmmakers who go missing after hiking into haunted woods became a quick cultural event on release. The creepy twine-wrapped stick “people”, the shaky cam footage (and alleged puking
during screenings as a result), THAT crying into the camera scene; these references continued on decades after the film’s successful theater run. A sequel was inevitable and discussions began immediately following box office returns.

But there was more to The Blair Witch Project for a sequel to live up to than recreating a found footage phenomenon. For the original film, co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez developed an industry-first marketing strategy to make their low-budget horror project as convincingly real as possible before it even hit the screen. In addition to hiding the actors from
the public and a fake documentary on the Sci-Fi Channel, they created a website for the “legend” of the Blair Witch ( https://www.blairwitch.com/project/main.html ), including police reels and “evidence”, and planted comments in online chat rooms. In short, The Blair Witch Project was the first internet-based marketing campaign for a film.

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Book of Shadows was rushed into production with the expectation of recreating a film whose audience now knew the trick. Haxan Films, the production company founded on the creation of The Blair Witch Project, was hesitant to start a sequel on the back of the first and repeating the trope too soon. So Artisan cut out Haxan and hired director and known crime documentarian, Joe Berlinger.


“I was kind of dumbfounded and said, ‘I’m shocked, because I’m really the wrong guy to do the Blair Witch sequel.’” Joe Berlinger (Fangoria Magazine issue #330, printed February 2014)

 

Joe Berlinger hated everything The Blair Witch Project represented. Such as that bad cinematography could be equated with being believable and the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality. As a journalist himself, he was increasingly concerned about the decline in the quality of journalism within the United States. However, Berlinger was also inspired by the
lazy consumption of media that had made it so easy for the public to accept that anything shot on video is real in the first place.

Berlinger moved forward with Artisan to rush together a Blair Witch sequel that was satirical and commented on the frenzy the original film had whipped up. Book of Shadows is meta. The Blair Witch Project film and its marketing ploys exist in Book of Shadows as they are, a movie and an audience fake out. The “shakey cam” style of the predecessor was left behind for an aesthetic deliberately shifted away from the documentary form.


“I always thought the first movie was ingenious in terms of blurring the line between fiction and reality. I wanted to do it my own way. I have a pet peeve about society’s acceptance of the clichés of bad documentary-making equaling reality… We embrace the reality of video and I wanted to comment on that in this movie.” - Joe Berlinger (IndieWire “INTERVIEW: Battling the Blair Witch, Joe Berlinger Takes on Sequels and Studio with “Book of Shadows” (Indiewire.com/2000/10)

Similar to The Blair Witch Project, in Book of Shadows the protagonists share a first name with their actor counterparts. Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) leads a tour group including goth psychic Kim (Kim Director), Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen), and graduate students of mythology and mass hysteria, as well as “do they even like each other?” couple, Stephen and Tristen (Stephen
Barker Turner and Tristine Skyler) into the woods of Burkittsville to locations from the Blair Witch Project film. They camp overnight on the alleged ruins of Blair Witch hermit Rustin Parr’s cabin where, after a night of good old-fashioned hedonism, the fictional supernatural elements of the Blair Witch film begin to bleed into the tour group’s “real” life.

Though director Joe Berlinger was turned off by the societal implications of The Blair Witch Project, he wanted to embrace the reality of video and let the sequel serve as a commentary on the original film. As such, in Book of Shadows, scenes were decontextualized throughout the film with the use of videotape. For example, Jeff films Tristen taunting the group to kill her but, when the tape is played back for him, the scene is far different from what he recorded and what the
audience saw.


This was by design. The audience was supposed to doubt themselves as part of the direction to illustrate how the perception of what’s “true” can be twisted in media. By 2010, Reality TV would be its own genre and by 2020 the term “Fake News” would become a common phrase aimed at media outlets by the general public. But in the year 2000, reality TV had consisted mostly of candid camera shows and MTV’s “The Real World”. Berlinger was working with concepts which,
in that time, were mostly hypothetical.

In August 2000, Joe Berlinger had written the Book of Shadows script in two months, completed filming in three, and was working on the score for a locked picture when the whole project was
unraveled by the very thing that had made the original film a box office hit. Marketing.


“-a new marketing executive came winging into town to announce she’d tested this movie for five people in Orange County” said Joe Berlinger, “and felt it needed traditional scares. ‘It’s too
ambiguous, it’s too intelligent…’” Fangoria Magazine, No. 330, February 2014.

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Berlinger’s cut was meant to be a subtle exploration of shared psychosis as inspired by fanaticism. His cut would have been linear, following the group as they spun out and revealing to them, and the audience, in the end that there was no Blair Witch at all. It was all their own shared hysteria. But Artisan insisted on a reedit and the released cut is a more straight-forward horror movie. The mental institution scenes, the on-screen violence, the narrative moving back and forth in time, opening with a Marilyn Manson track, were all insisted on by Artisan post Berlinger’s completion of the film.


And yet, despite desiring a more traditional horror film, Artisan attempted a similar marketing scheme with Book of Shadows as was successful for The Blair Witch Project. Again, a website with fabricated police reports, another Sci-Fi Channel pseudo-documentary, an exclusive Yahoo! release of the teaser and a cyber-convention ahead of the film dubbed the “Blair Witch
Webfest”. Evidence of this Webfest has all but disappeared. The distribution of the VHS and DVD also included the "Secret of ESREVER” feature which invited users to replay scenes for clues they could decipher via the website. This feature has also all but disappeared.

October 27th 2000 Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released, 14 months after the release of The Blair Witch Project in July 1999. Book of Shadows opened at number 2 at the box office and quickly fell to dismal reviews. Most referencing the additions Artisan had firmly requested.


Even the original creators are shamed, in a review from ReelViews.net , for selling out. “For Blair Witch creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, greed is clearly a stronger motivator than artistic integrity.” - James Berardinelli (ReelViews.net www.reelviews.net ) Fair to note that the Haxan deal with Artisan was pretty contentious and wasn’t settled until
2001. It was also less a payday and more restitution. - Dan Cox (Variety “Big bucks for ‘Blair’ pair as Artisan, Haxan settle”
variety.com/2001 )


The general consensus was Book of Shadows had abandoned what made the first film incredible. Not only that, they’d perverted it. Mentioned often in criticism of Blair Witch 2, including modern retakes, is that it doesn’t follow nor answer any questions about the Blair Witch.

It’s fair to come to a Blair Witch sequel and be disappointed there’s no Blair Witch. What’s curious is the continued confusion or shock over twenty years later. The Book of Shadows deconstruction of what made people believe The Blair Witch Project was rejected because the audience was also invested. People still make pilgrimages to Burkittsville despite that most of The Blair Witch Project wasn’t actually shot there. It’s fascinating because it’s exactly what Joe Berlinger was worried would happen on a wider scale with real news and real consequences.


Which it has, to various degrees of severity. Between 2000 and 2001, a Sony executive posed as film critic “Danny Manning” to whom positive quotes for upcoming Sony releases were
attributed.

 

In 2014, 12 year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser stabbed 12 year-old Taylor Leutner 19 times to appease the fictional “Slender Man”. Slender Man was first posted on SomethingAwful.com in 2009 and its lore developed through 4chan.org. And finally, originating in 2017, Qanon. A far-right American political conspiracy theory and political movement centered on claims relayed and developed by online communities and influencers. Qanon is known for “Pizzagate” and attacking the US capitol on Jan. 6th 2021.

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It’s speculation that, had Berlinger been left to develop the sequel in his vision, Book of Shadows could or would have been a surprising meditation on entertainment and news. It’s more the irony of the entire project that’s interesting. A film that set out to warn of unchecked information and the blurring of journalism and marketing was pulled apart by reckless marketing
practices and the growing faceless critics of the internet.


But the scapegoat of the almost abandoned Blair Witch franchise is worth a rewatch at least to bask in the naiveté that its themes of “twisted reality” were deemed “too ambiguous and intelligent” by Artisan just a year before “Jackass”, “Cheaters”, “American Idol”, “The Simple Life”, “The Bachelor”, “Survivor”, among many other projects and their scripted reality, were to
become familiar and normalized.


Decades later, I still love Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. It might just be nostalgia for the industrial horror of it all. It might be the memory of rewinding and playing back that tape to uncover the "Secret of ESREVER” VHS special feature. But I think it’s really that I can’t truly hate a movie that tried to do something and missed the mark. And I respect what Joe Berlinger
was trying to say regardless of the veracity. He tried to show us something scary. It turns out the world was just scarier.
And, no, a literal Book of Shadows never makes an appearance in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

CK Kimball Headshot Mint.jpg

CK Kimball is a writer, performer, and producer from Virginia. They work in the entertainment industry primarily with Wayfarer Studios, creators of conscious content, and run a drag and vaudeville show, DragsVille, at Alamo Drafthouse DTLA. They've been featured in Fangoria, Nightmarish Conjurings, High Times, and pretty much anywhere that will let them write about Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. 

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