by Tracie Griffith
When researching the making of the short film The Legend of Matilda Dixon, I was left with more questions than answers (refer to the story Matilda Dixon Uncut on the Home page). Particularly after reading about the town of Burkittsville in Maryland, USA, which was promoted as the location for The Blair Witch Project in 1999. It was another case of Hollywood fiction masquerading as fact.
The Blair Witch Project was a box office and marketing phenomena, so despite the fact the story was a hoax and only the Burkittsville welcome sign and cemetery appeared in the film, fans flocked to the town demanding to know more. Worse still, there have been two sequels, with the latest (Blair Witch) released in 2016 and promoted as the real sequel to the original film.
Over the years, Burkittsville has had to contend with candlelight vigils in its cemetery for victims of the Blair Witch; vandalism at the cemetery; the repeated theft of its welcome sign (even though it was redesigned 10 years ago as a deterrent); and video surveillance of its residents going about their daily lives. I spoke to Mayor Deborah Burgoyne and she said The Blair Witch Project attracted ‘a lot of nutcases’, who simply would not accept it was a fictional story. “Children used to be able to walk about freely, because it’s a small town,” she said. “But after the film came out, they had to go everywhere in pairs. There were too many strange people about.”
There are many similarities between the Blair Witch and Matilda Dixon stories. John Hegeman (writer/director of The Legend of Matilda Dixon) was a marketing executive on The Blair Witch Project, where he clearly learned his craft. Matilda Dixon and the Blair Witch were both aging spinsters with supposedly supernatural powers. Both characters were ostracized by the town; blamed for the disappearance of vulnerable members of the community; lynched for their transgressions (in the case of The Blair Witch Project, Rustin Parr was hung after acting on the ghostly witch’s commands to commit murder); and both continued to haunt their respective towns. Burkittsville had a population of close to 200 when The Blair Witch Project was released and Port Fairy likewise had a population of around 200 during the 1830s, when Matilda Dixon was supposed to have been living in the town. Most importantly, the Blair Witch and Matilda Dixon stories are both fiction masquerading as fact.
When I spoke to John Hegeman, I asked if he had any cautionary words for filmmakers planning to promote a real location as a backdrop to a fiction, given the potential negative impacts. John explained that it’s seldom a consideration for filmmakers, as they are commonly engaged in creating fictional stories for real locations. However, when fiction is deliberately presented as fact and the truth obscured for effect, a filmmaker’s motives are not so innocent.
John conceded that filmmakers shouldn’t do it if they know it is going to cause harm. Again, given the experiences of those towns that have been identified as the locations for ‘true’ horror stories – such as Amityville in the case of The Amityville Horror and Burkittsville in the case of The Blair Witch Project – negative impacts are arguably inevitable.
The inconvenience to Port Fairy has been minor in comparison to Burkittsville. The Port Fairy Historical Society and Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre regularly receive requests for information about Matilda Dixon, and report that some people become angry when they discover the story is a hoax. It’s my personal experience that they can be quite rude about it. Still, it could have been far worse.
Burkittsville’s experience offers some warnings for Port Fairy residents. A few citizens of Burkittsville sold rocks and replicas of the stick figures used in The Blair Witch Project – until they received ‘cease and desist’ letters from Artisan Entertainment for creating merchandise without a license. It seems John’s hope that the people of Port Fairy would have a sense of humour about it all and gain something from it, does not extend to cashing in on any merchandising opportunities.
Also, there could be a reprise of the Tooth Fairy story if Hollywood decides to remake or produce a sequel to Darkness Falls. Mayor Burgoyne said The Blair Witch Project took Burkittsville totally by surprise in 1999, but the town was prepared for the latest sequel in 2016, placing the welcome signs in storage well in advance of the film’s release.
“We’ve had so many signs stolen over the years, even though they were deliberately changed,” she said. “People chain the poles to their bumper bars to drag them from their concrete foundations.” Mayor Burgoyne certainly showed a sense of humour while the welcome signs were in storage for the Blair Witch sequel. When tourists stopped her to ask if they were in Burkittsville, she gleefully said ‘no’ and directed them to the next town!
Mayor Burgoyne said she feels like Burkittsville and Port Fairy are sister cities, given our shared experience of being unlikely locations for Hollywood horror films. I agree and thank her for being so generous in discussing her town’s experience with us. It helps to know that other towns have had it far worse than Port Fairy and we have somewhere to turn for advice if the Matilda Dixon story continues to haunt us!
Some links to articles about Burkittville’s experiences since 1999:
How a small Maryland town survived the Blair Witch (19/9/2016) (view ‘The Witch Pitch’ video – it’s convincing if you don’t know anything about Burkittsville)
A town’s ‘Blair Witch’ curse (31/5/2010)
‘Blair Witch’ Spell Broken (30/10/1999)