When a little-known actress appeared in the publicity video for The Blair Witch Project in 1999, her portrayal of terror captured people’s attention. However, that attention wasn’t all positive, and Heather Donahue would later give up acting and start a new life. But what she chose to do with herself after acting is quite surprising.
The Blair Witch Project was, of course, very successful. It grossed nearly $250 million – making it one of the most successful indie films ever to be screened. And this was on a budget of just $60,000. Nevertheless, even though that kind of success could be expected to make stars of the actors in it, the peculiar circumstances of the film brought Donahue a different fate.
The reaction to the film was, at first, largely positive. Its use of what purported to be found footage was hailed by almost everyone. Critic Roger Ebert described the movie in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper as “an extraordinarily effective horror film.” However, some disliked Donahue’s performance, and she “won” a Golden Raspberry for it.
But whatever some critics had to say, Donahue made an impact. The scene at the end of the film where she believes that she’s mere seconds from death and apologizes to her project mate caught the imagination of viewers. And people still recognize Donahue from the movie – something she told GQ magazine is “still stunning to me.”
The film was created by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. It describes the tale of three students who go for a hike in 1994 to make a film in the Black Hills of Maryland. They are looking to make a documentary about the “Blair Witch.” But they go missing, and The Blair Witch Project represents the footage that they seem to have left behind.
And Sánchez had a novel idea when it came time to create the publicity for the film. Back in 1999 the internet had not taken off as a marketing tool the way it has today. Nevertheless, Sanchez utilized the medium by creating a website which built up the mythology for the movie and asserted that the footage included was, in fact, real.
The filmmakers also made a mockumentary that trailed the film. Curse of the Blair Witch told the story of the legend that had been entirely made up by Sánchez and Myrick. This, along with the website, created a sense of mystery that would make the movie a “must watch” for people who became aware of it.
The legend itself talks about people living in the fictional town of Blair, MD, who vanish or are killed in mysterious circumstances. The locals claim that these things are caused by a phantom that haunts the town. These are the ghostly remains of Elly Kedward – who was executed for witchcraft in the 1700s. The mockumentary also presents a host of clippings, interviews and TV reportage to fake the backstory.
To help maintain the idea that the film was real, and its stars had mysteriously been killed, the cast were secluded when it was released. On top of that, their IMDb pages were adjusted to say that they had passed away. And this trickery was so effective that some people even sent their condolences to Donahue’s mom, according to Vice magazine.
The film’s plot opens in 1994, when three students of film, Josh, Mike and Heather – the actors’ real names – decide to film a documentary about the Blair Witch. As a result, the trio go to Maryland to talk to people there. They start to hear tales of killings and disappearances and then trek out to camp near the site of one notorious vanishing.
The next night the students camp near a cemetery that has peculiar cairns in it. At night they hear twigs snapping from all around, and the same happens 24 hours later. In the morning, three cairns have appeared around their tent. Now scared, they are haunted by weird noises and figurines hanging from trees. The trio are then driven from their tent by something unseen shaking it.
Spoiler alert: the scary moments reach fever pitch when Josh disappears. In a fallen-down house, Mike and Heather try to find him, while at the same time trying to keep hold of their sanity. Finally, some evil entity attacks them both, and the film ends as Heather lets her camera drop to the floor.
But let’s return to the actress Heather Donahue – the movie’s lead female character. How had she ended up on such a successful production? Well, having gained her degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she moved into regional theater. Donahue then shifted home to New York so that she could try to get work on the stage and work in improv comedy – her passion.
Donahue told The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper in 2016, “I founded an improv group in New York called Red Shag. But I also did the acting thing and I kept going to auditions. When I saw this casting call for [The Blair Witch Project], the selling point was that the entire thing would be completely improvised.”
Having gained the part of Heather, Donahue got to meet Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams – who would play the other students. Not friends at first, they grew closer because of the things that they went through together. Donahue told GQ magazine in 2016, “We were cast because there was inherent conflict in the group. But we’re like war buddies now, you know? We’ve come through this experience together.”
Donahue added that she was proud that she made the part her own. The actress went on, “No size-eight woman was playing the lead in dirty jeans, with no mascara, with unwashed hair.” And she added, “Nobody wanted me to go into the woods with a bunch of strange guys. But how could I say no to improvising an entire feature – without a stitch of makeup, with layers of clothes, and dirt, and knives – and nothing but a pile of rocks to scare you with?”
The Blair Witch Project was shot over eight days, and although there was a film crew, the actors themselves created their own footage. They slept in tents every night while the spooky noises that made it hard to rest were the responsibility of the crew. And yes, they did end up improvising a great deal of the film.
Donahue told Vice magazine in 2016 that not everyone had thought that doing the film was a good idea. She said, “The initial reaction of my loved ones was that I definitely should not go into the woods with a bunch of guys I didn’t know. My mom wanted to know if she could have all of their Social Security numbers.”
And legends have grown up around the production too – with claims that the cast would sob and cry hysterically because they believed the Blair Witch story. But as the actors pointed out, there were no ghostly kids in the woods. Donahue told Vice, “A pile of rocks is not inherently scary. We had to believe in the fictional circumstances, like you do in any acting job really.”
Despite the sometimes-rough conditions, however, Donahue said that she enjoyed making the film. The actress told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2016, “Making the movie was – except for the wet days – a joy. It was as scrappy and punk rock an affair as movie-making could be. The producers skulked about in camouflage with boom boxes blasting children’s voices. They bound blood and teeth in twigs, hung stickmen [and] dropped notes with the next essential conflict they wanted from us in a milk crate marked with a bicycle flag so we could find it.”
And that scrappy authenticity showed through in the final product. People believed in what they thought was real footage of a witch scaring film students. Over two decades after the movie’s release, there are still some who believe it is actually a documentary. And the techniques that it pioneered cropped up in a welter of found-footage horrors – such as Paranormal Activity.
But not everyone was happy that the film was not real. Donahue noted to Vice, “It’s very hard for me to talk about the backlash because for me it was so directly personal. It was my mother getting sympathy cards, it was people coming up to me on the street telling me that they wished I was dead – saying they want their money back.”
For his part, director Eduardo Sánchez spoke to Vice about the legend of The Blair Witch Project. He said, “Artisan [the film production company] did a survey as far as who believes if the Blair Witch legend was real or not, and pretty crazy numbers, like 50 percent of the people thought it was a real legend.”
Elsewhere, some people were not even prepared to accept that Donahue was the star of the film. She told the publication, “There are some people online who think that we are hired shills because those kids really did die, and we’ve been hired to be them so that nobody will get arrested.”
Donahue told The Guardian that having her death faked to promote the movie left her in a tricky position. She said, “My obituary was published when I was 24. It’s a complicated thing to be dead when you’re still very much alive and eager to make a name for yourself.” And being “the girl from The Blair Witch Project” seemed to follow her around.
Donahue felt that she hadn’t walked away with much credit. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I’m like the poorest new famous person in America! While this work became record-breakingly profitable, what we were was dead.” And worse for her was that she became known for the explosion of snot that was her final scene.
As Donahue explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Sure it got my name out there, but the image everyone had of me was from that snot-nosed picture. It’s not the best way to land a romantic comedy to be seen as the most [unsexy] woman ever.” And indeed, Hollywood did not come knocking.
However, Donahue didn’t go completely without work. She scored some parts and used the money to travel. She said, “I’d do some terrible movie in Bulgaria, and then I’d travel all over the Balkans. My curiosity kept me going, and after a while I basically got to see the world.”
In 2007, perhaps sparking off what would come next in her life, Donahue was prescribed medical marijuana – which she used in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome. When asked by The Philadelphia Inquirer if that meant that she only smoked it for a week each month, she said, “It’s a very flexible medicine.”
Eventually, Donahue decided that she’d had enough. She told the newspaper, “I took all my stuff into the desert related to my acting career and burned it all.” The only thing that she kept was the hat that she wore on the poster for The Blair Witch Project. She added, “I figured if things got really bad, I could always sell it on eBay.”
Having rid herself of her acting past, Donahue then packed up and went with a partner to Nuggettown in California. There she became a pot farmer – growing medical marijuana in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She then put her gardening skills to work and enjoyed the slower pace of life than in fast-moving L.A.
Donahue had fond memories of farming up to a point. She said to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I had 27 chickens, a puppy [named Vito] and a garage full of ganja.” But the largely male world of pot had its issues for a woman on her own, and as she noted, “… Historically it’s been a pretty dangerous business.”
After the federal authorities had busted one of Donahue’s friends, she put an end to her involvement in the world of growing cannabis. Instead, she began to write about what had happened to her. And seeing what had happened to Donahue’s friend left her with some forthright views on the legality of marijuana.
Donahue wrote about her views on her website, saying, “Cannabis has been intertwined with human culture for thousands of years. It’s here to stay as [a] medicine, as an industry, and as a component of the culture. The idea that such a hearty, useful plant could be legislated out of existence seems pretty foolish.”
Having written a book, Donahue moved onto creating a pilot for a TV show she called The High Country. She explained, “What I can say is that I just finished writing the first season. It’s about the world of underground pot growing. It’s just a fascinating world. It’s the last slice of the Wild West left.”
Still, Donahue looked back on The Blair Witch Project with mostly fond feelings. She told The Week magazine in 2015, “It’s a little bit like you were a cancer survivor, in a way… But you definitely don’t want to do it again. It has informed my entire adult life. I don’t know my life without it, you know what I mean? I don’t know my own name without it.”
Donahue also reflected on the experience to GQ, saying, “That will always be the first line of my obituary, no matter what else I do. I’ve done all these things since: I’ve published a book, I’ve grown weed, I’ve produced this independent TV pilot. I’ve done so much else. And none of it will ever be the first line of my obituary.”
And looking at how things had changed, Donahue felt heartened. She added, “There are more female creators, and women are allowed to have emotions that go beyond gentle smiles. Jennifer Lawrence is a real woman who says s**t that she actually thinks. And even in 1999, you weren’t allowed to do that. You had to toe a certain line.”
Now, Donahue has no desire to go back to the world of acting. She told GQ, “I don’t want to be a visible, public person.” Even so, she did take a small part in The High Country. She explained, “[It was] only out of budgetary and time restriction reasons. I wouldn’t have chosen to have the role, but I was the best, cheapest person for the job.”
In the end, Donahue was content with how things had turned out. She said to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I’ve taken such a crazy path to my life here. I mean, that’s the funny thing about Blair Witch. If that movie hadn’t happened, I’d still be plugging away today trying to get guest roles. I’m so glad that life ended.”