The 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project brought the found footage genre to prominence and launched the career of actor Heather Donahue. Though the film was a resounding success, it didn’t always seem as though it would be. In fact, details about the horror film were so quiet that the lead actors weren’t sure what they were in for. Fearing the movie might be a real-life snuff film, Donahue brought a knife to set.
Heather Donahue was an unknown actor before ‘The Blair Witch Project’
Donahue first auditioned for The Blair Witch Project after finding an ad on Backstage. The actor recently moved to New York from Philadelphia, where she attended the University of the Arts. Up until that point, she hadn’t received much work. Despite the somewhat unpleasant description of the role, Donahue felt that she would fit the part well.
“I was doing a lot of improv comedy at the time, and an ad in Backstage was talking about improvising an entire feature and that it should be someone who is really comfortable with improv, camping; it also said that you should be prepared to be very uncomfortable,” she told Paper Magazine. “And all of those things very much described me at the time.”
She brought a knife to set for protection
Donahue was excited to score the role — her first major part — and left New York on a bus to Maryland. Not everyone shared her enthusiasm, however. According to Donahue, her mother was apprehensive about The Blair Witch Project.
“My mom was like, ‘Please get their social security numbers. We really don’t want you to do this,’ she explained. “Nobody wanted me to do this.”
Because of widespread concern, Donahue decided to bring some form of protection to the woodland set.
“I brought a giant knife because everybody who loved me was telling me, ‘You should not do this. This sounds like a snuff film. Why are you going into the woods with a bunch of guys you don’t know?’” she said.
Still, Donahue felt that she needed to take the role. It would be her big break and also would allow her to use her improv skills.
“My feeling then and today is that if there is something you are afraid of that doesn’t involve prison or hospitals, you should probably do it,” she said. “My thought was, ‘Well, when else am I going to get the chance to improvise an entire feature?’ And I love improv, so it was a win-win for me.”
Heather Donahue’s mother received sympathy cards after ‘The Blair Witch Project’
It’s clear now that The Blair Witch Project isn’t a snuff film, but it was hazy at the time, even after the film’s release. The marketing campaign made audiences believe the found footage was real. They went so far as to hang missing person posters for the actors. Acquaintances who believed the marketing even sent Donahue’s mother sympathy cards.
“It was very hard as a young actress where you did something where you were really proud of your work and you feel like you did a really good job, and then you’re kind of in this really stuck situation where you’re an overnight success, but you’re dead,” she explained. “It even said on my IMDb page that I was dead. It said Heather Donahue: Deceased.”
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