If you take a tour of pop culture from the turn of the millennium, it’s impossible to escape 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. An entire episode of Dawson’s Creek, a Survivor immunity challenge, a rapid-fire name-drop in Legally Blonde all took inspiration from the zeitgeisty ‘90s horror flick — which also appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. But how do we feel the effects of the film now, all these years after our teen dramas and our reality competitions stopped caring about those three kids in the woods?
The Blair Witch Project debuted, like so many other phenomena-to-be, at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired for distribution by Artisan Entertainment (which itself was acquired by Lionsgate in 2003) for $1.1 million. That’s not a bad deal when you consider that it was produced for $60,000, and an even better one when you realize out it went on to collect $248 million worldwide.
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who came up with the concept while they were in film school together, The Blair Witch Project follows three fictional student filmmakers trying to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, a local legend in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland. All three disappear (spoiler?), but their footage is found a year later and pieced together to make the final product.
In celebration of the legendary horror indie’s 20th anniversary, here are four things it’s spawned in the last two decades.
1. Digital marketing
One of the first, biggest impacts of the Blair Witch Project phenomenon was Artisan’s then-groundbreaking use of the relatively new digital space to spread the word. A feature in the July 20, 1999 issue of EW remarked on how online buzz fed to the Blair Witch mania, pointing out that the marketing team went so far as to actually include the film’s website’s URL on the back of official merch T-shirts. Can you imagine?!
“I think this is the first time that the Web has been the most basic and important tool in getting to a movie’s audience,” then-Artisan co-president Amir Malin told EW at the time. “Our demographic is 16 to 24, which is exactly the demo that goes online.” Oh my, dude. That demo will expand!
2. Tricky marketing!
Now that we’ve gotten over the fact that so much of the film’s publicity happened online, let’s take a moment to recognize the central conceit behind its marketing plan, which was, simply, to keep it ambiguous whether The Blair Witch Project was fictional or an authentic documentary-gone-awry. The website (yes, the one audaciously printed on the back of T-shirts) included fake journal entries, police reports, and a history of the Blair Witch myth — and many fans believed the stars were actually dead.
3. A franchise
What else? Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 hit theaters in 2000, and then, because the ‘90s are over and we live in the era of the sequel now, the series was resurrected to make it a trilogy with the release of 2016’s Blair Witch. In addition to the two theatrical sequels, there has been a whole spate of books, mockumentaries, comic books, and video games created as part of the Blair Witch universe.
The best-known legacy of The Blair Witch Project has to be the explosion of found-footage films that followed, from new horror entries like the Paranormal Activity series (which kicked off in 2007 and has a seventh installment coming) to monster movies (2008’s Cloverfield), superhero flicks (2012’s Chronicle), and teen comedies (2012’s Project X).