Michael D. Winkle

"I don't know. I don't think it's the Blair Witch any more. Maybe. I don't know."
-- Heather Donahue, "Newly Discovered Footage,"
Added to The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project's legendary background was supposedly invented by filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, but research into the Cthulhu Mythos indicates a strong tie to the blasphemous horrors described by H.P. Lovecraft.

In an earlier version of this article, my comparisons of Blair Witch Project (hereafter BWP) to the Mythos were very general. I pointed out that BWP's intricate mythology, reaching from 1785 to the present, was very Lovecraftian. While early horror tales usually took place long ago and far away, Lovecraft's stories provided the reader with names, dates, places, newspaper clippings, and other "evidence" of the supernormal manifestation. The unearthed video cassettes and film canisters of BWP were the technological steps beyond Lovecraft's diaries and Edisonian wax cylinders.

For this rewrite I intended to delve into my whole collection of Mythos books, magazines, and gaming materials, but I soon realized that nearly every detail of the BWP folklore could be found in the 1990 edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Sticks and Stones

In Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks," a pulp magazine writer decides to go fishing in the woods of upstate New York. He barely starts off before he finds something odd: "The lashed-together framework of sticks jutted from a small cairn alongside the stream. Colin Leverett studied it in perplexment -- half a dozen odd lengths of branch, wired together at cross angles for no fathomable purpose. It reminded him unpleasantly of some bizarre crucifix, and he wondered what might lie beneath the cairn."

Leverett penetrates ever farther into the forest and finds more stick figures and arrangements of stones. "It should have been ridiculous. It wasn't. Instead it seemed somehow sinister -- these utterly inexplicable, meticulously constructed lattices spread through a wilderness where only a tree-grown embankment or a forgotten stone wall gave evidence that man had ever passed through."

Eventually he comes upon a huge old house. "The stick lattices were everywhere -- the lawn, the trees, even the house, were covered with the uncanny structures." He enters, finding that "Someone had been here, and recently. Someone who had literally covered the mildewed walls with diagrams of the mysterious lattice structures." 1

"A darkened doorway opened into the cellar. Were there drawings there as well?" Leverett enters the cellar and finds something nasty. 2 This is essentially the plot of BWP (and Leverett's misadventure takes up only the first chapter of a nine-chapter novelette!). One could stop here, but there are other Cthulhuvian ancestors of the Blair Witch.

Coffin Rock and Sacrifices

The young woman Heather Donahue tells us the legend of Coffin Rock, where five men were found tied together and disemboweled in 1886, indecipherable runes carved into their flesh. Such an over-the-top mass murder in this low-key film puts one in mind of Lovecraft's cultists and creatures, with their grotesque rituals and excesses.

The centerpiece of Tales is Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," which introduces the infamous octopoid deity. In Part Two of this story, the New Orleans police are told of strange goings-on and mysterious disappearances "far back within the black haunted woods where no dweller ventured." Twenty men brave the Louisiana wilderness and find the horrible worshipers of Cthulhu. At the center of their gathering stands "a great granite monolith some eight feet in height" from which hang "the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared." 3

Also found in Tales is "The Black Stone" by Robert E. Howard: "I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt. . . his Nameless Cults in the original edition, the so-called Black Book." Books of occult knowledge and hidden histories abound in the Mythos; BWP has its Blair Witch Cult (1809), the crumbly tome Heather reads from at Coffin Rock (which must be of a later date, since it refers to the murdered men of 1886), and Heather's own journal. And BWP II is subtitled The Book of Shadows.

Howard's Black Stone is a "curious, sinister monolith that broods among the mountains of Hungary." The narrator learns "the name of the village adjacent to the Black Stone -- Stregoicavar -- an ominous name, meaning something like Witch-Town." A precursor of Blair/Burkittsville? The narrator falls asleep near the stone and dreams of an ancient ritual that ends with another bloody sacrifice. 4

Blue Jelly and White Arms

Following Howard's story in Tales is Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos," which is concerned with hideous creatures that live in an angular space-time as opposed to our Einsteinian curved universe. In BWP, after the film students flee their camp in the middle of the night, something tears up Josh Leonard's belongings and leaves them covered with "blue jelly." Soon thereafter Josh disappears. Perhaps, like the occultist of Long's tale, the unfortunate youth ran afoul of the Hounds: "Chalmers lay stretched upon his back in the center of the room. He was starkly nude, and his chest and arms were covered with a peculiar bluish pus or ichor." 5

Right after "Hounds" comes another Frank Long story, "The Space-Eaters," about terrible entities that descend from Beyond into a New England wood: "At first I didn't see anything but the tall trees, all white and glistening with the fog, and above them a thick, white mist that hid the stars. And then something long and white ran quickly down the trunk of one of the trees. . . It was like a huge white hand walking on its fingers with a terribly long arm fastened to it that went up until it touched the fog." 6

BWP's companion film, Curse of the Blair Witch, mentions the strange fate of a little girl named Eileen Treacle, who, in 1825, was playing beside Tappy East Creek near Burkittsville. Charles Moorehouse, supposedly a folklore professor at Hampshire College, tells us that several witnesses saw "a ghostly white hand come up out of the water and drag the child under the water." Bill Barnes, supposed Burkittsville historian, adds that "she went under the rocks and the mud, and everything was calm again." Eileen's body was never found, even though the water was only a foot or so deep. Perhaps rather than under the mud, she was pulled into that Lovecraftian favorite, a non-Euclidean dimension.

Voices in the Night

August Derleth's "The Dweller in Darkness" follows "The Space-Eaters." "Dweller" is set in the deep, dark woods of Derleth's native Wisconsin. Laird Dorgan and Jack, the narrator, travel to an old hunting lodge on the shores of Rick's Lake, where a folklorist named Professor Gardner vanished three months earlier. Strange things have been reported in and around the lake, and the two protagonists hear weird voices and music emanating from the forest.

In BWP, the students are beset by strange nocturnal sounds, including the giggling of children and the bawling of babies. The night after Josh disappears, cries of agony (apparently his) echo out of the darkness. The second night after, Josh's voice distinctly calls to Heather and Mike.

In "Dweller", the two protagonists leave a dictaphone running one evening when they have business in town. When they check it the next day, they hear flapping wings, chants to Cthulhu and other gods -- and the voice of Professor Gardner warning them to leave:

"Was it. . . ?"
"I'd know that voice anywhere," he said shortly.
"He's alive then?"
He looked at me, his eyes narrowed. "We don't know that."
"But his voice!"
He shook his head.

Later Professor Gardner shows up at the lodge. He claims to have hoaxed the whole affair, creating the noises himself. Then he disappears again.

I thought even as I watched BWP: If the screams of pain were Josh's (as he had runes carved into his skin?), then the voice that called the next night certainly was not his. The first manifestation in "Dweller" was apparently the real professor (since he provides the protagonists with a magic spell that lets them escape); the second appearance of Gardner turns out to be Nyarlathotep in disguise!

There are many disappearances in both the Mythos and BWP; "Dweller" mentions Friar Piregard, an eighteenth century missionary who disappears two hundred years before the story begins. . .

. . . And who is found, perfectly preserved, "in the hollow trunk of a tree along the Brule River." Time is involved in this disappearance as well as space: though missing for two centuries, Fr. Piregard "hadn't been dead over five years" when found in the tree. 8

In Curse of the Blair Witch, David Mercer, supposed University of Maryland archeology professor, tells how his dig group found the student's film canisters and videos beneath the foundation of a colonial-era house, under ash, timbers, mulch, and a stone wall -- all undisturbed. "It was as if it materialized," Mercer concludes. There is a time anomaly in BWP, also. In the book Blair Witch Project: A Dossier, by D.A. Stern, we learn that the foundation was that of Justin Parr's house. Heather and Mike spend the last few minutes of Blair running through an old, abandoned house, presumably Parr's -- yet Parr's house was burned to the ground by angry townsfolk in 1940. "All right, so they built a copy of the house for their movie -- I don't know," snaps Burkittsville Sheriff Ron Cravens. 9

Notebook Found in a Deserted House

This story title by Robert Bloch could be Heather's epitaph (although her diary was found under a house foundation). Willie Osborne, a twelve-year-old boy, lives with his aunt and uncle on a farm near an eerie forest. "Funny thing about those woods. They was so still and quiet. Gave me the creeps they was so dark and lonesome. . . No animals around or birds." (The Black Hills Forest of Blair seems peculiarly lacking in animal life as well; all we are shown is a dead mouse Heather finds.)

One day, close to Halloween, Willie plays in the woods. He hears strange sounds. "It was far-away at first, kind of a dropping noise. . . Sounded like a lot of people running or walking all at once, moving this way. Twigs busting under feet and scrabbling in the bushes all mixed up in the noise." The boy finds footprints "in the mud like goat's hoofs all green with slime that smelled awful -- not four or eight, but a couple hundred!" That night Willie dreams of the Thing responsible: "It was real tall and all inky-black, without any particular shape except a lot of black ropes with ends like hoofs on it. . . They was a lot of mouths all over the thing like puckered up leaves on branches." 10 Although identified as a Shoggoth in Bloch's story, the Thing in the woods sound more like the spawn of Shub-Niggurath, if not the old girl herself.

In BWP, on the film students' second night in the woods, the forest is filled with noises like branches snapping. Josh and Heather compare the sounds to footsteps -- but only something with a hundred hooved legs could make that much noise. . .

Willie's uncle and aunt disappear, the latter right out of her bed. "And didn't Grandma tell about people who lived too near the hills disappearing and never being found again?" 11 The Black Hills Forest, as mentioned, is known for its disappearances, starting in 1785 when Ellie Kedward's accusers -- and half the town's children -- vanished from Blair, Maryland.

Curse of the Blair Witch mentions that the water of Tappy East Creek turned oily and undrinkable for weeks after the taking of Eileen Treacle. Willie of "Notebook" writes that there are two wells on his uncle's farm. The older one is useless -- "some mornings water would be running out over the sides -- green, slimy water that smelled terrible." 12 Later the new well gives slimy water, as well.

Going in Circles

Stepping away from Tales -- but not the Mythos -- for a moment, I note that people make fun of the Blair Witch characters getting lost in such a non-wild country as Maryland. Perhaps their plight was due to something more than incompetence. They spend fifteen hours hiking and end up at the exact same spot, which is in itself a marvel. Heather's diary reads: "I still can't figure out how we hiked in a circle today. I had the compass out all day. All 3 of us checked it every 5 minutes." 13

Horror writer J. Ramsey Campbell has used this warped-direction phenomenon in Cthulhu pastiches like "The Church in High Street": "I ran blindly, wildly -- but the hills of the open country came no nearer -- and suddenly, horribly, I recognized the unlit intersections and dilapidated gables of Cloth Street -- which should have been far behind me, on the other side of the river -- and in a moment I found myself again in High Street." 14 In Tales, the nearest equivalent I can find is Willie Osborne's wild flight through the stormy night in "Notebook": "I kep [sic] running and I kep screaming forever, through the woods and the storm, away from that hill and that alter, and then all at once I knew where I was and I was back here at the farmhouse. Yes, that's what I'd done -- run in a circle and come back." 15

Witches in the Dream-House

"No longer could such quaint outmoded figures of European folklore as the ghost, the vampire, or the werewolf serve as source material for the modern tale of horror," proclaim the liner notes of Tales. Witches pop up in Lovecraft, however; the archetypal old hag with familiars, notably Keziah Mason and her rat Brown Jenkin from "Dreams in the Witch-House." Nyarlathotep, also, was the Black Man of certain European witch cults.

Returning to Tales, we find "The Salem Horror" by Henry Kuttner. Carson, a novelist, rents a house once inhabited by a "diabolical old hag" named Abigail Prinn, who made "detestable sacrifices" to a "fearfully potent god which dwelt deep in the hills." Carson discovers a hidden chamber in the basement and decides to write his novel therein. A visiting occultist is horrified by his decision. "The design on the floor -- when you sit on the black circle there you are abnormally sensitive to certain vibrations -- certain thought commands. . . you are merely an instrument, a microphone, tuned to pick up certain malign vibrations the nature of which you could not comprehend!" 16 This sounds suspiciously like Elly Kedward's control over Justin Parr, which drove him to murder at the "old lady ghost"'s bidding.


More parallels could be drawn between BWP and the Cthulhu Mythos 17, but I believe the point has been made: The Blair Witch Project was heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft in general and by Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in particular.

The Cthulhu aspects might have been drawn upon unconsciously by Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick, and others of Haxan Films (though one wonders when reading "Sticks"). Of course, writers have for decades slavishly imitated Lovecraft's style, copied down his eldritch names and chants, and invented enough ancient tomes and scrolls to sink R'lyeh. Many a tale was a blow-for-blow rehash of something already in the Lovecraft canon. HPL was perfectly aware, for instance, that Kuttner's "The Salem Horror" was a virtual rewrite of "Dreams in the Witch-House." 18 The true successors to Lovecraft strike out in new directions.

The Haxan team could have picked up the ready baggage of the Mythos without damaging the documentary feel of BWP -- many people believe in the existence of the Necronomicon, among other things -- but they focused instead on the aura of terror that should surround a "Lovecraftian" story. 19 "The Mythos, in other words, represents those cosmic wonder tales by Lovecraft in which the author had begun to direct his attention to the modern scientific universe; the Mythos deities in turn hypostatize the qualities of such a purposeless, indifferent, utterly alien universe." So writes James Turner in his introduction to Tales.

It does not really matter if this "utterly alien universe" is personified in the form of Nyarlathotep, the Hounds of Tindalos, Elly Kedward, or Justin Parr. Something incomprehensible stalks the three filmmakers in the Maryland wilderness. It encroaches more and more upon their camp, its manifestations increasingly blatant and frightening, and finally it gets them. The viewing audience hike and run and hide with the trio every step of the way, yet they fail at the last to pull a single veil from the face of mystery.

That is as it should be, for, as HPL writes: "some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." 20



1 In the quasi-documentary Curse of the Blair Witch (1999), a newsreel features Justin Parr, the Burkittsville serial killer. One of the reporters interviewing him asks if he drew the "strange symbols" on his walls; Parr denies it. [return]

2 Wagner, Karl Edward. "Sticks" [1974]. Quotes from Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft, et. al. (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1990), pp. 427-431. [return]

3 Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. "The Call of Cthulhu" [1928]. Quotes from Tales, p. 15. [return]

4 Howard, Robert E. "The Black Stone" [1931]. Quotes from Tales, pp. 56-58. [return]

5 Long, Frank Belknap. "The Hounds of Tindalos" [1929]. Quote from Tales, p. 85. [return]

6 Long, "The Space-Eaters" [1928]. Quote from Tales, pp. 93-94. [return]

7 Derleth, August. "The Dweller in Darkness" [1944]. Quote from Tales, p. 139. [return]

8 Ibid., pp. 119-121. [return]

9 Stern, D. A. Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. (New York: Onyx Books, 1999), p. 142. [return]

10 Bloch, Robert. "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" [1951]. Quotes from Tales, pp. 233-235. [return]

11 Ibid., p. 236. [return]

12 Ibid., p. 237. [return]

13 Stern, op cit., p. 162. [return]

14 Campbell, J. Ramsey. "The Church in High Street," in Cold Print (New York: TOR, 1987), p. 25. [return]

15 Bloch, "Notebook", p. 247. [return]

16 Kuttner, Henry. "Salem Horror" [1937]. Quotes from Tales, pp. 250-257. [return]

17 Stephen King's "Jerusalem's Lot" [1978], for instance, a prequel to both Salem's Lot and to Bloch's "Shambler from the Stars," mentions that "on the night of October 31, 1789, Philip Boone disappeared. . . and the entire populace of that damned village with him" (Tales, p. 484). Jerusalem's Lot is a worthy sister-town to Blair, Maryland, for sure! [return]

18 Price, Robert M. Book of Iod: Ten Tales of the Mythos By Henry Kuttner. (Oakland, CA: Chaosium, 1995), p. 17. [return]

19 Actually, I find it interesting how complex the Blair Witch mythos has become: the films, the videos, the documentary, the Internet sites, the folklore, the "old" diaries and newspaper cuttings, the people paraded before us as supposed sheriffs, university professors, newscasters, etc. And there are people who sincerely believe in it. All this in only a few months. [return]

20 Tales, p. 3-4. [return]

© 2001 Edward P. Berglund
"Tales of the Blair Witch Mythos": © 2001 Michael D. Winkle. All rights reserved.
Graphic © 1999-2001 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 14, 2001; Updated: August 9, 2004