xx Thursday, October 28, 1999

Bewitched -- Town embraces Witch commerce

By DAVID DISHNEAU -- Associated Press

BURKITTSVILLE, Md. (AP) -- The Blair Witch believers are back, just in time for Halloween. And this time, Burkittsville is ready.

Last summer, curiosity seekers overran the startled western Maryland hamlet where the hit hoax horror film, "The Blair Witch Project," is set. They snatched road and cemetery signs and vandalized tombstones, prompting a beefed-up police presence in the quiet farming community.

Burkittsville has since wised up -- and cashed in.

With the movie's recent release on home video and Halloween this weekend, many of the 214 townsfolk are embracing -- rather than bracing for -- another wave of what local artist Trude Head calls "the Blair Witch virus."

Roll into town on the narrow road over densely wooded South Mountain and you'll see a hand-lettered cardboard sign, "WITCH STUFF," on a telephone pole near Mrs. Head's 200-year-old yellow house.

Her sidewalk display offers $7 versions of the rocks and stick-figure totems featured in the film, some crafted by Mrs. Head's granddaughter. A few dollars more buy a good-luck Blair Witch spell or a "witch-chaser" bag filled with smooth stones, garlic cloves and lavender sprigs.

"It's play," she said, smiling brightly. "I'm doing very well, selling things to the people who want to have something from the witch town."

So is Margaret Kennedy, a painter and gallery owner whose sales have zoomed since she started selling Blair Witch T-shirts and totems to tourists from around the world. Her photographer friend Warren Morrow doesn't even live in Burkittsville but he made some stick figures, too.

"I was trying to get a little cash from the movie," he said. "Why not?"

Up and down Main Street -- the only street, really -- the Blair Witch has become a cottage industry, supported by several Internet sites and a market that expanded with the movie's international release and video sales.

The movie purports to show the final days of three student filmmakers who vanish mysteriously while traipsing through the Black Hills Forest to make a documentary on the legendary witch of Blair.

After the movie's release this summer, Blair Witch fever ran so high here that residents found ready buyers for their back yard rocks and dirt from the local cemetery.

"Kind of weird, isn't it?" said Linda Prior, a Burkittsville grandmother who was among the first to see the sales potential, selling sticks and stones on the online auction site eBay.

The marketing craze extends to an outfitter offering weekend "witch hikes" on the nearby Appalachian Trail. A suburban Baltimore entrepreneur organizes Blair Witch camping trips -- not to Burkittsville but to a state park near Washington, 50 miles away, where most of the mock documentary was filmed.

Not everyone is pleased by the exposure.

The town council considered canceling trick-or-treating because of the expected influx of strangers. They decided to keep the tradition and pay for extra police patrols.

Blair Witch-related patrols have consumed half of the town's $3,000 contingency fund.

"We're not going to let these people control our lives," said Deborah Burgoyne, mother of a 5- and a 10-year-old.

A neighbor, A.K. Cox, has been bothered by drive-by tourists with video cameras.

"I think that makes any parent nervous," she said as a white van with Ontario plates cruised by, camcorder rolling.

Lillie Morris said vandalism at an abandoned church outside town got so bad that she and others recently held a prayer service there "to try to take back what Satan is trying to destroy."

Few residents say they have seen the film, not even Mayor Joyce Brown, though she plans to buy the video for the town archives.

She was miffed about the movie at first -- the filmmakers didn't seek permission to film here -- and even considered conferring with officials in Amityville, N.Y., where tourists flocked after "The Amityville Horror" came out 20 years ago.

Residents like Brenda Rupli, who has lived near the village crossroads for 27 years, said visitors have spoiled the serenity of a town that once seemed lost in time.

"I've always felt like this was my hideaway," she said. "Now I don't feel like that any more."