By now, it’s clear to horror fans that The Blair Witch Project is a work of fiction. The film follows three students as they stumble into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, in search of the Blair Witch, and go missing one by one. At this point, its "found footage" technique is something that’s been copied by myriad films. However, while many of its imitators feel dated, The Blair Witch Project retains its intensity. That’s because the filmmakers created a whole legend around it.
The Blair Witch Project backstory is made up of a hodgepodge of different pieces of folklore from America and Europe, as well as strange stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries that have only been tweaked a little. The backstory of The Blair Witch Project may not be true, but it feels real enough to continue giving audiences the chills.
The story of the Blair Witch is very much the story of Burkittsville, Maryland. The small town that’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere (and about an hour and a half from Baltimore) is the perfect setting for a horror movie. The actual town is fairly sleepy, but in building the film's backstory, it's portrayed as a hotbed of supernatural action.
A major part of the town’s new backstory is that it was once known as Blair. It was in Blair that the purported witch Elly Kedward snatched children for her nefarious rites, causing the townspeople to abandon it for 40 years.
In reality, the town was founded as Dawson’s Purchase in 1741 before it was renamed Burkittsville in 1824. In 1999, "unofficial historian" Timothy J. Reese wrote that the filmmakers were sorely mistaken if they actually thought the town was haunted:
For the record, there never was a "Blair Witch," nor was the vicinity of Burkittsville ever known as "Blair Township." Those claiming to have done their homework in this regard had better direct their gullible inquiries to the buffoons who crafted this fictional cinematic nonsense. We locals would appreciate it if they took their fantasies elsewhere.
The titular Blair Witch of the film refers to Elly Kedward, a woman who allegedly lived in the woods outside of Blair township. In the film’s mythology, Kedward was banished from Blair after she was caught pricking the fingers of local children in a form of bloodletting. She was banished from the town and presumably perished that winter. A year later, her accusers were all found dismembered.
While Elly Kedward may be a work of fiction, her backstory has seeds of truth. Bloodletting was a common medical practice throughout history up until the end of the 19th century. And Kedward’s name is even an anagram of infamous occultist Edward Kelly (or "Kelley"). Supposedly, Kelly was able to make contact with the spirit world and he dictated in an "angelic language."
The slayer at the center of the Blair Witch mythos is Rustin Parr, a hermit who claimed to hear the voice of Elly Kedward in 1940 when he took seven children from the Burkittsville area. Parr is equal parts Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy, but guided by a vengeful spirit.
The mythology of Parr is dished out in bits and pieces in The Blair Witch Project, but in Curse of the Blair Witch, there’s video of a post-court interview wherein Parr claims "voices" told him to commit his grisly crimes with knives. A transcript from the court case features a quote from a young survivor who states that Parr made him stand in the corner and wait while he brought more victims.
Blair Witch production designer Ben Rock was really into anagrams while working on the film. He claims, "Rustin Parr's name began as an anagram of Rasputin."
Long before the cast was in place, and at least a year before the film went into production, producer Gregg Hale pitched the bulk of the story and the legend to a member of the crew. Production designer Ben Rock wrote that Hale told him the entire story, beginning with Kedward’s banishment to the woods and the disappearance of townspeople and other strange occurrences. He waited to tell Rock he'd invented the whole story until the very end.
In an essay, Rock describes the effect this had on him:
[Hale said] "Everything I just told you is made up." I deflated a little, knowing I’d been taken in. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it, and at the same time, I’d fallen for it. It all sounded just plausible enough to be a real folktale, and one with a modern connection I could almost touch. Familiar in an unexpected way.