Linda Prior smelled money--or at least a few laughs--when the first outsiders started coming to Burkittsville this summer, looking to rekindle the thrills of the recent hit movie "The Blair Witch Project."
Sure enough, so desperate were the gawkers for a souvenir from the town where the low-budget horror flick was set that they bought rocks--yes! plain rocks from her yard!--at $5 apiece.
A few weeks of the madness, and sanity mostly returned.
But with the approach of Halloween--the day practically synonymous with witches--there has been a second wave of outsiders, determined to retrace the events of the pseudo-documentary, in which film students are mutilated and children are murdered, supposedly in Burkittsville.
The subject matter has always rattled residents of this town of 200 about an hour north of Washington, though they know it is all a fiction. Now, with the return of after-hours visitors to the cemetery and slow-moving cars cruising Main Street, even cynics like Prior aren't laughing.
"You got those copycat people, that's what the townspeople are afraid of," said Prior.
Town officials even considered canceling trick-or-treating this year, fearing the autumn ritual would be ruined by malevolent movie cultists or mischief-makers. Finally, they moved trick-or-treating to last night and added protection from the Maryland State Police and the Frederick County Sheriff's Department through tomorrow night.
"Let's face it, the movie is not about the Waltons or Mayberry," said Burkittsville Mayor Joyce M. Brown.
"We are a Christian community," said Brown, who has not seen the movie, a badge of honor worn proudly by many in this quaint oasis of old brick and Victorian homes surrounded by an undulating landscape of farm fields.
Still, some in Burkittsville have decided to embrace its new identity as America's Virtual Horror Town.
Blair Witch tchotchkes can be found in "downtown" Burkittsville and on the Internet. Prior sells the rocks and totemic stick figures on the Internet auction site e-Bay, as well as in her front yard. The stick figures, which she makes from twigs and twine, were selling for as much as $25 via the Internet. Others have hawked lemonade, tombstone-shaped coasters, herb-filled witch-chaser poultices and, of course, Blair Witch T-shirts.
"We are friendly to them," Brown said, "and they, for the most part, have been courteous to us."
Well, except for that business of the stolen sign. Early on, vandals nabbed a "Welcome to the Historic Village of Burkittsville" sign, prompting Brown to lock away three similar signs for safekeeping. And there was the church on a hill above town that was desecrated with a pentagram and satanic graffiti. And at the town's hilltop cemetery, a headstone was vandalized, lit candles were found and people have been caught wandering around after hours. Now the roads leading into the cemetery have been chained and padlocked.
One enterprising trespasser put pictures of herself filching dirt from the cemetery on her Web site, to document its provenance for prospective buyers.
"It's starting up again; I just saw a truck driving slow through town. They're back," said town Postmaster Larry Ott.
Many regard this Halloween as a last chance to cash in. A local trail-outfitting group is offering a Blair Witch-theme hike through the Burkittsville woods.
Others just want to be done with the whole thing. Witch figures that appear to have had a violent head-on collision with Main Street telephone poles have appeared in town. A sign proclaiming, "THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT IS TOTAL FICTION," hangs in a window.
Still, many Blair Witch fans have trouble distinguishing the cinema from the verite.
The movie tells the fictional tale of a trio of film students from Montgomery College who disappear in the Burkittsville woods while shooting a documentary about the Blair witch, a local legend originating in 1775. A year later, the students' film--documenting their bizarre experiences and grisly end--is found.
Some visitors are convinced that there is a real Blair Witch legend and that young filmmakers really were killed there in 1994. They come hoping to see the woods where the events in the movie occurred. Last week, four such true believers came stumbling out of nearby heavily wooded Gathland State Park.
"We've been walking for hours and we can't find a thing," complained Vincent Searles, 20, who drove down from central Pennsylvania in a tan bumper-sticker-covered car.
Searles and three friends, one professing interest in the occult, wanted to find the trail where the students in the movie started out, "and of course we wanted to go to Coffin Rock," said Searles.
But scouting Burkittsville for a possible Halloween-night return visit was turning out to be hard. The few residents they saw "just glared at us." Said Chad Howard: "It's been a real nightmare."
Linda Prior has also begun to feel a malevolent presence, not from some cinematic spook so much as the Faustian quality of her Blair Witch bargain.
"After 24 years of not doing it, I'm now locking the door," Prior said. And she recently found a picture of herself and her children on an Internet site. She asked the site manager to remove it.
"It's been fun," Prior said. "But I'm glad it's just about over."