I watched “The Blair Witch Project” like any other film buff: from a laptop on a weekday morning, in my living room. With all of the lights on.
It turns out you can’t camp in the spot where the main characters stayed (and spoiler, were killed by the Blair Witch), but you can camp in Gathland State Park, which is just behind the town that was featured in the movie — Burkittsville, Md.
I wanted to know whether those woods were truly scary off-screen. The movie made me sick with fear, even though I don’t believe in ghosts or witches, but I’m willing to be proved wrong. Would reliving the plot be a nightmare?
And so the plan was to go to Burkittsville and follow in the film’s footsteps. I would talk to locals about how they felt about the reputation “Blair Witch” gave the town, and if there was any reason to fear the woods. Then at night, under the light of the Hunter’s Moon, I would camp and wait for paranormal activity.
Wednesday, Oct. 20: 10:47 a.m.
I finished watching “The Blair Witch Project” minutes before Washington Post videographer Monica Rodman arrived to pick me up. They have experience covering paranormal activity for work (like the time they interviewed a ghost hunter) — plus I didn’t want to go alone. Another bonus: Monica has a dog, named Pony, they could bring to protect us.
As we started the drive to Burkittsville, a line from the movie kept replaying in my head.
“The woods around Halloween is already a creepy phenomenon,” one of the main characters, Heather, said to her fellow doomed campers.
Heather wasn’t wrong. I’d been camping alone three times before and knew that spending the night in the dark outdoors freaked me out even if I didn’t think the campsite was haunted.
We were driving through the rolling green hills and corn fields when we spotted it: the welcome sign for the historic village of Burkittsville, established in 1824. Unlike the movie claims, it was not once called Blair.
Thanks to the popularity of the “Blair Witch Project,” visitors kept stealing the sign until the mayor decided to lessen its allure by redesigning it.
Like every other tourist, we jumped out of the car and took our photo. Then we got back in the car and drove into town.
Burkittsville: population roughly 150. It has a post office, a general store and no restaurants. The place is incredibly charming, even with its Civil War-era cemetery taking up a good chunk of the town’s 294 acres (around half of a square mile).
In 1864, Burkittsville became home to a makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded in a battle nearby. In 1999, it became known for “The Blair Witch Project.”
“There was about a three-week period where we got a lot of calls asking did we find the missing people yet? Have we solved the murder?” said Lt. Col. Scot Hopkins, a representative of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, which presides over Burkittsville. Hopkins came to town to talk to us about the Blair Witch legacy.
The film had been advertised as a true story. Some of the marketing stunts included passing out missing person fliers and circulating photos from fake police reports of the fictional murders.
“People were convinced and convicted to the fact that it was real and there were real missing people,” Hopkins said. “They came from all over the place to try to do stuff to find the people and help out.”
I asked Hopkins if there was any reason people should be afraid of camping behind Burkittsville. He said it was hunting season, there are bears in the region, and there is limited cellphone service in the hills. Otherwise, no.
After talking to Hopkins, Monica and I walked around the cemetery and looked at the fading gravestones dating back to the 1700s. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; birds were chirping. It was a sunny, not spooky, 75-degree fall day. We left the graves to go talk to another local.
On the outskirts of Burkittsville, Rob Miller welcomed us to his home, apple farm and distillery, Distillery Lane Ciderworks.
He had been renting the place out when “Blair Witch” came out. Miller and his family moved back onto the property a few years later and noticed the fanfare the movie brought.
“These kids would drive up from D.C., they’d see the sign and jump out,” said Miller, whose farm backs up to the road where the Burkittsville sign is located.
“It was like they were doing something illegal,” he said. “They’d take their picture, then dive back in the car. Whether they were worried about the witch coming out or … it was just funny.”
Miller said he hadn’t seen anyone stop by the sign in years, apparently missing Monica and me do that exact thing.
We needed ice and firewood, so Monica and I drove to a nearby town.
At the cash register at Rudy’s Welding Service & Cold Beer, I asked the young cashier, “This is sort of a weird question, but is there any reason you’d think this area is haunted?”
He and another employee mulled it over and then agreed that yes, the area could be considered haunted.
“I would say definitely,” the cashier said. “A war [Civil War] went through here. This place is like 400 years old.”
The other guy said “some interesting things” have happened there, which made sense with all of the Civil War history. They rattled off some other reasons the area could be haunted, like the “Blair Witch.”
While searching for locals, I found Burkittsville resident Michael Robinson on Twitter and Instagram. He is a horror movie expert who has appeared on film podcasts. As Robinson greeted us at his house, his black cat Freddy (as in Krueger) slunk by fittingly.
Robinson moved to Burkittsville with his family five years ago. He moved for family, not the movie, but has since become the go-to source for all things “Blair Witch.”
He has met many of the cast and crew and has been to filming locations such as Coffin Rock in Seneca Creek State Park.
But while Robinson is a die-hard horror-movie fan, he doesn’t think any of the story lines — or ghosts or supernatural beings in general — exist off-camera.
“I don’t believe in anything like that,” he said, including that the hills behind Burkittsville were haunted, or that there had be anything scary about camping there. As if on cue, a gunshot fired off in the near distance. We all laughed, perhaps nervously, at the coincidence.
The sun was setting, and it was time for us to head to our campsite. Our conversations with the locals had tempered our expectations for ghost sightings, even if I already didn’t believe in ghosts. We still expected to be scared in the woods at night for more practical reasons, such as wild animals or escaped prisoners.
Monica and I parked at the foot of the hill we would be hiking and packed up our gear, including some ghost-hunting equipment such as an electromagnetic field (EMF) meter. These meters are used by ghost hunters to determine if an alleged supernatural being is around, but they are normally used for measuring electromagnetic fields or figuring out issues with electrical wiring.
Our other tool was a digital thermometer. If there’s a sudden drop in temperature, that supposedly means there is paranormal activity happening.
On the trek up from the parking lot onto the Appalachian Trail, we were losing daylight fast. To top things off, we ended up hiking to the coordinates of a campsite that didn’t exist — an eerie nod to the “Blair Witch” character’s own perils getting lost in the woods.
Monica found an alternative campsite for us to try instead, so we trekked back to the car and drove three minutes down the road to a different parking lot to start over.
After tromping through yet another stretch of the Appalachian Trail, we finally found the backup campsite at Crampton’s Gap, an area once controlled by Confederate soldiers, Miller had told me earlier.
Despite the fact we were there to look for paranormal activity, the first part of our night looked like any other camping experience.
We pitched our tents, struggled to make a fire and cooked dinner on the insanely heavy cast-iron skillet I insisted on packing. We ate steak and drank a couple of ciders Miller had given us at his farm — then we plotted our 10 p.m. ghost hunt.
Our plan was to walk around the woods with the gear and leave the rest up to fate. I put on my “Blair Witch Project”-inspired beanie and headlamp, Monica grabbed Pony, and we set out into the darkness.
It may have been a full moon, but there was no evidence of that from our vantage point shrouded under a thick canopy of leafy trees. We could only see things in the path of our headlamp spotlights.
Monica was explaining their gear to me when Pony reared up and made a crying sound she hadn’t made all day.
“Oh my god …” I said to the dog. “What does that mean?”
Monica was sure Pony just wanted to keep walking, not that the dog encountered a ghost spirit, so we continued our pursuit.
The woods were bright with autumnal colors during the day, but now in the dark, they were making me anxious. I didn’t want to fall behind my pack. We hiked around holding the EMF meter up to the air, waiting for something to happen. Monica suggested we try talking to the ghosts.
“Hello, ghosts?” I started, having no clue how you’re supposed to address spiritual beings. We tried summoning Civil War soldiers specifically. But nothing coaxed the spirits out as far as we could tell.
Talking out loud to dead spirits in the night started to scare us. Even though I’m not a believer, I almost expected something to happen.
After an hour, we retreated back to camp. I had concluded that no news was good news — not for the story’s sake, but if we had discovered the existence of ghosts on the hike, there would have been a lot of screaming and sprinting.
Instead, we crawled into our separate tents exhausted and called it a night.
I had been too distracted by the day’s many activities to be really thinking about the Blair Witch Project. But alone in my tent trying to sleep, I couldn’t stop picturing the most upsetting scenes of the movie. I tried to take my mind off them, envisioning happy things. The tactic worked long enough to fall asleep.
I had no idea what time it was, but my eyes snapped open in the middle of the night. I’d heard noises crackling in the dark and regretted having my tent fully covered. There was no way of peeking out to check our surroundings.
If I wanted to see what was outside, I would have to scramble out of my nylon sleeping bag, fumble around for the tent zipper and burst out — making enough noise to either scare away the source of the creepy sounds or alert it of my presence, giving it a heads up I was there, available for murdering.
Instead of investigating further, I closed my eyes again and fell back to sleep.
A crackling and rustling coming from different angles woke me. I was sure it was danger.
My heart started pounding like they do in cartoons, and I wondered if the source of the sounds could hear the beating. I stayed motionless trying to come up with a game plan. Would I come out of the tent screaming? Should I try to stay perfectly still until whatever was out there got close enough to attack? I didn’t know and just kept trying not to breathe too loud.
Finally, I reached for my phone that was tucked into the waistband of my sweatpants near my tiny foldout knife.
Monica had text me 20 minutes earlier: “I am fully awake.”
I asked if they had heard any footsteps or if they had gotten up and made the noises themselves. They said the dog had, which could explain some of the sounds.
Just to be safe, I swooshed out of my sleeping bag, ripped open my tent door and scanned around our campsite looking for bears, serial killers or fictional witches. The area was quiet and empty.
It had felt like I had just closed my eyes when Pony woke me up barking. Monica had been unable to fall asleep again and was up getting our stuff together.
My back felt broken. My sleeping pad had deflated, and I had slept on the hard ground. There was also residual pain from hiking around with a cast-iron skillet and camping gear.
We had packed ingredients to make breakfast, but I had no physical or emotional energy to cook. It was time to go home, a lot exhausted and a little defeated.
At a diner in the nearby town of Frederick, Md., Monica and I debriefed. Monica told me how they couldn’t sleep.
We had been hyperaware of every sound; every falling leaf and owl hoot felt ominous. “What even was our escape plan?” Monica asked. We weren’t anywhere near the car. There was no quick exit should a murderer appear in the night.
I thought our lovely day in the picturesque small town chatting with kind locals was going to stop us from feeling scared camping. It didn’t. Maybe the “Blair Witch” wasn’t real and the woods weren’t haunted, but the tricks our minds played on us in the pitch black overruled that logic. We had terrified ourselves, no thanks to ghosts.
Or maybe that’s what the ghosts wanted us to think.
More travel tips
Planning: Your guide to traveling again, in 5 steps | How to move to Europe | Less busy national park alternatives |Protect your plans from covid chaos | Save on wedding travel | How to cook at a vacation rental | How to travel with kids under 5
Road trips: How to find a rental car | Snacks | National park tips | Rental car disasters | Try Kevin Costner’s road trip app | Trying a fancy bus from NY to DC | How to save on road trips as gas prices soar | What it’s like to rent from Turo
Flying: What to do about lost luggage | Getting through to airline customer service | How to get a refund | Extend your flight voucher | Find a good neck pillow | How to deal with chaotic airports | Cut the line at the airport | Get your kid a frequent flier account | Plane workouts | Why you should pick your seat | Can you fly with edibles? | When an airline bumps you | Your canceled flight emergency kit
Camping: Finding a campsite | Plan your meals | Solo camping | First-time tips | Watch out for wildlife | 6 surprising camping essentials
Greener travel advice: Should you bike to the airport? | How to find ‘greener’ flights | How to actually make your travel better for the planet | What it’s like to rent an EV
Hot takes: Get up early on vacation | Why you should dress up for a flight | Talk to strangers | In a relationship? Travel alone anyway