The small town of Burkittsville in Maryland briefly gained notoriety in 1998 when featured in the film The Blair Witch Project. In the movie the town is haunted by a mysterious witch who leads a documentary film crew to their deaths, in the nearby haunted Black Hills. The first in the found-footage horror movie genre, The Blair Witch Project was filmed on a meager budget, but became a box office hit. Burkittsville was overrun by fans trying to locate the various filming locations.
The film is loosely based on the 19th-century legend of the Bell witch from Tennessee. There are no Black Hills in Maryland for a witch to haunt, though Burkettsville is only fifteen minutes from historic Harper’s Ferry known for its many ghosts. The town is also nestled against South Mountain, where a Civil War battle occurred in September 1862, a prelude to the Battle of Antietam just days later and the most violent day in American history. The winding road leading from the town to the mountain has one section known as Spook Hill – if a driver stops her car and puts it in neutral, the ghosts of dead soldiers will push it up the hill. It’s an optical illusion since what appears to be a hill going up is actually moving downwards. Gravity alas is at work rather than ghosts.
I took a day trip to Burkittsville to retrace the steps of our fictional film crew. I found the cemetery where the bodies of the witch’s victims are buried, which is hard to miss since the main road passes right along it. The only ghouls I discovered were some elderly volunteers pruning flowers around the tombstones. Two old churches sit side by side, a still-active Lutheran congregation and an abandoned church now used by the local historical society. Both were converted into field hospitals during the Battle of South Mountain. And that’s about it for Burkettsville besides some old houses dating to the 1800s.
South Mountain however has some spooky vibes. Most of it now sits in Gathland State Park, named for a George Alfred Townsend (1841 – 1914) who was a war correspondent during the Civil War under the pen name Gath. He bought the land after the war and built an estate, including a mortuary and a bizarre War Correspondent’s Memorial that looks like the front section of a collapsed castle. Townsend died penniless, his tomb empty and most of the estate laying in ruins. Parts of the Blair Witch movie were filmed in the wooded lands around the ruins.
Burkettsville has faded back into obscurity, though the ghosts of the dead soldiers may still haunt the surrounding forest ,regardless of any fictional witch. And that witch was named after a high school in the Washington suburbs where the director of the movie was a student. Maybe I need to go back to school to find an old witch who loves traumatizing children.