Searching for Heather Donahue

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

illustration by Tom Ralston

“What really scared me about Blair Witch was what happened after,” actress Rei Hance writes in her memoir, Growgirl. She was reflecting on the events of 1999, when The Blair Witch Project was first released in theaters and many audience members believed that the horror they saw on screen was real. “It’s a strange thing to be told you’re not really an actress when that’s what you spent your young adult life training for. It’s even stranger to be told that your name isn’t really yours anymore, that it’s somebody else’s intellectual property now. The most basic things that a person roots a self to—name and occupation—were gone. I wasn’t an actress. I wasn’t Heather Donahue. I was The Girl from The Blair Witch Project and I was supposed to be dead.”

The promotional posters were more optimistic—“MISSING”—but people still sent her parents sympathy cards in the mail. That summer Rei was 24 and famous for playing a character who shared her name at the time: Heather Donahue. While her screams echoed through multiplexes nationwide, her 1984 Toyota Celica broke down under a billboard of her own face. She would later go on to change her name many years later, but the one she’d been born with was now wound up forever in a horror story.

Heather has long been my favorite horror heroine. Here is a girl who takes no shit—bossy and brave, unapologetically ambitious. Muddy jeans and no love interest. Heather Donahue goes into those woods to make a goddamn movie, and she is dedicated to telling that story (about the myth of “the Blair Witch”) above all else. In a weird way, I’d always admired her for that. But as I get older, I’ve started to think that her commitment to recording the terrible things that happen to her runs deeper than dedication. It becomes pure necessity. As if she truly can’t imagine another path forward.

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Horror films often serve as cautionary tales that viewers are free to experience from the safety of their living room couch, but it’s worth noting that Heather’s journey into the woods is far from a spontaneous trip. In the film’s opening sequence, she shows us the various books she’s read in preparation, How to Stay Alive in the Woods among them. We later see the trio grocery shopping, filling their cart with granola bars and marshmallows. They go on to interview locals, skeptics and believers alike. 

Having no idea what to expect from the shoot, the actress herself over-prepared for the role as well—buying a hunting knife, learning how to skin a squirrel. Based on the limited information available, her friends warned her that it sounded like a snuff film, but Rei showed up anyway. In the end, she was prepared for virtually anything—except runaway success. 

Life always has a funny-scary-strange way of surprising you. Hitting you with the very last thing you’d expect, just for kicks.

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Years have passed since I first saw The Blair Witch Project, and I keep coming back to the character of Heather Donahue. Why do I return to her? I think about the film as if it’s a puzzle I can solve, a maze I can write myself out of. I accumulate drafts with names like HeatherEssay.docx and blairwitchFINAL.docx. I read the old interviews. I study various theories. I outline a portrait of the actress who played Heather, which stubbornly makes no mention of Blair Witch at all, because she is more than just one role, one story, one summer in 1999—

But can the truth still be uncovered after a story is released to the masses and takes on a life of its own? How can I reconcile my enduring love for a film with the way its lead actress feels about it today?

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There’s a scene around the middle of The Blair Witch Project’s short 81-minute runtime: We watch the trio of documentary filmmakers (Heather, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard) running through the woods, terrified. The screen is black. Every now and then we see a flash of light, the ghostly cut of a branch, someone’s pumping legs. The trio has no context for what is happening, simply sprinting through total darkness, less sure of anything as they progress deeper into the unknown. 

Life can be like that. Writing, too. Each word just one more stab in the dark. This is how it usually goes: I don’t figure out what I’m writing about until I’m right in the middle of it, and then it’s too late to stop. 

What are you most afraid of? Sometimes fear can take hyper-specific forms, nightmare scenarios pulled from a movie or a memory playing out on a loop every time you close your eyes. I’m far from the only person who has endured the commonplace agony of an all-too-familiar horror. 

But watching The Blair Witch Project, I understand what Heather feels, too. The all-consuming terror of the complete unknown. Frightening precisely because we cannot even imagine the shape our future might take.

We never see the witch. Only the effects of the fear she spreads. Only the things she leaves behind.

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The witch followed the actress for years, even branding the hardcover-only subtitle of her memoir: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot. Rei never minced words when asked about her struggles following the film’s release. “[The worst part?] Hard to pick. People being angry at you for being alive. This overarching feeling that it would have been more convenient for people if you were actually dead.” She racked up a few more credits and ultimately retired from acting, but the witch lived on.

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Why does Heather continue to record their descent into terror, even as her companions beg her to stop? Josh takes the camera from her, his disembodied voice carrying an epiphany: “I see why you like this video camera so much… it’s totally like a filtered reality.”

Even as their journey devolves beyond all of her carefully laid plans, Heather still tries to wrestle back some measure of control.

“It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is,” Josh continues.

Who among us has not put forth a filtered version of the events of our own lives? As a coping mechanism, a self-indulgent daydream, a desperate hope for another possibility on the horizon?

“It’s all I fucking have left,” Heather cries.

All we can do when the story is out of our control is choose how we tell it. And so Heather insists on taking the camera—right up to the end. 

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Perhaps we can think of The Blair Witch Project as a cipher for stumbling through adulthood. No matter how much you research, no matter how much you think you know—and even if you bring a goddamn map—things never quite go as planned. All the preparation in the world won’t steel you for the whiplash jolt of pure, undiluted reality. 

When I imagined myself at the age I am now, I thought I would be a little bit more certain about a whole lot of things. In youth, adulthood had seemed synonymous with wisdom and maturity. But sometimes I feel like I’m even less sure of anything than when I entered the woods to begin with.

There are moments of confusion, excitement, stupidity, tenderness, confidence, terror, curiosity. Maybe when things get tense, you’re like Josh, who lashes out. Mike, who gets scared. Heather, who tries to control. It’ll rain and it’ll be dark and sometimes you’ll see things you don’t understand. But even in the midst of total grief or fear, you might still find a way to crack a joke or seek out a fleeting moment of comfort. This is a form of endurance. You’ll laugh and you’ll sew up the hole in your pants and you’ll find one last cigarette in your pack after you thought they were long gone. 

The Blair Witch Project is a story about being young and fucking up and then trying to find your way back out of the mess again. It’s about getting lost. Attempting to control the uncontrollable. Trying to stop the fast-unfurling future in its tracks. Just for a minute. Just long enough to catch your breath. 

Is the secret of The Blair Witch Project learning to admit vulnerability? Finding the strength to face the camera and tell the world that you’re sorry, and you’re scared, but goddamn if you don’t want to keep on living?

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Heather records her final apology with the camera she staunchly refused to abandon, admitting to everything we have watched her deny until now. It’s as if she knew this reckoning was coming but could not confront the fact of her mortality until the moment she begins to speak. 

“In spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault. Because it was my project, and I insisted. I insisted on everything. I insisted that we were not lost. I insisted that we keep going. I insisted that we walk south. Everything had to be my way and this is where we’ve ended up. And it’s all because of me that we’re here now, hungry and cold and hunted. I love you, Mom and Dad. I am so sorry.”

Over the years viewers have criticized the character’s choices, belittled her stubborn dedication. 

But The Blair Witch Project exists because of Heather Donahue. We know her story because she told it.

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The character of Heather Donahue may not have found her way out of the woods, but the woman who played her did. 

Rei rebuilt her sense of identity over the course of twenty-five years. She burned the remnants of her Hollywood life; she wrote two books; she spent a year living alone in a small California town growing marijuana. Rei endured abuse and found sobriety. She traveled the world on a spiritual odyssey to better understand herself and the things that had happened to her. She taught; she worked in hospice care; she embraced joy. Rei survived.

The person I’ve been looking for doesn’t exist. The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue is a fictional construct, a masterful feat of improv, her name a borrowed symbol. But there’s been another story wound up in hers since the beginning.

In Growgirl, Rei attends The Blair Witch Project’s tenth-anniversary screening, reuniting head-on with the girl she used to be: 

“I am watching a movie, but I’m also seeing myself framed by the movie’s premise: a girl that made a movie and then disappeared. This was a me that had her whole life in front of her and was totally unafraid to bring it. I wish I could tell her stuff. I wish I could tell her not to let anyone prevent her from enjoying the ride, and that she should never let anyone put her light under a bushel except herself, and only if she needs a nap. I would say, ‘Do you see how strong you are? You should.’”

Sometimes when life spirals beyond control, the only thing you can do is tell your story. 

For the ones you love. For the ones who come after. For who you thought you were going to be. And for the imperfect-glorious-lost thing you became instead.