A conversation with the actress at the center of one of the most successful horror movies in history.
If you've seen The Blair Witch Project—and based on the box-office numbers, you probably have—you might feel like you've personally witnessed the death of Heather Donahue, the 24-year-old woman at the center of the greatest overnight success in movie history. If you bought into The Blair Witch Project's then-revolutionary marketing—as a reported 50% of moviegoers did—you might even have believed you witnessed the actual death of Heather Donahue.
But if the record still needs to be set straight, allow me to set it: Heather Donahue is alive and well, living as a writer and producer in a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California. Though she lives in the woods, her daily experiences are less "hyperventilating into a camera" and more "taking her dog on long walks."
It's quite a thing to crawl out from under: To have your obituary actually written when you’re 24, in both literal and figurative ways.
Once again, Blair Witch mythology would have you believe something different. The new Blair Witch sequel, which arrives in theaters today, centers on Donahue's brother James as he leads a group of friends into the woods to look for his missing sister.
That may be an promising jumping-off point for a new Blair Witch movie, but it didn't originally inspire much excitement for the actual Heather Donahue. "When I first heard there was going to be a new one, I was initially filled with a nameless dread," she told me. "Big, vast, nameless dread. It was so nice to have 16 years go by and not have my… snot flood be the first thing that came to mind when people saw me or spoke to me."
Donahue was talking, of course, about the most iconic and parodied moment in The Blair Witch Project: When her character—correctly presuming that her death is just moments away—turns the camera on herself to film a confessional apology. It's an incredibly simple shot that burned itself onto the retinas of pretty much everyone who saw the movie. "It's still stunning to me," Heather told me. "I still see people all the time who say, 'Oh, God. Where do I know you from? You look so familiar!' It’s a very strange thing, to be inside so many brains."
And if she had chosen, she'd have gotten the chance to reprise the role. Back when the new Blair Witch was still being produced under cloak-and-dagger as a mysterious horror movie called The Woods, producer Jason Constantine invited Donahue to lunch and offered her the opportunity to appear in the movie. Over a three-hour lunch, Donahue explained why she wasn't interested. "He was kind of stunned," Donahue recalled. "He said, 'Wow, I've never done a sequel where people from the original don't want to be a part of it.' And I said, 'Well… let me explain.'"
By the end of the conversation, he understood. Her last name is kept out of the movie entirely, and the official press materials even summarize the plot as "James is looking for his sister"—keeping her first name out of the basic synopsis. Both those concessions were made at Donahue's request. Though anyone who has seen The Blair Witch Project will know exactly who James is looking for in those woods, Donahue has long regretted using her real full name in the original movie—calling it, in fact, her "biggest life regret to this day"—and the creative team behind the new film agreed to do what they could to minimize the intrusions on her actual life as the sequel arrived.
These are the kinds of odd concessions you're required to contemplate when your actual face and name are suddenly at the center of an out-of-the-box phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project. When Donahue and I first spoke in 2014, as part of an oral history to mark the movie’s 15th anniversary, her memories of actually filming the movie were largely positive—but her memories of everything that came after were often painful. "It’s a little bit like you were a cancer survivor, in a way," she reflected at the time. "Maybe, like, a light, smaller skin-type cancer. And now you have the scar, and wow: Wasn't that great that you've survived it, and you've come through the other side? But you definitely don't want to do it again. It has informed my entire adult life. I don't know my life without it, you know what I mean? I don't know my own name without it."
Back then, when I asked her how she felt about The Blair Witch Project after so much time had passed, she told me her feelings were in flux almost every day. This week, when I asked her the same question, she got philosophical. "It's quite a thing to crawl out from under: To have your obituary actually written when you’re 24, in both literal and figurative ways," she said. "Like, what am I going to do to surpass that? That will always be the first line of my obituary, no matter what else I do. I've done all these things since: I've published a book, I've grown weed, I've produced this independent TV pilot. I've done so much else. And none of it will ever be the first line of my obituary."
But when the subject turned to the brilliantly calibrated performance that actually made The Blair Witch Project such a success, her tone brightened. "No size-8 woman was playing the lead in dirty jeans, with no mascara, with unwashed hair," she said. "No ingenue was willing to be so unfuckable. I was the most unfuckable ingenue to ever be in a blockbuster. But that was the thrill! The fuck-you thrill of it. How could I say no to that? Nobody wanted me to go into the woods with a bunch of strange guys. But how could I say no to improvising an entire feature—without a stitch of makeup, with layers of clothes, and dirt, and knives—and nothing but a pile of rocks to scare you with?"
Donahue's mother received a sympathy card from a distant relative who believed The Blair Witch Project was real.
Donahue was cast in the movie that would eventually be titled The Blair Witch Project opposite Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, two similarly unknown and similarly committed actors. (Of the three stars of The Blair Witch Project, only Leonard is still a working actor; Williams is now a middle-school guidance counselor.) Though they weren't particularly friendly at the time, they've come to bond over their strange shared experience in the years since. "We were cast, I think, because the three of us are so different," she said. "We weren't cast because we'd be lifelong friends. We were cast because there was inherent conflict in the group. But we're like war buddies now, you know? We've come through this experience together."
The problem, as it turned out, was that the verisimilitude required to sell the performance made it hard for a portion of the audience to separate Heather Donahue the Actress from Heather Donahue the Character—and more to the point, made it hard for a potion of the audience to appreciate how much work Donahue had put into crafting a protagonist so obsessed with chronicling the Blair Witch that she wouldn't turn the camera off. "I feel incredibly proud of my work in that movie creatively," she says. "I mean, I gave that role 110%. Find me the woman who would have believably kept that camera running. But what you get for that [from the audience] is, 'Oh, that annoying bitch wouldn't turn the camera off.'"
As the enthusiasm over The Blair Witch Project's uniqueness curdled into irritation at its cultural ubiquity, people began turning on the movie—and Donahue, whose face had become the lynchpin of the marketing campaign, endured much of the backlash. She "won" Worst Actress at the Razzie Awards—a ridiculous sham of an anti-Oscars ceremony, but an experience she says "still sucked" as a young actress who felt totally unprepared for how enormous the movie had become. And all along, that revolutionary marketing had worked a little too well; in the midst of the ongoing debate over whether the events of the movie had actually happened, her mother received a sympathy card from a distant relative who believed The Blair Witch Project was real. "There are still people who think that me, Mike, and Josh are actors that were hired to cover up that The Blair Witch Project was actually a snuff film," she marvels. "That those kids are actually dead, and Josh, Mike, and I were hired so they could get away with releasing it as a film."
But beyond all the goofiness of the sympathy cards and conspiracy theories, the most frustrating thing was how hard it was for anyone to understand why being the face of The Blair Witch Project was so hard. "You’re supposed to be so grateful for that success," she said. "The difficulty that I was having with it was not allowed, because everyone on the outside saw it as a total success. For me to express some kind of conflict or pain or rage about it was considered a disgusting lack of gratitude."
Today, Donahue is heartened by the changes in the industry since The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999. "There are more female creators, and women are allowed to have emotions that go beyond gentle smiles," she said. "They can actually be the complex human beings they are. They're creating their own roles all the time. I think the age of television that we're in has been enormous for changing the medium's hostility to women. It has grown by leaps and bounds. You have Tina Fey. You have Jennifer… what’s her name, the Hunger Games Jennifer? Sorry, I live in the woods. Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence is a real woman, who says shit that she actually thinks. And even in 1999, you weren’t allowed to do that. You had to toe a certain line."
And while Donahue has no interest in returning to acting—"I don't want to be a visible, public person," she insists—she continues to immerse herself in the film industry as the producer and writer of The High Country, an independently produced sitcom based on her post-Blair experiences as a marijuana farmer. (She covered that story in more detail in her 2012 memoir GrowGirl.) The pilot for The High Country has already been shot, and Donahue has written twelve more scripts. The series even coaxed her out of retirement for a brief performance. "I have a small cameo in The High Country," she allowed. "Only out of budgetary and time restriction reasons. I wouldn’t have chosen to have the role, but I was the best, cheapest person for the job."
And Donahue, a woman who purportedly died at 24—and survived a very different kind of harrowing experience in the years to follow—has found the life she wants. "Being 42 is so awesome," she said. "I mean, really. I can't imagine it getting better than this."
Later that evening, hours after I'd spoke with Donahue over the phone, I got off the subway and realized I had a new voicemail. Donahue had just left the theater after seeing the new Blair Witch—which had originally filled her with so much dread—and she couldn't contain her excitement. "I've gotta tell you: I think it's better than the original," she said. "I loved it. It's so good. It's so creepy. I really… I actually can't believe how much I loved it."