‘The Black Phone’ Fleshes Out a Lean and Mean Tale: Comparing the Short Story and the Movie

by Susan Ryant

About a year after The Blair Witch Project took the box office by storm in 1999, Random House started publishing a series of tie-in novels in conjunction with Artisan Entertainment. The first film’s production designer and the director of two related features, Ben Rock, was also consulted about geography and lore. And to help reinforce the “based on true events” quality of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s story, the author of The Blair Witch Files is Heather Donahue’s teenage cousin, Cade Merrill . This is a clever way of disguising the fact that the eight-book series is ghostwritten by multiple authors.

Every volume of The Blair Witch Files has Cade Merrill, the owner of theblairwitchfiles.com, coming in contact with random people from all over, who may or may not be able to help him discover what really happened to Heather and her two friends in the Black Hills Forest. Merrill also lives in Burkittsville, Maryland, and he regularly visits the area where his cousin went missing. These books occur several years after the infamous event of 1994; Cade states he was eleven when Heather set out to make a documentary about the Blair Witch. This now being 2000, communication through email was more common. So every novel opens with an email from a potential new subject and/or correspondent.

In the first volume’s acknowledgement section, Cade thanks ghostwriter Carol Ellis for her part in “the preparation of this book.” The story then goes straight into an email Cade received from a high-school senior named Justin Petit. He asks for help finding information on a Lee Irwin, the woman his grandfather claims is trying to kill him. Justin explains Irwin has “already killed other people,” according to his grandfather. From there Cade details his research, which includes “100 hours of taped interviews with Justin Petit, written transcripts, newspaper articles, phone conversations, emails, local police and FBI records, and journal entries.” Heather’s cousin has now found himself his first case, one he calls The Witch’s Daughter .

Cade takes a backseat role in the first book; he reports everything without getting physically involved in Justin’s situation. Merrill, however, does interject with the occasional bit of clarification to tie things together. Starting on June 18 at a hospital in Sykesville, Maryland, Justin began visiting his grandfather, Harper Kemp, after the 73-year-old fell down. As it turns out, this was no mere accident; Harper believes someone from his past pushed him. That someone of course being the previously mentioned Lee Irwin. Harper confesses he wronged this Lee person so many years ago when they crossed paths at an orphanage.

Louise “Lee” Irwin’s tragic story began in 1939 when her parents died. Her abusive Aunt Mary wanted nothing to do with the 13-year-old, so she chopped her niece’s hair off and then dumped her at the Oakbridge Home for Boys in Carroll County. Now as “Lee,” Louise pretended to be a boy until she was found out by the other young residents, including Harper Kemp. When she was finally exposed after being tormented by her peers, Lee was shipped off to a girls’ orphanage without even the slightest hesitation. The car accident getting there led to Lee disappearing for six months in the woods before she finally popped up at the orphanage. It was during this time she met the notorious Blair Witch and her homicidal emissary, Rustin Parr.

In the modern timeline of The Witch’s Daughter , Justin races to save his grandfather from the vengeful Lee Irwin, who is closer than he realizes. This involves dredging up the past and uncovering Irwin’s whereabouts since leaving the girls’ orphanage. Now, when the book seems to have telegraphed its outcome even before the second act, there are surprises up until the very end. And much like the 1999 film, there are no definite answers as to what took place that fateful summer. The biggest takeaway here, though, is learning how many lives have been — and continue to be — touched by the Blair Witch.

Blair Witch Files dark room

Cade has an active role in the second novel, The Dark Room , and helping him pool his bizarre experiences into a manuscript is ghostwriter Megan Stine . This second case involves a teenager, Laura Morley, coming to visit Burkittsville after moving away as a child. She randomly shows up after shooting Cade an email, then worms her way into his house while his parents are gone. When they visit the site of Rustin Parr’s residence, which burned down in 1941, Laura swears she can still see the house. Cade does not believe her until he sees the house himself in Laura’s photographs.

While developing the film, Laura and Cade spot more than just a restored building; they see a young Rustin Parr along with his family, twin brother Dale and parents Wilson and Charity. The evidence is unfortunately temporary, seeing as the images faded once the prints were put in a stop bath. Nevertheless, the weirdness only grows along with Laura’s obsession. Her time in Burkittsville all those years ago was short but not uneventful. In addition, The Dark Room goes into the early history of Rustin Parr and shows the extent of the Blair Witch’s influence on him, long before Rustin committed his atrocities as an adult. How that ultimately ties into Laura’s own unique connection to the Witch amounts to a well-crafted twist.

The third book in The Blair Witch Files, The Drowning Ghost , is written by Natalie Standiford , and it is the first “filler” story in the series. As much as this region is known as Blair Witch country, there is an underlying body of other supernatural activity waiting to be solved. One such matter is the mysterious drowning of 10-year-old Eileen Treacle, who perished in the Tappy East Creek in 1825. Once again, Cade sticks to the shadows only to show up in the opening and conclusion, or if he needs to momentarily expound on something brought up in the main plot. He instead allows a college freshman to recount her own perils in Black Hills Forest. 

Blair Witch Files drowning ghost

In March of 1999, before going off to college, a Baltimore high school student named Cecilia Northrup chaperoned a school-sanctioned camping trip in Black Rock State Park. She was joined by her boyfriend, Mark Reddick, their two friends, two teachers, and thirty-seven middle schoolers. Their campsite was not far from where Eileen Treacle drowned. And according to legend, the girl was pulled under by a “bony white hand.” With the trip preceding the release of The Blair Witch Project , California transplant Cecilia was unaware of the territory’s biggest attraction. However, she does get a crash course in the myth of Eileen when Mark goes uncharacteristically aggro, people gradually disappear, the water source turns black and gooey, and there are sightings of a barefoot ghost nearby.

The Drowning Ghost is a detour from the overarching plot, but it is also the most thoroughly suspenseful entry so far. Cade’s research, while otherwise enlightening in books where the continuity is integral, is less present here. And with fewer informative interludes, the third Blair Witch Files  better resembles  a straightforward novel. It indeed operates like The Witch’s Daughter in that way. Casual readers  may find themselves more engaged with this book,  in view of the inviting setup, tense atmosphere, and ghoulish developments.

This literary expansion of the Blair Witch universe is as entertaining as it is impressively constructed; a lot of work clearly went into making the books. The  Blair Witch Files was originally made with young adults in mind, but these stories are not exactly “light reading.” And above all, the series will appeal to anyone with a keen interest in fictional folk-horror, regional phenomena, and paranormal investigations.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book . This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

Blair Witch Files books