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The summer of 1999 was captured by The Blair Witch Project, a documentary-style movie that burst into theatres and enthralled audiences.

The Blair Witch is barely seen in the film, just as a towering terror that wipes out the lives of a few curious teens. But that’s not how the story began. Filmmakers drew the inspiration for the Blair Witch from the fable of Moll Dyer. The story did more than scare children, it revealed how women were portrayed in the 17th century.

The story of Moll Dyer

Moll Dyer was an elderly, single woman who lived on the outskirts of a small Maryland settlement in the late 1600s. We’re not sure exactly what she looked like, as there are very conflicting opinions. Some sources cite her as a “hag” while others recount her as a lovely older woman. All sources describe Dyer as exceptionally tall for a woman, with most men in the town barely hitting her frail shoulders. This difference already made her an outsider, and her oddities did nothing to remedy that.

Dyer’s exploits upset the townsfolk. She was not wealthy and so would seek out monetary contributions or request food. But for the other residents of this Maryland town, this behavior was not as concerning as her frequent incantations and habit for foraging for herbs.

Dyer was an outcast, so when the townsfolk experienced a frigid winter, they had an easy target to blame. The only explanation for this terrible season could be a vengeful witch. In 1697 an angry mob swarmed Dyer’s modest home. There was no trial and she didn’t even have a chance to explain herself. The mob set Dyer’s home aflame. But they didn’t stick around to see her burn.

Dyer fled her burning house and hid in the woods. However, due to the cold temperatures, she froze to death before she could make it to safety. Dyer was found with her hand reached up to the sky and knees perched on a rock. Dyer’s body stayed in this position for days, until someone found her petrified body.

From that point on the townsfolk believed Dyer had used her final strength to curse them. And they all lived in fear of what that curse would bring.

Moll Dyer may never have lived. It’s very possible that her story is all that ever existed of her. But the Blair Witch fable reveals cultural perceptions of women during that time, and for the years after when the story was shared around packed campfires.

Witch” was a term thrown at women who existed outside of cultural norms. Women who were unmarried, divorced, widowed, childless, had too many children or were too outspoken. With that characterization, it’s easy to understand how Dyer was thrown into the category.

Throughout the fable, It’s clear that Dyer made a fatal mistake. She remained unmarried. This romantic choice meant she was already a social pariah. Dyer did not conform to traditional family values that ruled colonial society. Because she did not have a husband to support her she had to wander into the town to beg for sustenance. This reminded the townsfolk of her curious antics whenever she was in sight and placed an emphasis on her otherness.

Lasting impact

Women have been blamed for hardships since Adam and Eve, witchcraft claims were just the latest installment of a misogynistic trend. When men were unwilling to take responsibility for their failings or insecurities, they would project them onto women who were outside of their social circle. But these prosecutors wouldn’t have been successful without the willful approval of their female counterparts. Women turned against each other for the approval of their community. These fables are built upon settlers turning against the most vulnerable, and then controlling the narrative after they condemned the innocent.

In 17th-century terms, all of Moll Dyer’s actions may point to “witch,” but that’s not a 1999 thought. This story lived on for hundreds of years, retelling the same narrative. People in the 20th century anticipated vengeance based on irrational fears from 1697. The misplaced anger of a starving town has led to the continued tale of an exiled older woman cursing the innocent. Dyer’s true story has been erased by her persecutors.

Part of woman's face looking into camera while crying
“Blair Witch Project” still from John Squires via

The Blair Witch Project’s guerrilla marketing campaign left viewers confused about the authenticity of the film and led to a lasting impact on marketing and horror movies for decades to come. But the “real” Blair Witch left a lasting impact on the perceptions of women in American colonial society. 

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  • Olivia McCormack

    Olivia McCormack is a senior journalism major and history minor at American University in Washington, DC. She fell in love with communications through her mental health advocacy and education. Her dream is to be a Vanna White-eque 1960s weather girl, but in this economy will settle for the high paying career field of journalism.