Heather Donahue is Not Dead: A Conversation with Heather Donahue

In 1999 Heather Donahe created one of the most iconic images in horror film history when she filmed herself up close in “The Blair Witch Project.” By 2012 she had turned her baack on Hollywood and was working as a legalized pot grower, and published a memoire “Grow Girl.”

Originally published at popcultureaddict.com in 2012.

Heather Donahue is not dead.  Despite what the publicity surrounding her breakout role in the cult horror film The Blair Witch Project may have wanted you to believe, Heather Donahue did not disappear in those creepy old woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland as the victim of some dark unseen supernatural force.  Instead, Heather Donahue has been staying securely under the radar for half a decade where she hasn’t wanted to be found, until now.

In 1999 the entertainment world was a buzz about Heather Donahue. As star of The Blair Witch Project, Heather’s largely improvised performance not only captured the imagination of movie audiences, but helped kick start the rebirth of the mockumentary genre.  But most importantly, in a moment of unscripted genius, Heater Donahue created one of the most iconic images in the modern horror industry. Like a frightened “Kilroy” with giant eyes and a knitted toque, Heather’s eyes etched themselves in the minds of a generation of film fans, and still have a powerful gaze over film buffs today.  Suddenly Heather’s image was everywhere, from the covers of Newsweek, to posters, t-shirts and comic books.  However, despite her memorable performance and the promise of a bright career in film, by the middle of the next decade Heather Donahue had all but disappeared from the cultural radar.  With only a handful of film credits and television appearances, Heather had completely dropped out of sight by 2008.  Just where was Heather Donahue?  Did the curse of Elly Keward really follow Heather Donahue out of those woods?  Well….not quite.

Thirteen years after The Blair Witch Project Heather Donahue is back with a brand new story to tell.  Earlier this year Heather revealed the story of her post-Blair Witch life in her first book, Grow Girl, which chronicles her strange career move as a medical marijuana grower.  Having decided to leave acting behind for good, Heather moved to a small rural community and grew pot while returning to her first creative interest as a writer.  Leaving the pot growing industry three years ago and now residing in San Francisco, Heather Donahue’s book is now available, and she is foregoing a new career behind a keyboard instead of on the screen.

The Blair Witch Project is possibly my favorite film of the 1990’s, and as a result I have been a long time fan of Heather Donahue.  Over the years I have sought her out many times for an interview but she had always remained extremely reclusive.  Now, with a new project to discuss, it was a great pleasure to finally be able to connect with her and discuss her life beyond the silver screen.

Sam:  You know Heather; you’ve been a favorite of mine since I read an interview with you in 1999 in Femme Fatale Magazine.

Heather Donahue:  Oh God.  Yeah.

Sam:  It seems that every now and then I’d go out looking for you, but this is the first time I’ve ever found you.  You really disappeared off the radar for a long time.

Heather:  Well this is really the first time I wanted to be found.

Sam:  Well look.  My first question to you is going to be either humorous or absolutely obnoxious.  You can be the judge of that.  Do you still run into people who think you are actually dead?

Heather:  Yes.

” I went out into the desert with garbage bags full of old headshots, resumes, lingerie, stuff from previous relationships, photographs, magazine articles and much of the media stuff surrounding Blair Witch and I burnt it all.”

Sam:  What is that like?

Heather:  Well it doesn’t happen much anymore, but when Blair Witch first came out my Mom kept getting sympathy cards.  It was all part of their marketing scheme so, yeah, people thought I was dead.  When people found out I was alive a lot of them were kind of annoyed with me and wanted their money back. (Laughs)

Sam:  Does this still happen to you?

Heather:  People sometimes leave comments on my web-site telling me they thought I was dead.

Sam:  Well you said that this is the first time that you wanted to be found.  What do you mean by that?  Why did you feel the need to disappear after Blair Witch.

Heather:  Well I had to go and do something else with my life.  There came a point where people would assume they knew me or make assumptions about me, and that’s not how I wanted to live.

Sam:  In your book you talk about burning your old life away.  Was that a metaphor of sorts?

Heather:  No, it was an actual literal bonfire.  I went out into the desert with garbage bags full of old headshots, resumes, lingerie, stuff from previous relationships, photographs, magazine articles and much of the media stuff surrounding Blair Witch and I burnt it all.

Sam:  What was that like for you?  Was it a release of sorts?

Heather:  Yes.  I wanted to empty my cup so I could fill it up with something more delicious.

Sam:  Let’s talk about that more delicious cup.  You have a book out about your post Blair Witch life.  Tell me a bit about the book.

Heather:  The book is called Grow Girl and it’s about my time as a medical marijuana grower.  After I realized I didn’t want to be an actress anymore, I burnt all my stuff in the desert, went to a meditation retreat and met this guy who lived in this small town where I had gone to seven years before, but which I always said that I wanted to live in.  [When he told me where he lived] I said “That sounds amazing, but how do you make a living there?”  He said “I grow pot.”  I said “That sounds fascinating.”  So I went there and stayed with him for a few months.  He had this adorable daughter which I fell in love with, and they were living this beautiful rural lifestyle that was completely new and totally exciting to me, and I wanted a piece of it.  I wanted a cozy crystalis to come in.  To become something that I didn’t even know yet.  I knew acting wasn’t working out for me, and I knew I loved to write, but I didn’t know what to do with my life at that point.  I knew that I needed time, space, trees and maybe a dog to figure it out.

Sam: How long did you stay out there growing pot?

Heather:  I lived in that town for about three years.

Sam:  And you got the trees and the dog?

Heather:  I sure did, and I discovered what I really wanted to do, which was to write, and I had plenty of time to do that.  I think of my time in the forest as my Independent Study MFA.  I feel like someone gets this Master in Fine Arts for Creative Writing and they come out of those programs with so much debt, while I came out with a wonderful experience, a book, and no student loans. (Laughs)

Sam:  Were you always writing, or was your interest in writing a sort of epiphany that you had somewhere along the way?

Heather:  No no no.  I actually came into acting from writing.  I could read when I was two.  I was kind of a freakish kid.  So I was reading everything all the time.  When I was eleven I spent my vacation shelving books at the library, and then I spent the next summer starting a theater company in the back yard.  So I was definitely coming to acting and performing through my love of stories.  I had won a young authors contest when I was in first grade for my story about how I was friends with Olivia Newton John and I was actually one of her sisters in Xanadu.  (Laughs)  I was obsessed with that movie for quite some time and I just wanted to be one of those roller skating sisters and travel through time.

Sam:  That’s so awesome. (Laughs)

Heather:  I knew all the songs.  My parents were so sick of that soundtrack.

Vua the intenet and a brilliant marketing campaign, initially audiences thought that Heather Donahue and her costars were dead prior to thge release of The Blair Witch Project. ” when Blair Witch first came out my Mom kept getting sympathy cards.  It was all part of their marketing scheme so, yeah, people thought I was dead.  When people found out I was alive a lot of them were kind of annoyed with me and wanted their money back.”

Sam:  So, despite the fact that you are done with acting, if, heaven forbid, they were going to make a remake of Xanadu would you come out of retirement to audition?

Heather:  (Laughs) That could be possibly the only thing that would make me come back to acting, but I’d have to be their mother or something.

Sam:  Come on.  We’re not that old yet, are we?  I don’t like to think of my mortality.

Heather:  I love thinking about my mortality.

Sam:  So you were growing pot for three years.  There is a whole pot sub-culture out there.  Even though you no longer grow pot, do you find yourself still emerged into this sub-culture, and what is your perception of pot culture?

Heather:   I think to define pot culture really ends up not being realistic. You know what I mean?  I think when you start to talk about pot culture you start to get a very inaccurate picture of the prevalence of marijuana advocacy.  You think about some sort of stoner dude with a bong in his dorm.  Well that only one kind of smoker.  I know people who smoke who are middle aged moms that have a toke with their chardonnay.  This is also true in grower culture.  I’m looking at one small community that I was a part of, but there are grannies whose pensions aren’t cutting it who grew roses all their lives that are now growing pot.  With the state legality it’s become a feasible option for people who would otherwise lose their house if they can’t find a job and want to stay in a rural community.  It’s been keeping a lot of Northern California rural communities alive actually.

Sam:  Well let’s talk about the legalization of marijuana.  There is an idea that if marijuana was legalized that it would help restimulate the suffering American economy.  Do you agree with this, or is this another unrealistic generation?

Heather:  I actually don’t think it would rejuvenate the economy.  I think the price would drop so much that it would be challenging to be an economic [solution].  I can understand that temptation, but I think you’d really have to have more of the wine mentality about it.  You’d have to have high end pot driving that business.  The thing is, even growing beautiful high end pot is not as time consuming as growing the grapes and aging and fermenting a high end bottle of wine.  So more people would be able to do it.  What really impresses me during my time as a grower is just how strong the plants are.  Just how amazing they are.  They have been coevolving with humans now for several thousand years.  We’re a real planetary power couple.  (Laughs)

Sam:  So after growing pot for three years, what made you decide to leave that life behind as well?

Heather:  I realized that it wasn’t my calling, and I decided that I really wanted to keep writing and I was going to write a book about it.  I also fell in love with a man who is deathly allergic to weed.

Sam:  So if he is deathly allergic to weed, are you still part of the sub-culture.

Heather:  Oh. I’m not with him anymore, but I’m not sure if I was ever really a part of the sub-culture.  I left that town, so I’m not hanging with that crew.  But I don’t think I was ever really part of a sub-culture.  I wouldn’t say that marijuana is necessarily a sub-culture. I think when I was growing, then, yes, it was a sub-culture.  I was part of the grower culture, which was also part of my community.  It didn’t feel like a sub-culture at the time.

Sam:  Do you miss it?

Heather:  Yes I do.  I miss it terribly.  I loved it.  I loved the actual tending of the planets.  I loved cloning.  I loved taking the cuttings and watching them transform into new and individual plants.  I loved harvesting.

Sam:  How long has it been since you left the business of growing marijuana?

Heather:  I left the town about two years ago.

Sam:  How long did it take you to write Grow Girl?

Heather:  Two years.  I felt like I wrote the best book that I could on this subject.  I’m very proud of it.  When I got my first copies of it and I took them out of the envelope, and it smelled like real books, it was such an amazing moment for me.  It was like a childhood dream come true.  Way more then anything I did in film or television.  It just meant so much to me to have done this thing.  What I love about writing is that there is no permission needed.  You don’t need to go and audition and say “Hey, could I just write this book?”  You just sit down and you do it.  I love that about it.  It’s truly up to you, and you are going to create it or not create it based on your discipline, your creativity and your willingness to commit to it.

Sam:  Do you have a second book started?

Heather:  I have a couple of things started, but they are all top secret.

Sam:  So with this being the first time that you’ve wanted to be found.  Is it because of the book that you’ve come out of hiding?

Heather: Of course. I really have no interest in notoriety of any kind, but I need to sell enough books to be able to write the next one so here I am.Sam:  After being off the radar for five years is there any anxiety about jumping back into the public sphere like this?

Heather:  I don’t really have anxiety about much of anything these days.  Nothing scares me anymore.  That was one of the great things about growing weed for a while.  You really get used to being comfortable in uncertainty.  I know I’m doing exactly what I want to do, so it’s hard to be worried about that.

There are many forks on the pop culture journey, and paths can lead people in different directions.  Heather Donahue went into the woods and found fame, escaped into the crops and found animinity, and now finds herself somewhere in the middle as an author.  For more information on Heather Donahue’s current activities, as well as Grow Girl, visit her web-site at http://heatherdonahue.com.  Let’s hope this is just the beginning of more stories to come from Heather Donahue and that she doesn’t disappear again.

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.