Viral Marketing Campaigns For Horror Movies From "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) Up To "Rings" (2017)

Term Paper, 2017

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Viral Marketing, Word of Mouth, and Storytelling

3 Early Viral Marketing Campaign: The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Its Sequel Blair Witch (2016)

4 Viral Marketing Campaigns of the Paranormal Activity 1 (2007)

5 Viral Marketing Campaigns of Cloverfield (2008) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

6 Viral Marketing Campaign of The Ring Two (2005) and Rings (2017)

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Especially for introducing and promoting horror movies Hollywood studios make use of viral marketing campaigns that include online and offline promotional activities for a more realistic and interactive storytelling and word of mouth strategies in order to make customers spread the news and tell their contacts about the upcoming movie.

By implementing additional information concerning the upcoming movie — audio, video, text, or all of the three types — the film studios and producers try to create a more authentic story, combine elements from the movie and elements from outside of the fictional world, and make the customers engage in the promotional activities. Most information is shared gradually to keep the audience engaged and excited over a longer period of time. With The Blair Witch Project as the first movie to mainly focus on online marketing in addition to traditional offline marketing, many other movies adopted the strategy of using online distribution channels, releasing information gradually, and making the audience have an active part in the process of spreading information and promoting the movie.

In this paper the following horror movies will be analyzed:

- The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Blair Witch (2016)
- Paranormal Activity 1 (2007)
- Cloverfield (2008) and 10 CloverfieldLane (2016)
- The Ring Two (2005) and Rings (2017)

These movies are being analyzed since their marketing campaigns concerning virality, word of mouth, interactivity and storytelling show many similarities but also some of them bring innovation to the marketing of horror movies. In the viral marketing of horror movies the strategies of storytelling and word of mouth are major factors in order to generate virality and to expand the fictional world consisting of characters and plot both online and offline. How the marketing campaigns of the studios regarding the movies listed above make use of these strategies and how viral marketing of horror movies has changed in terms of interactivity, mediality and storytelling since The Blair Witch Project will be examined in this paper.

2 Viral Marketing, Word of Mouth, and Storytelling

Viral Marketing refers to “entire marketing campaigns, or elements of promotional strategies for any number of consumer goods, services and media products” (Janes 87). Thereby “an organization develops a marketing message and encourages customers to forward this message to their contacts” (van der Lans et al 348). This primarily happens through social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) and word of mouth. Word of mouth (WOM) is also called “buzz" and “involves informal communication among consumers about products and services” (Liu 74). Since technology is more advanced today it is “extremely easy to share information with other people” (ibid.). With viral marketing audiences share information, or content in general, in any form posted by the studios’ marketers on social media, websites, and other platforms, ideally voluntarily, with their network and thereby promote the product, in this case movies and their franchise. The network normally consists of family, friends and colleagues, the information that is being shared and a possible recommendation does seem more trustworthy than most classic forms of advertising. Word of mouth also aims at making people talk about the product or movie and therefore sharing the content.

Storytelling, in this case interactive, “in a mixed reality environment merges digital and physical information and features” (Nakeveska et al. 52). Offline and online activities are hereby combined in order to increase engagement from the target group of consumers. Naveska et al. continues defining interactive storytelling as folioพS:

It usually uses an augmentation of the real-world and physical-based interaction. The dramatic storyline of the interactive narrative is influenced by the actions of the user. The participants are engaged in an interaction taking place in a real physical environment that does involve direct use of a computer and interaction devices, (ibid.)

Storytelling makes it easier to let the plot and characters seem more realistic, authentic, and interesting for the target audience. Combining online and offline marketing and promotional activities, which actively include the audience to share information, to vote, or to get engaged with the studio, the movie advertising or the movie plot in any way, is an effective way to make the movie go viral and make as many people as possible talk about the movie.

In order to go viral and be shared by many people a movie needs to make use of innovative online as well as offline marketing strategies. The internet in general and websites as well as social media in particular are an essential part of the process of spreading the information on an upcoming movie via word of mouth and viral marketing. Movie websites “were nothing more than the internet equivalent of a Sunset Strip billboard for a film” (Balio 81). “By 2003, nearly every film was being promoted online” (ibid.) since that was the most effective way to reach as many people as possible and spread the news of the upcoming film. At first only the biggest films were being promoted by creating websites (cf. ibid.).

3 Early Viral Marketing Campaign: The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Its Sequel Blair Witch (2016)

The viral marketing campaign of The Blair Witch Project is often referred to as the most successful, even though this campaign “took place before YouTube,

Twitter and Facebook existed” (Davidson) in 1999 and had a budget of only between 20,000 and 25,000 บ.S. Dollars (cf. ibid.) and 248 Million บ.S.

Dollars box office gross (cf. Lambie).

The Blair Witch Project tells the story of three students, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael c. Williams, who want to produce a film about the legend of Blair Witch in Burkittsville, Maryland. They disappear after going into the Black Hills. The footage of their trip is found one year later in a buried bag by the police and is put together as this is the content of the movie (cf. Davidson). The film is set in October 1994 (cf. Lambie), years before the movie’s release. The fact that the movie consists of fictional footage and therefore seems to be filmed by the missing students themselves makes it easier to create a marketing campaign that gives the audience the impression that both characters and story are real, or at least based on a true story, since the material does not make the impression of a professionally made movie. However, “The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage film ever made, and neither was it the only such film released in the late 90s” (ibid.).

For the campaign a website was created,, by Haxan Films in 1998, in order to give information about the legend mentioned in the movie. Since the mid 1990s “official websites had become an integral part of the movie marketing” (Balio 81), however, most websites that were created for promoting horror movies are different than official websites for movie advertising. Instead of focusing on giving information they focus on suspense and revealing information gradually and carefully. The website for The Blair Witch Project made the impression that the “urban legend of an evil witch camping out in the woods in rural Maryland was actually true long before the film’s release” (Stewart). The website was filled gradually over a period of six months (cf. Davidson) “on a regular basis so that people kept coming back to the site” (Stewart) until the release of the film, even after the filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick sold the movie to Artisan Entertainment in 1999 (cf. Lambie). To make the story more authentic and interactive the website included biographies, journal entries from one of the main characters, photos from the fictional characters as well as information on the police search and comments from their family members after their disappearance (cf. Davidson).

The website was so popular that the serves even crashed and had more than 20 million page views before its release (cf. Stewart). According to Jessica Rovello, the new online director of Artisan in 2016 (cf. ibid.), the success of the online campaign is also supported by the early stage of the internet: “I think because the internet was still a fairly new medium that helped. If somebody tried to do it today it would happen but it would probably be debunked so quickly that it wouldn’t have the ability to take time to catch on” (ibid.). The internet back then was a “new domain for marketers” (ibid.) and therefore the marketing strategy of The Blair Witch Project was revolutionizing movie marketing in a way that made it possible for the audience to actively be involved in the promotional process and to experience a type of marketing that is aimed at seeming as realistic as possible with the provided platforms.

The word of mouth was so successful that the actors that used their real names for the movie “were actually presumed to be missing or dead by some viewers” (ibid.). As a result of the interaction-based viral marketing that blurred the lines between the story and reality Heather Donahue was told by pedestrians that “they ‘wished’ she was dead and they wanted their money back” (ibid.). Here the audience was successfully talked into believing that the events are real by the information given.

Entries in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) also stated that the students were still missing (cf. Lambie), trying to confirm the truthfulness of all the published material. These kinds of information aim at pretending that both story and characters seem more real. This generates engagement and interest within the target group of viewers and moviegoers. By releasing the information gradually the audience was involved in the discovery of news and urged to keep talking about the website, the subject of the missing students and movie (cf. Davidson).

In addition to the online marketing leaflets, or posters, of the missing students were used to promote the movie on college campus ses and during the film festival in Cannes (cf. Stewart). The posters showed pictures of the fictional characters Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, as well as their age, height, and other details. People were asked to give any information on the students that went missing while camping in the Black Hills Forrest area to the county sheriff’s office (cf. ibid.). This was aimed at word- of-mouth distribution, first of the supposingly real events and then of the movie that is featuring the events, even if fictional.

“On the opening weekend in July 1999, Artisan took out a full-page ad in Variety Magazin, simply noting the website and the number of hits to date: 21,222,589” (Davidson). This aimed at making the target audience visit the website and is a last-minute strategy to increase the word of mouth activities of the target audience: “Word of it spread across the internet and seeped into newspapers and TV reports, turning The Blair Witch Project into one of the most talked-about films of the summer” (Lambie). According to Davidson this as well as the limited release with only 27 screens is connected to social proof and the audience’s urge not to miss something exciting. The success of this marketing campaign can also be by the “uncertanty” of the audience regarding the amount of truth that the story contains: “Where they actual people? Had they really disappeared? Surely this couldn’t all be fake?” (ibid.). Davidson concludes that future campaigns can not solely copy the marketing strategy of The Blair Witch Project but have to be creative as well (cf. ibid.). The producers of the movie made use of the internet at a time when it “provided a platform for information to be shared, but not at the speed and efficiency we enjoy today” (Lambie) as addition to offline promotion with leaflets and “the Blair Witch website racked up millions of hits, forming a community of people eager to see the movie, thus creating a new form of marketing that was as effective, and far cheaper, than traditional forms of advertising and promotion” (ibid.).

For the sequel Blair Witch a website was created with a crowdfunding campaign that “claims to have successfully crowfunded a film called ‘The Absence of Closure’” (Nordine) by Lisa Arlington in early 2014 (cf. ibid.). It is supposed to be a “feature-lenght documentary that examines the tragedy of ambiguous loss” (Kickstarter). It is said to be released in May 2014 and it is supposed to have raised 11,390 บ.S. Dollars through crowdfunding (cf. ibid.).

Similar to the strategy of The Blair Witch Project the website and the funding campaign made the impression of being real, which was underlined by many statements concerning Lisa’s disappearance:

Hello, my name is Kaylee Morgan and I'm Lisa's best friend. As some of you know, it's been over two years since anyone has heard from Lisa. Her parents recently found her Kickstarter password in an old notebook and they asked me to write this update, in case any of you do not know what happened or might have information.

In short: Lisa disappeared in May 2014 during production of her documentary ABSENCE OF CLOSURE in Northwest Maryland. James, the subject of her film, and two of his friends are also missing. Their whereabouts are unknown. We are also trying to find any information about an online group called "DarkNet666" and their possible involvement in this case. (Scott)

By implementing voices of friends and family members, sometimes even of officials like police officers, the mysterious vanishing and possible death of a person, whether Lisa Arlington or the students in Maryland in the first Blair Witch movie, support the viral marketing of the movie. However, the article by Ryan Scott did reveal the intentions behind the messages and the funding campaign and identified this as marketing material. Many other articles back then revealed the connection to Blair Witch soon. Still the movie was being promoted through both the false website and announcement as well as thrugh the revelation of the fact that it is only for promotional purposes of an upcoming film, even though the audience did not believe in the truth of these constructed events very long.

The use of Kickstarter as an external platform, independent from the movie’s own websites and social media accounts, the marketers aimed at raising the plot’s and characters’ authenticity as well as the number of people reached: “The 1999 sensation caused by the mysterious episodic footage of The Blair Witch Project has never been duplicated, and these days film marketers opt to place their juiciest movie content on third-party platforms that already have big Web traffic” (Balio 83). External websites, in addition to the studios’ websites and the movie’s pages on other platforms, make it easier to spread information, targeting people who normally do not follow the studios on any social media channel or a related website. These websites serve as an advertising for a new type of audience.

Besides the website there was a blog,, which features posts about witches and the missing hikers including Lisa (cf. DarkNet666). Lisa, also the name of a character in The Blair Witch Project, is supposed to be missing, even though as Nordine observes a google search does not hint at any real missing person in Maryland (cf. ibid.). This shows how modem search engines can make attempts to report a fictional character missing less successful and believable. The campaign for Blair Witch tries to imitate the strategies of its predecessor but the attention with this is smaller.

A Tumblr page,, was also used for revealing a last message from Lisa and a private Lacebook page had been created. The Tumblr page makes the impression of being written by Lisa Arlington herself, and thereby made the target audience feel as if they are reading the last words of a real person who disappeared, and are involved in the process of finding out what happened:

Hi everybody! Sorry, I just realized that I’ve been posting all my production updates to kickstarter and not here. I promise once the film is shot, I’ll update more on Tumblr. ะ) -Lisa (Absence of Closure)


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Viral Marketing Campaigns For Horror Movies From "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) Up To "Rings" (2017)
University of Bonn
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ISBN (Book)
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hollywood, television, media studies, horror movies, marketing, word of mouth
Quote paper
Lioba Frings (Author), 2017, Viral Marketing Campaigns For Horror Movies From "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) Up To "Rings" (2017), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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