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The manila envelope is unmarked and tightly sealed. It takes some effort to tear it open, as if the envelope itself is warning me: “Are you sure you want to see what’s inside? Are you entirely certain you’re up for this?”
I answer the question by tearing the package open. As the 10 objects within slide across my desk – a journal, incident report, map, newspaper clipping, and more – it would seem I’ve accepted my role as a detective on the case.
And it looks like I’m delving into the dark history, and ongoing mystery, of Burkittsville, Maryland, the home of the Blair Witch.
This is the Blair Witch tabletop experience by Hunt A Killer in partnership with Lionsgate and marks the first time the interactive murder mystery subscription box company has invited players into a story tied into an existing franchise. And with the first of six monthly “episodes” of Hunt A Killer: Horror – Blair Witch available now, a yarn is unfolding in real time that references the Blair Witch movies – and shares several characters with the Blair Witch video game — while still remaining accessible to the uninitiated.
Speaking of yarns, whether you choose to crack open the case each month on your own (as I did with this episode) or with a group of friends, you don’t need a corkboard with red yarn to connect the dots in this story — but it might be fun to have nonetheless.
“Blair Witch has a rich playground of storytelling,” says Melissa LaMartina, Hunt A Killer’s Director of Production, and someone who grew up in Maryland close to the real-world Burkittsville. “And there is this sense of mystery and exploration and discovery sort of inherent in the world of Blair Witch.”
When developing the Hunt A Killer: Horror – Blair Witch story, LaMartina says showrunner Elinor Haney – along with writers Travis Madden, Tatiana Nya Ford, and Will Rogers, and designer Alaska S. Kellum – revisited the franchise installments and identified commonalities within the universe. And while observing guidelines and rules to the universe, she said she and the team viewed Blair Witch as a “perfect metaphor of just walking into a dark wood,” with all the fears and mystery humans carry about wild, unknown reaches of nature.
But ultimately LaMartina said this Hunt a Killer series is about plucking out a single person, or single family, and exploring how they might fit within this established mythology.
So who is this family?
As the detective on this first installment, I learn about Rosemary Kent, a woman who lives on the edge of the infamous Black Hills Forest. Her son Liam has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and the Burkittsville Sheriff’s Office has failed to turn up any information. Rosemary has asked me (and all players) to investigate the events of the day Liam went missing, as well as Liam’s connection to the legend of the Blair Witch, to move the case forward.
To reunite the Kent family I will need to explore the mysterious forest, uncover the truth about recent disappearances, and learn about the supernatural forces behind them. However, to do so, as the story’s logline challenges, I must be willing to “face down the wrath of the Blair Witch and those loyal to her.”
The Hunt a Killer: Horror – Blair Witch experience intrigues me straightaway. To preserve the mystery, I don’t want to reveal every item in that Episode One manila envelope. But if you look at the main image on the Hunt A Killer website for this series, you’ll get a sense of what to expect.
Players are dropped in the middle of this narrative-driven drama, and everything is a clue, but there is no map of where to begin. Well, there is a map, but that’s a literal map of Burkittsville.
Where to begin?
The first thing I read is a letter from Rosemary, which begins with:
“It’s been weeks since I’ve felt any sliver of hope, and frankly, I was starting to lose my mind a little before I found you.”
The words sound like a concerned mother, and she draws me in as she breaks down what she knows. Everything looks and feels legit, like what a Sheriff might say during a press conference or witness interview, or how a magazine or teenager’s journal might read (down to the chicken scratch handwriting).
My approach is to read and absorb everything before trying to piece it together. Before I get to know Liam, I want to learn about the town, and what others might have to say about the Kent family. As for Liam himself, some of his belongings included in the packet give me a sense of who the missing boy is.
In addition to the artifacts and documents mailed to me for the first episode, I also discover an in-world website where I gather more evidence, interact with characters, and access digital files. (There is also an out-of-world site where hints, recaps, and solutions can be accessed if a detective gets stumped).
There is a verisimilitude to the items in the Hunt A Killer kit. And designer Kellum – who has likewise created a very cool “Creepy Baltimore” print on her own site – leans into the horror elements, and the aesthetic of the foreboding woods (and what may be lurking in them) without straining the reality of the proceedings. There is a hidden Episode One clue that particularly struck me with its eeriness when I discovered it.
Names, locations, and little details begin to recur, which all spur questions. Where was this person at this time of day of Liam’s disappearance? And how does that person quoted in one document connect to the landmark and date on the map?
I find myself having a moment like Charlie’s Pepe Silvia meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I’m piecing it together when I discover THE clue, the detail that opens up the door to answers in this episode, and then subsequently presents more questions.
Over the course of a couple of hours of investigating (Hunt A Killer anticipates between 90 minutes to three hours of gameplay experience per episode, depending on number of players, and other factors), I find a sense of escalation and anticipation setting in. Yes, I am uncovering clues, but things feel like they are just beginning.
That is intentional, says LaMartina. When approaching the story, she says they set out to recreate the feeling of having senses engaged while watching a horror movie in the dark. But, like any compelling narrative, she adds that “a lot of that comes from the way you’re engaging with the characters” over the course of six months.
“You really come to care for the fate of these people with whom you’re interacting,” she says. “You’re not only getting the story of this individual and this woman who’s desperately reaching out to you for help, but you are also really, immediately, fully immersed in that larger world of the Blair Witch….And I love the idea of people opening these boxes and starting to sift through these documents and just getting this uneasiness settling in, because it’s very much a world in which things just are not right, you know?”
I find this to be true in my own adventure with the first episode. While I feel empathy for Rosemary, I am already suspicious of other characters who are popping up in the story. And then I find myself questioning those suspicions, because of course any good mystery will involve some sleight-of-hand and misdirection where a person is looking one way, while the real villain can operate undetected. And in a town like Burkittsville, I develop a keen sense that everyone has something to hide.
For the two hours I was working the Blair Witch case, and then when I interacted on the 132 thousand-strong Facebook Group, I did feel like the immersive nature of the Blair Witch experience taps into something I’ve been craving during the long months of a pandemic where I’ve been unable to go to the cinema or gather in large groups. The sense of discovery is cinematic at times, and I found it exciting to compare notes with players online to see who had trouble with certain clues, and who solved the episode faster than I.
“There is a shared sense of unfolding the mystery, and a shared human experience when we’re living our lives so much more online now, in Zoom meetings solid for eight hours a day,” said LaMartina. “I think this is a way of feeling more connected and knowing that as you are playing this game, we have a whole community of people who are also playing; it’s just another way to reclaim some of that human connection.”
And that is a connection that can be pursued over the next six months for any player who chooses to take on the strange case of Liam Kent and the Blair Witch story in Burkittsville, Maryland.
But as I learn, the mystery is just beginning. At the end of my investigation, I reach a cliffhanger. There is much more detective work ahead of me over the next several months before I get to the other side of this case.
However, if you go down this rabbit hole, or have already cracked Episode One of Hunt A Killer: Horror – Blair Witch, then perhaps you can make use of this exclusive Episode Two clue provided by the game company.
But first, ask yourself, are you certain that you can handle a horror story where you are the main character?
Hunt A Killer: Horror – Blair Witch Episode Two Tease…
In Episode 2, you’ll be introduced to a mysterious figure with strong ties to the Black Hills Forest. Who is this figure, and what could they want with Liam Kent? The clue raises questions of how they were communicating and what their relationship is.