It’s one of the most iconic and haunting scenes in horror film history.
With a fabled witch on her trail, student filmmaker Heather Donahue decides to film herself. She’s been lost in the woods for days. As tears stream down her face, she drops to her knees in utter defeat. Snot pours out of her flaring nostrils. In a tight closeup, the petrified girl delivers her last will and testament—apologizing to her friends, family, and the co-producers of her film.
Shot for $20,000, The Blair Witch Project went on to gross close to $250 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. It generated massive buzz thanks to a groundbreaking Internet campaign launched by distributor Artisan, hinting that the 1999 movie, allegedly “found footage” shot in 1994, was a record of real events.
“They hid us,” said Donahue in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It was hard because it was my real first and last name that was used. People would seem disappointed that I was alive, and because I was alive, asked if I would please give them their money back. That can kind of wear on you after a while!”
Less than a decade after Blair Witch—and gracing the cover of Newsweek magazine—Donahue was stuck in a little house in the woods once more. This time, however, the only demons chasing her were her own. And it wasn’t a student film that summoned her to the black, bear-infested woods of Northern California; she was there to grow high-grade marijuana. Donahue chronicles her epic journey from Hollywood red carpets to tending marijuana stalks in her memoir, Growgirl: How My Life After the Blair Witch Went to Pot.
Hollywood wasn’t kind to Donahue. Like many horror-movie ingénues before her, she struggled to break free from being “the girl from Blair Witch.”
“I was never the beautiful one,” Donahue told The Daily Beast. “I was never going to be that starlet. My best bet was to become a character actress. I was reading for a lot of best-friend roles, and I didn’t find it very satisfying. I felt I could do something more.”
During a promotional tour for one of these “best-friend roles,” in the 2000 comedy Boys and Girls opposite Freddie Prinze Jr., Donahue stopped by The Daily Show. Just prior to taping, however, she says flacks from distributor Miramax tried coaching her, telling the outspoken actress to dumb herself down during the segment. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, came while shooting the 2008 direct-to-DVD horror movie, The Morgue. During the film’s insane finale, Donahue’s character endured what she describes as “death by mock fellatio.”
“In order to save the day, I had to siphon gasoline out of a car, which involved me sucking it out of a tube,” said Donahue. “With apple juice dribbling down my face as I was choking on this alleged gasoline, I was laying there and thinking to myself, ‘God, is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life?’”
Tired of acting and the Los Angeles scene—and recently single after a 10-year relationship ended—Donahue held what she calls “The Great Purge,” burning her expensive lingerie and other L.A. mementos, and even gifting the flannel shirt she wore in Blair Witch to a local homeless man. It ended up in the parking lot of an abandoned liquor store the next day.
“I wanted total renewal, and I knew that unless I got rid of everything, I wouldn’t be truly open to whatever was going to come next,” said Donahue. “I wanted to empty my cup so it could be filled with something more delicious.”
And that special something was high-grade marijuana. After falling for a smooth-talking grower named Judah during a silent-meditation retreat, Donahue moved out of L.A. and into his marijuana-growing community called “Nuggettown.” There, she became Judah’s “pot wife”—a role consisting primarily of hot tubbing, nurturing his child (from a previous relationship), tending to the veggie garden, befriending the rest of the growers—called “The Community”—and, of course, smoking plenty of spliffs. But the role of “pot wife” soon lost its luster.
“I have really mixed feelings about the hippie lifestyle,” said Donahue. “Part of me feels the intention is so right; of course we should be taking responsibility for what we eat and take care of each other. But because of the ‘pot wife’ element and ‘man’s world’ side of it, that’s what kept The Community out of balance. Women were not sharing power.”
So Donahue struck out on her own, purchasing a house in the woods on the outskirts of Nuggettown—described by Judah as “Blair Witchy”—and growing her own marijuana. From a legal standpoint, all it takes to start an amateur growing operation is $150 and a prescription—“scrip,” as they call them—from your doctor, which can be acquired by citing any malady from headaches to PMS. Once you have the doctor’s recommendation, it is legally permissible to grow up to six mature marijuana plants or 12 immature plants, and much of Donahue’s tome recounts her yearlong struggle to grow her outdoor marijuana plants.
Her experience gave her a newfound respect for the controversial $14 billion-a-year marijuana business that’s thriving despite the terrible economy. With a recent Gallup poll indicating that 50 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, as well as ballot initiatives in the states of Washington and Colorado pushing for legalization, the cannabusiness has reached a critical juncture. However, Donahue isn’t necessarily in favor of full legalization just yet.
“Right now, it’s the only multibillion-dollar industry whose wealth is distributed at the mom-and-pop level, so it actually supports middle-class families,” said Donahue. “I would hate to see this business that’s been developed by the people and for the people be taken over. If legalization happened without a great deal of care, that would happen quickly and the people who built the business would end up being sharecroppers for big agro companies.”
After splitting with Judah, growing two beautiful strains of marijuana, and falling for a nice German fellow named Uwe, Donahue quit growing—and The Community—and moved out of Nuggettown.
“The paranoia really took a toll, and I wanted to do something I could tell my parents about,” said Donahue. “I wasn’t really at liberty to say, ‘Oh my god, look at these beautiful nugs I grew!’ And I also fell in love with a man who was deathly allergic to marijuana.” She adds, “I started to have something to lose, and I wanted to protect it.”
The 38-year-old Donahue, now single and living in California, is developing three books—two nonfiction tomes and a novel. She says she’s retired from acting, “medicates” rarely, and doesn’t seem too worried about getting in trouble for her pot-growing memoir, deeming it “a worthy risk.” For now, she’s just happy to have regained her autonomy.
“It was about taking my story back,” said Donahue. “It’s so easy to get your whole identity invested in certain jobs, and I think acting is one of those. It was largely about creative ownership.” She pauses. “I wanted to create something that I thought was good, positive, and helpful.”