What a Blockbuster Movie Can Do to a Small Town

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What if a story about your little hometown became extremely popular and brought visitors from all over the world seeking a piece of it? When a book or movie puts a quiet little town on the map, you have to expect people will want to come and see it. Whether that's a benefit or curse may depend on the movie.

Forks, Washington

Some towns revel in the notoriety that comes with a movie. Thousands of fans make their way to Forks, Washington (population 3,221) every month to enjoy the atmosphere of the setting for the Twilight books and movies. Local businesses have erected signs referring to the movies. The principal of Forks High School says the school has designated lockers for the characters Edward and Bella -for the benefit of the tourists. Sales of Twilight merchandise and tourist services have energized the small town that once depended on logging for its economy. Even those residents who don't like the books welcome the money the tourists bring in.

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The Forks Chamber of Commerce website has an entire section on Twilight, including a map of "points of interest", and (of course), an online store where you can buy a "New Moon Over Forks" sweatshirt for only $40. Last summer, Forks hosted an event called Summer School in Forks: A "Twilight" Symposium at Forks High School. The ultimate event of the symposium was a prom featuring Twilight cast member look-alikes. Twilight has been good for business since the first book was published.

Burkittsville, Maryland

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The residents of Burkettsville, Maryland (population 171) have mixed feelings about the movie that put them on the map. The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999 and promoted as a documentary, although it was a work of fiction. The city website urges visitors to:

Please understand, while the town of Burkittsville is real, the movie is just that, a movie. The legend is a fake. True, there is a dark, dense woods to the west of town, but most people are convinced there is no Stick Manchild-stealing witch inhabiting those woods.. Burkittsville is a small, sleepy, historic village nestled between two Civil War battlefields in central Maryland. Yet Burkittsville is visited annually by thousands of movie and witchcraft fans -- just wanting to "see" for themselves. It is a pretty town (pictures), it is an historic town, but it is not haunted town. Hmmmmm...what about all of those spirits from the nearby battlefields?

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The success of the movie brought sudden and unexpected notoriety to Bukittsville. The town signs were stolen over and over again, and the cemetery was vandalized. Even now, tourists are warned that the locals might not be welcoming. However, money talks. Even as it steers you away from believing what is depicted in the movie, Burkittsville invites you to shop there for Halloween costumes and explore the local businesses that cater to witch-hunting tourists.

Amityville, New York

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Amityville, New York is famous twice for horrifying stories. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed six members of his family in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. The same house later became the subject of the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror. The movie was not about the murders, but about the ghosts that remained behind in the home to haunt the new owners, George and Kathleen Lutz. The movie and the 1977 book it was based on, The Amityville Horror - A True Story, were promoted as a real-life account of paranormal phenomenon. Eight other movies followed. The publicity surrounding the book and movie brought tons of tourists into Amityville, much more so than the DeFeo murders. People pulled shingles off the roof of the house and destroyed the yard as they marched through uninvited, upsetting Barbara Crowmarty, the next homeowner. She estimated 5,000 people came to her home in one month. Her neighbors were also upset. Souvenir-seekers grabbed parts of their homes as well!
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Much of the anger of the Amityville residents came from the Lutz's claim that the haunting was a true story. As years passed, those claims fell apart. A friend of George Lutz who was also Ronald DeFeo Jr's lawyer admitted he helped concoct the story. None of the subsequent owners of the home experienced any unusual or paranormal events. Several times the idea of turning the house into a bed and breakfast was turned down by the village council. In the years since The Amityville Horror, the house address has been changed, and the home was remodeled to make it less recognizable as the haunted house in the movie. And that's the way Amityville residents want it.

What causes such a difference in the way small towns react to the notoriety a film brings? The three towns here are much too small of a sample to draw any conclusions. It could be the suddenness of the onslaught, or the behavior of tourists, or the need for the economic boost tourism brings. It very well could be the amount of controversy that surrounds the film. Amityville had to deal with thousands of people who believed the house was truly haunted, on top of the tragedy of the earlier murders of a local family. In the case of Burkittsville, a large part of the audience was skeptical of The Blair Witch Project's documentary marketing stunt, which the film makers didn't bother to defend. After all, the students who disappeared during the movie later gave interviews about it. Forks, Washington has no need to correct tourists' perceptions, as there are no claims that vampires actually go to high school there. If the locals can have some fun with their notoriety and make a profit, it's all good -as long as the tourists behave themselves.

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October 29, 2009 - 4:55am
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