1999’s The Blair Witch Project was a landmark horror movie. Made on a minuscule budget by total unknowns, the ‘found footage’ shocker took the world by storm, catapulting its central actors into the limelight – not least Heather Donahue, who, like her co-stars Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, used her own name in the movie. It was a decision she would come to regret.
In 2020, Donahue changed her name to Rei Hance (with Rei short for Reigetsu, meaning ‘Spirit Moon’ in Zen tradition), after a reinvention that saw her become a spiritual ‘guide’. This followed a troubling few years for Hance, whose personal association with – and use of her real name in – The Blair Witch Project became a burden.
The woman who would become Rei Hance was born Heather Donahue in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on December 22 1974. She was a 22-year-old theatre actress and a recent graduate of University of the Arts Philadelphia when, after a lengthy audition process, she joined Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams in the debut film from writer-director duo Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.
Shot between the 23 and 31 of October 1997 in Maryland on an initial budget said to be between $20,000-25,000, The Blair Witch Project was initially expected to be sold to cable television. However, thanks to an imaginative promotional campaign which implied the fictitious work was comprised of genuine documentary footage, the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival garnered huge buzz.
Purchased by distributor Artisan Entertainment for $1.1 million, The Blair Witch Project attracted rave reviews and was released to cinemas worldwide amidst a tsunami of hype. Hance was pivotal to the film’s marketing, as both the trailer and poster drew on what became the film’s most iconic moment: her character Heather’s tearful apology to the camera as she awaits certain death.
The Blair Witch Project grossed $248.6 million at the box office, making it the most profitable film ever made at the time, and overnight the Blair Witch cast were the hottest newcomers in Hollywood. There remained some confusion, though, about the film being a work of fiction. A reported 50% of US cinemagoers thought the film really was found footage of a lost documentary crew, and Hance’s mother received cards of condolences from distant relatives who believed she had actually died.
However, whilst The Blair Witch Project might have earned piles of money, this did not see its way to the cast. The film’s eight-day shoot saw Hance, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams paid $1,000 a day; once the movie was raking in the millions, residual cheques didn’t make their way to the stars.
At the height of the film’s success, Hance did an interview in which she referred to herself as “the poorest new famous person in Hollywood,” recounting an incident of her battered old car breaking down under a billboard with her face on it. The studio’s marketing team later admonished Hance for making such a public statement, and the following week she received remuneration in the form of “a fruit basket.”
This lack of financial security became a greater issue for Hance as the immense popularity of The Blair Witch Project inevitably gave way to a backlash. As she explained in a 2021 podcast, “because that movie was so polarizing, people did not hesitate to share their opinions of it with me.” People would approach Hance demanding their money back, and at times she feared for her safety but “didn’t have any resources” for personal security.
Had The Blair Witch Project led to more Hollywood job offers, things might have been different for the actors. Unfortunately, Hance says she struggled to find more work as neither audiences nor the industry at large took her seriously. Parodies of her performance became commonplace, as reflected most directly in her being named Worst Actress at the 2000 Golden Raspberry Awards.
Hance managed to land a few major roles – a supporting part in 2000 rom-com Boys and Girls (which flopped); a regular role in the 2002 Steven Spielberg-produced TV series Taken; a one-off guest appearance on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – yet her career ultimately failed to gain momentum.
After 2008’s direct-to-DVD horror movie The Morgue, the then-Heather Donahue quietly retired from acting. Her Blair Witch co-star Michael Williams also left acting behind around the same time, to become a guidance counselor and acting teacher; of the three actors, only Joshua Leonard is still in the business.
Hance’s next, perhaps unexpected professional move was to become a marijuana farmer – a dicey business, given it was not entirely legal at the time. Hance chronicled this career change in her first work as an author, a 2012 memoir entitled Growgirl, then also drew on the experience as the writer and producer of The High Country, a TV sitcom pilot she hoped would be the first in a series.
Unfortunately, the failure of Growgirl and The High Country not going to series proved to be the beginning of what Hance has called an “eight-year dark night of the soul, where it was just constant failure. My book didn’t sell; I started a company… [which] failed; then I produced this TV show that didn’t sell; then I was raped.”
After this traumatic experience, Hance was contacted by the producers of 2016’s Blair Witch sequel/reboot. While she was not offered a role, the filmmakers sought her approval for her name and likeness to be used in the film – but at her request, they made reference only to ‘Heather’, with no use of her birth surname. Hance told GQ in 2016 that using her real name in the 1999 film was her “biggest life regret to this day.”
In an earlier interview, Hance explained that The Blair Witch Project had “informed my entire adult life. I don’t know my life without it, you know what I mean? I don’t know my own name without it. If I have a regret about the entire thing, I definitely would not have used my real name.”
While signing off her name and likeness rights for 2016’s Blair Witch did help Hance out financially, this did not get her life back on track. “I took that money, and I just drove around North America getting s***faced for about two years.” Hance admits that throughout this time she was “hoping I would die. I did not want to be alive anymore.”
Happily, things changed. After settling down in Maine, Hance got sober and began studying Zen and other esoteric practices (including the I Ching, on which she has written a book). This led to her in 2020 going through jukai, an initiation into the Zen tradition, at which point she was given the name Reigetsu (Spirit Moon).
This prompted Heather Donahue to legally change her name to Rei Hance, and she now works under that name full time, describing herself as a “writer, gardener, guide and podcast hostess,” who works to help others in search of spiritual guidance. Hance has been described in one testimonial as “a sage and a brilliant witch.”
To unfamiliar ears, much of what Hance says in her videos can sound far out, including her reasoning behind the name change. Explaining that she “[holds] identity very lightly,” Hance tells old fans, “if you have a certain attachment to who I have been, I respect that and I leave you to it. But if you’re addressing me, this person in this moment, I ask that you use my name, which is Rei.”
After surviving dark times, Hance now speaks philosophically about her past failures. “I love this life so much, and maybe more so because there was a point where I thought about ending it… I’m so grateful for the work I get to do in the world now. I’m so grateful to live where I live. And I would not be here, at all, without failure. And the more I love it, the more it loves me back.”