“The Blair Witch Project,” which will finally appear at a theater near you this month, is one of the scariest movies of the ’90s.

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I’m not talking about the actual movie, which I saw at a recent preview. It does produce plenty of goose pimples, and I probably won’t go camping anytime soon, but this isn’t the issue.

The scary stuff I’m talking about is what the filmmakers pulled off, on a larger scale, and how it reflects where entertainment, marketing and the Net are going.

Three months after its U.S. release, you probably know the story: how a “documentary” film about three filmmakers lost in the woods, made on a $35,000 budget, broke the record for the highest profit margin in history.

The success story was not only about how a scruffy little indie film stomped Hollywood behemoths at the box office, but also about how it was aided by the Internet. It caused ripples at Sundance and Cannes, but so do a lot of other well-deserving indie films that never see the neon light of multiplex theaters. Lacking big names on the marquee or corporate tie-ins, “Blair Witch” became an event film via a guerrilla approach: generating a buzz online. In addition to the movie’s own B-grade Web site, which offers outtakes, documents and legends, dozens of fan sites, a Web ring and discussion groups sprung up, adding to the bonfire. (The official Japan site is www.bwp-jp.com). If that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers went on an extensive tour of the Web’s chat rooms.

The success of “Blair Witch” wasn’t just the result of good marketing. The film is cleverly executed, genuinely thrilling and stylistically refreshing, i.e., it is worthy of the hype. The crafty filmmakers, however, have also shown that they’re tenacious businessmen. They’ve milked the “brand” for everything it’s worth, spinning off a “making of” film (“The Curse of Blair Witch”) and a book (“The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier”). They’ve even encouraged spoofs (many of which will be broadcast on the Web and sold in video).

It doesn’t stop there. And I should say that from here on, it gets really scary, so expectant mothers and people with heart trouble should perhaps turn the page.

Yesterday, the guys behind “Blair Witch” began documenting — live! online! — an expedition of thrillseekers (scientists, cultural anthropologists and extreme athletes) in the wilds of “Man.hat.tan.” Their mission? “make contact with the lost tribe — an indigenous people who live cut off from the outside world — and introduce them to the latest gear.”

Latest gear? Glad you asked. It will be provided by PlanetOutdoors.com — “a niche in the world of retail we intend to claim without scarring our planet’s fragile ecosystems and shopping malls and parking lots. … Think of us as electronic shaman, here to help you gather the gear you need to be self-sufficient in the outside world.”

Not really your usual ad copy, is it? But we aren’t really in Kansas either. Planet Outdoors.com is one of the millions of startups emerging in an Internet minute (brought to you by Swatch) and fighting to get their names remembered. Now if the mainstream media picks it up (as USA Today already has), this newcomer might have a chance against mail-order granddaddies such as Eddie Bauer and REI. Why? Because it’ll get people talking.

The power of buzz intoxicates marketing execs. Press releases, direct mail, product placement — these are nothing compared to good old word of mouth. As we’ve seen in the past (the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe, Kurt Vonnegut’s bogus graduation speech, the Melissa scare, the free Honda scam — need I continue?), friendly e-mail (not spam) spreads the Word at warp speed.

This isn’t news, but “viral marketing” is, relatively speaking. Hotmail pioneered this by sticking a Hotmail link in every e-mail and letting us do the rest. Think of it as mind-meme spore, self-replicating in the larger host of the collective consciousness. Makes the critters in “Alien” look downright cuddly.

Heard of “whisper campaigns”? You might associate them with slanderous smears, but in the PR world, they’re “positive” parts of the solution.

Newgate Internet Inc., an online PR management firm that has aided corporate giants such as Microsoft, Yamaha and Wells Fargo Bank, openly advertises a service that “piggybacks the publicity of your competition.” Newgate monitors online discussion areas, looking for comments on competitors. “Whenever we find such mentions, we use an extremely subtle approach to incorporate positive information about your business into the discussion.” (www.newgate.net/online_pr/whisper.html)

Welcome to the dark side of marketing. But who’s to say it isn’t commonplace? Soon after “Blair Witch” stampeded the box office, Salon.com questioned the validity of the movie’s fan base. How did so many “fans” get advance copies of the film? Was it a case of mass hysteria or was Artisan Entertainment feeding them? It would’t be the first time.

Of course, “Blair Witch” got a big boost from the deep throat of film rumors, Ain’t-it cool-news.com, where influential Webmaster Harry Knowles publishes any and all film-related gossip, news and reviews. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of the Drudge Report, but with an army of agents who write from the hip (and love exclamation points). Why wouldn’t studios “leak” any helpful info?

Obviously Tinseltown has stopped whining about intellectual property and learned that the Net game has no rules. Likewise, book publishers became players after learning that a couple of rave reviews on Amazon.com, supposedly contributed by unbiased readers (nudge, nudge), go a long way.

You could say that the Net is becoming a publicity petri dish. Once the offline media has seen that the germ has developed, it sprays it on the public.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather see a “Blair Witch” over a Julia Roberts vehicle any day. But I have to wonder whether the Net isn’t breeding another kind of monster.