Cinematic Haunts #3 – The Bell Witch
Cinematic Haunts #3: The Bell Witch, Adams TN
Article By: Annie Riordan
“I am a Spirit from everywhere, Heaven, Hell, the Earth; am in the air, in houses, any place at any time, have been created millions of years; that is all I will tell you.”
~The Bell Witch, 1817
Okay, this is driving me absolutely batshit…as in Kate Batts shit. When I was a wee lass back in the 1970s, I saw a TV show that absolutely scared the hell out of me. It was one of those overdramatized, sensationalistic documentaries in which events from the past are reenacted by a bunch of people who apparently never went on to do anything else. This episode in particular concerned the Bell Witch haunting of 1817, the story of a Tennessee farm family terrorized by a demonic entity which eventually culminated in the agonizing poisoning death of family patriarch John Bell Sr.
I can’t remember what the hell the name of that show was. I thought perhaps it might have been “In Search Of,” that fabulous series narrated by the one and only Leonard Nimoy (quite the fashion king in his cool sports coats with the nifty leather patches on the elbows!) but I can’t find any evidence to support this. Oh well. Whatever that show was, it firmly lodged itself into my memory banks and eventually led me down a dark path of fascination for the Bell Witch Legend, which has persisted to this day.
Today, the land where the Bell house once stood is private property, owned by the Kirby Family of Adams, Tennessee. But at the dawn of the 19th century, it was a 320 acre corn and tobacco farm whose harvests made the Bell’s quite prosperous. A deeply religious and well respected family in their community, the Bell’s nevertheless found themselves the center of unwanted attention when cantankerous old Kate Batts accused John Bell Sr. of screwing her over on a land deal. The embittered and notoriously cranky Katie swore revenge and promptly cursed John Bell and his family…or so the story goes.
Shortly thereafter, mysterious phenomena began to occur in and around the Bell home. A strange, black beast with the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit appeared in the corn rows, melting into the shadows when fired upon by John Sr. Odd tapping and scratching sounds would awaken the children in the wee hours, bed covers and pillows were yanked off and thrown to the floor and the grotesque sounds of someone noisily and wetly smacking their lips emerged seemingly out of thin air.
The events quickly escalated, culminating in a series of unprecedented and brutal attacks on the Bell’s youngest daughter, Betsy. Slapped, pinched, hair yanked and skin scratched, Betsy suffered more than anyone else in the Bell family. But soon, the entity turned its rage to John Sr., Betsy’s father. Having found its voice, the entity loudly proclaimed its venomous hatred for John and boldly stated its intention to kill him. Despite the family’s determination to keep their strange happenings a secret, the story leaked out and soon, everyone wanted to experience the Bell Witch. General Andrew Jackson (later to be the 7th President of the United States) even journeyed to the farmhouse to see what all the hoopla was about, and allegedly left stating that he would rather battle the entire British Army than face the Bell Witch again.
On the morning of December 20th, 1820, following a brief coma, John Bell Sr. died. Upon the family’s discovery of a small vial still containing a small amount of a mysterious, brackish liquid, the voice of the Bell Witch reportedly spoke up and proudly exclaimed: “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!” She would not allow the family to grieve in peace, and even sang crude drinking songs during the funeral, after which she faded away, her purpose apparently fulfilled to her satisfaction.
The Bell Witch popped up a few more times over the years, albeit with less violence and intensity. The Bell farm house is long gone, but the current owners still report strange, mostly harmless activity which seems centered around the Bell family cemetery and the “Bell Witch Cave,” a cold and creepy hole in the ground which was part of the original Bell property.. Local legend has it that the cave is no ordinary opening in the earth, but a hiding place for the Bell Witch herself. Tourists who come to Adams, Tennessee, seeking a morbid thrill, can book a candlelight tour of the cave for a reasonable fee between the months of May and October, weather permitting. By all means, if you’re sick of Graceland, check out http://www.bellwitchcave.com/ and descend into the mouth of Hell. I’m willing to bet that the spooky old cave is probably nowhere near as scary as Elvis’s tacky decor.
No official explanation for the Bell Witch has ever been offered, and speculation continues to run rampant even two hundred years later. Was it the curse of Kate Batts? A desecrated Indian burial ground? A voodoo curse conjured up by the Bell’s disgruntled slaves? Or could it have been, as Brent Monahan opined in his book, “An American Haunting” Betsy herself, manifesting violent poltergeist activity as a means of punishing the father who had sexually abused her, a theory also addressed in the lesser known but equally impressive book “All That Lives” by Melissa Sanders-Self. No one can or will ever know for sure, although that last supposition seems the most likely. Monahan’s book is definitely worth a read, preferably on a dark and stormy night. But you’d do well to avoid the 2005 film adaptation of the same name, starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. This disappointing PG-13 shocker inexplicably omitted the scariest parts of the legend and tacked on a totally unnecessary set of bookends which served no purpose whatsoever. Predictable and painfully formulaic, I’m kind of surprised that its sheer awfulness didn’t wake the Old Witch out of retirement and start a whole new series of wrathful disturbances, preferably aimed at the filmmakers themselves who turned one of America’s scariest ghost stories into a cheap and tawdry teen flick.
At this point, I would highly recommend you go to YouTube and/or Amazon and track down that impressively frightening 70s documentary I saw as a kid, but I still can’t remember what the hell it was called! If anyone else recalls this elusive episode, will you please let me know before I go completely insane?