Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Festival Of Fear: Day 7: True Story Tuesday ~ The Bell Witch

 ~by Marie Robinson

You’ve heard a hundred movies boast the tagline, “based on a true story”, or, “inspired by real events.” And with a horror film, especially one with supernatural elements, it’s almost impossible not to scoff and say, “Yeah, right.” Although it’s easy to dismiss such a notion, perhaps there is a small part of you that wonders, “Is it really possible?”

Well, that is precisely what True Story Tuesday is about, finding the truth behind the tall tales and the fact from the fiction. So, welcome back, my friends, to another helping.

One such film to claim depictions of true events was the 2005 film, An American Haunting, directed by Courtney Soloman. Although the film takes place in two time periods, it is set predominately in early 19th century and tells the tale of the Bell family. The father, John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is accused of stealing a local woman’s—and alleged witch—land. When he is given no real punishment the ‘witch’, Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), threatens to curse the Bell daughter. The family soon falls victim to supernatural forces, which torment the daughter, Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood), both physically and mentally.

sketching of the Bell cabin
As is the case with most films, the word ‘true’ is used casually; in this case An American Haunting was based on the legend of the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee. While the film kept the names and general details of the story the same, some things do differ. The Bells were a respected farming family in Tennessee, but their trouble began in 1817 when strange events began to occur in their home. The most popular version begins with John Bell finding a strange animal—half-dog, half-rabbit—outside their home. He tries to shoot it to death, but is unsuccessful when the beast runs off into the woods. Later that night the family is startled by something scratching and beating at the door, but upon investigation there is no one to be found.

Rachel Hurd-Wood as Betsy Bell
After that the household is terrorized by an invisible entity on a daily basis, which such phenomena as scratching sounds, things being knocked over and tossed about seemingly on their own, and family members being pinched and slapped; John and daughter Betsy suffered the worst. Embarrassed and confused, the Bell family kept the haunting to themselves for an entire year before confiding in a neighboring couple. Word soon spread of the disturbing activity and people were coming around from all over to witness the haunting firsthand; it was even rumored that Andrew Jackson visited the Bell house!

By this time the entity had found a voice and would sing hymns, quote the Bible, and even carry on intelligent conversation with people. According to the story, once when asked who or what it was, the disembodied voice claimed to be a witch sent by a local woman named Kate Batts. From then on people would refer to the spirit as, “The Bell Witch”. The haunting finally came to an end when John died after he was apparently poisoned.

In 1894 author Martin Van Buran Ingram released An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, which details all accounts of the Bell Witch haunting. Ingram claimed to have based the book off of a diary written by one of the Bell sons, Richard, who was around six-years-old at the time but allegedly did not pen his diary until adulthood; however, no evidence of the journal exists, and the only person to have seen it is the author, making many believe that he invented the entire story since he had no real sources.

There are still some who continue to believe the Bell Witch legend, and there is a farm in Adams that is dedicated to it. There have also been several other films inspired by the tale, including Bell Witch Haunting (2004), and Bell Witch: The Movie (2007).

While it is an interesting story, and even inspired a decent film, one can hardly go around claiming the story to be true. In this case, the infamous tagline was misleading and disappointing and probably would have turned out better if it would have just been presented as fiction.

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