"The Blair Witch Project" has moved witchcraft, temporarily at least, into the center of American pop consciousness. The movie is totally fictitious: There is no legend of a Blair Witch around Burkittsville, Md., or anywhere else. But in the one-hour faux documentary about the supposed legend, made by the same folks who did the film, a passing mention is made of a "true" witch story: the Bell Witch of Tennessee.
The so-called Bell Witch was not a witch at all as we understand the term, but an invisible spirit that haunted the Bell family of Red River (now Adams), Tenn., for three years in the early part of the 19th century. Its activities were observed by scores of witnesses, including Andrew Jackson, who came to Red River just for that purpose, camping with his associates in a tent in a pasture so as not to put an unnecessary strain on the Bells' hospitality.
It's because so many people, including such a well-known figure as Jackson, observed the Bell Witch that her story remains eerie and puzzling. The witch departed in 1821, and the first book about it wasn't published until 1846: "The Bell Witch, or Our Family Trouble," written by Richard Williams Bell, who would have been 5 to 8 years old during the manifestation. How accurate his memories were after 25 years is anyone's guess, but certainly the subtitle of his book was appropriate. Like the great tragedies, the Bell Witch haunting was indeed a family trouble.
In 1817, John Bell was 68 years old, father of seven children and master of a thousand-acre farm on a bluff overlooking the river. His house, though built of hewn logs, was large and well-appointed, a wealthy man's home. In December of that year, something began pounding on the back door late at night.
The pattern was always the same. The pounding would begin around 10 o'clock, an hour after everyone had gone to bed. When Bell staggered sleepily to the door and flung it open, the noise would instantly cease. Bell would angrily return to bed. As soon as he had settled in beside his wife, Lucy, the banging would come again. This would go on for a couple of hours, generally ending at midnight. Trickery was assumed and watch was kept, but no one was ever caught.
For the next five months, the witch was content to knock on the door.
In May, it decided to come inside.
The children heard strange sounds in their rooms: rats gnawing, lips smacking, choking noises. Soon the whole family was listening to the sound of chains dragging, furniture shifting and invisible stones falling onto the roof. In bed at night, a sleeper was likely to awaken to find the covers being pulled slowly, slowly from his body. A hastily lit candle never revealed anything but an empty room.
Bell was a pillar of his church and community, but his farm was far enough away from town to afford some privacy. The Bells kept their trouble to themselves. Until October, anyway, when the witch dragged 14-year-old Betsy, the only daughter living at home, out of bed by her hair. At this point, badly frightened, they sought aid from their neighbors the Johnstons.
On Nov. 5, the Johnstons came to stay the night. An amateur exorcism was attempted, with readings from the Bible and exhortations to the malevolent spirit to be gone. The spirit responded by dragging Betsy around by her hair again and also slapping her: At the sound of the blow, red marks would flush across her face.
At this point, the secret began to leak out. Other neighbors, either concerned or curious or both, came to visit, and many witnessed some of the witch's carryings-on, particularly its torment of Betsy.
In the early months of 1819, the thing started to speak. The records agree that the voice was female. Questioned, it identified itself as "old Kate Batts's witch," Batts being a wealthy, somewhat eccentric citizen of Red River. It also claimed to be a Native American spirit and, additionally, exhibited itself as several spirits--or personalities--led by one called Black Dog. Given this flexibility of identification, no one seems to have taken the slur against Kate Batts seriously. She was neither ostracized nor persecuted.
At this point it might be a good idea to pause and ask, Exactly what was this thing, anyway? Though fitting no conventional descriptions of a witch, the Bell family's spirit did conform to the behavior traditionally attributed to the poltergeist ("noisy ghost"): banging, pinching, hitting, throwing things. Poltergeist phenomena have been reported since classical times, and incidents still pop up today. No other poltergeist, however, has been known to speak. And none except the Bell Witch ever killed.
The witch's conversation wasn't particularly enlightening. It was a great gossip. Apparently it attended church, since it often quoted the sermons. It loved to argue theology (it claimed to believe in Christ). And it threatened to kill John Bell.
The witch hated Bell. Though it apparently never attacked him physically, it excoriated him continually. Generally, the attacks came from Black Dog. Accusations such as "sneaky, two-faced, sanctimonious, treacherous" were flung, as well as others not printable in a family newspaper.
Shortly after the vocalizing began, Betsy had started having fits: The witch would pummel and pull at her, and she would fall into a trance. But once the spirit threatened her father's death, the daughter began to get better. He, on the other hand, fell more and more ill. Since the start of the haunting he had been troubled by a swelling of the inside of his mouth. Now he told others that he felt as if a stick were jammed between his teeth, with his tongue swelling so that he couldn't speak and could hardly eat.
That summer John Bell received Andrew Jackson as a guest.
That autumn he took to his bed.
That December he died.
According to some accounts, the witch announced, "He will never get up. I did it." At the very least, it appears to have sung popular songs with disrespectful delight. A previously unseen bottle was discovered among the medicines. When the contents were given to a barn cat, the poor animal had fits and then fell dead.
John Bell was buried in the cold, cold ground.
Putting aside as fabrication everything not observed by several witnesses, a student of the story is still left with these facts: Something tormented the Bell family in poltergeist fashion, and that something spoke. John Bell died, and that something evinced delight.
But the witch wasn't quite finished. It hung around long enough to break up Betsy's engagement to a boy named Joshua Gardner--the final blow, apparently, came when it manifested at a church picnic moaning, "Please, Betsy Bell, don't have Joshua Gardner!" Betsy subsequently married her schoolteacher, a man 17 years her senior whom she had known since she was 11. By that time, 1824, she was 19 and symptom-free, the witch having been gone for three years and her father dead for nearly four.
Whether or not the events were supernatural, it seems clear that Betsy was central to the whole incident. People have looked at the fact that her father and boyfriend were dispatched, that she then married a much older man she'd met shortly before the haunting began, that she herself suffered the most physical abuse from the witch, and that John Bell's peculiar illness, undiagnosable from this far away in time, prevented him from speaking. The obvious Freudian interpretations have sprung to mind.
Did John Bell sexually molest his daughter, and was this her revenge--clinical hysteria raised to the point of telekinesis?
In 1849 the Saturday Evening Post published an article accusing Betsy of having faked the whole business. She threatened to sue. The Post prudently retracted its claim.
Fifty-one years later she died without ever saying a public word about what had "really" happened to her family. The father could not talk. The daughter would not.
Whatever the Bell Witch may have been, it was not to be spoken of.