Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Mark of the Bell Witch

West Virginia has the Mothman, New York has the Headless Horseman, and Tennessee has the Bell Witch. It was more like a “Bell Spirit” or “Bell Ghost,” but in the early 19th Century, “witch” was used as a generic term for malevolent supernatural entities and it just stuck over the years. Regardless, she is as Tennessee as Jack Daniels, making her a natural subject for Seth Breedlove’s The Mark of the Bell Witch, his latest documentary exploring regional American myths and monsters, which releases today on VOD.

The Bell family were better off than many of their neighbors along the along the Red River, but nobody in that hardscrabble area was rich in the 1810s and Breedlove’s local experts suggest that is still true today. While Breedlove combines talking head analysis with black-and-white re-enactments in the style of supernatural “reality” TV shows, the focus on folklore and archetypes sets it apart from its less reputable cousins.

Bell Witch lore does indeed include plenty of classic tropes, including shape-shifting, desecrated native burial grounds, devil dogs, and
Evil Dead-style things literally going bump in the night. Supposedly, the “Witch” was the ghost of Kate Batts, a deceased neighbor, whose family had a rather complicated relationship with the Bells. For some reason, she really had it in for John Bell, Sr. and his daughter Elizabeth, yet she treated his wife Lucy with perverse affection. Yet, Breedlove and his chief folklorist, Dr. Brandon Barker also give viewers a wider perspective, placing the legend in a historical context, following shortly in the wake of the Second Great Awakening and grounding it in the culture and traditions of rural Tennessee.

At one point, Gen. Andrew Jackson came to the Bell home to investigate, but if he had turned tale as quickly as the Battle of New Orleans, we would all be British subjects right now. It is all part of the legend, which continues to shows signs of undead life. Parts of the story were directly dramatized in
An American Haunting, but Bell Witch lore also clearly indirectly inspired films like The Blair Witch and The Evil Dead.

Breedlove’s dramatic re-enactments are more stylish than you might expect. However,
Mark’s cultural, folkloric analysis is particularly strong for a supernatural doc. It is very good for what it is. Wisely, nobody tries to convince us the poor Bells were genuinely haunted, but we get the idea the tale has taken on an element of truth, by the way it has permeated the region’s consciousness and remains very much in the minds of locals. Recommended for fans of Americana legend and lore, The Mark of the Bell Witch releases today (12/15) on VOD.