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This is the story of The Bell Witch. The true story.
In 2005, Sissy Spacek, famous for her brilliant, blood-soaked performance in DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, returned to the world of horror cinema with An American Haunting. The film was written and directed by Courtney Solomon and boasted an all-star cast including Donald Sutherland, James D’arcy, and Rachel Hurd-Wood. The film was based on the novel “The Bell Witch: An American Haunting” by Brett Monahan, which claimed in turn to be based on a real American legend.
The film was met with harsh criticism that acknowledged its polished look and capable acting, but asked: “Wasn’t it supposed to be scary?” Sadly, audiences and critics alike just didn’t get the thrills and chills they were expecting from An American Haunting. Which is a real shame, because the legend at the heart of the film is richer, deeper, and much more terrifying than anything that made it onscreen. It’s a story about fear in rural America, a family driven to the edge, and a curse that has lingered for generations and kept an icy grip on the land where it was born. Today, we’re going back over 200 years to Adams, Tennessee, the site of the most well-documented haunting in all of American History.
In 1804, a man named John Bell moved his wife Lucy and their children to a stately farmhouse in Tennessee, about 50 miles north of Nashville. It was a gorgeous property, surrounded by 100 acres of fertile land, and the crown jewel of the estate was the house. It was a sturdy log house, standing at one and a half stories high with six rooms and a large front porch where John, Lucy, and their little ones could sit and take in the fresh country air. Lucy and John filled the house with nine children, and a great deal of love and care. The Bell family quickly became a respected fixture in the community, garnering a reputation for being good, decent people. Things were pleasant, if uneventful, for over a decade as the Bell family built a proper life in that house. But in 1817, something changed. The placid life of the Bell family began to splinter and crack, until one day their peace broke apart completely, leaving only jagged edges and fearful whispers behind.
John Bell was tending to his crops one day, his brow growing sweaty in the Tennessee heat, his body growing heavy with the exertion of a good day’s work, when something moved in his peripheral vision. It was dark, and quick, moving on all fours across the field several feet away. At first he thought it was a dog, perhaps a stray, or a neighbor’s pet that had gotten loose and wandered a bit too far from home. But as the creature approached, John’s stomach swam with unease. Something about this dog looked…wrong. Below the neck, everything was ordinary, just a shaggy black dog running through a field in the sun. But its head was a different story. Its ears were unnaturally long, sticking up into the air. Its face didn’t taper into a canine snout, but rounded, with full cheeks and a twitching little nose. Whatever this thing was that had decided to cross his path, it had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit. John rubbed at his eyes, uncertain of what he was seeing. Was it real, or had the long day outside gotten to him, played tricks on his perception? When he opened his eyes, the beast was gone.
He decided to put it out of his mind, instead choosing to finish up his work and go inside, to spend a lovely evening with his family. They ate supper, talked about their days, and the children played lively games in the front room until it was time for bed. Some hours later, John and Lucy were woken from a blissful sleep by the children, who complained of bad dreams and a scratching sound outside. Something, they said, was bumping and scratching at the door and the windows. John and Lucy comforted the children, promising that there was nothing outside. The noise was simply the wind, blowing the branches of the family’s beloved pear trees and causing them to brush and bump against the house. There was absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
This became the family routine for the next several weeks. They would go to bed, there would be strange sounds outside, scrabbling and scratching, thumping along the wooden walls, and they would all brush it off as the wind and the trees, nothing more. But one Sunday night, the Bell children were awoken by something with no logical explanation. Richard Williams Bell was sound asleep in an upstairs bedroom, which he shared with three of his brothers, when he was jolted awake by a peculiar sound. It was a fervent, animalistic chewing, the wet crunch of teeth on wood, like a rat gnawing on the bedpost. Afraid that an animal had gotten into the room, Richard shook one of his brothers awake, and the two decided to investigate and chase the vermin outside. They lit a candle to get a better look, but as soon as the wick came to life and a warm glow engulfed the room, the noise stopped. There was no skittering of tiny legs, no rat darting back into the shadows. There was simply silence, and an empty room. Whatever had been making that strange gnawing sound, it had disappeared without a trace.
The next night, the sound was back, that same chewing that seemed to come from the bedpost. As soon as a candle was lit, the sound would stop. This time, however, it didn’t disappear entirely. Instead, the boys could hear it coming from outside in the hall. When they followed it, it moved to the next room over, then the next, all the way through the house, running from the firelight until every person was woken up there were no more shadows it could hide in. This happened night after night, the family growing more exhausted and unsettled with each passing day. Nights at the Bell family home had once been a time for rest and respite, but now were a time for laying awake, shivering and listening for whatever horrors might come next to shake them from their beds.
Soon, other sounds came. The scratching of an animal’s claws at the door, begging to be let inside or else it would tear through the wood in desperation. The thunderous crash of large, heavy stones dropping onto the floor. The rattle of chains being dragged across the ground. Most disturbingly, the sounds of an invisible mouth, licking and smacking its lips, and the horrible gasp of someone choking, their lungs fighting for a final gulp of air.
But the Bell family’s new uninvited houseguest didn’t stop at unpleasant noises in the dead of night. Like all terrible things left unchecked, it only got worse. The children would wake up shivering as something pulled the covers off of the foot of their beds. Then, it got violent. Screams of pain would wake the whole house as the invisible tormentor pulled at the childrens’ hair, yanking as hard as it could until tears of pain and fear stained their pillowcases. All the while, the family was afraid to speak out. It was a small, devout Baptist community, and no one wanted to be the potentially demonic blight on the town’s pristine face…
Learn about what the Bell family tried to do to rid their house of spirits in this week’s episode of Insidious Inspirations! If you like the show, consider subscribing on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.