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The Bell Witch and Tennessee Hauntings and Ghost Stories

Pat Fitzhugh

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Movie Reviews



The Bell Witch Haunting

An American Haunting




Review 1

Movie:  "The Bell Witch Haunting"

Year:  2004

Director and Producer:  Ric White and Linda Thornton

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This past Saturday night, August 14th, I saw the new movie "The Bell Witch Haunting," which I can best describe as being a carefully researched, enlightening, and entertaining rendition of the legend.  Moreover, I came away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the legend.  The only other production that left me feeling that way was "The Bell Witch Story," a play that was directed and produced by the team of Ric White and Linda Thornton, the same people who have now brought "The Bell Witch Haunting" to the "big screen."

Was this a mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  They "grew up" on the Bell Witch and have researched the legend extensively.  Now, add the fact that they are accomplished actors and directors.  This is precisely the "history meets drama" concept that I have been writing about for years, where a good Bell Witch movie comes about when historians and movie people pool their abilities and work together [WHAT A CONCEPT!].

"The Bell Witch Haunting" relates many of the original Ingram stories, as well as a few first-time accounts that are most likely rooted in the writer’s perception of what might have happened but was not related in early accounts – which is fine.  The Ingram stories are portrayed as they were originally told, with dimension occasionally being added for color and depth, but not changed or embellished in any way.  The stories added by the writer are seamlessly interwoven with the original story, which makes for an enhanced and more entertaining account.  Writing in such a manner that the audience is presented with a cohesive, hybrid account of the legend, is a work of art – in my opinion.

No actor stood out as being better – or worse – than the others.  All did an excellent job, and I applaud them relentlessly.  Scenes, such as the look on James Johnston’s face when he first encountered the "Spirit," and the agony experienced by John Bell as he lay on his deathbed, give the legend a dimension that no printed work - bar none - can effectively convey.  Sure, we can spend pages upon pages describing the fear and agony experienced by the characters, but a single portrayal by good actors paints a more vivid picture than written works that employ "a thousand words to paint a picture" of the agony.

The scene where Betsy Bell tried to greet visitors while in a trance was downright frightening.  The pale and downtrodden look on her face -- in many scenes, actually -- serves as a vivid reminder of the abuse she endured at the hands of "Kate."  I was equally impressed by the way in which the "tree lady" was alluded to in multiple scenes.  It is one of the most frightening parts of the legend, and deserves more than just one scene.  Job well done.

I was particularly impressed with the careful attention paid to the chronology of events, something that few published works have done.  It was nice to be able to watch the events unfold in the right order; and, the carefully planned transitions made for a pleasant and sometimes comical experience.

Historical accuracy was seamlessly embedded into the movie.  A case in point is the scene depicting Betsy Bell’s outdoor birthday party, where you can see breath vapor as people speak, if you look closely.  How does this relate to historical accuracy?  Betsy’s real birthday is in January, the coldest month of the year.  "But why would anyone be so crazy as to have an outdoor party in January?" you might ask.  The answer is, "the original legend says they did."  But why?  Ask Ingram, not the movie director - he is only trying to keep the movie accurate per the original legend.

Another example of historical accuracy is the characters themselves.  In terms of age and physical appearance, they closely resemble the people being portrayed, as per historical descriptions.  I was also impressed by the candlelit scenes, which help the viewer understand the household environment back in the day of John Bell.

Interweaving historical accuracy in such a manner allows the ghost story to flow freely while giving the audience a history lesson in the process. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the set and camera work, and especially the director’s choice not to go overboard with special effects.  The movie was filmed in middle Tennessee, not too far from where the legend took place.  The only downside, which lasted only a few seconds, was the lighting in one of the outdoor scenes.  It was too bright, but did not materially detract from the movie.  The choice of land gives the viewer what I feel is a good picture of what the actual Bell farm might have looked like.  The house on the set is not made of logs, but resembles the real one, per historical descriptions, in every other regard.

The music served its purpose well; however, if had been mixing it, I would have incorporated some spooky, wind-like sounds - or something along those lines - into the transitions between scenes.  But notwithstanding, the transitions and music are fine like they are.

Whether you are a Bell Witch expert, novice, or armchair historian, I think you will enjoy and learn from "The Bell Witch Haunting."  I highly recommend that you go see it and get the DVD as well – you will probably want to watch it again and again.

That's my opinion.

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian
The Bell Witch Web Site
"Keeping the Story Real"



Review 2

Movie:  "An American Haunting"

Year:  2006

Director:  Courtney Solomon

Web Site


I kept two key things in mind while watching this movie:  1) they don't say it is a true story, they only say that it is BASED on a true story, and 2) there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie, stating that the ending is one of many possible outcomes and that the legend remains unsolved.  I also reminded myself that it's not a "horror" movie, but simply a ghost story; horror movies and ghost stories are not the same thing.

"An American Haunting" does not follow the actual legend well.  Even John Bell's death was portrayed differently, as was Kate Batts' role in the legend (assuming the real Mrs. Batts even played a role to begin with, which is debatable).  Many key parts of the legend were missing; e.g., Andrew Jackson, Dr. Mize, the witch family, the revival, the stockings, the simultaneous sermons, the slaves' encounters, etc.  

I thought the acting was very good as a whole.  I was especially impressed with the actress who played Kate Batts.  While I don't agree with the script and storyline given to Kate Batts, the actress looked the part and had a very nasty disposition.  I was also impressed with Sutherland and Spacek's performances, but I expected nothing less from them.  I was disappointed in Rachel Hurd-Wood's performance, however.  Her face and hair were too model-like and not pioneer-like, and her twists and jolts looked more like she was "acting them out" as opposed to actually experiencing them.  I was very impressed with James D'arcy's performance as Richard Powell.  Although he wasn't scripted to be dignified and pompous like the real Richard Powell, he looked the part and his disposition was right.

The filming and setting were great.  It's amazing how the Romanian countryside resembles the Tennessee countryside.  The house they used for the Bell house was perfect in every aspect -- it was grand, inviting yet intimidating, and homey yet creepy-looking -- a giant paradox, the perfect setting for a haunting.  I was impressed with the various camera angles at different times, as well as the smooth tracking through the snow-covered terrain.  I feel that a little less panning, or perhaps slower panning in certain spots, would have achieved a better effect, though.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself being interviewed on the "special features" side of the DVD, under "Internet Promos," regarding the legend's actual background.  There were also interviews with David Alford, Carney Bell, Tim Henson, and Omer Gene Brooksher, the Mayor of Adams.

All in all, I think "An American Haunting" is a good movie for its "movie value," but keep in mind that it's only a movie.  Watch the movie and enjoy it; be afraid!  And when you're done, come to if you're interested in learning about the intriguing and fascinating legend behind it.

That's my opinion.

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian
The Bell Witch Web Site
"Keeping the Story Real"

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