An American Haunting
Directed by Courtney Solomon
Starring Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D’Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood
Released on November 5, 2005
Running time 1h 31m
This legend is little known outside of the state of Tennessee.
In Adams, Tennessee, in 1817, the family of John Bell came under attack by a paranormal entity, believed to be a witch named Kate Batts. Various accounts detail poltergeist activity, featuring unusual sounds, people getting slapped and pinched, objects being thrown, and animals being frightened. Most of the activity was based around the youngest daughter, Betsy. It is rumored that even future President Andrew Jackson visited the Bell residence. Strange. President Jackson never mentioned the encounter with the Bell Witch in any of his journals, letters, or other papers. No one who was with him at the time has mentioned it either. There are two well-known published accounts. They are History of Tennessee written by the Goodspeed brothers in 1886, and Martin van Buren Ingram’s An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch.
The History of Tennessee only details the account in one paragraph:
“A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The feats it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfort of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary.”
Ingram’s Authenticated History says that his account was based on the diary of Richard Bell, one of John Bell’s sons. The events happened to the Bell family when Richard was between the ages of six and ten, but Richard did not write the diary until he was thirty. One major critic of this account was one Brian Dunning, who claimed that no one but Ingram had seen this diary, and that there was no evidence that it existed. He is quoted to have said, “Conveniently, every person with firsthand knowledge of the Bell Witch hauntings was already dead when Ingram started his book; in fact, every person with secondhand knowledge was even dead.” However, Dunning used a fake Saturday Evening Post article to back his claim, therefore throwing the authenticity of his entire statement under the bus.
The Bell Witch stories are important to all researchers, showing it as a prominent example of how legend can be mistaken for fact, and why sources like this must always be checked. Dunning’s final comments were: “Vague stories that there was a witch in the area. All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into. … I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction.”
Ultimately, many of those who knew Betsy suspected her of fraud, and that she, out of childish desire for attention, caused all of the mischief herself.
And then, in 1995, Brent Monahan wrote his novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. This claims to be the true story of the Bell Witch haunting, based on newly discovered letter written by Betsy Bell’s husband, Richard Powell. While well written, it is a blatant fabrication.
And then, in 2005, Canadian film director Courtney Solomon, director of the hilariously bad Dungeons and Dragons, came along and decided to tell his version of the story.
We begin in…the present day. Sigh. Some young girl is having nightmares; we learn that this was the same experience that Betsy Bell had back in 1817. The mother of the present day girl finds an old binder of letters, written by a previous occupant of the house, Richard Powell.
We transition to 1817, where we spend almost the entire movie. Wait, what?
Anyway, our story involves John Bell, played by – hi, Donald Sutherland. How’d they get you in this? Wha – Sissy Spacek, too? Well…I think I know where this movie’s $14 million budget went.
Back to the story. John Bell is in court, and is found guilty of stealing a woman’s land. The court lets his punishment stand as the loss of his good name. The woman, Kate Batts, who is allegedly a witch, tells John that he and his daughter are doomed. I’ll get you, John Bell, and your little daughter, too! Ahahahahaha!
All sorts of poltergeist activity happens around the house. Betsy starts looking sick. Her attitude changes and she becomes irritable. The presence even attacks her. Her teacher and future husband, Richard Powell, notices this. The Bell family tries to convince Richard of a demonic presence haunting their house, but, OF COURSE, there has to be a RATIONAL, LOGICAL EXPLANATION. But, OF COURSE, the skeptic is proved wrong!
And then the spirit rapes Betsy.
And then John goes insane.
And then Betsy has a revelation. The entity was born out of the death of her innocence, and it is trying to get Betsy to “remember”. Remember what? Oh, a halfhearted, barely explained plot twist saying that the REAL reason for the haunting was that John has been sexually abusing Betsy. Betsy then poisons her father and watches him as he dies. The haunting abruptly stops.
We return to the present day. The daughter is about to leave for a weekend stay with her father. Just as the daughter leaves, Betsy appears and says “Help her” to the mother. The mother runs after the father’s car. Considering the plot twist, we can all kind of understand why.
From the twist onward, this movie stopped being unscary and instead became unpleasant.
Oh, sure, the acting on the parts of Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek was pretty decent.
The movie is pretty bad, but it isn’t horribly bad until it is compared to what really happened.
Before I list the things wrong, I must mention that the film actually has the disclaimer, saying that this film is based off of true events.
First off, the Bell family had NINE kids, not four as depicted in the movie.
Second. Some kids are shown playing soccer. Soccer balls were not invented until after 1850.
Third. The Bell family regularly attended revival meetings at their church. In the movie, religion in general is very briefly mentioned.
Fourth. The movie mentions that there have been over twenty books written about the Bell Witch haunting. In reality, there are less than fifteen.
Fifth. The movie claims that the story is “validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in US history where a spirit has caused the death of a human being.” As a religious guy, I call bullhonky. For nonreligious guys, here’s this: John Bell did die, along with everyone who was born in 1750.
Sixth and final. John Bell did not sexually abuse his daughter Betsy.
I will quote The Fourth Kind again in saying this:
In the end, what you believe is yours to decide.
Final verdict: 0 out of 5 stars. The reason why I rate this at zero stars is this: disrespect for a now-dead family who either endured such events or are now irrevocably associated with events that never happened.