Review by Pat Fitzhugh of The Bell Witch Site
Transparency Notice: I am in this movie. However, I do not receive monetary compensation based on its sales.
December 20, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Tennessee farmer, John Bell, allegedly by the hand of a malevolent entity called the “Bell Witch.” The saga of Bell’s tragic death and the sinister grasp of terror that his family was forced to endure has evolved into one of America’s greatest supernatural legends.
Days before the somber anniversary of Bell’s passing, Ohio-based film company Small Town Monsters released “The Mark of the Bell Witch,” a supernatural, docu-horror movie that focuses on the Tennessee version of the legend between the years 1817 and 1821.
In early 2020, while discussing my involvement in the film with writer-director Seth Breedlove, I remarked that most Bell Witch-related shows use the same worn-out approach to tell the same old story, and that I am constantly asked whether anyone will ever “get it right.” A few months later, Small Town Monsters got it right.
“The Mark of the Bell Witch” takes a historical approach by relating the earliest stories in their original form, providing true-life reenactments that depict genuine human fear rather than thrills or frills, and placing the stories along a well-thought-out storyline that intertwines the story with expert commentary while keeping a solid pace and maintaining the logical order of events. The film is divided into well-transitioned chapters that advance the story in such a way that viewers can digest the story as it unfolds.
Small Town Monsters cemented their historical focus by allowing Bell Witch researchers and related subject-matter experts to peel back the layers of time and provide depth, context, and perspective throughout the production. This approach, which is arguably one of the film’s strongest points, helps viewers to understand not only important details and developments that have surfaced, but also how the legend came about, how it has evolved, its cultural effect on the region, and its place in American history and folklore. Many previous film interpretations have lacked value because they required researchers to simply tell the story and do nothing more. Conversely, by allowing researchers to come full circle and discuss their findings on camera, Breedlove and his crew have added significant value and validity to their production.
Of particular interest to me was the interview with African American local historian, John Baker. He is a treasure trove of information about the area’s African American history, including slave ownership and how it likely had an impact on the Bell Witch legend. All too often, certain families and groups are omitted from Bell Witch-related productions, although their stories and perspectives need to be heard. Kudos to Small Town Monsters for seeking Mr. Baker’s input and perspective in the making of this film.
It is also noteworthy that “The Mark of the Bell Witch” is unbiased. With the Bell Witch being such a controversial case, well-balanced research and interpretations are hard to find. Small Town Monsters presents the legend in a clear, open fashion, without trying to prove or disprove it. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions. Bravo!
Lauren Ashley Carter’s narrations are impactful and on point, performed with perfect timing and absent hesitation or distraction. Small Town Monsters made highly effective use of paradox in selecting Lauren as the narrator. Her voice and tone make the perfect counterpoint to the terrifying subject at hand, cutting a mark that runs deep. I was also impressed with the storytelling and historical analyses provided by Heather Moser, a classics professor and researcher at Small Town Monsters. Her research is spot-on, and she articulates her findings very well. Her professional demeanor is second to none.
The actual Spirit, played by producer Adrienne Breedlove, looked intense and downright creepy, just as how I would picture “Old Kate.” A lot of careful thought and planning obviously went into the Spirit scenes and character.
The other actors, Amy Davies (Betsy Bell), Aaron Gascon (John Bell, Jr.), Thomas Koosed (John Bell, Sr.), Grayden Nance (Drew Bell), and John Bell’s hair-do, did an awesome job as well. Their wardrobes were accurate to the period being portrayed, and their acting realistically portrayed how the Bell family likely reacted when faced with their unwelcome “visitor.”
The filming, scene compositions, still shots, audio, and overall production quality are of a class that is typically reserved for household name companies with huge budgets. One of the biggest things I noticed during onsite filming was the crew’s passion for getting the job done right; they all share a sincere interest and did everything it took to make a high-quality film. Well done.
With “The Mark of The Bell Witch,” Small Town Monsters have brewed up a perfectly blended concoction of history, folklore, expert input, and reenactments, to create what is, in my opinion, the best Bell Witch film interpretation to come along thus far.
For those interested in the “Bell Witch” mystery.
The development is not a newly-discovered secret, or missing piece of a puzzle; it is something that was written in 1820, held by the writer’s family until the 1930s, and published to a scholarly audience in the 1950s. We call this a “new development” because its reference to the “Bell Witch,” which is not by name, but through historical context, was noticed in modern times. The actual document and Bell Witch reference have been around for 200 years.
I was not the person who found it, but I have been hearing about it for some time. Recently, I was provided with a link to the actual document for analysis and comment, which you will find, below:
What is the development and why is it important?
The new development is an entry made in a journal kept by Army Captain John R. Bell (no relation to the “Bell Witch” Bells) while working as the official journalist for Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820. The journal covers from March 13th to November 20th of that year. In addition to writings about the famed expedition, the journal also contains entries from Captain Bell’s return trip from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Washington, D.C. It was during that last leg of his journey when, on October 19, 1820, he passed through the Red River area of northwestern Middle Tennessee.
While spending the day at a plantation, he was told about a young girl surrounded by voices that relentlessly urged her to marry a neighbor. Although Captain Bell did not call the John Bell family by name, the year and location of this telling, along with the mention of the girl living three miles away, leaves no doubt that Betsy Bell was the centerpiece of the story that had been told to Captain Bell. Also, an account published some 30-35 years later told the same story and referred to Betsy Bell name. In his journal, Captain John R. Bell wrote:
“Rather a single circumstance was here related to me. of a young girl of about 15 years of age, residing but 3 miles from Murphey, a voice accompanies her, which says she should marry a man, a neighbor–thousands of persons have visited her to hear this voice, in many instances, it will reply to questions put to it, the visitors have left as little satisfied in their curiosity as before they heard it, many are under the impression, that it is ventriloquism imposed upon the hearers either by the girl or her brother–who it seems is generally in her company, her family is respectable.”
Captain Bell’s use of the phrase, “related to me,” in the introductory sentence, indicates that his account is second-hand (hearsay), meaning he was not an eyewitness. Hearsay accounts indeed make the mystery bigger, and perhaps more entertaining from a storytelling perspective, but they neither solve the mystery nor add substance to the investigation. Every account of the Bell Witch in book, article, documentary, and movie form that discusses the alleged events of 1817-1821 has been second-hand. Every Single One.
I am well-aware of “Our Family Trouble,” the alleged eyewitness account of Richard Williams Bell that is contained in, and serves as the cornerstone of, Martin Ingram’s 1894 work of fiction. No one has come forward with the actual document (although many have claimed to have it), and a professional analysis of the writing style, references to scripture, use of cliche’ words, and Freemasonry references, conducted in 2015, provides strong evidence that Ingram was likely the author of the “eyewitness” account. For those reasons, I do not consider the “Our Family Trouble” eyewitness manuscript as valid evidence in the Bell Witch case (but if you have it, bring it to me and let me have it analyzed–and prove me wrong).
Is there an old, first-person eyewitness account stuffed away in a rotting trunk in someone’s attic or basement that tells the “real truth” of the Bell Witch mystery? Many have claimed to possess such documents, and some have used their alleged existence as the basis for books and movies (perhaps to create an illusion of credibility), but the proverbial bottom line is that those claiming to possess these “holy grail” documents seemingly vanish into thin air when serious researchers ask to examine the documents and have the paper and handwriting professionally analyzed for authenticity. That is a very simple and reasonable request under the circumstances; extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
If most anyone had such an important, game-changing document, they would be eager to have it professionally analyzed so as to garner support among researchers. No theory, Bell Witch or otherwise, will advance very far, much less see the light of day, without acceptance and support from the research community. At the end of the day, they are the people most listened-to, and the ones who will ultimately drive and promote your theory to the masses.
Thankfully, Captain John R. Bell’s journal is accessible, and given its clear, spelled-out chain of transmittal through the years, there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. But, why is this second-hand account so important? Does it add any value? You betcha.
While Captain Bell’s second-hand (hearsay) account does not solve the mystery of the Bell Witch, or propel the investigation along in a more fruitful way, it is significant to Bell Witch researchers because it was written in 1820, 12 years before Martin Ingram was born. It debunks the theory that Ingram made up the entire legend. The old “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” which I feel is no longer viable, stated that Ingram “made up” the legend because nothing had been written about the Bell Witch prior to his 1894 work of fiction–and if anything turns up, it was probably written by Ingram. Captain Bell’s 1820 journal entry occurred before Ingram was born, meaning he [Ingram] could not have written or influenced it.
And now, diehard proponents of the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory will likely argue that Ingram “wrote it from the womb,” but that’s neither my monkey nor my circus.
It is also noteworthy that Captain Bell’s account is, essentially, the same story–a young girl surrounded by voices saying to marry Joshua Gardner–that was published by the Saturday Evening Post 30 to 35 years later, and reprinted by the Green Mountain Freeman (in Vermont) on February 7, 1856. Captain Bell’s journal did not mention the Bell family by name, but the Saturday Evening Post article did, which suggests the two early accounts, written 30 to 35 years apart, came from different sources.
I will also note that the two early accounts make no mention of Betsy going into trances, having her hair pulled, being beaten, or suffering any other misfortunes except, maybe, not getting to marry the love of her life. The early accounts also make no mention of an invisible entity predicting the future, speaking in preachers’ own voices, gnawing on bedposts, or turning farm workers into giant rabbits and mules, and “riding them to hell for breakfast.” More on that in future posts.
To summarize, Captain Bell’s journal debunks the Ingram Fabrication Theory and, when viewed along with the Saturday Evening Post article reprint in the Green Mountain Freeman, shows that the Bell disturbances–how ever benign or severe they might have been–had become known to people outside of the Middle Tennessee region.
Here is Captain Bell’s journal entry as published in the 1950s (copyright 1957, the Arthur H. Clark Company) and used here for the purpose of education under the Fair-Use law:
Captain John R. Bell’s full journal, including catalog and citation information, is available online, here.
The other referenced account, the Green Mountain Freeman’s reprint of the Saturday Evening Post’s “Bell Witch” article, known as “The Tennessee Ghost,” is shown below:
The February 7, 1856 edition of the Green Mountain Freeman can be read online, here. My 2017 write-up about the Green Mountain Freeman article and the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory can be found here.
Thanks for reading. So long for now.
Blues and Roots Radio, a large international broadcasting network, has ranked The Bell Witch – Let the Game Begin in their global Top Ten, debuting at #7.
Kudos to my partners in crime–Snapper Long, Jimmy Williams, and Lydia Bain–for their hard work and musicianship, and to the others for their behind-the-scenes dedication to the project.
And, special kudos to the Bell Witch for leaving us alone while we worked, at least up to the point when we shot the promo trailer video (which is another story).
Haven’t heard it yet? Give it a listen at YouTube.
Want to know more? Check out the promo trailer with behind-the-scenes footage and performer interviews, here.
For the last 25 years, the public-facing hub of my research and other Bell Witch-related activities has been the Bell Witch Web Site (www.bellwitch.org). In fact, most Bell Witch-related online resources I have created are offspring, or “extensions,” of that site.
What began as a single-page information repository on my personal “Our World” web space at CompuServe in February of 1995, morphed into a small collection of such pages on my later Geocities web space, and in four short years became a large, full-service web site with its own domain.
Since then, the site has received millions of visits and has undergone periodic updates as new information surfaced. Now it is time for the NEXT chapter.
From late 2020 until the spring of 2021, the site will undergo a full renovation. This will include a complete site rebuild and redesign on a new hosting service, optimization for mobile and tablet users as well as desktop users, the addition of updated and new Bell Witch information, tighter integration with social media platforms, and a set of new tools to make it easier for people to interact with the site.
As for the site’s name, it has called “The Bell Witch Web Site” for the last 20+ years, which is very direct and to-the-point–a good thing. But it’s also redundant. Within the context of the internet, the term “site” implies WEB site. So, the new site’s name will be simply, “The Bell Witch Site.”
All of this will occur on a new, separate site that will remain offline until all work and testing has been completed. After that, the bellwitch.org domain will be pointed to the new site. No changes will be required from your end, as the site’s URL will remain the same.
Along with the new site will come two new social media accounts (you can follow now, if you like):
- Twitter (@Bell_Witch_Site)
- Instagram (The_Bell_Witch_Site)
This is a very exciting time for bellwitch.org and its users. Stay tuned for a better, more modernized, and more engaging Bell Witch site!
Pat Fitzhugh, Author/Researcher/Website Owner
2020, despite its many hardships and other problems, has turned out to be a big year for the Bell Witch legend.
1) The 200th anniversary of John Bell’s death.
2) The new Bell Witch song, “The Bell Witch (Let the Game Begin)
3) The new Bell Witch movie, “The Mark of the Bell Witch”
The movie, which I am in, is scheduled for winter release. Check out the trailer, below!
With behind-the-scenes footage + performer interviews!
WHERE LEGEND MEETS SONG
The legend of the “Bell Witch,” America’s most documented haunting, has woven a web of fear and intrigue around the world for over 200 years. The epic tale of terror on Tennessee frontier has been the subject of books, movies, and documentaries the world over.
Nashville guitarist Pat Fitzhugh, who has researched the infamous legend for over 40 years and written books about it, has teamed up with award-winning songwriter and folklore enthusiast Mike Richards to put the legend into song.
Their timely collaboration comes full circle with virtuoso fiddle player Lydia Bain and award-winning vocalist Jimmy Williams rounding out the project.
WATCH THE SONG TRAILER HERE
Don’t be left out–get the song at:
and other major retailers.
My new song, “The Bell Witch (Let the Game Begin),” is now on the Featured Artists list at Blues and Roots Radio. They have 3 main stations (Canada, US, Australia), and have affiliate stations around the world.
The song will be rotated on their “Featured Artists” show from time to time (avg. once daily), and can also be played from the Featured Artists page.