By David Dent
Filmmakers have been rather slow to respond to the folk history account of the Bell Witch, but have made up for in the last twenty years with a slew of movies with the words ‘Bell’ and ‘Witch’ in the title, a combination of fiction and non-fiction efforts.
‘The Mark of the Bell Witch’ is a documentary which looks at the legend both from a historical and paranormal perspective. Briefly, the legend revolves around the Bell family who moved into the newly established homestead of Adams, Kentucky in the early 19th century. In 1817 John Bell, the father of the family, while out walking saw the apparition of a creature variously described as a dog or a hare which, it seemed, had a spectral quality to it; John shot at the thing but missed.
This seems to have triggered a visitation to the Bell house, starting with strange noises but progressing to full on poltergeist activity, much of it centred on John’s daughter, 11-year-old Elizabeth (known as Betsy). Eventually the angry spirit takes a name, Kate, and targets its fury at John, who dies in 1820 in mysterious circumstances after a brief but debilitating illness. ‘Kate’ then warns Betsy, who at this point is engaged to one Joshua Gardner, not to marry him; fearing a repeat of what happened to her father, Betsy and Joshua part.
While the town of Adams is clearly proud of its little bit of supernatural history, the talking heads who present the film are, honestly, an uninspiring bunch, and the story of the Bells, which has clearly been embellished over its two hundred year re-telling (and which therefore makes the story confusing and at times contradictory), is recounted in a way which neither fully examines its historiographical context – the legend was the subject of a number of books – or its paranormal aspects. Added black and white sequences, historical re-enactments of elements of the legend, break up the chat somewhat, but don’t really add much apart from that.
The presenters are proud that the story, which extended its terms over the years to include a supposed haunted cave, features many of the tropes of urban myths, like mirror summoning and cursed rocks, but to me that just made the story rather hokey. And in recounting the history of the area the (mainly white) presenters remain unapologetic regarding their references to slave owning in the region; perhaps unsurprising for a state that voted 62% for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
The Mark of the Bell Witch will be available to watch on Digital Download on 15th December 2020.