Legend of the Bell Witch and How One Mean Ass Ghost Lady Still Haunts Pop Culture
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Gather around, boils and ghouls, and let me regale to y’all the legend of the Bell Witch. From 1817-1821, the Bell family experienced many strange occurrences at their home in Red River (now Adams), Tennessee. The incidents began when John Bell spotted a strange animal that looked like a demented mashup of a dog and a rabbit, and the whole Bell family heard beating sounds on the outside walls of their home. Unfortunately for the Bells, these events were just getting started.
The hauntings that make up the legend of the Bell Witch
The family endured hearing chains being dragged across the floor, banging on walls, gnawing on bedposts and even choking sounds. Basically, this shit was bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. In fact, it got so unruly that the family asked a neighbor for help. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson from down the road agreed to stay the evening to see these spooky shenanigans for themselves. These events freaked the couple out so much that they created a committee to help investigate this insanity.
While the auditory hauntings were probably eerie enough, the Bell Witch decided to step up her game. She was now able to use her voice as well as physically torment the living. She was particularly cruel to the patriarch John and his daughter Betsy. The Bell Witch pinched, beat, scratched and pulled hair whilst shouting curses and threats.
Let’s get back to that investigative committee, shall we? By communicating with the Bell Witch, they uncovered her name was Kate Batts (a former neighbor of the Bells) and she wanted to kill John Bell and prevent Betsy Bell from marrying her paramour. There were no real reasons given as to why these were her goals, but there you go. Hell hath no fury like a lady poltergeist scorned. (Or just pissed off, I guess.)
But was the Bell Witch actually a witch, or a ghost?
You’ve probably realized by now that the legend of the Bell Witch was not about a witch named Bell. No, her moniker comes from the family that she haunted, poor dear. Furthermore, why is she referred to as a witch if she was actually the ghost of the dead neighbor?
Well, here’s the thing. Kate Batts—the strange woman who the “witch” claimed to be, was still alive at the time of the hauntings. The real Kate did have an unfortunate reputation in town for being a witch, but she denied any correlation to the Bell Witch activity.
Another thing to keep in mind is how murky the waters become in Tennessee folklore when using words such as “witch,” “ghost,” or even “haint.” Folks around these parts tend to use these words interchangeably whenever they talk about something that’s supernatural and bad.
Now, back to the legend
After almost 4 long years of enduring the Bell Witch’s ghoulish bullying, John Bell succumbed to death by poison. The Bell Witch took full credit for being the poisoner. A few months later, Betsy broke off her engagement. With her goals accomplished, the Bell Witch vanished from the property.
Or did she? Legend has it that she still haunts the cave, known aptly as Bell Witch Cave, near the original Bell homestead.
Creepy right? Kate the Bell Witch sure sounds like she was a dreadful piece of work. Word spread all over the south about this nasty poltergeist and people would even flock to the farm to try and get a glimpse of the formidable ghost in action. In fact, you can still tour the grounds today. There’s even a Bell Witch Fall Festival that occurs every year around Halloween which includes a tour of the nearby cave, the cabin and a midnight hayride around the property.
The Bell Witch in pop culture
The Bell Witch is one of the most well-known supernatural legends in the south and has been the inspiration for many movies and novels. The Blair Witch Project is probably the most famous movie influenced by this folklore. An American Haunting attempts to follow the legend of the Bell Witch pretty closely, while deriving its own conclusions. There have also been about a dozen novels and songs written about the Bell Witch as well as a handful of television specials.
I don’t know about y’all, but I find it fascinating that some spooky shit that happened over 200 years ago is still relevant and inspiring all mediums of entertainment today. The Bell Witch sure was a malicious mofo! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to plan a trip to Tennessee and book a Bell Witch tour.
Want to learn more about Tennessee folklore and witchcraft?
Listen to our podcast episode above on Appalachian witchcraft and folklore, and check out that episode’s show notes here.