13 Oct

Based On A True Story: An American Haunting

Posted by Bryan White | Thursday October 13, 2011 | Based On A True Story

An American HauntingYou know who’s cool? King Diamond is cool. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that he isn’t more popular among horror fans since the guy has made a long, prolific career out of heavy metal concept albums about spooky hauntings. There’s Abigail, Them, The Conspiracy, Abigail 2: The Revenge, a portion of The Spider’s Lullaby, etc. King Diamond, with his ridiculous face paint and his trademark falsetto wail, The King takes metal to a place it doesn’t usually go. Dismemberment, true crime inspired horror, sure, but eerie tales of a family terrorized by their grandmother who seems to serve a trio of unseen presences in the house? Holy crap! By the way, I’m talking about the album ‘Them’.

But seriously. That album is dope.

King Diamond was originally in a band called Mercyful Fate who also did a lot of the same sort of stuff as King Diamond’s solo projects. As a matter of fact, they also sounded a lot alike. I don’t know, it’s weird. I didn’t really intend for this to turn into a celebration of all things King Diamond, but here we are. The point, I guess, is that while in Mercyful Fate, King Diamond wrote a song called The Bell Witch and like a good God of Metal should, he based it on the American urban legend of the actual Bell Witch. What’s a Danish satanist doing singing about ghosts from Tennessee? Beats the hell out of me. I think at this point The King was living in Texas, spending all his free time hanging out with Pantera. I guess it only makes sense.

The Bell Witch has been floating around American folklore since the late 1800’s and has been the inspiration for a lot of quality horror. The Bell Witch was responsible in part for The Blair Witch Project. The story of The Bell Witch is pure weirdo Americana and the movie, An American Haunting, which starred Donald Sutherland – who clearly doesn’t care anymore – chose to twist the story and the event surrounding the haunting in favor of a story about a girl’s delusion to deal with her own sexual abuse. I don’t get it, either. You couldn’t just make a horror movie about the curse of The Bell family and the fucked up shit they endured in those early settlement times of Tennessee? Here’s the scoop:

Bell Witch monsterIt’s 1817 and John Bell uproots his family from North Carolina to Tennesssee where he establishes a farm on a huge plot of land in Red River. Not long after they get set up, Bell encounters a strange creature in his corn field said to have the head of a rabbit and the body of a dog. He takes a couple of shots at it but misses. Following this, the Bell family home is assaulted by unseen forces. At first, there is the sound of the house being pounded on from the outisde. Investigations by John Bell turns up no sign. Later, the daughters report hearing the faint voice of a woman singing hymns. Everyone is said to experience this but the source of the sound can never be identified. It’s just there. All the time. Attacks around the house increase in frequency and intensity. Something no one can see pulls the covers off the of the children at night as they sleep. The youngest daughter, Betsy, is physically attacked, having her hair pulled and being beaten by an unseen force. At first Bell keeps these happenings a secret until it becomes such a problem that he confides in his neighbors who spend enough time in the Bell home to experience the disturbances first-hand. As this is happening, the once faint voices around the home have grown in intensity and volume until it can be described as a single voice, a mocking awful woman’s voice that torments the Bell family in their home.

The death of John BellThe girls grow older and men began to take an interest in them. Betsy, once again the target of the spirit’s attacks, attracts the attention of a local man ten years her senior and eventually they plan to marry. The spirit, now known as The Bell Witch, named by then-General Andrew Jackson who had heard of the disturbance and even showed up at the Bell place to check it out – but was frightened away by it – now taunts Betsy constantly. The voice follows her everywhere she goes, making it a point to voice its disapproval of the man she plans to marry. She can’t escape it and eventually breaks it off with this guy. The voices cease and return their attention the John, the head of the household, whose mental and physical well-being has been on the decline since the Bell Witch first revealed itself to the family. John begins suffering from seizures until his dead body is found, a bottle of some unidentified substance next to the bed. To test the unidentified substance, some of it was given to the family cat, who died immediately. The rest was thrown into the fireplace where it erupted into a plume of blue flame. To this day no one has any idea what that stuff was or where it came from.

Things take a turn for the better with the death of John Bell. The attacks by the Bell Witch fade over time, eventually ceasing altogether. Among the final promises, the Bell Witch vows to return to the Bell family in seven years, which it is said that it did, this time visiting an older John Bell, Junior. This second visit wasn’t menacing, though, according to legend. The return of the Bell Witch was a more philosophical approach bearing disembodied conversations about life, the universe and everything, it seems. Before it left for a second time, it vowed to return in 1935 to a living relation of the Bell’s. Whether it did or not is up in the air.

The Bell Witch was the blueprint for the modern impression of poltergeist activity. There’s plenty of ghostly folklore going around but this story, originally published in The Goodspeed History of Tennessee, didn’t turn up until around 1887 and most likely influenced a lot of ghost stories to come. Gone were the spooky allusions to tormented family spirits and here to stay were stories of an angry, violent force that tormented the Bell family for no apparent reason. Scary stuff!

1 Comment 

  1. February 19, 2012 1:23 pm

    Sherry Cloud

    So the gest of the movie “The American Haunting”, where here father sexually abused Betsy, and robbed her of her virginity and what it would be like to have sex with someone that she really loved…was no more!
    I believe the hauntings were poltergiest experiences Betsy was conjuring up and old John Bell deserved everything he got. The arsenic in the cough syrup or what ever he thought he was taking to cure him of his guilt ridden illeness, was payment for being a sexual pedator!
    I say he got was coming to him!

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