The Mark of the Bell Witch
Directed by Seth Breedlove | Small Town Monsters
For my money, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) paranormal documentaries of all time is The Legend of Boggy Creek. An in-depth examination of the tales of a Bigfoot-like creature in the swamps of southern Arkansas, the film includes eyewitness accounts as well as researcher testimony, with the real meat and potatoes of the film being the truly scary and horror movie-like recreations. Because of this, the movie goes beyond being a simple, straightforward documentary, and transcends into cult classic horror perfection. This part-documentary, part-horror movie formula is not something I’ve ever really seen recreated successfully. Well, that is, until now. And of course, it’s because the Small Town Monsters gang is behind the wheel.
The Mark of the Bell Witch is the newest Small Town Monsters offering, in a sea of seemingly nonstop titles from the tireless production team. It is their first full-length documentary to handle a more supernatural subject, as previous entries have dealt with more “physical” phenomena like Bigfoot, lake monsters, Mothman, giant birds, and UFOs & aliens. For those unfamiliar, the “Bell Witch” is a bit of a misnomer, as the legend really has nothing to do with a witch, pre se, but rather what we would think of today as a poltergeist or demonic entity. The legend of the Bell Witch is a long and complex tale, but essentially goes as follows: The year is 1817. John Bell and his family live on a farm in Adams, Tennessee. Mr. Bell and his son, Drew, both started seeing bizarre creatures on their property, one being a ghost-like hare or dog, the other a rather large bird. John Bell fired at the ghostly hare, but it disappeared. Shortly thereafter, the family began noticing subtle yet ever-increasing paranormal activity in their home, starting with knocks on the door and walls, scratching in the walls, and other small noises, leading up to far more frightening encounters, such as voices being heard, the Bell’s daughter Betsy having her hair pulled and skin scratched, and ultimately culminating with the death of John Bell.
Director Seth Breedlove has called The Mark of the Bell Witch a docu-horror film, and he’s spot on. It is a wonderful mix of contemporary folkloric perspectives of the Bell Witch story, and creepy, period-piece recreations of the actual events. The film opens in the modern day, with folklorist Brandon Barker speaking about the history of the Bell Witch legend, and then we jump into Chapter One, which details the arrival of the Bell family in Tennessee, their farm, and the townspeople. The entire movie is structured around these chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the story. Some chapters are much shorter than others, but flowing chronologically, each one presents a new piece of the puzzle of what may have really happened 200 years ago to the Bell family. Almost every chapter contains recreations of some kind, which are simple yet elegantly done. While the recreations in the aforementioned The Legend of Boggy Creek are a bit schlocky and over the top, the snippets here are far more subtle: minimal dialogue, shot in black and white, and much shorter in duration. But that’s exactly what makes them so effective. The viewer really gets a sense of this family, living life in a small, isolated farmhouse in rural Adams, Tennessee. No modern conveniences, no nearby neighbors, just the family, alone on their farm and being terrorized by ghostly voices and terrifying noises.
The film covers a lot of ground. As I said, the story of the Bell Witch is long and complex, with many moving parts, lots of different reported phenomena, and plenty of differing opinions, and Breedlove and company do an excellent job of examining all aspects of the case within the confines of a 90-minute documentary. And there’s so much to this story – phantom or out of place animals; spook lights, ghosts lights, and will-o’-the-wisps; poltergeist activity; allusions of demonic possession; telekinetic and physical manifestations; allegations of a hoax; insinuations that John Bell was not as nice of a man as the townspeople may have thought; and even a curious (then-General) Andrew Jackson passing through town to investigate the claims for himself. The family was assisted by clergymen, and accused of fakery by some in town. But there was all manner of odd things happening surrounding the family. Most intriguing to me was a woman named Kate Batts, a woman from town with a strange backstory. Oddly enough, the “witch” that haunted the Bell family was allegedly named “Kate,” and I think this aspect should have been fleshed out further. But overall, the film does an excellent job of hitting so many of the curious talking points about this case.
The film itself is slick and beautiful, exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Small Town Monsters production. An excellent score, beautiful cinematography, and tight writing all abound here, as always. But for me, the recreations are really what made this film for me. The acting was subtle, and the set pieces were perfectly evocative of the era – spooky, lonely, dark. It’s easy for the viewer to suspend disbelief, and to feel like the scenes onscreen are actually happening in the early 19th century. Masterfully done.
This is a film that surprised me, and a film that has stuck with me, more than any other Small Town Monsters film to date. It surprised me because honestly, I wasn’t too excited for this one. Yes, I’m a paranormal investigator, and most of my investigating has been spent ghost hunting. But the majority of my interest lies in cryptids, the aforementioned Bigfoot, Mothman, etc. So even though I knew STM would make this a good film, I wasn’t really looking forward to a ghost story, especially one from this time period. I’ve heard many of the typical early American ghost stories before, and in my mind, there’s always been too much doubt, too much technological and societal darkness, to put much stock in them. This was a time not too far removed from latter-day witch trials, and superstition still ran rampant. The stories are creepy, sure. But as a more skeptical investigator, it’s usually too easy for me to poke holes in the tales. This one? Not so much.
The Mark of the Bell Witch is a beautiful, chilling, and somber examination of one of the most fascinating, bewildering, yet enduring ghost stories in American folklore, and perhaps the strongest offering by Small Town Monsters yet. This is a film that I could not stop thinking about once it was over, as the recreations kept reverberating in my mind. For me, this movie transported me more than any other since The Legend of Boggy Creek. It is a film that will become part of my regular Halloween rotation from now on. if you love a good ghost story, this is a must-watch.
The Mark of the Bell Witch release on DVD and BluRay on December 15th. Preorder your copy now!