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Bell Witch Movie Reviews


"The Mark of the Bell Witch" from Small Town Monsters

by Pat Fitzhugh


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 a 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 has 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.


"The Bell Witch Haunting"

Year:  2004

Director and Producer:  Ric White and Linda Thornton

Web Site

This past Saturday night, August 14th, I saw the new movie "The Bell Witch Haunting," which I can best describe as being a carefully researched, enlightening, and entertaining rendition of the legend.  Moreover, I came away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the legend.  The only other production that left me feeling that way was "The Bell Witch Story," a play that was directed and produced by the team of Ric White and Linda Thornton, the same people who have now brought "The Bell Witch Haunting" to the "big screen."

Was this a mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  They "grew up" on the Bell Witch and have researched the legend extensively.  Now, add the fact that they are accomplished actors and directors.  This is precisely the "history meets drama" concept that I have been writing about for years, where a good Bell Witch movie comes about when historians and movie people pool their abilities and work together [WHAT A CONCEPT!].

"The Bell Witch Haunting" relates many of the original Ingram stories, as well as a few first-time accounts that are most likely rooted in the writer’s perception of what might have happened but was not related in early accounts – which is fine.  The Ingram stories are portrayed as they were originally told, with dimension occasionally being added for color and depth, but not changed or embellished in any way.  The stories added by the writer are seamlessly interwoven with the original story, which makes for an enhanced and more entertaining account.  Writing in such a manner that the audience is presented with a cohesive, hybrid account of the legend, is a work of art – in my opinion.

No actor stood out as being better – or worse – than the others.  All did an excellent job, and I applaud them relentlessly.  Scenes, such as the look on James Johnston’s face when he first encountered the "Spirit," and the agony experienced by John Bell as he lay on his deathbed, give the legend a dimension that no printed work - bar none - can effectively convey.  Sure, we can spend pages upon pages describing the fear and agony experienced by the characters, but a single portrayal by good actors paints a more vivid picture than written works that employ "a thousand words to paint a picture" of the agony.

The scene where Betsy Bell tried to greet visitors while in a trance was downright frightening.  The pale and downtrodden look on her face -- in many scenes, actually -- serves as a vivid reminder of the abuse she endured at the hands of "Kate."  I was equally impressed by the way in which the "tree lady" was alluded to in multiple scenes.  It is one of the most frightening parts of the legend, and deserves more than just one scene.  Job well done.

I was particularly impressed with the careful attention paid to the chronology of events, something that few published works have done.  It was nice to be able to watch the events unfold in the right order; and, the carefully planned transitions made for a pleasant and sometimes comical experience.



Historical accuracy was seamlessly embedded into the movie.  A case in point is the scene depicting Betsy Bell’s outdoor birthday party, where you can see breath vapor as people speak, if you look closely.  How does this relate to historical accuracy?  Betsy’s real birthday is in January, the coldest month of the year.  "But why would anyone be so crazy as to have an outdoor party in January?" you might ask.  The answer is, "the original legend says they did."  But why?  Ask Ingram, not the movie director - he is only trying to keep the movie accurate per the original legend.

Another example of historical accuracy is the characters themselves.  In terms of age and physical appearance, they closely resemble the people being portrayed, as per historical descriptions.  I was also impressed by the candlelit scenes, which help the viewer understand the household environment back in the day of John Bell.

Interweaving historical accuracy in such a manner allows the ghost story to flow freely while giving the audience a history lesson in the process. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the set and camera work, and especially the director’s choice not to go overboard with special effects.  The movie was filmed in middle Tennessee, not too far from where the legend took place.  The only downside, which lasted only a few seconds, was the lighting in one of the outdoor scenes.  It was too bright, but did not materially detract from the movie.  The choice of land gives the viewer what I feel is a good picture of what the actual Bell farm might have looked like.  The house on the set is not made of logs, but resembles the real one, per historical descriptions, in every other regard.

The music served its purpose well; however, if had been mixing it, I would have incorporated some spooky, wind-like sounds - or something along those lines - into the transitions between scenes.  But notwithstanding, the transitions and music are fine like they are.

Whether you are a Bell Witch expert, novice, or armchair historian, I think you will enjoy and learn from "The Bell Witch Haunting."  I highly recommend that you go see it and get the DVD as well – you will probably want to watch it again and again.



"An American Haunting"

Year:  2006

Director:  Courtney Solomon

Web Site

I kept two key things in mind while watching this movie:  1) they don't say it is a true story, they only say that it is BASED on a true story, and 2) there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie, stating that the ending is one of many possible outcomes and that the legend remains unsolved.  I also reminded myself that it's not a "horror" movie, but simply a ghost story; horror movies and ghost stories are not the same thing.

"An American Haunting" does not follow the actual legend well.  Even John Bell's death was portrayed differently, as was Kate Batts' role in the legend (assuming the real Mrs. Batts even played a role to begin with, which is debatable).  Many key parts of the legend were missing; e.g., Andrew Jackson, Dr. Mize, the witch family, the revival, the stockings, the simultaneous sermons, the slaves' encounters, etc.  



I thought the acting was very good as a whole.  I was especially impressed with the actress who played Kate Batts.  While I don't agree with the script and storyline given to Kate Batts, the actress looked the part and had a very nasty disposition.  I was also impressed with Sutherland and Spacek's performances, but I expected nothing less from them.  I was disappointed in Rachel Hurd-Wood's performance, however.  Her face and hair were too model-like and not pioneer-like, and her twists and jolts looked more like she was "acting them out" as opposed to actually experiencing them.  I was very impressed with James D'arcy's performance as Richard Powell.  Although he wasn't scripted to be dignified and pompous like the real Richard Powell, he looked the part and his disposition was right.

The filming and setting were great.  It's amazing how the Romanian countryside resembles the Tennessee countryside.  The house they used for the Bell house was perfect in every aspect -- it was grand, inviting yet intimidating, and homey yet creepy-looking -- a giant paradox, the perfect setting for a haunting.  I was impressed with the various camera angles at different times, as well as the smooth tracking through the snow-covered terrain.  I feel that a little less panning, or perhaps slower panning in certain spots, would have achieved a better effect, though.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself being interviewed on the "special features" side of the DVD, under "Internet Promos," regarding the legend's actual background.  There were also interviews with David Alford, the late Carney Bell, Tim Henson, and the late Omer Gene Brooksher, the Mayor of Adams, Tennessee.

All in all, I think "An American Haunting" is a good movie for its "movie value," but keep in mind that it's only a movie. Watch the movie and enjoy it; be afraid!  And when you're done, come to if you're interested in learning about the intriguing and fascinating legend behind it.


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