Yesterday I realized that I am not afraid of the Bell Witch any more.
In this month of October, as every year, my thoughts often turn back to the gorgeous Autumns of my Tennessee childhood. Every horizon back home was a fringe of trees, and as the leaves began to turn orange and red and gold, those colors became the peripheral background to our Fall routines: Hog killing at Uncle JC’s farm, hiking with the school Ecology Club, walking the endless fields to find this or that creek to hunt crawdads.
Being someone with an attuned interest in weirdness, the supernatural and folklore, I particularly enjoyed the rare ghost stories told by uncles and grandfathers at our occasional big group suppers, just before we all went into the living room or porch to play Bluegrass gospel together and sip sweet iced tea. (The same family suppers and gettogethers from which I was banned forever somewhere around 1994) There was a story about an enormous rotted log that my Uncle M came upon in the woods one pitch black fall night, the inside hollowed out and dripping with phosphorescent slug-riddled fungus. He told how there seemed to be a sound echoing from inside it, and when he leaned in close he could hear the soft hopeless wailing of little children coming up from somewhere deep underground. My skin prickled and my ears almost popped, it sent such a thrill of horror through my guts. “How terrible, how nightmarish it must have been for those children to be trapped who knows where, under the cold damp earth below that rotting log!” I thought over and over.
But the most horrifying, the most believed story that everyone told in Tennessee was the story of the Bell Witch.
One such haunting is the legend of the so-called “Bell Witch,” a sinister entity that tormented a pioneer family on Tennessee’s early frontier between 1817 and 1821. Unlike the blockbuster films and many other ghost stories, the “Bell Witch” haunting involved real people and is substantiated by eyewitness accounts, affidavits, and manuscripts penned by those who experienced the haunting first hand. This distinction led Dr. Nandor Fodor, a noted researcher and psychologist, to label the Bell Witch legend as “America’s Greatest Ghost Story.”
From the image of a lifeless body hanging from a tree, to the apparition of a pale-faced woman and three children in a field, “Kate” was all-knowing, all-powerful, and the personification of evil. She helped children in danger and nursed John Bell’s wife when she was sick; however, her two missions were to destroy Elizabeth Bell’s engagement and to kill John Bell. She accomplished both. Generations later, many descendants of those who were involved are STILL reluctant to discuss the legend. And even today, unexplainable things happen on and near what was once the Bell farm.
Adults knew the full story, and in a religious family that truly believed in demons and devils it was nothing to laugh at. Apart from the adult version of the story, we kids had a legend we shared with each other on sleepovers and campouts that went like this:
If you stand in front of a mirror at midnight and spin around counter-clockwise thirteen times, saying “I HATE THE BELL WITCH!”, on the 13th time she will APPEAR IN THE MIRROR AND SCRATCH YOUR EYES OUT! (then the storyteller would scream)
I know now that there are variations on this story, mostly with “Bloody Mary” subbed for “The Bell Witch”, but as a kid listening to my cousin tell it in the middle of the night, in a creaky and dark old country house in the woods, it seemed much too risky to test.
And honestly, even as an adult… even in the last few years… I have considered it safer to just leave it alone and not try it out. The stories of what happened on that Bell family farm 200 years ago are so detailed… I believe there are things we just don’t understand out there in the world, and things that go beyond common understanding of science and life.
But the other day, driving around Los Angeles, I felt the cool air of a new Autumn (yes it happens even here!) and for some reason my mind turned to the Bell Witch. And I turned over all the things that have happened to me in the past three decades of my life. The horrors, the meanness, the hatred, the pain all rushed past my mind’s eye and I realized that I was all used up in the “afraid” department. I think now that if a supernatural being, a demon, a ghost, were to appear to me I could reach out and grab its throat and eat it alive without a second thought. I really do.
So I am no longer afraid of The Bell Witch. Thank you, world. You’ve given me that, at least.
In celebration, at midnight this year on Halloween I am going to stand in front of a mirror and spin around counter-clockwise 13 times, saying “I hate the Bell Witch.” I hope that bitch shows up, I’m going to eat her fucking soul.
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