In some form or another, stories have a major impact on who we are...
...Through stories, we’re able to define our national and cultural identities, to deal with traumatic or uncomfortable situations, and to share our values and beliefs. Stories play an integral role in how we understand our world, but sometimes it’s the stories of things we can’t explain that stick with us the most. Whether it’s a haunting, UFO abduction, or cryptid, those tales of strange occurrences serve as a reminder that there’s still so much left for us to learn. For me at least, that’s just a small part of what makes these accounts so irresistible.
As a transplant in the American South, I’m lucky to be within relatively close distance to the homes of several strange tales, unexplainable events, and American folklore. I’ve done my fair share of supernatural tourism, but there’s one place that’s eluded me so far: Adams, Tennessee. Adams is home to the Bell Witch, an entity that haunted a farmer named John Bell and his family between the years of 1817 and 1821. The pandemic might have put a halt to any potential paranormal travel plans, but The Mark of the Bell Witch, a new documentary from production company Small Town Monsters and director Seth Breedlove, is arriving in perfect time to satiate the appetite of anyone interested in the darker side of American folklore.
Using a mixture of talking head documentary style interviews, dramatic reenactments, artistic depictions, and narration from indie horror star Lauren Ashley Carter (Darling), The Mark of the Bell Witch tells the ghostly history of the Bell family’s haunting by the entity that would eventually come to be known as the Bell Witch. The variety of techniques makes for a gripping documentary that lures you into the story of the Bell family, keeping the film from falling victim to the boredom that so often permeates the run of mill ghost story documentaries. Jumping from reenactment to interview to narration at the perfect moments, Mark of the Bell Witch makes the story feel alive and active despite it taking place almost 200 years ago.
While the focus of The Mark of the Bell Witch is telling the story of the haunting, the film takes a neutral stance on the event. It recounts what took place on the Bell family farm from various angles, describing the historical account of what happened while also including opinions from academic folklorists who break down the connections that the Bell Witch story has with other legends and the meaning that might lie in the tale. A wide range of other interviewees, from religious teachers to local Bell Witch tour guides, allows the viewer to make up their own mind about how much of the story they believe is true. Mark of the Bell Witch finds the perfect middle ground between belief and skepticism, something that seems all too rare in documentaries of this kind.
Alongside exploring how the story of the Bell Witch has roots in and has become folklore, the movie also explores the effects that the Bell Witch has had on the local community. Adams is a small town with a population of less than 700, and the Bell Witch story has had a lasting impact on the people who live there. As the movie explains, practically everyone grows up learning the story of the Bell Witch, and there are many people who are quick to pin anything that goes wrong in the town on the haunting. Mark of the Bell Witch investigates how famous hauntings can have a longstanding impact on a town, shaping the local folklore and the relationship people have with their own communities for centuries to come.
If Mark of the Bell Witch has one flaw, it’s that the film’s attempt to cover a wide swath of topics related to the Bell Witch haunting causes it to feel somewhat unfocused. This occasional lack of focus, mixed with its neutral stance, means that none of the topics feel as if they’re explored to their fullest. Like the haunting itself, Mark of the Bell Witch leaves enough loose ends for the viewers to choose which one(s) they want to follow, but it will leave anyone looking for some kind of definite conclusion left wanting.
If you love studying how folklore can shape us, paranormal phenomena, or just a good story, make sure you don’t miss Mark of the Bell Witch.
Mark of the Bell Witch comes to Digital and Blu-ray/DVD from Small Town Monsters December 15th. You can order the film on Blu-ray/DVD here.
By Tim Beirne