Did someone say Bell Witch?

Famous drawing of Betsy Bell

October ushers in a whole season of “what if” for me. I always was the type of kid who could be found hunkered down around a campfire, listening to “ghost stories” and imagining “what if.”

But I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in evil, and I believe in angels. I believe that if God were to remove the veil from our eyes, we’d all scream like little girls. We couldn’t handle the reality happening before our eyes.

I have no doubt there is much in the world that we can’t see, don’t want to see, and shouldn’t see.

But I also grew up a Bell. That’s my maiden name.

And if you’re from Tennessee, then you know what being a Bell means. The name Bell conjures up stories of spirits and haints and witches and murder. If you’re not from Tennessee, then you may be scratching your head, wondering what in the world I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Bell Witch, the mysterious spirit that tormented John Bell and his daughter Betsy, who lived around the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in a small farming community on the Red River in Robertson County.

Research the legend if you enjoy a good tale, but be careful if you choose to watch one of the movies. Not all of them are based on authentic legend. As a sociology teacher, I’m a fan of folklore and folk culture. Legends mean something to me. Legends reveal who we are as a people and what we value.

When I was growing up, I looked up to my grandmother, Mom Bell. She was quite the character. My cousins and I could fill volumes with stories of her quirky behavior.

In fact, when she married my grandfather, who was nine years older than she, she didn’t tell her parents they were married. She went home to her house, and he went back to his.

The two sneaked off to get married. My grandmother drove the getaway car, but she must not have been that great of driver, and she must not have been too alert. Little did she know that  the town drunk had crawled up in the back seat of the car to sleep off a long night of boozing. My grandmother had both hands on the wheel with my grandfather in the passenger seat when she crossed a railroad track and suffered a bump so severe that it woke the man in the backseat. He sat straight up.

“Bea-dy, you can’t drive,” he said. “If feels like you done run over a horse.”

Sure enough, she had.

Apparently, a train had hit a horse earlier in the day, and my grandmother plowed right over it. Don’t ask me how she did it. I don’t know. That’s just the story she used to tell. She told a lot of stories.

And I like good stories, especially spooky ones. I guess that’s just the writer in me.

(But I know firsthand that too much imagination can lead people into places they should never be. Too much imagination can open doors that should remain closed.)

I don’t speak too much about the Bell Witch to my own children, but when I was growing up, the story was common amongst my people. After all, my grandmother convinced us all we were direct descendents of the notorious family haunted by the Bell Witch. I have yet to prove it although I’ve done extensive research.

As a little kid, I believed with all my heart that if I wasn’t careful, Old Kate (the Bell Witch) would haunt me too and pull the covers off my bed and slap my face without warning, just as she did John Bell’s daughter, Betsy. I was terrified.

As with every legend, our version of the Bell Witch story took on new meaning. According to my grandmother, my great aunt Bessie, who lived in a house in front of the oldest graveyard in Coffee County, had the power of the Bell Witch. She could “see” things. She received “signs.” She also supposedly had hidden away treasure and money, which today no one has been able to find. Perhaps only Kate knows. That’s okay. I don’t want to know.

My grandmother took me to visit Aunt Bessie once when I was just a little girl. Mom Bell went to the kitchen to help with the dishes and left me alone in the parlor with Aunt Bessie, who pretended to sleep on the couch. I knew better. She kept one eye open, watching my every move. I was terrified.

Today I can’t drive by that neighborhood without wondering what Aunt Bessie did with her treasure and why she watched me so closely that day. I can’t help but wonder what made our family believe she had powers and saw signs. What powers? What signs?

Alas, October is here.

Even as I write this, I can feel a chill in the air. It’s pitch black outside my sunroom, but I can hear the wind shuffle the fallen leaves. It feels “spooky” out there.

But I like it. I makes me think “what if,” and I’m always in the mood for a good story.

Note about the book:  When I was in college, I wrote a paper for my folklore class about modern versions of the Bell Witch. My professor, Charles Wolfe, asked to print it in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. Last year the editors chose it as one of the works that would appear in their printed collection. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for Charles Wolfe. He made me believe in myself. He inspired me to be a writer.

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19 thoughts on “Did someone say Bell Witch?

  1. Deep dark secret… I really must have been living under a rock as a kid because, until I heard you tell your stories… I had never heard of the Bell Witch.

    I’m careful about spending too much time thinking about certain topics. I give myself nightmares and lose sleep over things easily. But I admit I do love things that lean towards the spooky-eerie side of things.

    However, I’m the type that fast forwards through scary movies to see when things are going to pop out so I’m not too frightened… and when I rewind, and watch the pop out scare still gets me!

    I think anticipation and suspense leading up the the scare, and the great eerie music that builds up at the dramatic points does more than the creature or gore of the scare.

    That being said I’m not a huge fan of slasher movies… My favorite movies are the classics. I’d Choose Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney (just to name a few) over Freddy, Michael, or Jason … They don’t even stand a chance!

    Also I love the Mel Brooks spoofs! Dracula Dead and Loving it and Young Frankenstien.

    This is my favorite time of year! Spooky mysterious type magic transcends through the Fall and eventually turns into wonderful joyful magic in the Christmas Season. I really do love it all.

    I love your stories! Please tell us more!

  2. Truthfully, my FAVORITE kind of scary is Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine kind of scary. My favorite scary movie is Don Knott’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. That pretty much sums it up for me. I am definitely no fan of slasher movies. I don’t watch them. I like “safe” scary movies. My idea of ultimate cool would be to own a replica of the Mystery Machine and a big Great Dane. But I do like hearing a good story. It’s even better if there’s a little bit of funny mixed in.

  3. I love Scooby-Doo… My little niece does too… we watched the newest Scooby Doo video the other day… Abracadabra-doo… A large Griffen terrorizes an old castle that a famous magician has turned into a school. They have to solve the mystery… It is really cool. But I agree… mysterys where the monster is always un-masked are rather cool.

  4. Since I’m a Half-Blood, the whole concept of the Bell Witch still unsettles me occasionally.

    You and my grandparents are the reason that I have a twisted sense of fear. I’m pretty sure of it.

    • No Josh. You are Bell. You can’t escape that. Everybody is a half something else. And I always scared you honestly with weird noises and sudden appearances, never with spooky stories. 🙂

  5. I wish my family was that interesting. Are you really related to the Bell witch? I love this time of year. I like being scared within good fun.

    • My grandmother says so. The stories are fun, but I try not to think too much about the reality of it for good reason. In all seriousness, certain “things” tend to follow families for generations. I believe something supernatural happened in Adams back then. There is too much documentation to support it to suggest otherwise, but you and I both know what the “source” probably was. I don’t want any part of that. We have to be very careful and to guard both our minds and our hearts. 🙂

    • I always enjoy this time of year because in some ways it makes me think of being a little kid again. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so my cousins are the closest I have. We used to be scared silly by those Bell Witch stories–at least the older cousins were. 🙂

  6. well i can very well remember going to adams tn to the bell witch cave. For a feild trip and it was with your class mrs lockhart. I will never forget the eeary sounds and things we seen. Especially, how the bus happen to break down as soon as we got inside the gate to the property. That was a awesome trip and i will never forget it. My kids wants me to take them there. Maybe sometime i will.

  7. It’s funny how strange things can happen. I think the Bell cave is still open. I just don’t recommend taking your kids if the people there are doing seances and stuff. You don’t want to introduce kids to the wrong things. I think different people own it since we were there. I enjoy going on walking tours this time of year. My husband Kenny is a history teacher, so we both like it. We always pick family friendly walking tours. They have some at Nashville, Franklin, and even the Hermitage. 🙂

  8. Hey there Teresa~
    Ironically enough, I am doing a paper on the Bell Witch for my paranormal history class @ Motlow. I remember when every October, planning the Fall issue of the Chronicle, we always gave you a hard time about being related to the Bell Witch, and we also focused on urban legends of the area. 🙂 I am actually attending a Ghost Walk in Huntsville on Oct 15 with the class, and I am very excited about it. We just finished the Salem Witch trials in the class, and now we are moving on to the wonderful world of Vampires. It is a really fun class. I am sure the instructor wouldn’t mind you and Kenny peeking your heads in to visit when you are on Fall Break. It meets on Mon and Wednesdays @ 12:15. The professor’s name is Scott Cook. He is wonderful! I miss you bunches!

  9. I miss you too, and I always enjoy your comments on my blog. You’ll have to update me on your history class. I think it’s interesting. I’d like to hear what your instructor says about all the vampire lore that’s incorporated in these new novels.

  10. I love the bell witch stories. I used to watch the documentary on her, and i used to read a bunch of stuff about her. She is one of my favorite horror people, so is Bloody Marry. Bell Witch was actually the reason i was scared of the dark when i was little, she’s also the reason why i had trouble sleeping. My mom told me about her when i was little, and i was really scared. It must be cool to be realtaed to her. I mean with her being legendary, and everything. Alot of people love her. It must feel kind of creepy at times though.

    • Well, Tori, I don’t claim to be related to a witch–my students may think differently. 🙂 But my family claims to be related to the tormented family. I was terrified as a child!

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