Friday, October 9, 2015

Season of the Witch is here! The Bell Witch - Discussion Week I #witchseasoncm

It's officially October and Season of the Witch has arrived! We are reading along the book The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff (in conjunction with my TuesBookTalk read-a-long group on Goodreads). There will also be some spooky guest posts this month and I'm hoping to share some interesting stuff and perhaps more Edgar Allan Poe (because his stuff never gets old, right?). I'd still like more guests so if you're game, just let me know. 

So, this is week one of our discussion of Part I of The Bell Witch and boy were we treated to a lot of information in this first part. Before we jump in, I would like to share a little bit of the story of the Bell Witch, as this is based on a legend surrounding a real Tennessee family from the 19th century. I live in Tennessee so it's really a story of interest in our neck of the woods.

The below information was found on Wikipedia so may not be completely accurate. For a more detailed and extensive account, visit The Bell Witch Website.

An artist's sketching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894
The Bell Witch or Bell Witch Haunting is a poltergeist legend from Southern folklore, centered on the 19th-century Bell family of Adams, Tennessee.

John Bell Sr., who made his living as a farmer, resided with his family in Adams, Tennessee in the early 1800s. In 1817, his family came under attack by a witch, who was believed to be a lady called Kate Batts. Various accounts written afterward, tell stories similar to other poltergeist legends. It began with noises in the walls and grew to include unusual sounds, people being slapped and pinched, objects being thrown, and animals being spooked without visible cause.

In the 1894 book An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, author Martin Van Buren Ingram claims that the poltergeist's name was Kate, and that she frequently cursed the Bell family out loud. The activity centered on the Bells' youngest daughter, Betsy, and worsened after she became engaged to one Joshua Gardner.

Several accounts report that during his military career, Andrew Jackson was intrigued with the story and was frightened away after traveling to investigate. Other stories relate that the family was haunted by scratching noises outside their door after Bell found a half-dog, half-rabbit creature. Some stories end up with Bell being poisoned by the witch. Accounts vary about the witch being someone who had been cheated by Bell or a male slave whom Bell had killed.

The only known account of the haunting prior to Ingram's publication was in 1886, more than 60 years after the events. This one paragraph in the Goodspeed Brothers book History of Tennessee does not mention Andrew Jackson or the death of Bell Sr.:

A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the "Bell Witch." This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The feats it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfort of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary.

Paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford, as well as Brian Dunning, conclude that there is no evidence that Andrew Jackson visited the Bell family home. During the years in question, Jackson's movements were well documented, and nowhere in history or his writings is there evidence of his knowledge of the Bell family. According to Dunning, "The 1824 Presidential election was notoriously malicious, and it seems hard to believe that his opponent would have overlooked the opportunity to drag him through the mud for having lost a fight to a witch."

All of the above accounts of the legend are drawn from two sources. In part, the Goodspeed article was a source, but newspaper publisher Martin Van Buren Ingram provided most of the material. Seventy-five years after the Bell Witch events, he wrote An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. Ingram states that he based his book on the diary of Richard Bell, who was a son of John Bell Senior. The events happened when Richard Bell was 6–10 years old, but he didn't write the diary until he was 30. According to Brian Dunning no one has ever seen this diary, and there is no evidence that it ever existed: "Conveniently, every person with firsthand knowledge of the Bell Witch hauntings was already dead when Ingram started his book; in fact, every person with secondhand knowledge was even dead." Dunning also concluded that Ingram was guilty of falsifying another statement, that the Saturday Evening Post had published a story in 1849 accusing the Bells' daughter Elizabeth of creating the witch. That article does not exist either.

According to Radford, the Bell Witch story is an important one for all paranormal researchers: "It shows how easily legend and myth can be mistaken for fact and real events and how easily the lines are blurred" when sources are not checked. Dunning wrote that there was no need to discuss the supposed paranormal activity until there was evidence that the story was true. "Vague stories indicate that there was a witch in the area. All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, and the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into."

Dunning concludes, "I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction." Radford reminds readers that "the burden of proof is not on skeptics to disprove anything but rather for the proponents to prove... claims".

Joe Nickell has written that many of those who knew Betsy suspected her of fraud and the Bell Witch story "sounds suspiciously like an example of “the poltergeist-faking syndrome” in which someone, typically a child, causes the mischief."

Interesting stuff!

An artist's drawing of Betsy Bell, originally published in 1894
So, now that we have the history of the legend, we can delve in to the first part of the novel. In Part I, we get the set up. Betsy Bell has been tormented frequently by nightmares, but they're more like waking nightmares, as she feels like someone is literally lying atop her, holding her down, forcing themselves on her. Did anyone else hear alarm bells going off? Then we're treated to the next morning with Betsy's mom, Lucy, asking Betsy about her nightmares and then, when Betsy says she doesn't want to talk about it, this: "Part of Lucy, buried and ashamed, relaxed with Betsy's answer." Now what exactly is behind that reaction? 

The same night that Betsy experienced another dreadful waking nightmare, the chimney exploded. Another strange occurrence. And then, not too long after these events, Betsy falls ill and then falls under a coma-like state. 

I won't go into too much detail about the various events in Part I, as we all read it. But I will say that there were definitely some creepy moments. How about when the three young Bell brothers go into that cave and the voice speaks to Williams Bell? Terrifying. 

At the root of this story, there are definitely some family problems. Jack seems to be a tyrant-like family leader and possibly abusive, physically perhaps...definitely emotionally. He is also abusive toward his slaves. There is also the belief that he is having an affair with the Batts woman which is another betrayal of the family. Then we have various innuendos throughout, such as "Then he saw something in Lucy's face, something unfamiliar and alien, angry and knowing. He turned away, staring at the floor." This was Jack after he tried furiously to wake Betsy from her newfound coma state. It really makes me wonder what's really going on at the root of this story. 

More insight into the family trouble issue is seen when schoolmaster Richard Powell (who has a thing for Betsy) shares his thoughts with Lucy on the theory that the occurrences in the house and with Betsy could be from a form of hysteria experienced in young girls of Betsy's age. This immediately had me thinking of Stephen King's Carrie. Perhaps Betsy has experienced some type of abuse from a man in her social circle which could perhaps bring on a form of telekinesis...a way for her to vent her frustration and anger. Of course, this is all theory and speculation on my part as well. HaHa.

Oh, and let's not forget that mysterious horned and cloven hoofed figure Jack Bell keeps seeing. Another decidedly creepy aspect of this story. It seems the devil is at his door. What has Jack done to warrant such attentions, I wonder? 

All will be revealed (I hope)!

What were your thoughts on this first Part of The Bell Witch?

Note: "Cursed: The Bell Witch" an A&E series premiers October 26th. Details here.

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