The Mark of the Bell Witch is the latest documentary from Small Town Monsters, the prolific team whose work has covered such cryptids as the Mothman, Bigfoot and UFOs. For them, The Mark of the Bell Witch represents a move away from physical entities and into the somewhat murkier waters of the supernatural, but they approach the subject with the same tenacity and even-handedness that is their hallmark.
The Bell Witch (in addition to being an excellent doom metal band) is the name of a legendary poltergeist haunting that took place in the early 1800s. The legend tells of a protracted and violent haunting that beset the family of John Bell on their farm in Adams, Tennessee. It began with sightings of bizarre, shape-shifting creatures. After attempting to shoot a ghostly hare, the Bells are beset by paranormal activities, including knocks, scratches and ghostly voices. After a campaign of harassment, the visitation would eventually claim the life of John Bell, making this one of very few historical reports of lethal hauntings.
Like many legends of this type, The Bell Witch haunting has become a patchwork of contradictory accounts, cross-pollinated with rumour and other pieces of local folklore. What is impressive about The Mark of the Bell Witch is the way that director Seth Breedlove manages to present the information in a mixed media format that properly represents the fragmented narrative. The film is a mishmash of interview, re-enactment and some particularly impressive stylised animation.
The film is structured in a chapter-by-chapter style, beginning with the Bell family’s arrival in Tennessee. It’s rich with historical detail, and goes to great lengths to get across the feelings of isolation in the impoverished rural community. The film goes on to relate events in a chronological order, with re-enactments and inserted interviews with Bell family descendants and experts in Appalachian folklore.
It’s a slick production, with only the re-enactment segments occasionally betraying the minimal budget. Thankfully, these are short, with minimal dialogue, and don’t outstay their welcome. In fact, shot in a spooky and atmospheric black and white, these recreations can add to the ambience. It’s only when we linger on them that you start to notice the limited costume budget and some crude day-for-night effects.
The most impressive aspect of the film is the way that Breedlove has herded his facts into a coherent and engaging narrative. The story is fascinating, but it has so many facets, characters and moving parts, from accusations of fakery to a visit from a future president, that it runs the risk of becoming baggy and confusing in the retelling. In Breedlove’s hands, the story remains engaging and straightforward, told with obvious love for its spookier aspects, but is tempered by a healthy scepticism and analysis of the cultural context of the day.
For fans of the paranormal, this is an excellent retelling of a fascinating episode in America’s supernatural history. We expect that even those who consider themselves familiar with the story will find new information here, as the tale is told with impressive depth and insight, as well as engaging visuals.