(2020) Documentary (Small Town Monsters) Brandon Barker, Timothy Henson, Forrest Burgess, Heather Moser, John Baker Jr., Beau Adams, Pat Fitzhugh, Dewey Edwards, Brenda Moser, Tyler Estep, Lauren Ashley Carter (narration), Cara Tobitt, Kayethel Dickerson, Thomas Koosed, Amy Davies, Aaron Gascon, Grayden Nance, Adrienne Breedlove. Directed by Seth Breedlove
Adams, Tennessee, was a rural village on the western frontier of the newly minted United States in 1817. Those who lived there worked the land and had few amenities. The Bell family, led by patriarch John Bell Sr. (Koosed) were a little bit better off than most, but that wasn’t saying much.
Their farm became an epicenter for a supernatural event that remains to this day the local equivalent of such famous American supernatural presences as the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, Bloody Mary and the Amityville Horror. It started off as loud knocking sounds in the middle of the night, followed by attacks on daughter Betsy (Davies) – first having her blanket yanked off of her at night, then having her face slapped by an unseen entity.
Finally, the entity began to communicate with the family, calling herself Kate and announcing her intention to murder the family patriarch. She had conversations with visitors who independently verified the family’s story – among them Tennessee’s favorite son at the time, future president Andrew Jackson who was then the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The story ended with the premature death of John Bell Sr.
This documentary examines the story of the Bell Witch – the term “witch” referred to spirits of any sort; we would today call it the “Bell Ghost” – through re-enactments of the events described by the Bell family, through analysis by local historians, folklorists and paranormal experts and other assorted talking heads. A lot of information is revealed here, from the common conclusion that the spirit may have been the ghost of Kate Batts, an older woman who had a conflict with the elder Bell when she died, to the role of the Great Awakening spiritualism might have had on the events of the haunting.
The results are remarkably informative and a testament to the power of folklore and how it can take on a life of its own. We are seeing that in modern times with creepypasta tales of Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Ben Drowned and other entities that have become cultural phenomena; while it is too early to determine how those types of stories will eventually become part of the American fabric, certainly decades from now there is no doubt that those sorts of stories will become part of local or national consciousness. I would have liked to have seen this comparison addressed as it might have made the point more relatable to younger audiences, but that’s just me.
The recreations, filmed in black and white, are generally pretty creepy for the most part, although Breedlove from time to time tries a little too hard to be atmospheric and ends up making the vibe a little bit forced; a little more subtlety would have gone a long way. However, what he does get right is that he doesn’t take sides in the debate of whether this happened or not; he simply presents the information and leaves it to the viewer to decide what to believe.
REASONS TO SEE: Very informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to make a spooky atmosphere (and doesn’t always succeed).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The property where the events of the haunting took place is now a tourist attraction in Adams, Tennessee. While the original cabin in which the Bells lived has been torn down, a recreation of the cabin has been rebuilt elsewhere on the site; artifacts of the original inhabitants are also on display at the attraction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6/10