Fans of Ghost Hunters, Ancient Aliens, and other such shows will have a blast with Seth Breedlove’s spooky documentary The Mark of the Bell Witch. It may not transcend its made-for-TV roots, but as such, it’s a well-researched, passionate, and incisive account of the fabled haunting in Adams, Tennessee. Even skeptics may find themselves believing the validity of the historical testimonies and reports on display.
Harboring a mere 600 residents, Adams isn’t exactly boisterous – so it’s of little wonder that the Bell Witch myth became the town’s raison d’être. Breedlove takes us back to the winter of 1820, when the patriarch of the Bell family passed away, allegedly due to a witch’s curse. Almost two centuries later, folklorist Brandon Barker, along with numerous historians, professors, and researchers, study the Bell family’s history of being terrorized by the witch. Consequently, the film is split into (surprisingly well-staged) black-and-white reenactments, interviews, and even some animation.
“…numerous historians, professors and researchers, study the Bell family’s history of being terrorized by the witch.”
There are accounts of strange sounds and stranger animals, with a ferocious, black, two-headed dog being, arguably, the most memorable one. There are reports of women hanging from trees, sudden temperature drops, lights in the sky, possessions (replete with face welts), reinterpreted scriptures, silver bullets, and numerous sightings of the titular witch. There are anecdotes aplenty, such as when General Andrew Jackson encountered the witch while oddly deviating from his planned course. Breedlove wisely provides some historical, geographical, and sociopolitical context; the terroir of rural Tennessee, specifically the Red River settlement, becomes a living, breathing character in the doc.
It’s not all bewitching. Breedlove inexplicably split the film into dozens of chapters, some lasting a mere 20 seconds – an unnecessary gimmick that takes up time and takes away from the flow. There are lengthy book excerpts being read out loud as the words grace the screen – not exactly thrilling stuff. The Mark of the Bell Witch would have befitted from some careful trimming, and perhaps a more tongue-in-cheek and less reverent tone.
With its enthusiasm seeping from its every celluloid pore, The Mark of the Bell Witch is an entertaining little diversion, admirable for the clear effort and diligence it took to delve that deeply into such a niche subject matter. It also serves as a reminder that even tiny, rural provinces such as Adams have beguiling histories and myths.
"…admirable for the clear effort and diligence it took to delve that deeply..."