Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bell Witch: When family legend gets too close for comfort

The Bell Witch is a famous Tennessee folk figure; the tale is often thought to be a lesson in mass hysteria and the power of suggestion. A non-human entity with the power to manifest as animals, she wrought havoc on the Bell family and the residents of Robertson County; Major-General Andrew Jackson, American hero and later president, fled the Bell estate after one night in her company. The events that took place during 1817-1821 made the Bell name infamous.

But we shall skip to the end of their story:

After the Witch succeeded in killing old John Bell, she decided to leave, promising to come back ever so often to check up on the family: my family. My great-great-great grandmother, Caney (short for the bizarre American Victorian-era name "Canarisa Lousia"), was a Bell. And now, you're probably thinking, "SURRRREE. Three greats. Like that's possible." Hah. My family actually keeps their records. And, like me, my grandmother was sent to stay with HER grandparents a lot. Her grandmother was Caney's daughter. And that's where my story begins.

The first time my grandmother ever even heard of the Bell Witch, she was four. She was sitting on her grandmother Mary Agnes's front porch. After all, it's summer in Tennessee in 1943; there wasn't anything else to do to cool off. So, they're sitting there, and my grandmother says something childlike and innocent. She can't remember what she said; all she remembers was her grandmother's violent reaction.

"DON'T YOU EVER SAY ANYTHING LIKE THAT AGAIN!" she shouted. "You're a Bell -- you can't say things like that! Do you want the Witch to come after you?"

And, child that she was, it made my grandmother pause. Why would what she said, coupled with who her family was, summon a witch? In her mind, she had a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West of  the Wizard of Oz, ugly, corporeal -- and most importantly -- fictional. She couldn't imagine the invisible force that tormented her family over 100 years before she was born. And being a human like any other, she quickly forgot the thing she couldn't imagine, and made a point never to think of it again. Until 2001, anyway.

It's early spring of 2001 and I'm still laid up from my recent near-death experience and subsequent surgery. I can't get up off the couch, because an 8 inch gash has my abdomen completely open, guts and all. I'm stranded, 12, and bored. So, what does a kid do when they've seen every rerun their ever was? They read. A lot. I went through book after book after book until I came to Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffery by Kathryn Tucker Windham.

I knew perfectly well who Jeffrey was, of course. The librarian at the elementary school I attended grew up as a neighbor of Kathryn Tucker Windham; I had spent my formative years hearing of the exploits of the author's famous, friendly ghost. But the other ghosts in the book? I didn't know them. I also didn't know that one of them knew me.

It's nearly midnight -- like it really was, this isn't for effect -- and I'm reading the ghost book. I come to the story of the Bell Witch. I read it rather quickly and I think it's eerie, but I find it captivating, because I'm a kid that loves a good ghost story (and I still do). As I reach the last couple of paragraphs in the Bell Witch story, I begin to feel very nervous, like I'm sure somebody's watching me from behind. But I shrug it off. I know that's paranoid, crazy, and everything else irrational; and I spend an abnormal amount of time concentrating on those last few paragraphs, the last few sentences, desperately attempting to ignore that weird feeling. And then it happens. There's a huge BANG on the window behind me about six feet up. And when I say a "bang", I mean it sounded like someone threw all of their force at hitting the window. Except it was high up, too high for even my dogs to reach via jumping. And the noise was so loud, so insistent that my mother immediately hopped up and ran to look out the window, in case it was a prankster or a psycho or something. Surprise, of course, there is nothing there.

And then I start to freak out and I tell her what I was reading when it happened, and this weird look comes over her face: the harrowing look of dreadful knowing. You gotta remember: this was right after I almost died. I knew that dreadful knowing face very well, because it was all over my family and the doctors as they looked at me and knew, more likely than not, I was not only going to die, but it would be a very painful and very miserable death. (I am happy to announce, if this story isn't evidence of the fact, that I am indeed alive and sometimes very much so.)

So, yeah. She has The Look. And that's when I hear the story for the first time about what happened to my grandmother as a kid and the personal, family details of the Bell Witch haunting, etc. Was I surprised to be related to the Bells? Not really. After all I already knew that, through Caney's mother's side, I was also descended from Mary Queen of Scots. I had already accepted the fact that pretty much everyone has a famous (or infamous) relative, unless they come from a way-to-small gene pool.

But being related to the Bells didn't affect me. After a couple of nights of nervously awaiting The Noise to return (which it didn't), I then settled back into my normal routine where I didn't constantly worry over a spirit that, as far as we knew, hadn't bothered the family since 1828 (which was when the Witch made the promise to Lucy Bell, John Bell's widow, that she would occasionally visit her descendants for the rest of time).

I successfully didn't think about the Bell Witch until 2005, when my dad and I decided to go to a movie and picked a random one simply because it wasn't a chick flick. And, alas, it was An American Haunting.

So, I'm 17 years old, I'm sitting in the theater, and I'm like, "Holy crap -- did they just say John Bell?" And as the movie progressed, I saw the other characters of the legend -- Betsy, Lucy, and Richard Powell -- fall into their legendary places, and I watched a highly fictionalized version of events where John Sr. was an incestuous daughter-raper, Lucy was a murderess, and the Witch was a poltergeist brought on as an expression of Betsy's repression of the fact her father had raped her. Yeah. It was really fucked up. And in horrible taste, because it takes people who really lived and fallaciously accuses them of some of the worst crimes imaginable. (There is literally nothing worse than hurting one's own innocent child, especially in such a twisted manner.)

What do I do the second I get home? I call Connie. And here's the thing about Connie: when we met, we quickly became the closest of friends, despite a decade's difference in age and living on opposite sides of the continent. Something about her was just like it was already a part of me, like we'd been friends for all of forever. Come to find out, several years later: we are cousins. Even though her parents are from the Philippines and my dad's family has been here east of the Mississippi for 400 years on the English side and thousands of years on the Cherokee. Against odds like that, we both descend from an Irishman, a Kennedy, and English nobility. (So, because we are double kin -- literally -- she calls me doubekin really fast and it's super!cute.) In short though: she's the Christina to my Meredith. We're as mentally connected as twins. So, when I call her, I say..."

"Oh my GOD. You'll NEVER believe what I just saw."

"An American Haunting -- I saw it too."

"Oh my GOD," I say, "I cannot believe --"

"--Me neither --"

"--it's ridiculous--"

"I know, right?"

And we go into this belligerent thing where we're finishing each other's sentences which are mainly protestations about the gross falseness of the movie and how crazy it all was. This goes on for awhile. So, I'll skip all the in between which you'd have to be a doublekin to understand and get to the next main point...

There is an unearthly howl outside my window. Not like a dog, not like a cat. Not like a wild dog or a wild cat either. (I live in the suburbs -- panthers, coyotes are in the country.) It's something that just sounds horrible. It's kind of like a shriek -- not from pain -- but from something else. Again, unearthly is a good description, because it was simply bizarre and I've never heard anything like it since -- until night before last.

My Twitter friends who were up around 3am CST that night know what I'm talking about because I freaked out about it on there. I was sitting, once again, with my back to the window. And kind of up high (which sounds weird, but that's what it sounded like -- higher than my head) there was bizarre snort. All my dogs were inside. And it wasn't like a normal snort. It was really freaking weird. It was like a very low sound that was a cross between a pig noise and a horse noise -- it had those qualities. It was just freaking weird. To make things worse, a friend on Twitter who'd been talking to me about this -- her lights and flicked on and off. Yeah, probably was a power thing -- but you never know. All I know is, when I went to bed again, I heard the shriek.

And that recent incidence: for some reason, I instantly thought of the Bell Witch being the cause; out of all other supernatural explanations, she's the one I instinctively chose. (Though, granted, it could just be past experience.)

So, is it the Bell Witch? Or, could it be, perhaps, the calling card of another family legend, an older legend where the witches are really witches and goddesses as old as time have form and walk with man. (Among other things.) That legend...that's a legend for another post.

Until then, sleep well my fellow humans.

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