She had a bucket of pig’s blood dumped over her head in “Carrie,” was locked away in an insane asylum in “The Ring Two” and watched helplessly as a ghost dragged her daughter by her hair in the new movie “An American Haunting.”
No wonder Sissy Spacek is a little squeamish about horror movies.
“I think young people get a particular thrill out of scaring themselves to death. I personally don’t get it,” Spacek, 56, said during a recent interview. “But maybe it’s because I’m older, and there are so many frightening things in the world. I’d rather have some escape.”
“An American Haunting” is the latest in a box office frenzy of horror movies — and maybe the most unusual.
It’s based on a well-documented haunting of a family of settlers along Tennessee’s Red River in the early 19th century. According to legend, a spirit haunted the Bell family between 1817 and 1821, taking particular delight in tormenting John Bell and daughter Betsy.
The entity identified itself as the “witch” of Kate Batts, a neighbor with whom John Bell had experienced bad business dealings.
The events began as strange noises and then escalated: Bed covers were pulled off and pillows tossed to the floor; family members were kicked and slapped and their hair pulled; the spirit sang hymns and quoted scripture; and John Bell was poisoned and killed.
Many claimed to have witnessed the occurrences, and in 1819 Gen. Andrew Jackson — four years after he defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans and 10 years before his presidency — paid a visit to the farm. After some weird goings-on, Old Hickory reportedly said, “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than to deal with the Bell Witch.”
Residents all have storiesToday the little town of Adams, where much of the Bell farm remains intact, keeps the story alive with plays and tours and an exhibit at the local museum. The town’s welcome sign, about 30 miles northwest of Nashville, shows a witch in a black cape and pointed hat riding on a broom stick.
Whether they truly believe the legend or just enjoy the attention, many residents say they’re convinced it’s true.
“Most everybody around here has at least one Bell Witch story,” says John Mantooth, who works at the Adams Antique Mall, a collection of antiques booths, tea room and cafeteria inside an old school building named for the Bell family.
As if on cue, a woman shopping within earshot comes over and begins sharing something that happened to her on a warm day about 40 years ago while she and her young children were reading about the legend on a marker near where the Bell family is buried.
“As we stood there the coldest, iciest wind came up,” says Melba Smith of Edina, Minn., who grew up in nearby Guthrie, Ky. “It was very strange. I still get goose bumps whenever I tell the story.”
Dozens of books and articles — some well over 100 years old — have been written about the Bell Witch and other movies have been made about it, but none for widespread release like “An American Haunting,” which also stars Donald Sutherland as John Bell and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Betsy Bell.
The movie comes as horror films are doing frighteningly good business. Since last fall, at least nine spooky films — including the ultraviolent “Hostel” and “Saw II,” “The Fog,” “When a Stranger Calls,” “Silent Hill” and the spoof “Scary Movie 4” — have topped the box office.
Spacek, who hasn’t done much in the genre since playing a troubled teenager with telekinetic powers in the 1976 screamer “Carrie,” said one of the things that drew her to the role of John Bell’s wife, Lucy, was the air of authenticity.
“The fact that it is a legend and has been so documented intrigued me, particularly with someone who became president,” she said. “But even if it wasn’t a documented story, even if all these books hadn’t been written about it, I thought it could stand on its own as a film.”
Director Courtney Solomon spent several days in Tennessee researching the story and wanted to film the movie in Adams, but despite the rolling tobacco fields and wooded hollows, couldn’t find a place where utility poles didn’t mar the scenes. He ended up shooting in Romania, where another period piece set in the South, “Cold Mountain,” was made a few years ago.
Solomon creates an eerie landscape of dark woods and prowling wolves and stays close to the legend. But he bookends the old story with a contemporary one to imply that the Bell curse continues.
If you’re contemplating a trip to Adams to investigate for yourself, consider this: While researching his film, Solomon was struck by how many people there think something is still awry around the old Bell homestead. Locals claim you can’t take a picture there without it coming out foggy.
“At least 15 people told me stories about things that happened to them or to a close family member or friend,” he said. “It’s amazing that it has lasted this long.”