Little Ghost on the Prairie

An American Haunting is definitely not based on a true story.

Sissy Spacek in 'An American Haunting'. Click image to expand.
Sissy Spacek

In the spirit of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, here comes another PG-13 horror flick about a girl getting possessed by demons. Sporting Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek in the cast and supposedly based on “true events validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in US history where a spirit has caused the death of a human being,” this is a well-packaged film that arrives like a nicely wrapped Christmas present, full of promise and potential. Then you unwrap it and discover that it’s just another electric gravy boat and, worse, it’s still got the price tag attached.

Written and directed by Courtney Solomon, whose only other credit is the supernaturally bad Dungeons & Dragons, An American Haunting is set in 1818 in Red River, Tenn. John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is a local bigwig whose shady land deal with a neighbor earns him a curse. In short order his house is filled with bumpings, rumblings, and an invisible entity that simulates sex with his daughter, Betsy, before hauling her out of bed by her hair and tossing her around the room. The family takes this hard, and things get harder when the slap-happy ghost starts punching and throwing them around the room, too. They acquire a persecuted, haunted look as the entity steps up its aggression, unleashing hordes of wolves and orchestrating kinetic carriage accidents as well as a bevy of dime-store digital effects whose cheesiness repeatedly undercuts the tension. At the end of the film, we’re told that the source of the haunting is a dark family secret about sexual abuse rather than a demon from hell and, while this revelation could have elevated this flick out of the low-budget ghetto, it merely buries it further, and not just because of the title card with grammar mistakes that pops up right after the big reveal.

This movie is like that fellow in the logic puzzle who can only tell lies—if you see something onscreen, then you can be certain it’s not true, from the number of kids the Bells have (four in the movie, nine in real life) to whatever is going on in the background (kids playing soccer—soccer balls appeared in the United States after 1850). The movie portrays 19th-century American life anachronistically, as if the Bells were just some funky retro-dressing folks who lived in the O.C., and not members of a gruelingly isolated community whose inhabitants were regarded as little better than pagans caught up in the first waves of the Second Great Awakening. Religion is casually mentioned in An American Haunting, but mostly in a “By the power of Jesus Christ, I compel you to leave this house,” kind of way. It’s never acknowledged that the Bell family were also attending regular revival meetings at their local church, where congregants would be possessed by the Holy Spirit and find themselves compelled to fall on all fours, bark, dance wildly, and experience seizures.

It’s also not a true story. If lying is the latest trend in American pop culture (cf James Frey, Kaavya Viswanathan), then An American Haunting is on the cutting edge. It’s closely based on The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan, a 1995 novel that claims to be the true story of the Bell Witch based on newly discovered papers belonging to Richard Powell, Betsy Bell’s husband. These papers don’t exist. Monahan’s book is an expert fabrication and a good read, but it’s fiction, as Monahan himself will tell you. Most of the books about the Bell Witch are sourced from an 1894 volume called An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by Martin Van Buren Ingram. This volume was written 60 years after the fact and is regarded by some historians as a novel that used real people and places to give it the appearance of reality. Ingram was a newspaperman who was on the hustle for a story all of his life. Repeated business setbacks, family problems, and poor health may have made him hungry for a hit. In 1896, the act of cashing in was not anachronistic.

The movie claims that there have been “over 20 books” written about the Bell Witch, but in reality there are fewer than 15, the legend is little-known outside Tennessee, and it wasn’t mentioned at all until a jolly paragraph appeared in 1886’s The Goodspeed History of Tennessee, in which the spirit comes across as a happy sort who “… would hold conversation and even shake hands. …” The Bell Witch of the legends was a chatty Cathy and people came from miles around to listen to her sing and tell jokes. She would reveal minor, embarrassing secrets about locals, much to everyone’s amusement, and people still speak in hushed tones about her encounter with Andrew Jackson. The fact that this encounter is never mentioned in any of Jackson’s journals, letters, or other papers, nor in the papers of anyone who was with him at the time, hasn’t detracted from it one bit. As for the movie’s claim that the story is “… validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in US history where a spirit has caused the death of a human being,” I assume they’re talking about the record of John Bell’s death, and that is inarguable. Yes, John Bell did die. So did pretty much everyone else who was born in 1750. He was also a human male. Beyond that, the State of Tennessee is silent.

There have been two other Bell Witch movies, The Bell Witch Haunting (2004) and Bell Witch: The Movie (2005). Both were low-budget productions and both had the decency to come and go without elaborate claims to authenticity. But, like the Bell Witch herself, An American Haunting insists on being noticed, grabbing audiences by the hair and throwing them about the room. And there’s only one way to deal with its evil:

“By the power of Jesus Christ, I compel you to leave this multiplex at once!”