There have been many wonderful portrayals of witchcraft in British culture throughout the years; the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth immediately spring to mind, as do the formidable witches of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and Roald Dahl’s children hating villains in The Witches. Cinematically, Hammer’s underrated 1966 film The Witches and Piers Haggard’s brilliantly unsettling Blood on Satan’s Claw give the rural life a dark undercurrent. Rural locations tend to be a theme in witchcraft tales, and colonial America had them in abundance. Isolated settlements that were the perfect place for the spread of fear of the unknown, superstition and rumour mongering. Often the victims of this intolerance were harmless old women; declared to be witches and in league with the Devil, with no one to defend them from fierce accusations and the persecution that followed. Littered throughout American history, both folklore and reality, are tales of these poor people who had no chance against the puritanical ways of life that were the norm then. Today I am going to look at some of these stories. Some may or may not have happened; some were terrifyingly real.
The legend of the Bell Witch is one of the most famous and enduring of American folklore. Even today, nearly 200 years after the events that supposedly plagued the Bell family in rural Tennessee, sightseers visit the plot where the family’s farm once stood and the so called Bell Witch Cave on the property, in which people still claim to hear the witch roaming about the place.
The Bell family, headed by John and Lucy Bell, along with their children and slaves moved to Adams, Tennessee from North Carolina in the early 1800’s. The family quickly prospered and soon found themselves in possession of over 300 acres of land. John Bell himself was well liked in the burgeoning Adams community, and became a Deacon of the local church; the Red River Baptist Church. Their fortune and future seemed assured, but then in 1817 things took a very strange turn. First John Bell claimed he saw an odd creature while out tending his fields, that had the head of a rabbit and the body of a dog. Birds like no other they had ever seen where glimpsed by the children, and the youngest daughter Betsy claimed she had seen the apparition of an old woman walking beside her, who promptly vanished when the child turned to face her. Soon the disturbances advanced into the family home, with strange scratching and gnawing sounds (which were initially thought to be rats) and the sounds of a ‘someone’ pounding the walls of the log cabin from the outside. John Bell and his sons frequently tried to catch the culprit, but when they dashed outside there was never anyone there. The children complained of their bedding pulled from their beds and tossed around the room by an unseen force. So far, your basic poltergeist disturbance (despite the moniker Bell ‘Witch’, it was certainly poltergeist activity the family were experiencing). The witch also found its voice, said to that of an old woman’s, declaring itself to be ‘Kate’. While at first all could be heard were faint mutterings of prayer soon it evolved to full on singing, sermons and conversations.
With its presence growing stronger it wasn’t long before the spirit upped its torment of the family again, with the bulk of its rage reserved for John and Betsy Bell. The entity, for reasons that were never made clear, hated John Bell and often taunted that it was going to kill him or attacked him psychically. Betsy, in the time honoured tradition of poltergeists choosing to focus on young girls, was slapped, her hair pulled and stuck with pins. These attacks intensified when Betsy began courting a young neighbour of the Bells; Joshua Gardener. The spirit forbade Betsy to marry Joshua and made life so difficult for the young couple that she eventually broke off their engagement. The family had attempted to keep the disturbances to themselves but eventually John Bell went to his friend and neighbour, James Johnston, for help. Johnston and his wife spent the night at the Bell Farm and were treated to the poltergeist’s repertoire of tricks. After that, word spread throughout the county and the Bells were subject to hundreds of visitors, which hoping for a chance to experience the witch for themselves. Among these guests was, apparently, General Andrew Jackson (later to be President of the United States from 1829 – 1837), under which three of John Bell’s sons had served in the Battle of New Orleans. When he and his crew attempted to approach the now famed farm house the wagon pulling their horses stopped dead, the beasts unable to pull it. Once Jackson had addressed the witch the wagon was free and the group proceeded to the farm, where despite their intentions to stay a week, the only lasted one night.
In 1819 John Bell was excommunicated from the Church, officially for a charge of usury (basically unreasonable rates of interest) over the sale of a slave that went sour but many thought it was the supernatural events at his farm that was the true reason; as the deeply religious community they would have surely wished to disassociate themselves from activity described as devilry. At the end of 1820 the witch finally achieved its most long held desire; the death of John Bell. Bell had been confined to bed after suffering a series of fits and when he died a mysterious vial of liquid was discovered in his bedroom. When fed to the family cat it promptly keeled over and died. The witch gleefully took credit for the death of the family patriarch and celebrated with bursts of loud joyful singing. Even at his funeral John Bell was not spared the indignity of the witch’s presence as it shouted and sang all throughout the service. Its apparent mission completed, the disturbances stopped and the witch vanished. It returned a year later and told John’s widow, Lucy Bell, that it would visit the family again in seven years. It kept its promise and did return to the farm, stayed for three weeks and then left, promising to visit again in 107 years. That would have been in 1935. The spirit did not put in an appearance, and as far as anyone is aware, has never appeared to any descendants of John and Lucy Bell.
So what was the Bell Witch? Obviously, one of the options is… nothing, it was a fabricated hoax played on a gullible, God fearing community, or a family legend that has been twisted and glorified with every retelling (even when the first ‘official’ account of the tale appeared in print in 1894 – The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by Martin Van Buren Ingram – the main players in the saga had been dead for many years). However, there is a theory that the Bell Witch was in fact the manifestation of a genuine witch, an eccentric (aren’t they always?) local woman called Kate Batts, who according to local legend had the odd habit of begging the neighbourhood woman for pins, which people believed gave her control over the person if loaned a pin by them. Possible motivations for her to be the culprit include her being John Bell’s mistress who he murdered to keep from telling people about their affair and then came back to torment him from beyond the grave (this one seems particularly unlikely as records show that Kate Batts actually outlived both John and Lucy Bell) and her putting a curse on John Bell after a they had a dispute over some land, or in some cases, the trade of a slave (again, historical records show that the land dispute was with a Josiah Fort, and the dispute over a slave was between John Bell and Benjamin Batts, who was related to Kate Batts, however, she was not involved in this disagreement). Kate Batts actual connection to the Bell’s was that she was Lucy Bell’s niece. So why isn’t that ever cited when theories are tossed around as to why Kate Batt’s ‘cursed’ John Bell? Because it is not as exciting as the possibility of affairs, murder, curses and witchcraft. The mass hysteria revolving around witchcraft that gripped Salem, Massachusetts, had occurred over 100 years before the Bell Witch made her first appearance, and despite the progression in society since then a lingering distrust of woman slightly off kilter remained.
A tale such as the Bell Witch, whether there was any truth in it or it was complete fabrication, lends itself well to the cinematic universe. There have been a few dramatisations over the years, the most recent of which was the 2005 film An American Haunting, written and directed by Courtney Solomon and featuring the heavyweight acting talents of Donald Sutherland as John Bell and Sissy Spacek as his wife Lucy Bell. This version of the tale takes quite a few liberties with the original legend and uses a theory that quite a few people who have studied the legend have mooted; that John Bell was sexually abusing his daughter Betsy, a horror she had repressed, and the poltergeist activity and the ‘witch’ were created by her sub-conscious mind to help deal with this grave betrayal and to bring these ‘forgotten’ memories back to her. In the film, Lucy Bell has a similar revelation and realises that she actually witnessed the assault take place, and she watches as her daughter poison her husband, killing him. While a harrowing account of the reason for the witch coming into being it should be remembered that there is no proof what so ever that John Bell abused his daughter, and it is a serious allegation to level against a man who has been dead for many years and has no way to defend himself, also still has descendants living today who one would imagine would be none too pleased that this rewriting of their family history in this way for a Hollywood film. Much like in real life, the Kate Batts of the film, while still suspected of being a witch, is shown to have had nothing to do with the ordeal the Bell family go through – although one suspects that this was less to do with historical accuracy on behalf of the filmmakers, and more do to with the desire for a red herring for the plot.
The real Kate Batts was lucky, in a sense, that she was never persecuted for her apparent role in the case of the Bell Witch. Others were not so fortunate. Throughout American folklore cases abound of women who were in most cases hounded to death. Take the case of Moll Dyer, an old woman who lived alone in a ramshackle home in what is now Leonardtown, Maryland in the 1660’s. She was the subject of gossiping among the locals who thought she was practicing witchcraft. In 1697 the town experienced a particularly unrelenting winter; both many livestock and people died. The blame was laid squarely at Moll Dyer’s door. A group of locals set fire to her house and she fled into the woods, where legend has it she collapsed on a large rock, lifted one hand towards the heavens and cursed the town of Leonardtown and its inhabitants for their cruel treatment of her. Her frozen body was discovered ten days later, her hand and knee prints leaving permanent markers on the rock. There are no historical records remaining that prove if Moll Dyer was even a real person or not, although there was a Dyer family living in the town at the time in question. The tale abides though. The infamous rock where Moll Dyer breathed her last now resides outside the courthouse in Leonardtown, where although the imprints are now barely visible visitors claim to have experienced eerie feelings and strange aches in the presence of it. Moll Dyer has also lent her name to the road where her shack was once apparently located and people have claimed to see the apparition of a women dressed in white accompanied by a dog in the woods during the chilled winter nights.
A more recent part of her legacy is supposedly being part of the inspiration for the 1994 mega-hit film The Blair Witch Project: a film that had possibly the most successful marketing campaign in history; partly due to the extended mythology that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez created for the world they fabricated, the facts of which sound so close to legends of witches and witchcraft it is not surprising that people believed them to be a ‘true’ legend passed down from generation to generation in the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland, (the real town where The Blair Witch Project is set). The legend of the Blair Witch goes that in 1785 in the settlement of Blair several local children accused a hermit like old lady, Elly Kedward, of stealing their blood. Elly Kedward is found guilty of witchcraft and is banished from the town in the midst of a terrible winter. The townspeople assume she died in the woods (definite echoes of Moll Dyer there) and for a year life in Blair returns to normal. In 1786 half the town’s children and several children vanish, never to be seen again. The remaining townsfolk flee the settlement, fearing they have been cursed by the witch Elly Kedward. The town of Burkittsville is founded on the old Blair site in 1824. One child is pulled into a creek by a pale hand and never seen again, presumed drowned. Another boy disappears and search parties are sent to look for him. The boy returns safely but one of the search parties does not. They were found week’s later on local landmark Coffin Rock, tied together via their hands and feet and ritualistically disemboweled. Fast forward to the 1940’s and once again children start disappearing from the town, seven in total. A hermit living in the woods, Rustin Parr, confesses to the murdering the children, claiming that the ghost of an old woman made him do it. He bought the children to his house in pairs, forcing one to stand in the corner and listen to the torture and murder of their companion. He then buried their bodies in the cellar. Despite his plead of insanity, he was hanged for his crimes. And then, as most people know, in 1994 three film students ventured into the woods near Burkittsville to make a documentary on the Blair Witch legend. They were never seen again, but their video footage was found in the foundations of a ruined house in the middle of the woods.
It’s easy to see why people believed this was a ‘real’ legend, a tale woven into the history of the very real town of Burkittsville, when The Blair Witch Project was first released in 1994. It uses all the tropes of witches that were abundant in American folklore; the slightly eccentric old woman who lived alone, who practiced in herbal remedies and lured local children to her creepy shack for malevolent purposes, (and also more often than not, made some sort of pact with the Devil). These stories usually had a ‘happy ending’ though, with the evil, old crone being run out the town, or hanged, or burnt at the stake, to jubilant celebration from the ‘righteous’ people of the town. Even today, vaguely odd old women who live alone are branded with the term ‘witch’ (although thankfully the being burnt at the stake part is a thing of the past), so it really seems these old tales and legends still run deep in the public psyche. It has just been announced (literally, as I was writing this piece!) that a belated sequel to The Blair Witch Project (I’m fairly sure the whole world has taken a mutual oath that Book of Shadows just never happened) is due for release in September this year so it would appear Elly Kedward isn’t finished with the people of Burkittsville just yet.
While Kate Batts was never pursued for her supposed role in the case of the Bell Witch, and Moll Dyer may not have even existed, there are historical records that tell of the fate of some woman who were very real, and unfortunately caught up in one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in American history; The Salem Witch Trials. Salem is probably the first thing that springs to people’s minds when the words ‘witch trails’ are mentioned. Over the period of about a year, from 1692 to 1693, twenty people (both male and female ‘witches’) were executed for the crime for witchcraft, with another five unfortunate souls dying in prison, in Salem, Massachusetts. Colonial towns in those days were fiercely religious, insular places, where any deviation from a puritan lifestyle was viewed with suspicion, neighbours would take revenge on neighbours who had refused to sell them a cow by accusing them of being in league with Satan, (knowing that their allegations would be listened to and taken seriously by the Governors and Ministers of the town). This toxic environment was the perfect breeding ground for the frenzy of both diabolical and downright stupid behaviour that followed.
The initial accusations came out of the mouths of babes; Betty Parris (9) and Abigail Williams (11) began complaining of being slapped and being pricked with pins by an unseen force and started having strange fits. Soon others plied in, declaring themselves to be suffering from the same ailments, although it has to be said the only ailments affecting these girls was a terminal need for attention, along with a chronic desire to stir the pot. The first three woman accused of witchcraft all fit the mould for the classic archetype of ‘witch’ i.e. an outsider; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, Sarah Osborne, who rarely attended church, and Tituba, a black (or possibly Indian, records aren’t clear on this) slave who apparently told the young village girls tales of the devil. Tituba actually confessed to using witchcraft, although she claimed it was for good, not nefarious, means. She was lucky enough to survive the witch trails. Sarah Osborne died in prison before she could be tried and Sarah Goode was found guilty and executed – her daughter Mercy, who was born in prison, also died. Once these three had been arrested for the witchcraft the flood gates opened and accusations began flying thick and fast, with the accusers having their word taken much more seriously than the accused, who were all left to defend themselves in court against impossible to prove charges. Methods of gathering ‘evidence’ against the accused included pricking moles (or ‘witches teats’ as they were known), as if the accused felt no pain, they were clearly a witch, and a touch test, in which the accused witch had her hands placed on the body of the accuser while they were having a ‘fit’. If the accuser stopped convulsing, the accused was a witch because…well, just because the ministers said so really. Other ‘signs’ of witchcraft were the usual interest in herbs, horoscopes and palmistry. The ensuing death and destruction of families that occurred is rightly regarded as one of America’s black spots in history. And, although people look back now and think that the folk back then were just superstitious old fashioned fools for believing in witchcraft the same time of hysteria has cropped up again and again, with the McCarthyism of the 1950’s being a prime example. Lessons are rarely learned from history, and as they saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it.
Culturally, the Salem Witch Trials have been used as the source of inspiration for many books, plays and films, the most famous of which is the play The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, itself an allegory for McCarthyism. Many of these films have underpinning their stories the fact that witches did actually exist in Salem, and that they had more in common with the fictional Blair Witch than with their historical counterparts. One such film is Lords of Salem, the 2012 film written and directed by Rob Zombie. Lords of Salem follows a radio DJ called Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who lives in Salem. A curious wooden box containing a vinyl record is delivered to the station, it is only marked ‘From The Lords’. When Heidi plays it she is overwhelmed with headaches and strange visions of horrific events that took place in the town 300 years ago. It turns out that Heidi is a descendant of Reverend Hawthorne, who presided over the trails, and put to death an evil coven of witches. The climax of the film is at a free ‘concert’ given by the ‘Lords’ in which it is proved that if one is going to get revenge, sometimes it pays to play the (very) long game. While not a historically accurate at all, the film is a visually appealing, surreal journey. The atmosphere and overall tone are very effective – It’s a very autumnal feeling film. Rob Zombie has a very good grasp of the visual aspects of film making, and knows how to build an ambiance and a world inhabited by well written characters, even if the story line does rely on the usual clichés relating to witches in cinema and folklore; the rituals the witches preform in the film are very probably the sort of devilish things the ministers and governors thought the accused witches of 1690’s Salem got up to in their spare time. (As an aside, for a lighter take on the witch trials, I can heartily recommend the episode “The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge” from the criminally under looked Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton vehicle Inside No. Nine)
The evil old crone/coven of witches out to kill innocents and spread the word of Satan trope isn’t one that Hollywood is keen to let go of anytime soon. It cropped up again in 2015’s The Witch (or VVitch), written and directed by Robert Eggers, in which an exiled devoutly religious family are hounded by a witch who is in league with the Devil. The film itself proved to be one of the years loved it/hated it/Oh My God, it’s Finchy from The Office cinematic experiences, with audiences either complaining the dialogue was hard to understand and that it wasn’t scary, or lavishing it with praise for its reinforcing the messages from the Salem Witch Trails that blindly following religion and the inevitable ensuing hypocrisy will lead to nothing but trouble.
The so called witches, of both history and folklore, are surely unfairly maligned creatures. An underlying cause of the treatment of these people is surely a fear and distrust of women who dared live their lives in a way that was different to the extremely patriarchal society that existed in those times – especially true considering so many of the so called witches were unmarried, unthinkable back then, or widowed, leading to rumours of the fate of her husband. An easy and convenient scapegoat for anything that went wrong in the insular towns and villages scattered all over America in centuries past – failed crops, bad winters, the disappearance of livestock – what better way to take out frustration and anger at the cruelty of nature than to blame and persecute the ones who are the least able to fight back; the frail, the vulnerable and the different. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s much difference between us ‘enlightened’ folk of today and the pitchfork wielding villagers of times past, does there?