Sunday Legends- The Bell Witch


One of the reasons that I love horror so much is the way that the genre relies on traditional imagery. There are so many folkloric stories that influence popular culture, but they sometimes receive so little attention. Sundays will be the day where I pick one story or one image and examine the history and variations of the legend.

The Bell Witch

The story of the Bell Witch is a fully American legend. The history of the story reaches back to 1817 in Tennessee when John Bell, Sr. shot an unknown animal on his farm. After killing the animal, the family began to experience odd occurances in their home including odd knocks and sounds like someone or something was gnawing on the walls.

The family’s children told their parents that it sounded as if rats were chewing on their beds, and that someone, or something was pulling the bedcovers off of them as they slept. Eventually activity increased until the family began to hear what sounded like a woman singing.

The events intensified until the ghost or spirit began attacking family members. The youngest daughter was the most frequent target- the force would pull her hair, slap her, and engage in other forms of physical contact. The haunting became known as the Bell Witch and word spread throughout Tennessee about the events on the Bell farm. Several expeditions were made to the farm but the Witch reportedly pushed them off of the property.

Eventually Bell, Sr. became ill and died. A vial of an unknown liquid was found near his body; when the liquid was fed to the family cat, the cat died. The Witch is claimed to have laughed and taken responsibility for the death. After Bell, Sr. died, the haunting is said to have lessened to the point of almost stopping altogether. The ghost is reported to have reappeared in 1935. However, the Witch is still blamed on odd occurances near the Bell farm.

Published accounts of the ghost date to 1887 when it was recounted in a book on Tennessee history. The story was reprinted several times throughout the 1800s.

The Legend in Pop Culture

The Bell Witch legend is one that a great many horror fans are familar with, without being aware of it. The legend has influenced or inspired modern horror movies with some regularity- the most familar being An American Haunting and The Blair Witch Project.

More Reading

The Bell Witch


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