The Haunting

Growing up in the Deep South means that you have a college football team allegiance, that you rode in the back of a pick-up truck at least once in your life, and you knew ghost stories.  Apparently every Confederate solider who ever fought haunts some house, battlefield, or deserted road in the South.  Heartbroken women walk up and down stairs, waiting for their lost loves to return.  Ghostly children leave their imprints on freshly-made beds.  Every Southern city ever has some form of a cry-baby bridge and a vanishing hitchhiker.

But the story that scared me the most as a child was the Bell Witch.  While her haunting territory was in north Tennessee, closer to the Kentucky line, Alabamians know her well.  The Bell Witch, named for her haunting of the Bell family, tormented the Bell family, particularly the father John Bell, for years, until John's eventual death for which she is blamed in family writings.  She begins haunting the family when John is out on his vast holdings of land and sees a strange animal.  He shoots at the animal, and then the haunting begin.  From hair pulling to strange sounds to disembodied voices singing hymns, the family experienced hauntings until John Bell died.   During the life of the immediately family, the Bells called the events, "Our family trouble."  How Southern.

Now, the land formerly owned by John Bell, including the Bell Witch Cave, is still said to be haunted, with visitors experiencing cold spots (what is it about ghost and cold spots?  Are they eternally in menopause?); disembodied voices; and misty images of people in photographs.  I'm not particularly superstitious (except during Alabama football games), but I will not be camping near the Bell Witch Cave.  Ever.

Some legends say the Bell Witch was a woman whom John Bell cheated in a property deal.  Other stories hold she was a woman who lived near the Bells and didn't speak English very well, and John Bell bought her land out from under her and evicted her from her home.  Who knows, but I'm fascinated that the part of the story we hear is the ending, but not the beginning.  We hear the victimization of John Bell and are perhaps invited to think, "Oh, this poor man who was haunted by a bad, bad woman."  But what if the Bell Witch was the original victim?

Call me crazy, but a poor, powerless woman evicted from her home coming back to torment the very man who ruined her life isn't really a ghost story; it's the kind of horror story any of us who have denigrated or cheated another soul fear.  If all the powerful people who have stripped poor women, men, and children of a home, of land, of opportunity, and of basic life necessities were haunted by an actual entity who pulled hair and sang hymns and generally haunted the perpetrator unto death, well, you can imagine the shift in human behavior.

And the increasing call for priests to do exorcisms.

Perhaps the really scary part of the Bell Witch story is that our souls know we will answer, in some way, for the ways we've ignored our neighbors, the ways we've hurt others, and the ways we've sold the poor for a pair of sandals.  I've always thought that the real reason the powerful don't want to give minorities the same rights they enjoy is the fear that the newly-empowered will treat the powerful just as they've been treated.

And I'm constantly amazed at the grace minorities show at not doing just that.

Maybe the Bell Witch is a morality tale as well as a ghost story.  The actions of our lives do follow us.  The actions of our ancestors do live into future generations.  Like it or not, our sins are visited upon our children's children.  The ghosts of the pain inflicted upon women, people of color,  Native Americans, gays, lesbians, poor, and all of those who were not in power haunt us.  Only through acknowledging the spirits of this pain and violation do we even begin to heal.  Only through acknowledging that we inflicted this pain and violation do we begin to allow the restless spirits to find rest and justice.  I wonder what a National Day of Confession would look like - if we as a nation and people acknowledged things done and left undone that were not loving to our neighbors, that crushed the souls of our neighbors?  Now there's a radical Biblical idea.

The Bell Witch doesn't scare much.  As I've lived my adult life as a woman, I've experienced discrimination, belittlement, and bullying because of my gender, and I understand the part of her soul that tormented her tormentor.  I understand feeling powerless and wanting some level of retaliation.  I don't agree with it, but I understand the response.  I hope whoever she is, she's found peace somewhere.

But I'm still not venturing onto the Old Bell Farm at night.



Unknown said…
I grew up in TN and my parents let me read the book about the Bell Witch at Adams when I was 10-11, and it still scares me even today!
emb said…
Very interesting perspective, and possibility. I'd hate to think of all the haunted spirits of those who were victimized in their lives roaming the earth, looking for justice. Now that is truly frightening!

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