A marker for Betsy Bell near Bell Witch Cave. (Photo: The Official Home of the Historic Bell Witch Cave)
Most Halloween stories are simply fun, but there are a few made more memorable by an element of believability. Such is the case with the legend of the Bell Witch, a tale that's been a part of Southern folklore for almost two centuries.
A haunting in Tennessee farm country
The story begins in 1817, when a farmer named John Bell moved from North Carolina to a 230-acre farm in Robertson County, Tennessee, a rural area not far from the Kentucky border. Legend has it that soon after arriving, Bell and his family began hearing strange noises: rattling chains, choking sounds and heavy knocking on the walls. Eventually, the family heard voices, or rather, a single voice belonging to the witch for which the story is named.
Frightened, Bell told members of the local community, and people from all around the area had soon heard about the ghostly occurrences. Some neighbors stayed overnight at Bell's cabin so they could experience it for themselves.
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At this point, the stories vary depending on who’s telling the tale. Some narratives claim that the ghost was a male slave whom Bell had killed in the past, while others say it was someone he had cheated in North Carolina who had come back from beyond the grave for revenge. The most popular theory is that the witch was a neighbor called Kate Batts who had a strong dislike for Bell and his daughter, Betsy.
There are a number of versions of the tale, of course, and you can listen to another one in the video below.
A story becomes a legend
As it's told today, most of the story behind the Bell Witch comes from a book written by Martin Van Buren Ingram more than 70 years after the alleged incidents took place. The book was called "An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch," but, unfortunately for fans of the supernatural, no one else has been able to authenticate what Ingram wrote.
Despite this, the legend of the Bell Witch lives on today in fiction and in fact. The famous low-budget indie horror film "The Blair Witch Project" was partially inspired by the legend, and the movie "An American Haunting," starring Donald Sutherland as John Bell, was a more exact retelling of the folk tale.
Fact or fiction, the Bell Witch is a boon for tourism
John Bell's cabin as it appeared in 1909. Now it is a museum and tourist stop. (Photo: The Official Home of the Historic Bell Witch Cave)
Another thing that makes this particular yarn so chilling is that you can visit the rural Tennessee location where it all (allegedly) took place.
The property that John Bell once owned has been turned into a tourist attraction. There’s a cave on the property that is said to be especially haunted. Tours are offered during the summer and also in the fall, from Labor Day through Halloween. They include a hike into the cave and a chance to walk through a replica of the cabin that Bell and his family called home.
Halloween is a month-long affair at the Bell property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The farm is located north of Nashville in Adams, Tennessee. In addition to tours of the caves and the cabin (which cost $18), there are haunted hayrides held on weekends in October.
Not just ghosts … nature too
The entrance to Bell Witch Cave. (Photo: Www78/Wikimedia Commons)
Some people will enjoy the spooky thrill of seeing the places where this famous story supposedly took place. If not everyone in the family likes the idea of getting scared, there are other options. The people who run the Bell tours also have canoes and kayaks for rent. Visitors can paddle down an especially scenic section of the Red River near Adams and get picked up by a shuttle bus that returns them to Bell's.
Bell's Cave is a fun destination for those who want to get into the Halloween spirit, and it's a bonus that the site is located in a beautiful part of the state filled with natural attractions.
Inset photo of "An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch": The Official Home of the Historic Bell Witch Cave