Skeptics trying to tease apart fact from fiction in accounts of allegedly paranormal occurrences are fighting against a confluence of human tendencies, including:
- In general, our memories are way worse than we think they are.
- Some level of confirmation bias -- accepting weak or faulty evidence supporting something we already believed -- is nearly impossible to eradicate completely, even in the most rational of rationalists.
- Our sensory/perceptive apparatus is not very accurate. We all have the unfortunate capacity for misperceiving, or failing to notice entirely, things that are going on around us.
- Recounting a tale and giving it a scary spin has way more of a cachet than telling a completely prosaic one. If you say to your friends, "It was late at night... all was quiet... then suddenly there was a crash, and the dog started barking! I was terrified! I went outside..." *dramatic pause* "... and one of the garbage cans had fallen over," no one is going to be very impressed. In fact, the next time you start telling a story, your friends might well suddenly realize they had pressing engagements elsewhere.
- People like making shit up.
The problem amplifies when stories are retold over and over, because all of these tendencies add up, causing the tale to grow by accretion in what amounts to a giant, free-floating game of Telephone. By the time a few decades of this has passed, you have a legend that has taken on a life of its own, in which it is probably impossible to determine for sure which parts of it are true and which parts are not.
And there's no better example of this than the legend of the Bell Witch.
The story originates in Robertson County, Tennessee in the early nineteenth century, and centers around the Bell family, headed by John Bell, Sr. Bell himself was real enough; he was born in 1750 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, married a woman named Lucy Williams, and moved to Tennessee in 1804. He and Lucy had six children -- Jesse, Betsy, Richard, John Jr., Drewry (known as Drew), and Benjamin. John Bell, Sr. died on December 19, 1820 after suffering for four years from a neurological disorder that may have been some form of Bell's palsy (the fact that the disease carries John's name is a coincidence; it was named after the first physician to study it extensively, Charles Bell of Edinburgh, Scotland, who appears to be unrelated to John.)
The problems started in 1816, when John Sr. was working in his field and saw a strange creature that looked like a dog with a rabbit's head. Alarmed, he picked up his shotgun and fired at it, but it disappeared. Shortly afterward John's son Drew saw a bird perched in a tree, but as he approached it, it spread its wings and "grew to enormous size" before flying away. One of the Bell family's slaves said he'd been attacked by a dog-like animal on the way to his cabin in the evening. Betsy Bell saw a young girl in a green dress swinging from the limb of an oak tree -- she didn't recognize the child, and like the rabbit/dog, the girl vanished when approached.
Events accelerated. Now sounds were heard inside the house -- chains rattling, knocking inside the walls, animal growls, the grating of teeth gnawing on the furniture. John Sr. started showing symptoms of the progressive paralysis that would ultimately claim his life. Sheets were pulled from the children's beds at night, their hair pulled and faces scratched. Betsy had the worst of it -- she was repeatedly slapped at night by an unseen entity.
A neighbor, James Johnston, came in to help, and tried to talk to whatever it was that was causing the uproar. A feeble voice answered, "I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed." When asked how it had been disturbed, it gave vague answers about Native American burial grounds, which launched Drew Bell and his friend Bennett Porter on a search for a gravesite, but they found nothing.
The spirit allegedly could quote the Bible fluently, and was aware of what was going on outside the Bell property -- it recited word-for-word a sermon given in a nearby church (the contents later verified by someone who had attended), and began recounting gossip about what was going on in other households in the area.
The story spread. Andrew Jackson visited the Bell homestead in 1819, and is said to have "experienced the haunting himself." One person who came to speak to the spirit asked what his grandmother would have said if there was trouble, and the spirit immediately responded in the grandmother's thick Dutch accent, "Hut tut, what has happened now?" Another asked about his parents in England -- and later reported that the entity had visited his parents and spoken with them.
The whole episode reached its climax when one day the spirit -- now nicknamed "the Bell Witch" -- told John Bell Sr. that he was going to die in seven days, because she was going to poison him. His neurological condition worsened steadily over the following days, and he lapsed into a coma on December 17 from which he never recovered.
After that, things seemed to settle down, although the spirit allegedly told the widowed Lucy Williams Bell that it would return in seven years. According to the Bells' third child Richard, it did, but "they chose to ignore it and it eventually left, discouraged."
So, that's the legend. What parts of it are true?
What's interesting here is that all of the named players in the drama are well documented in contemporary records. There's no doubt that the Bell family and their neighbors existed. The rest of the legend is largely the responsibility of Martin Van Buren Ingram, who in 1890 published a book called An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, which recounts the story pretty much in the form I've described. He claimed that he based the book on Richard Bell's diary -- which, interestingly, no one else has mentioned in any context, and doubters believe never existed at all. The book begins with a brief description of the legend, followed by this passage:
Now, nearly seventy-five years having elapsed, the old members of the family who suffered the torments having all passed away, and the witch story still continues to be discussed as widely as the family name is known, under misconception of the facts, I have concluded that in justice to the memory of an honored ancestry, and to the public also whose minds have been abused in regard to the matter, it would be well to give the whole story to the World.
Skeptic Brian Dunning finds the delay between the events of the legend and the publication of the book a little suspicious. "Conveniently, every person with firsthand knowledge of the Bell Witch hauntings was already dead when Ingram started his book," Dunning writes, in a wonderful piece over at Skeptoid about the alleged haunting. "In fact, every person even with secondhand knowledge was dead."
Even the visit by Andrew Jackson is never mentioned anywhere else, and Dunning strongly suspects it never happened.
As far as the other details of the story, he thinks there's nothing to them either, other than a tale that grew by accretion -- much as I described at the beginning of this post. "Vague stories indicate that there was a witch in the area," Dunning writes. "All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, and the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into. I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction."
Ingram's retelling, though, continues to be compelling, and supposedly was one of the inspirations for the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project. You have to admit passages like this do provide a certain frisson:
Whether it was witchery, such as afflicted people in past centuries and the darker ages, whether some gifted fiend of hellish nature, practicing sorcery for selfish enjoyment, or some more modern science akin to that of mesmerism, or some hobgoblin native to the wilds of the country, or a disembodied soul shut out from heaven, or an evil spirit like those Paul [sic] drove out of the man into the swine, setting them mad; or a demon let loose from hell, I am unable to decide; nor has anyone yet divined its nature or cause for appearing, and I trust this description of the monster in all forms and shapes, and of many tongues, will lead experts who may come with a wiser generation, to a correct conclusion and satisfactory explanation.
Not to mention the fact that it could also be a strong contender for winning the Run-On Sentence Of The Year award.
In any case, I'm inclined to agree with Dunning. Although the people in the story were real enough, that's more than you can say for the events that allegedly happened to them. As creepy as the story of the Bell Witch is, there's not much more here than a tall tale that probably started from a family patriarch's mysterious illness -- and after that, the add-ons came from some combination of confirmation bias, misremembering, and the pure fun of telling a story that makes the listeners shiver.