Haunted Files #1: The Bell Witch

This is the first installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

It was during a blistering Tennessee summer in 1817 that John Bell first witnessed the unusual phenomena which would plague his household for the next four years. Outside his home, an apparition of a dog with a rabbit’s head materialised. Bell took his shotgun and fired at the creature, but it disappeared.

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The Bell homestead, Authenticated History of the Bell witch (1894)

So begins the legend of the Bell Witch, a folktale native to the town of Adams in Robertson County, TN. First told in its entirety in the book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894) by Martin Van Buren Ingram, it is the strange tale of how the Bell family fell victim to a powerful entity which invaded their home and farm. It bore many characteristics of a poltergeist – the witch allegedly knocked on walls and pulled sheets off beds, even going so far as to pull hair, scratch skin and stick pins in its human cohabitants. There was particular emphasis on John’s daughter Betsy. The witch taunted her and her fiance so relentlessly that Betsy eventually broke off her engagement. According to some accounts, the entity was especially violent towards her; in others, the witch seemed to be fond of the young woman and wanted to protect her. The witch’s behaviour was at the extreme ends of the spectrum. She could be kind, calling John Bell’s wife Lucy “the most perfect woman to walk the earth”, but she also expressed a desire to kill John, who she referred to as “Old Jack”. In 1820, she succeeded. John Bell passed into a coma, having consumed an unidentified liquid which the family found in a vial beneath his bed. His son fed a little to the cat, which died instantly, and then threw it onto the fire where it burst into bright blue flames. The witch declared that she had given John “a big dose” of it and “fixed him”.

In Ingram’s account, the poltergeist claims to be “Old Kate Batts” and Kate seems to be the title that stuck, as the entity appeared to respond positively to being referred to by that name. According to the Guidebook for Tennessee (1933), Kate Batts was a deceased neighbour of John Bell who felt he had cheated her out of land. The witch would converse articulately and often included details only the person asking would have known. One visitor, John Johnston, asked the ghost to tell him what his Dutch grandmother would say to her slaves if she thought they had done something wrong. The witch replied in his grandmother’s accent: “Hut tut, what has happened here?”, then went on to imitate his mother and father in England. She is also reported to have once recited verbatim a sermon being delivered thirteen miles away.

In 1821, Kate left the Bell homestead, but vowed to return in seven years’ time. As promised, she did resurface briefly in 1828, but, after the family ignored her, she appeared to vanish entirely.

The Bell witch has inspired many adaptations, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not a direct retelling of the legend, The Blair Witch Project features its own fictional myth which was explored in a mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch. Many academics have questioned whether the tale of the Bell witch, as recounted by Ingram, truly reflected the beliefs of Robertson County’s residents in the nineteenth century or whether it too was largely historical fiction. Fiction or not, the legend continues to evoke fear today.

In 1934, Charles Bailey Bell, John’s grandson, published an account of his family’s experiences. He reported a prophecy given by the witch that she would return in 1935. In 1937, the new owner of the Bell farm began to hear something rubbing against the walls of the house and faint music. Speaking in 1977, Bonnie Haneline stated that she used to explore the caves on the property as a child, with the permission of the owners. She recalled one occasion in 1944 when she went down alone with a lantern. The lantern was blown out, so she lit it again. After she crawled further, the lantern was extinguished once more and, terrified, she fled. Police later found two fugitives concealed in the cave, and Haneline credited the witch with saving her life by keeping her away from the criminals.

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The entrance to the cave, (c) The Historic Bell Witch Cave Incorporated, 2010

The strangest tale by far was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, in 1987. The owner of a nearby gas station, H.C. Sanders, ran out of petrol at night, not far from the entrance to the Bell witch cave. As he started walking back to town, he saw a rabbit emerge from the forest. He walked faster, but the rabbit managed to keep pace. After a mile, he sat down on a log and the rabbit seated itself beside him, saying: “Hell of a race we had there, wasn’t it?”

Regardless of the truth behind the unexplained phenomena, the Bell witch legend is widely held to be “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and for good reason.

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Lunar Files #1: The Michigan Dogman

This is the first installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of reported werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Wexford County in Northern Michigan has a population of around 35,000 people, but it seems that one inhabitant – the focus of a legend which dates back at least 130 years – is more sinister than you might expect. Said to tower at seven feet tall, the creature is a terrifying combination of man and canine. It has the head and claws of a canid but the torso of a man. It gazes upon its prey through amber eyes and howls a piercing human scream. According to the myth, which is said by some to date back to early Odawa settlements in the Manistee area, the Dogman is a creature of habit that hunts in ten year cycles.

The first recorded Dogman sighting took place in 1887, when lumberjacks working in rural Wexford County caught sight of a bizarre creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog. In the following decades, more and more witnesses reported seeing something unnatural out in the woods along the Manistee River. In 1938, in the township of Paris, a young man called Robert Fortney was attacked by five wild dogs while fishing. The horrific part of his testimony was that one of the dogs stood up on two legs to maul him. The creature – or creatures – was seen by witnesses throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with these sinister sightings, but it’s worth noting that much of the publicity and continued media interest the Dogman receives today should be attributed to The Legend, a song recorded by local DJ Steve Cook of WTCM Radio in 1987 – the centenary of that first account. It was intended as an April Fools’ prank, a treat for his loyal listeners, and he has stated that the beast in the song “was kind of an amalgamation of all these creatures I’d heard as a kid and heard stories about.” However, what began as a joke became a sensation. The radio station received dozens of calls from people claiming to have encountered a creature like the one described in the song. It was then that Cook decided to investigate further and realised just how far back into history the stories went.

In 2007, a film, widely referred to as The Gable Film, surfaced. Upon first viewing, it appears to be a home movie, featuring clips of a man chopping wood, a dog running in the woods and a child playing. However, the final 20 seconds show a strange lumbering creature on all fours approach the cameraman. The beast appears to collide with the cameraman and a flash of teeth is shown, then the video cuts out.

The film was eventually discovered to be a hoax. On a TV series called Monster Quest, Steve Cook explained how the film was made, adding that the supposed creature was actually an actor in a Ghillie suit.

In a way, the popular image of the Michigan Dogman as it exists today belongs to Steve Cook. Those reports and accounts, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, might never have been connected without him. He considers himself a sceptic, because he’s seen the legend evolve – people have taken the tale inherent in the song and, perhaps, blown it out of proportion. Maybe the fame of the song has caused some bias among alleged witnesses.

Then again, Cook accepts that the legend is “an avenue” for people to explain sightings that they might not otherwise understand. There is still a lingering sense of fear in interviews with witnesses, as seen on documentaries like Monsters and Mysteries in America. The terror that people felt – whether or not they truly faced the Dogman – makes the final line of The Legend especially eerie. What if there is some truth behind Steve Cook’s simple tune about a local myth?

And somewhere in the northwoods darkness a creature walks upright
And the best advice you may ever get …
Is don’t go out at night.

 

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