Written by: Matt Patti | December 15th, 2020
The Mark of the Bell Witch (Seth Breedlove, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Director/documentarian Seth Breedlove and his production company Small Town Monsters are back at it again with another chilling documentary centered around a small town urban legend. However, unlike many of his other works, including fellow 2020 release The Mothman Legacy, his newest documentary, The Mark of the Bell Witch, focuses on a legend more rooted in fact and reality. The film explores the true story of the Bell family, from Adams, Tennessee who were haunted in the 1800s by a mysterious entity. The entity was most likely a spirit, but back in the day, in this small town, anything abnormal or strange was referred to as a “witch.” Thus, the entity was referred to as such by the townspeople, and continues to be today.
In the early 1800s, John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to Red River, Tennessee, which is now known as Adams. John Bell quickly became revered in the small community as a local religious leader and man of high stature. However, a malicious entity soon wreaked havoc on his family and his home. Why? Well, according to first-hand eyewitness accounts of an interview that was held with this entity, the spirit claimed that John was an evil man and that its goal was to murder him. The Mark of the Bell Witch chronicles the terrifying events that took place in the Bell home during the haunting, provides an intriguing look at the ghostly entity responsible for it all, and takes a deep dive into detailed local tales that arose around the witch/spirit.
The documentary does a good job of collecting almost all available pieces of information, historical documents, testimonials and stories involved around the legend of the Bell Witch. While the doc doesn’t really present these items in any new, unique or creative way, it manages to convey the data in a simple, frightening and intriguing fashion. Sometimes there’s nothing more terrifying than a scary story told plainly without flashy elements. The film’s visuals consist of still shots of the town of Adams, excerpts from books and articles, and black-and-white reenactments of the events that occurred. I think the filmmakers are shooting for an old, creepy visual aura in the film and they certainly achieve that.
The unnerving local tales that are told in the film by townspeople are intriguing and hair-raising. The storytellers go into great detail for each of these stories, informing the viewer of common elements between them, as well as subtle nuances and different versions. The filmmakers take their time in describing what happened to the Bell family, and in doing so give a complete account of the events and show how things got from bad to worse. The Bell Witch spirit is examined in a riveting fashion, as many townspeople have stories passed down from their ancestors about the entity. The doc recounts specific examples of the activities it performed, the terrible things it did to the Bell family, the mystery around its identity, and how the spirit grew stronger and stronger over time. Perhaps one of the most interesting subjects covered in the film, though, is the impact that the Bell Witch spirit had on the town of Adams, Tennessee. The town and the surrounding communities now have several folktales and stories involving the spirit that have come to grow as urban legends over time.
The documentary is not without its faults, however. As previously mentioned, the doc is not exactly groundbreaking in its method. While it works for the most part, it does leave a bit to be desired, likely due to other Breedlove docs I’ve seen that have featured some unique and compelling visuals used in the conveying of information. At times, when a local is telling a story, shots of random buildings in the town are featured on the screen – even if they have little relevance to the main narrative. This happens a few times but is not overly distracting. There’s a bit too much backstory about the town in the beginning of the documentary and the film does drag on a bit near the end. It’s also broken into many different chapters of varying lengths, which seems a bit unnecessary when many of the chapters could be combined into one. Overall, the film is slightly longer than desired.
In the end, though, The Mark of the Bell Witch succeeds in the captivating retelling of a factual series of events with a mystical entity at the center of it. Even with all the eyewitness accounts, testimonials and word-of-mouth fame, many may not believe that there was an actual witch, spirit or entity that tormented the Bell family. However, there is no denying that something put the family through much turmoil, and most of the evidence points to a specific, calculated being, described by itself and the townspeople as a “witch.” Even if that may not be the exactly appropriate term, the being will always be remembered as such to the locals of Adams, Tennessee, and you cannot tell them any differently.