Intrigued by the idea that someone had made a horror film about Tennessee’s Bell witch, a story I’m vaguely familiar with since I lived near Tennessee most of my life, I rented this film hoping to learn more about the story. The movie is one of the few horror films I’ve seen that examines the idea of being tormented and possessed from a psychological standpoint.
It tells the story of Betsy Bell, a young Tennessee teenager in the early 1800s, who is one day happy, energetic and flirtatious, and the next, a miserable, exhausted person, who tells her teacher she’s having trouble sleeping. Problems arise when a terrifying entity enters her room at night and begins to torment her.
The Bell family is led by mom, Sissy Spacek, and dad, Donald Sutherland. Spacek, who’s generally a heavy sleeper, awakens one night, hearing noises on the floors above. When she investigates, she’s startled by her husband in the hallway, who tells her he’s convinced the noises are the work of a neighbor he wronged in a land deal. Rumors are the neighbor is a witch, and he believes she’s supernaturally seeking revenge.
The movie is smart and worth seeing, offering a new take on the traditional horror film element of demon possession. Sissy Spacek, one of only two actresses in Hollywood deserving exalted status, is great as usual. (Meryl Streep is the other.) And Rachel Hurd-Wood, who plays Spacek’s daughter, also gives a noteworthy performance. The fact that she’s British and can pull off an authentic Southern accent is commendable.
Unlike “The Exorist,” which examines the possibility that the girl is psychologically disturbed and concludes she is demon possessed, “An American Haunting” combines the two ideas. Ultimately, the film conveys an undeniable truth. Sometimes real things that harm and disturb us can manifest themselves into tormenting psychological issues.
According to http://www.bellwitch.org, the real Betsy Bell married her former school teacher, Richard Powell, who is also a character in the film. Later, she moved to Yalobusha County to live with her daughter, Eliza Jane Powell. She died at age 82 and is buried near Water Valley with her daughter and son-in-law.
For more information about the film, visit “An American Haunting.” For more information on the Bell witch, visit http://www.bellwitch.org/story.htm.