The Mark of the Bell Witch is the latest documentary from Seth Breedlove’s Small Town Monsters series. The film, directed by Breedlove, tells the account of Adams, Tennessee’s Bell Witch, which is without a doubt one of the most famous paranormal legends of the American South.
The movie opens with a brief sequence of John Bell’s death in December of 1820, and then goes back in time to the beginning of the Bell family’s haunting. Over the course of the documentary, the story of the Bell Witch is primarily told from several folklorists and historians, most of whom have ties to the rural area where the events unfolded. Additionally, a big portion of the film’s delivery of the legend is taken directly from the first published book of the Bell Witch, titled Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, by M.V. Ingram, 1894.
It’s obvious that the information presented in The Mark of the Bell Witch is well researched and encompasses a wide range of angles associated with the legend. This is the second film I’ve seen from Small Town Monsters, and once again the cinematography and production design are visually striking. Here, every aspect of the film is steeped in Southern Gothic atmosphere. The Bells’ narrative is presented in impressive black and white segments as well in the form of captivating sketches and animated pieces. The cast does a great job of portraying the strange occurrences, and I especially enjoyed the different looks of the “witch”. Even though the material is presented in an educational-style format, there are quite a few “jump scares” thrown into the mix.
The documentary is a phenomenal crash course for those who are not at all familiar with the legend of the Bell Witch. For others, those who have even a casual knowledge of the material, a lot of what is presented here might seem routine and flat. It’s obvious that the filmmakers have a genuine interest and love for the topic, but as the film progressed I couldn’t help but to feel that what I was watching was something akin to a fictional film’s backstory, and the true thrust of what the filmmakers wanted to explore wasn’t ever fully realized.
Thankfully, the film really hits its stride during several segments where alternate explanations for the supernatural happenings are briefly touched upon. There are even a few scenes that break the mold altogether by exploring the theme of folklore as a whole and how this particular legend fits in with the tropes. Unfortunately, those analyses disappear as quickly as they are brought up, and there is one–the idea of life cycles–that I felt could have been used to have greater impact on the overall structure. It is not until the final moments of the film’s running time where I felt like the filmmakers were really able to hit the nail on the head with demonstrating the lasting impact of the legend and how it has evolved over the years.
For those viewers who are more or less new to the world of Small Town Monsters, the case of the Bell Witch, or the study of folklore from the American South, The Mark of the Bell Witch would be a fine place to start. On the other hand, I imagine that fans who have more than a passing interest in any of the aforementioned topics will likely find this one somewhat middle of the road.
All in all, I enjoyed The Mark of the Bell Witch as a deep dive into the legend of the Bell Witch, but I would have liked for the filmmakers to have taken some of the other briefly mentioned ideas and expanded on them. By approaching the events of the Bell family’s haunting from a different angle, the production would have benefited from having more of a unique spin on the material. Instead, the presentation comes across as more of a play by play of the legend. Nonetheless, I recommend checking out The Mark of the Bell Witch, and I look forward to seeing what Small Town Monsters does next.