Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.

The Truth of Ghosts

Strange noises in the night. Objects moving of their own accord. Disembodied voices laughing fiendishly. It must be nearing autumn. After having a brief discussion on novel writing with Brent Monahan earlier this summer, I decided to read his book, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. Setting the story in the “found manuscript” genre, Monahan tells this famous account through the eyes of Richard Powell, one-time elected official in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The can be no doubt that the story has some basis in actual events, but the serious study of “ghosts” is a taboo that serious scholars break at their own peril. On my long bus rides this week I read Monahan’s version of the story as the rain continued to fall. As I read I was continually reminded how dependent we’ve become on genre labels. The book purports to be an eyewitness account and there is no genre declaration on the back cover. The Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication (CIP) data declares it fiction. Where is truth to be found?

Human beings are capable of great and terrible acts. Working in a city the size of New York after having been raised in small towns, the amount of distrust is very blatant. Security is evident in many places with cleverly locked doors and guards surveying those who enter buildings. We simply can’t trust everyone. Or anyone. When it comes to literature, stories often blend fact and fiction. Guidelines on books or classifications in bookstores help us to decide if our reading material is conveying actual events or not. The Bell Witch is one of those reminders that sometimes the truth will never be known. Historical records can be searched, but even these are often subject to human error. If someone tells us a ghost story, we base the veracity on the teller’s reputation. At the end of the day, sometimes we just can’t know.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Monahan’s version of these events is his reconstruction of the history. Although the supernatural remains intact at the end, Powell is able to uncover the “fact” that Betsy Bell was abused as a child and that the poltergeist-style events that pervade the story are an extension of her trauma. Actually, the treatment is very closely tied to the religiosity of the Bell family, good church-going folk who ran afoul of a fine point of church teaching. In the end, it is this rejection by the church that pressures John Bell to the point of incest. Is the story true? Yes. Did it every really happen? Probably not. The two are very different questions. In a society that increasing seeks easy answers, stories like this remind us that we are all a blend of fiction and fact. Easy answers are inevitably wrong. The movie An American Haunting once again revived “the Bell witch” but also raised the specter of the ambiguity of truth. Is it out there? If it is, how will we know when we’ve found it?

What really happened here?

American Haunted

Serendipity, although rare, still occurs in university life. As an adjunct instructor whose livelihood revolves around the number of courses that may be squeezed into a limited number of days, I have been considering online courses. As an avid watcher of horror movies—excellent preparation for adjunct life these days—I have attempted to sample the genre widely. It is therapeutic to see people in fictional situations worse than my own. While attending a training course on constructing online courses earlier this week I was surprised to find out my instructor was Brent Monahan, a versatile and talented individual of whose presence at Rutgers I was unaware. Most famously Dr. Monahan wrote the novel and screenplay for An American Haunting, a movie I had written a post on back in January.

Compulsive in my desire to be on time, I generally show up to all appointments early. For this particular session I was the first person present, so, not recognizing my teacher, we struck up a conversation about my field of studies. (He asked; I try not to lead with my chin.) He was nonplussed about the fact that I am affiliated with the religious studies department—in general this is a conversation stopper since, along with politics, it is a forbidden topic in polite company. Before I realized who he was he suggested that perhaps people go into this field because of their internal struggle with good and evil. It was a perceptive statement and it made sense when it came out that he was a writer of horror films and novels.

Since I’ve been exploring the nexus between religion and horror I have wondered what the deeper connection might be. Clearly fear of the unknown, the overly powerful, and the randomness of life in an uncaring universe play into it, but perhaps it is also the struggle of good and evil. Horror films often present the “what if” scenario: what if the side of evil were allowed free reign? Often the fount of that evil, in horror films, is religion gone awry. Certainly in An American Haunting a pious man is driven by inner demons to the abuse of his own child. That he is a religious man is made plain from the near-constant presence of a clergyman in his house once the haunting starts. While the exact relationship remains to be parsed, it is clear that fear and religion reside very near one another in our brains, perhaps as near as good resides to evil.