The Mark of the Bell Witch approaches the crime documentary trend with a historical twist, investigating the legend of the titular spectre in the town of Adams, Tennessee. The story of the witch has apparently become infamous, a myth that many existing descendants of the Bell family still fear. The film explores the origins of these tales, using interviews, narration, and re-enactments to lay out every supernatural detail.
Initial hints of limited production value are a little off-putting: a rasping witchy voiceover; three or four different types of font for the on-screen text; and a videogame-style credit sequence. After a black and white prologue that doesn’t reveal very much, there’s then an odd tonal shift as we move to the standard documentary style and watch an interview at some ancient graves. This quickly becomes far more engaging than the TV horror opening sequence.
The initial focus on early 19th Century settlements in the southern US states, aided by local historian interviews, is interesting. However, as the eerie stories and accompanying black and white recreations emerge again it cheapens the film’s credibility, courtesy of some poor wigs, bland acting, and shaky camera motions to suggest paranormal activity.
Although some of the appeal lies in the idea of a real-life ‘Blair Witch’ story, it’s difficult to make a true crime documentary about events from so long ago feel, well, true. The folklore experts and historians speak about the hauntings of the Bell family as if they are fact, but of course, it’s all supernatural tales spun from passed-down stories and ancient books and diaries. This storytelling comprises the bulk of the film, in fact, and at some point the second-hand retellings of spooky events in the 1820s merge together and soon feel repetitive. It means that there is no real impact. We can’t feel much empathy, fear, or concern based on 200-year-old hearsay. Unless you’ve never heard a ghost story before.
The Mark of the Bell Witch might appeal to hardcore occult fanatics and folklore obsessives. Beyond that though, casual documentary viewers will likely switch off. The myths are intriguing enough and some alternative theories about the events presented towards the end pique a little more interest, but as a feature-length film, it doesn’t make magic.
Available on Blu-ray, and On-demand now