As they have done for the past 10 years, the town of Adams, Tennessee, located just an hour northwest of Nashville, is hosting seasonal performances of Spirit: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch, a play not only written by Adams native David Alford, but staged on the very grounds the legendary haunting took place nearly 200 years ago. The staged retelling began its limited run October 20 and continues this weekend, with performances Thursday-Saturday, October 27-29.
A Tennessee native myself, I remember many a sleepover where my friends and I would dare each other to go into the bathroom, turn out the lights, stand in front of the mirror and say, “I hate the Bell Witch” three times. If you were ever brave enough to follow through, she would show herself in the form of a red light on the mirror’s surface.
I’m still may not be brave enough to make it through the third repetition of the boastful dis to Tennessee’s most legendary paranormal activity, but last weekend, I made my third annual trek to nearby Adams with a group of friends for what has become my favorite Halloween tradition. WIth this being my third trip to see Spirit, I fully expected most of my enjoyment to come from the reaction from those in our group who hadn’t seen the play before, but thanks to some new surprises, I too enjoyed it as much as I had in previous years.
Part of what makes Spirit so enjoyable, aside from it being presented on an outdoor stage on the actual grounds of the occurrences, is the fact that among those involved in the production are members of the town of Adams and Bell family descendants. Following a brief welcome from Kay Bagby, President of the Board of Directors of Community Spirit, the group who organizes the annual production, those in attendance were treated to some memories and family stories from Robert (Bob) H. Bell, III, a direct descendant of John Bell. Just last year, Bob Bell was seen onstage in the role of his great great great great great grandfather, John.
Another difference in this year’s production is the inclusion of musical interludes between scenes featuring Kyle Rullmann on guitar and harmonica, Anwen Wilkerson on fiddle and dulcimer and vocals by Ann Love Judd and Bakari King. The inclusion of incidental music adds to the erie mood, but my only complaint is that it makes it awkward for the audience to applaud between scenes, not wanting to miss any of the period-authentic music. I only mention this in hopes that the actors understand why there’s no more audience reaction, by way of applause, throughout the performance.
Returning to the role of Betsy Bell is Amanda Card McCoy. I first saw Amanda as Betsy back in 2009. It was interesting to see Amanda‘s portrayal this year, compared to two years ago, as she presents a seemingly more resilient Betsy Bell. Yes, she’s still an unwitting host to the witch, but you get more of a feeling that she’ll survive the ‘trouble’ in spite of everything. Martin Abraham is cast as Betsy‘s father, John Bell, Sr., the Bell Witch’s primary victim. Anne Love Judd and Jane Stone alternate the role of John‘s wife, Lucy, depending on which performance you attend. One aspect of the legend that has always intrigued me is that, for whatever reason, the spirit takes a liking toLucy and, save the problems she heaps on the family as a whole, leaves poor Lucy alone. As John, Jr., Matthew Raich brings a bit of attitude to the role. In the three years I’ve seen the play, this was the first year I actually wondered what John, Jr. was up to during the numerous trips away from the family. Lunden Ruhstaller is cast as the Bell‘s other older son, Drewry, and in the role, provides Betsy with much-needed support.
David Compton shows his versatility as an actor playing not one, but two roles in Spirit. He’s seen as Betsy‘s teacher/future husband, Richard Powell and Detective Williams. Of the two roles Compton portrays, his Detective Williams, is by far the most enjoyable. Dressed like a wannabe Sherlock Holmes with a cocky attitude to match, Compton is one of the show’s scene-stealers, adding some much needed humor to the seriousness of the subject. Interesting, considering he bears little resemblance to the real Detective Williams‘ physical attributes related by Martin Van Buren Ingram in the now-famous book, The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, which describes him as ‘portly, strong-muscled’. He does however perfectly embody other traits of Williams noted in Ingram‘s book, which goes on to say he was ‘well dressed, self-possessed, wise in his own conceit, full of gab’.
Another source of much-needed levity is Danny Proctor, who has been part of Spirit since my first visit to Adams. As he has done in the past, Proctor also takes on a couple of roles in the play. Early on, he is seen as what can only be described as The Town Drunk. His scene with Kate Batts (Sarah Head) rivals anything fans of TV’s Andy Griffith ever saw Otis Campbell do. Proctor is also featured as James Johnson. In reality, Johnson and his wife were among the first outside the Bell family to learn about the “family trouble” when John Bell confided in his best friend and invited them to spend the night in the Bell family home. For the play, Johnson is accompanied to the Bell home by his sons, John (Kyle Rullmann) and Calvin (Joshua Web).
The aforementioned Sarah Head, as Kate Batts, is perfect as the quintessential nosy neighbor. Think Gladys Kravitz in a bonnet with a penchant for sewing pins and needles. Other scene stealers include Jake Rullmann and Liam Abraham as Richard WIlliams Bell and Joel Bell, Betsy‘s younger brothers. You can tell these kids are thoroughly enjoying bringing this scary tale to life in their hometown. Something they have in common with the rest of the cast and the audience, for that matter.
Finally, kudos to Jenny Littleton, who gives voice to the Bell Witch by way of some pretty creepy vocals. Perhaps since they’ve added music to the show, next year, they’ll offer a soundtrack for sale which should definitely include Littleton‘s voice. Think how scary that’d be cranked over an outdoor speaker as kids come to trick or treat!
More on the Bell Witch:
For those who may not be familiar, the Bell Witch legend, it all began when John Bell brought his wife and their children from North Carolina to a small pioneering community on the banks of the Red River in Robertson County, Tennessee. Everything seems to be going well for the Bell family during those first few years in Tennessee.John Bell became a respected member of Red River as an Elder of the Red River Baptist Church and a prominent landowner. Then, in 1817, what would come to be known as ‘the family trouble’ began.
While tending his crops, John saw a strange animal described later as part rabbit, part dog. He fired at the animal, but it disappeared and he thought nothing more of it initially. Then, at night, the Bell family began hearing strange noises outside their log home, then more mysterious things began to happen. The children began to wake in the night from having their blankets and pillows pulled from their beds by some presence.
Eventually the family heard what sounded like an old woman singing hymns.
Not long after, friends and neighbors learned of the happenings and would visit the Bell home at night in hopes of witnessing an encounter. Over time, the spirit even began conversing with them, quoting scripture, and even telling of events happening elsewhere that they would later learn to be true. Most affected by the visits were John, Sr. and Betsy. John became ill and Betsy sustained brutal encounters which resulted in having her hair pulled and red welts in the shape of hand prints on her face and over her body.
Eventually, the spirit identified herself as Kate Batts, the name of one of the Bell‘s neighbors who had has some unpleasant dealings with John. While Batts denied any involvement with the poltergeist, the family took to calling the sprit Kate. John Bell, Sr. died on December 20, 1820. At the time of his death, a small vial containing poison was found near his lifeless body. When some of the contents were given to the family cat, it also died. According to written histories, family recollections, legend and of course Alford‘s play, Sprit: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, Kate, the spirit, was responsible. Not long afterJohn‘s death, Kate told the family she would be leaving and would return in seven years. Instead of returning to the John Bell, Sr. home, she reportedly visited with John Bell, Jr. in 1828, just as she had promised. During her visits with John, Jr., Kate discussed philosophy and it is even said she predicted the Civil War. When she departed, she vowed to return one hundred and seven years later. There are no known documents of any unusual disturbances in the Bell family in 1935, but then again there are those who still deny her first visit.
For tickets to any of Spirit‘s three remaining performances Thursday-Saturday, October 27-29, CLICK HERE or call 615.696.1300.
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