There are few things that bring me more pleasure than a good
horror movie. Unfortunately, most entries in this genre just
Good, that is.
Now, "good" does not necessarily mean the thing
has to be Art, per se. Some of my favorite ghastly flicks feature
the likes of Don Knotts, Abbott & Costello, Kay Kyser, etc.
No, a horror flick that does not take itself too seriously,
but instead opts to offer us the cinematic equivalent of a carnival
ride, can be delightful indeed.
On the other hand, all too seldom a film comes along that
provides the audience with genuine moments of actual Terror -
a rare feat, and all the rarer in these less than subtle times.
My favorite in the latter category is still Robert Wise's
"The Haunting", from 1963 - a relatively faithful adaptation
of Shirley Jackson's classic novel "The Haunting of Hill
One of my favorites in the "carnival ride" category
had come out a couple of years before that - William Castle's
"The House on Haunted Hill", with Vincent Price and
a plastic skeleton that would fly out at the patrons on the film's
initial release. Fun stuff.
And now, in 1999, both films were being remade! I could hardly
Well . . .
Oddly enough, not only were the plot lines "toyed"
with on both, but the brand new denouements for each were identical
to each other! In case you haven't seen them I'll forbear
from spoiling them - suffice it to say the protagonist(s) of
each ended up having a "connection" to the house in
question that had not been a factor in the original film versions
Hmmm . . . All sheer coincidence, I'm sure.
Anyway, "Haunted Hill" would come out in October,
and, though certainly not great, and nowhere near as good
as the original, it was nevertheless fun, a legitimate "carnival
ride" type of horror film. (They even opened with a carnival
ride sequence, arguably the best moment in the thing.)
As for "The Haunting", it came out a bit earlier
- July 1999, to be exact. It was a big production, the sets
were incredibly lavish and, as the original had been shot in
black and white, it was nice to see such a colorful extravaganza.
The film itself was, I'm afraid, somewhat disappointing, however.
Incredible attention had been focused on the design, the look,
a lot of money had been poured into the thing to create a feast
for the senses - but the story had been tampered with unmercifully,
and the end result was Not Good.
Audiences were laughing rather than gasping.
However, the same month that this "Heaven's Gate"
of Horror was released, a small little film also came out, one
made for a fraction of the cost, with a decidedly low budget
feel - and not only did it tear up at the Box Office, it instantly
became a bona fide Horror Classic.
I refer, of course, to "The Blair Witch Project".
It was worth a column.
This month I find myself inextricably
drawn toward the Movies.
Small wonder, as anyone who's
seen my previous musings on Shirley Jackson. Yep, the wonderful,
big budget full color version of Jackson's "The Haunting
of Hill House" has finally hit the Big Screen, with special
effects galore, magnificent sets, etc. etc.
And I must say it's exciting
to be alive at this time, right at the release of the film that
will very likely be remembered as the greatest horror film of
Oh, wait -
You didn't think I was still
referring to "The Haunting", did you?
No, no, no, dear me, no.
In defense of "The Haunting",
it was probably wise to stray so far from the premise and intent
of both the book and the original film, as neither could possibly
be improved upon. And, of course, the visuals are indeed stunning.
It is, I'm afraid, not likely to be remembered as one of the
great movies of our time, however - but see it for yourself (quick,
before it disappears!)
No, that probable candidate
for Greatest Horror Film of the 90's is - well, by this time
if you haven't seen it you already know what I'm talking
about, don't you? I refer, of course, to that tiny little half
a million mostly hand held camcorder miracle known as "The
Blair Witch Project".
I do not propose to discuss
the movie, per se, but to have such a delightful little film
come out that is so steeped in fraudulent folklore of the supernatural
variety . . .
I actually have one acquaintance
who left the movie absolutely convinced it was real. I laughed
to myself, and was still chuckling as I watched a documentary
on television the next day concerning the roots of the Blair
You see where this is going.
Yes, I watched, entranced,
as several scholars and historians related the eerie tales of
the original Blair Witch, and was fascinated to learn there really
had been one. I mean, it was clear, this was obviously
an actual documentary, the footage from the forties certainly
seemed authentic enough -
And it wasn't till the credits rolled and they listed the Actors
who'd appeared in the forties footage segment that I realized
that I, too, had been completely taken in - if not by the actual
film, than by this evil and devilishly clever (and extremely
well done) quasi-documentary.
As we all probably realize
by now, no - not only is the movie a work of fiction, and all
the characters actors who are very much alive (and who we'll
see more of soon, based on the success of this film), but there
never was a Blair Witch, or a Blair Witch legend, or anything
remotely like it. They made it all up.
I think what got me was when
one "scholar" from the TV special spoke of his fascination
with both the Blair Witch and the Bell Witch. That, my friends,
lent credibility to his testament.
For there certainly was
such an entity as . . .
The Bell Witch was actually
not a witch at all, per se - it seems to have been a classic
poltergeist - that is, a ghost that disturbs furniture and people
and in general makes a nuisance of itself. However, the devout
and upright denizens of that part of Tennessee where this haunting
occurred did not, due to religious convictions, allow themselves
to believe in ghosts. For them, any supernatural manifestation,
no matter its nature, was the work of Witchcraft, and so the
Ghost that decided to haunt the Bell family became known as the
The manifestations began around
1817, as farmer John Bell began to hear strange noises - disembodied
knocking and scratching, etc. Shortly thereafter two of his
children were suddenly accosted by a rather disturbing looking
old woman, who seemed to fade away as they watched, horror-stricken.
After that the entire family
was subject to the ghost's ministrations. Blankets were pulled
from beds, and more than one family member and curious visitor
were surprised by a spectral slap in the face.
An impromptu seance was convened,
and now the apparition began to speak. She initially claimed
to be a neighbor woman, but as that woman was very much alive
this was discounted rather quickly. The ghost had now found
its voice, however, and soon graduated from merely speaking to
singing, and from singing to screaming.
John Bell was the principal
target, evidently, and when he took to his bed deathly ill it
was assumed to be the work of the Bell Witch. Indeed, as he
died, a horrible disembodied shriek was heard in the house, and
as the earth was tossed upon his casket many mourners distinctly
heard the sound of unearthly singing . . .
Things quieted down after that,
the Witch appearing only once seven years later, where she reportedly
predicted both the coming Civil War as well as the two World
Wars. She promised to return to a Bell descendent in the mid
1930's, but as far as we know she never did. The Bell Witch
was apparently gone for good.
Or was she?
The Bell family farm is gone now, but the family cemetery remains.
Not far from the cemetery is a partially hidden cave, now known
as the Bell Cave, and once part of the Bell farmland. Visitors
flock to this cave to this day, and many have seen fleeting apparitions,
while many more have heard strange noises emanating from deep
inside the cave.
It seems that the Bell Witch
is with us still . . .
TO FOLKLORE ARCHIVE INDEX