Archive | October, 2008

Tennessee’s Ghost – The Bell Witch (Or, Why I Don’t Go Spelunking Anymore)

28 Oct

Hey - at least they warn something creepy is about to happen...
Hey – at least they warn something creepy is about to happen…

ADAMS, TN – I’ve never been to the town of Adams, Tennessee, so I can’t verify what the fine folks of that town say has happened over the course of history in their area. But more than enough people have been affected by the phenomenon to render it America’s most well-known ghost story (if you don’t believe that, then check out the latest movie version: An American Haunting).

Southern Ghost Story Number One: The Bell Witch.

John Bell, a farmer in the Tennessee hinterlands bought a large parcel of timberland that he cleared to farm and erect a house for his family. As the story goes, one day, while hunting in his fields, Bell came across a dog – or what he thought was a dog. The animal, however, sported the head of a rabbit and unleashed a bizarre howl at Bell when he shot at the animal. Bell returned home, shaken by the incident, but thinking nothing of it.

Until the house was assaulted that night by the sounds of animals moaning and scratching the outer walls. Soon, the disturbances moved indoors, harrassing the family – Bell’s daughter Betsy in particular. The child was often pinched and slapped, leaving visible bruises and hand prints, or she was disturbed in the middle of the night by screeches, the shaking of her bed, or the sudden removal of her blankets.

Eventually, the Bells left the house and allowed some friends to stay overnight, just to test and see if the Bells were crazy.

They weren’t. The spirit attacked the visitors, and the Bell family returned to their haunted abode.

The legend only grows from there; the Bell Witch is said to have poisoned John Bell, leading to his death. The Witch is also credited with driving Betsy Bell to break off her marriage to her one true love, forcing the tormented child into the arms of her considerably older school teacher.

The spirit seems to have lingered in the area, not only on the Bell’s former property, but all around the Tennessee valley. Reports of ghostly activity have often been attributed to the Witch – everything from audible phenomena to unexplained illnesses.

The current owners of the Bell property have made a tourist attraction of the land and the Bell Witch Cave, a dry cave on the property that the spirit supposedly lives in. Psychic and paranormal investigators, both amateur and professional, have spent time researching the grounds, looking for any clues as to why there would be such an agressive temporal disturbance. Supposedly there is an ancient Indian burial mound not too far away. Some believe the Cave itself was once the burial site for an Indian woman who was then disturbed by explorers who removed her from the cave. Here’s a photo from the Cave’s mouth; because the Cave has been labeled a dry cave by expert geologists (meaning that the only time there’s water in the cave is when it rains) the mist like form captured on film but not seen by the photographer’s naked eye ain’t just cave fog. But judge for yourself…

Grown people pee their pants when they see something like this.

Grown people pee their pants when they see something like this.

Whatever the story is or isn’t, it scared the holy heck out of me when I was a kid and my Boy Scout Troop went spelunking at the famous Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. Cumberland Caverns is one of the more famous cave systems in the South. The caverns run deep into the mountains and underneath the Tennessee soil into regions that have still yet to be charted. One of the spooky stories of the Caverns was that the Bell Witch Cave actually connected with the system, and that at night, in the pitch black of the cave, the spirit could be seen floating through the cavern.

There was also another story about some dude covered in glowing, viscous slime, but I don’t really remember that one.

What I do remember though, is being pre-teen and lying in the belly of the earth, wondering, as I struggled with sleep, whether or not such things as ghosts existed. I tried to rationalize the stories as mere fantasy. But something in the night made me change my mind. It happened when I got up to go to the bathroom.

If you haven’t been to Cumberland Caverns, it ain’t for the claustrophobic among you. Tiny crawl spaces, thick, mucousy mud, and an eerie silence truly remind you that you are beyond your normal circumstances. While there are several miles of tunnels and caves to explore – and may I recommend you take the guided tour? – the biggest mind-bend of all comes when you bed down for the night in the sleeping chamber. Nothing more than a large, cleared out cave, it has relatively few lights – all of which are extinguished once the curfew is announced. The cave goes completely black, and except for each individual’s flashlight, it is impossible for the eye to adjust. There is no light whatsoever.

All you have is the void before your eyes, and the distant sounds of other people dreaming – and whatever ambient noises a hell-deep cave produces.

The bathroom is right through there...

The bathroom is right through there...

So naturally, we pack the place out with hyperactive pre-teen boys who enjoy working their imaginations overtime. The sound of mass hysteria is 23 kids (and a lot of the adults) hyperventiating in inky blackness. Tiredness eventually sets in, though, and most folks get off to sleep. For those of us who have OVERLY active imaginations, the security of sleep is not an option.

I lay there awake, remembering to breathe, repeating certain passages of the Bible in my mind, trying not to think about some fiendish apparition hovering unseen above my head, waiting to strike me with the slightest unintentional provocation. That image has a way of fixing itself in a young man’s mind, and I simply couldn’t sleep. Add to the terror the fact that caves don’t come with central heating and air, and I was shaking worse than Keith Richards singing lead for the Parkinson’s Five. Shaking + nerves + cold + 500 cups of juice/water/Coke = really needing to pee. Which meant getting out of my sleeping bag, leaving my father’s side, and traipsing to the toilet – which was really just a hole that went to God-knows-where with a board over top it.

I didn’t want to pee. The more I tried to convince myself that I didn’t have to pee, the more I had to pee. So I got up, grabbed my flashlight, turned it on and covered the beam with my hand. I didn’t want to wake anyone else by accidentally shining a light in their face; and, I didn’t want to see if there was any misty-ghosty-spooky-floaty thing in front of me. I made my way to the edge of the sleeping chamber and then, once past all the slumbering spelunkers, I removed my hand from the head of my flashlight to reveal…

…nothing. I exhaled, put a little skip in my step, and trotted to the potty.

Once I got to the latrine, I noticed the cave was considerably colder. Like, wicked colder. Which naturally made my bladder want to explode. I stepped into the men’s portion of the latrine and set about to do my business.

Misty river takes your mind...

Misty river takes your mind...

Have you ever seen early morning mist, or early morning fog, the kind that hangs low over the ground and sort of moves with the terrain? It’s kind of dense, and difficult to see through. You know what causes such fog, so it doesn’t scare you. Imagine that kind of fog, in a cave toilet, about one and half miles underground, creeping toward your foot in the dim light of your tiny AA flashlight. Then, as if the creeping fog weren’t enough, I heard someone exhaling; which sounds like no big deal, but when you know you’re alone, and the exhale lasts longer than 45 seconds, either you’ve been holding your own breath for too freaking long or something seriously other-worldly is shaking down.

I was paralyzed. Completely frozen. The fog crept over my feet as the exhale continued, and then, just as soon as it had appeared, it passed from my view as the exhale faded. Thank goodness I was already in the latrine to pee. Had that same thing occurred in the sleeping chambers, I would have peed my pants, my dad’s pants, the four sleeping bags nearest me and probably the ceiling of the cave. As it was, I was pretty scared.

What made it worse was when I came out of the latrine. There, tucked behind a stalgamite, were three of my friends from the Scout troop. They had been awake, seen my flashlight, and figured on scaring the bejeezus out of me when I came out of the toilet. Only, they were sitting stock-still behind their natural barrier and all three were honestly spooked. I shined my light on one of their faces, and all he managed to say was, “Are you okay?”

We quickly chatted about what we saw, and decided it was the Bell Witch. Or some seriously lost early morning fog. Or the angel of Death cruising for another victim. Or the mist from Stephen King’s short story. Or any number of diabolical, evil, hellish, satanic entities seeking whom it might devour. We huddled there for a good long while, working up the courage to head back to our sleeping backs and the blackness of the sleeping chamber. When we finally made it back, we all vowed to go to sleep, but when the lights came on in the morning, we were all wide awake – and so were several other people. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones to see some deranged fog in the night. We particularly felt better when a grown man exclaimed, “Once I get outta this hellhole, I ain’t never going underground agin!” When it was pointed out (by his wife) that he would eventually have to be buried after his death, he responded, “Not me, sister. I’ll gets creamated afore I go back underground!”

The entrance to the Caverns...

The entrance to the Caverns...

Knowing that a grown man was scared enough to burn his own body rather than bury it made all of us feel a lot better. But we still couldn’t get out of that cave fast enough. When we burst out of the cavern’s metal doors, we lapped up the sunshine and the comfort of knowing that we would soon be on the highway headed toward a most-decidedly unhaunted home. When the Cumberland Caverns idea came up again a few years later, we were quick to offer alternative plans.

Do I believe I saw a witch? A ghost? A haint? A spook? A spectre? I don’t know. All I know is I’ve never been back. And never will.