Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.
I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.
The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.
I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.
Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”
I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.
The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.
There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.
In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.
I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.