The Bell Witch in Myth and Memory

From Local Legend to International Folktale

  • Author(s): Gregory, Rick
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2023-09-14
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Paper: Price $24.95 | Buy Now


Apparently, slumber parties in the mid-South 1970s were plied with a strange ritual. At midnight attendees would gather before a mirror and chant “I don’t believe in the Bell Witch” three times to see if the legendary spook would appear alongside their own reflections—a practice that echoes the “Bloody Mary” pattern following the execution of Mary Queen of Scots centuries ago. But that small circuit of preteen gatherings was neither the beginning nor the end of the Bell Witch’s travels. Indeed, the legend of the haint who terrorized the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee, is one of the best-known pieces of folklore in American storytelling—featured around the globe in popular-culture references as varied as a 1930s radio skit and a 1980s song from a Danish heavy metal band. Legend has it that “Old Kate” was investigated even by the likes of future president Andrew Jackson, who was reported to have said, “I would rather fight the British ten times over than to ever face the Bell Witch again.”

While dozens of books and articles have thoroughly analyzed this intriguing tale, this book breaks new ground by exploring the oral traditions associated with the poltergeist and demonstrating her regional, national, and even international sweep. Author Rick Gregory details the ways the narrative mirrors other legends with similar themes and examines the modern proliferation of the story via contemporary digital media. The Bell Witch in Myth and Memory ultimately explores what people believe and why they believe what they cannot explicitly prove—and, more particularly, why for two hundred years so many have sworn by the reality of the Bell Witch. In this highly engaging study, Rick Gregory not only sheds light on Tennessee’s vibrant oral history tradition but also provides insight into the enduring, worldwide phenomenon that is folklore.

RICK GREGORY received MA and PhD degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. He is a local historian and lives in Adams, Tennessee, the home of the Bell Witch Legend.