On a recent Tuesday afternoon, UNC's campus bustles with traffic as students scurry to class. It's autumn, and the time is ripe for a haunting. But inside the walls of Swain Hall, a new play is being readied, one that seems to be an entirely seasonal tale of witches, but which also aspires to understand a Southern folk legend in modern terms.
Created by Ariel Gratch, a graduate student in UNC's communications department and an amateur playwright and director, The Bell Witch: A Haunting Tale of Love and Abuse will be performed Oct. 25-30.
The play, a carefully crafted retelling of the mysterious Bell Witch haunting, is one that is meant to thrill and motivate its audience through modes of fear and confrontation. Still, contrary to its ghost-story framing, Gratch's production refuses to focus entirely on the scare factor. Instead, the supernatural force is a conduit for addressing the truth.
"When there's a ghost, people don't really think about why it exists, and in most cases, the ghost is simply there to be scary. But the ghost is always there for a reason," says Gratch.
And for the past six months, Gratch has been hard at work finding the reason for the evolution of a true-life tale into a supernatural one. The seeds were planted nearly five years ago when Gratch was an undergraduate at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. There, Gratch began to explore the legend of the Bell Witch for an evening reading of ghost stories, an undertaking that took him all the way to Adams, Tenn.
It was in this sleepy town where a supernatural force plagued the Bell clan during the 1800s, after John Bell, a North Carolina native, moved his family to the area. There began a beating on the walls, then the tearing sheets of the Bell children's beds while they were asleep and, finally, the gnawing at bedposts. The presence intensified and developed an audible disembodied voice that would whisper hymns and speak to the family. Finally, the entity turned violent, beating and slapping the Bell's youngest daughter, Betsy, and eventually poisoning her father.
Like any ghost tale, the events of the Bell Witch haunting have caused much speculation over the years. Gratch, along with countless historians and storytellers, has his own views about what may have caused the haunting. In addition to the usual Indian burial ground stuff, "there is also an unspoken story that most historians fail to acknowledge, and that is the possibility of child abuse," says Gratch. "While most people fail to talk about the Bell Witch as a story of abuse, I address it as exactly that.
"If we take the idea of the ghost and bracket it—we acknowledge its existence but don't rely on its presence—then we can ask more important questions like why it's there, why did it initially come and what are its effects," says Gratch.
Using the unacknowledged theme of abuse, Gratch has molded the original Bell Witch legend to highlight how victims of abuse verbalize their experience and deal with the emotional aftermath. Gratch interviewed five victims of abuse last summer, and it's these interviews that provide much of the play's meat. To present his material—both old and new—Gratch has outfitted his production with five actors who will do double duty as they represent members of the Bell family and the present-day abuse victims.
Ultimately, Gratch wants his production to begin a dialogue about abuse, love and the word "victim." "I hope this production will open the door to an open dialogue about abuse. It's not easy to understand how a person can love someone who hurt them, and it's certainly not easy to talk about it." And the fear of the bare-bones of truth may be scarier than any witch, ghost or entity in history.