Halloween

When I grew up, Halloween was a big deal. I never had a fancy costume, but my mom let me buy a new plastic mask at the dime store each year. I carried my candy in a big plastic jack o’lantern that had a smiley face on one side and a frowny face on the other.

The worst Halloween I ever had was the night my pony escaped. After getting home late from work, my dad had to drop everything to drive out to the farm where we kept him to get him back in the fence. There was no trick-or-treating with my friends that night. (And before you think you I was a spoiled little girl, bear in mind that I saved $25 in pennies, answered a farmer’s ad on Swap and Shop, and arranged for Jerry to be delivered in the back of a ton truck to my grandparent’s house all by myself. I was a determined child. I just didn’t realize then what a sacrifice my father made for me. I realize now.)

Because I was determined, I couldn’t imagine a Halloween without trick or treating, so I found a paper grocery bag, cut out eyes and a mouth, and visited the two neighbors to the left and right of Mom and Pa Bell’s house, which was across the highway from Jerry’s barn. For me, Halloween was never about the candy. I just liked the eerie feeling of the night. I liked the stories. But back then the monsters never really showed up, and there was something cozy about feeling scared and secure at the same time. Now the monsters are much more prevalent. If you don’t believe me, just watch the evening news.

Every Halloween my dad and I picked out a pumpkin, and as I got older, I would draw a face on it and carve it myself. I can still remember laying a newspaper on the rug and scooping out the pumpkin’s insides. Ewww. It was kind of gross and kind of fun at the same time.

Then I would set the pumpkin on our front porch and light a candle to place inside. I never wanted the night to end. I stayed up as late as I could, and my mom would carry the pumpkin from the front porch and put it near my bed for the glow and pumpkin aroma to lull me to sleep. I hated waking up to November 1 because I knew I’d have to wait another year to tell spooky stories and to look for ghosts.

Ghosts have always been my guilty pleasure.

I am an adamant believer in the spirit world, but I don’t believe ghosts are the spirits of the deceased. I used to worry that my ghost stories would offend fellow believers, but then I met Charles K. Wolfe, who was my English professor at MTSU. Thanks to Dr. Wolfe, I realized my love for ghosts was actually my love for storytelling and folklore. He encouraged me to embrace my own family folklore and oral tradition, and as a result, I wrote my first published article while a student in his folklore class. Many years later my story made its way into The Tennessee Folklore Sampler.

When I think about Halloween, I can’t help but think about my mom. Her birthday fell the day before. I always made a point to find her a fun Halloween birthday card because I knew it made her happy, or maybe it just made me happy. I credit my mom for turning me on to storytelling. She and I used to stay up late talking about the Bell Witch, and then she would knock on my bedroom wall when I went to bed later that night. She had a bit of mischief about her, but the joke was on her because I usually ended up wide awake in parents’ bed listening for the slightest noise.

Today I still collect stories—folklore, urban legends, ghost stories, whatever you wish to call them. And I ask my students to collect them. Stories ignite our creativity, preserve our family heritage, and serve as means of social control. Sociologists and folklorists tell us that “scary” stories help keep wayward teenagers in line and curious children from wandering away. Remember what happened to Hansel and Gretal!

In a few hours, I will be on the road to research for my manuscript Crossroads. It’s a dark, perhaps stormy night, and I’ll leave it up to you to guess where I’m headed. You’ll have to check the next blog to find out the details. Until then, happy storytelling.

Did someone say Bell Witch?

Famous drawing of Betsy Bell

October ushers in a whole season of “what if” for me. I always was the type of kid who could be found hunkered down around a campfire, listening to “ghost stories” and imagining “what if.”

But I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in evil, and I believe in angels. I believe that if God were to remove the veil from our eyes, we’d all scream like little girls. We couldn’t handle the reality happening before our eyes.

I have no doubt there is much in the world that we can’t see, don’t want to see, and shouldn’t see.

But I also grew up a Bell. That’s my maiden name.

And if you’re from Tennessee, then you know what being a Bell means. The name Bell conjures up stories of spirits and haints and witches and murder. If you’re not from Tennessee, then you may be scratching your head, wondering what in the world I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Bell Witch, the mysterious spirit that tormented John Bell and his daughter Betsy, who lived around the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in a small farming community on the Red River in Robertson County.

Research the legend if you enjoy a good tale, but be careful if you choose to watch one of the movies. Not all of them are based on authentic legend. As a sociology teacher, I’m a fan of folklore and folk culture. Legends mean something to me. Legends reveal who we are as a people and what we value.

When I was growing up, I looked up to my grandmother, Mom Bell. She was quite the character. My cousins and I could fill volumes with stories of her quirky behavior.

In fact, when she married my grandfather, who was nine years older than she, she didn’t tell her parents they were married. She went home to her house, and he went back to his.

The two sneaked off to get married. My grandmother drove the getaway car, but she must not have been that great of driver, and she must not have been too alert. Little did she know that  the town drunk had crawled up in the back seat of the car to sleep off a long night of boozing. My grandmother had both hands on the wheel with my grandfather in the passenger seat when she crossed a railroad track and suffered a bump so severe that it woke the man in the backseat. He sat straight up.

“Bea-dy, you can’t drive,” he said. “If feels like you done run over a horse.”

Sure enough, she had.

Apparently, a train had hit a horse earlier in the day, and my grandmother plowed right over it. Don’t ask me how she did it. I don’t know. That’s just the story she used to tell. She told a lot of stories.

And I like good stories, especially spooky ones. I guess that’s just the writer in me.

(But I know firsthand that too much imagination can lead people into places they should never be. Too much imagination can open doors that should remain closed.)

I don’t speak too much about the Bell Witch to my own children, but when I was growing up, the story was common amongst my people. After all, my grandmother convinced us all we were direct descendents of the notorious family haunted by the Bell Witch. I have yet to prove it although I’ve done extensive research.

As a little kid, I believed with all my heart that if I wasn’t careful, Old Kate (the Bell Witch) would haunt me too and pull the covers off my bed and slap my face without warning, just as she did John Bell’s daughter, Betsy. I was terrified.

As with every legend, our version of the Bell Witch story took on new meaning. According to my grandmother, my great aunt Bessie, who lived in a house in front of the oldest graveyard in Coffee County, had the power of the Bell Witch. She could “see” things. She received “signs.” She also supposedly had hidden away treasure and money, which today no one has been able to find. Perhaps only Kate knows. That’s okay. I don’t want to know.

My grandmother took me to visit Aunt Bessie once when I was just a little girl. Mom Bell went to the kitchen to help with the dishes and left me alone in the parlor with Aunt Bessie, who pretended to sleep on the couch. I knew better. She kept one eye open, watching my every move. I was terrified.

Today I can’t drive by that neighborhood without wondering what Aunt Bessie did with her treasure and why she watched me so closely that day. I can’t help but wonder what made our family believe she had powers and saw signs. What powers? What signs?

Alas, October is here.

Even as I write this, I can feel a chill in the air. It’s pitch black outside my sunroom, but I can hear the wind shuffle the fallen leaves. It feels “spooky” out there.

But I like it. I makes me think “what if,” and I’m always in the mood for a good story.

Note about the book:  When I was in college, I wrote a paper for my folklore class about modern versions of the Bell Witch. My professor, Charles Wolfe, asked to print it in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. Last year the editors chose it as one of the works that would appear in their printed collection. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for Charles Wolfe. He made me believe in myself. He inspired me to be a writer.