Bell Witch Cave

November 21, 2012

As a sidelight to the excellent 2012 CSIcon event in Nashville, I was able to make an excursion on October 27 to Tennessee’s “haunted” Bell Witch Cave with a favorite co-investigator, Vaughn Rees (who drove to the conference from his home in Ensenada, Mexico!).

Stories of the Bell Witch haunting abound, making it one of the best known ghost tales of the American south. See M.V. Ingram, Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch (Clarkesville, TN, 1894). In recent years, debunkers—most of whom seem to have eschewed doing original work on the case, while offering their armchair opinions and virtual rehashings of others’ work—have been quick to dismiss the whole affair. They brand it complete fiction by Ingram (never mind, for instance, that the basic outlines of the story are found in an earlier Tennessee history).

The cave is on the old John Bell property—which also sports a replica family log cabin—located at Adams, Tennessee, a few miles northwest of Nashville. There, in 1817, sources report, certain disturbances began to plague the Bell family—knocking sounds, the pulling off of bed coverings, spilling of milk, and other mischief. These acts—what today would be called poltergeist phenomena—were attributed to a “witch.” They seemed especially to plague Bell’s young daughter Betsy, and they escalated until the death of Bell himself in 1820, when they ended, except for a brief return in 1828.

Going on site, Vaughn and I—both veteran spelunkers—eagerly toured both cabin and cave during the run-up to Halloween. For commercial caves, this one is (we were happy to find) little “improved,” lacking smooth walkways, steps, or hand rails (except leading to the entrance). Indeed, we had to sign a release requiring us to take full responsibility for any injuries incurred.

Our guide led us back about 500 feet (to a depth of some 15 stories) where she stopped at a flowstone formation called Eagle Rock. (Beyond this, progress would require one to be equipped for real cave exploration.) We were told that strange sounds were reportedly heard here, but in our few minutes of silence we heard only the sounds of flowing and dripping water. The guide described photos showing “orbs,” and “mist,” but these are attributable to the camera’s flash rebounding from moisture in the cave. We obtained “orbs” ourselves (see photo) as we have many times under such conditions. Reported “faces” in some photos tend to be simulacra, random patterns the mind interprets as something recognizable—a process called pareidolia.

I must say, we were not disappointed, never having expected real ghosts in the first place. However, the Bell Witch Cave did have one particularly intriguing feature: an area of ceiling with relatively scarce “soda straw” stalactites. (These fragile, thin-walled tubes of calcite form in conditions of still air when slowly dripping water deposits minerals only around the stalactite’s rim as it grows downward.) For us, at least, these represented one of the more bewitching aspects of the cave.