My favorite type of horror movies are ones involving ghosts and hauntings. I think I like them because my mind easily fills in the inferred gaps.
I expected my thirst for spooks to be quenched by An American Haunting, and to that end, it doesn’t disappoint. The story is a period piece set after the American Revolution based on the novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, sandwiched between two short bits of a modern day mother and daughter. After her daughter has a nightmare, the mother reads a letter that accompanied a doll her daughter had found in the attic.
The letter is penned by schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D’Arcy) and tells the tale of the Bell family after they were cursed by a supposed witch.The hauntings are pretty standard: windows and doors opening on their own, covers being pulled off the bed, mysterious whispers and winds. They quickly escalate into physical attacks on the oldest Bell daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Although typical, the hauntings still managed to put me on the edge of my seat.
At least at first. Preaching to the entity seemed to do nothing, making it seem like no where was safe; I really liked that. But the haunting formula was repeated so many times during the course of the movie, it seemed to become monotonous.
The “ghost” of the movie was referred to as “the entity” because it’s not clear whether they are dealing with a ghost, demon, curse, or all of the above. It manifested itself as a wolf, a little girl in a bonnet, and an inferred doppelgänger-type spirit. There’s also the doll with a broken face, which didn’t seem to fit in either. Well before the end, I was wishing they would pick an archetype and stick with it.
One thing that really ruins the mood of a haunting to me is laughter, especially when it’s unintentional. There were several cheesy bits that really pulled me out of the movie. Early on, the supposed witch, Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown) says to John Bell (Donald Sutherland), “You, and your precious daughter too!” My mind automatically replaced it with, “and your little dog too!”. With lines like that, and the literal, “We’re almost out of the woods,” I was often disappointed in the dialog. There’s even a less-than-thrilling carriage wreck.
There was an obvious but not discussed attraction between the teacher and Betsy that gave the story a layer of depth that I liked. That is, until the possible relationship was actually discussed in disappointingly polite terms between him and her mother, Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek).
I was the most disappointed in the ending though. The whole story was so cliche that the twist ending felt like a cop out. Although it was meant to explain the events of the movie, it didn’t fit in whatsoever, and left me more confused.
All in all, An American Haunting had elements that should have made it a good ghost story, but by the end, I wasn’t even questioning the bumps and thuds coming from my empty second floor.
Michelle Hartz, Ph.Z., is the Graphic Designer at Baugh Enterprises, specializing in design for print and promotional products. She is also the Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) in Bloomington, Indiana. Michelle has published two of her NaNoWriMo books: Helpless, a horror story set on a wind farm; and Brains for the Zombie Soul, a parody containing nearly 101 heartwarming and inspirational stories celebrating the differently animated.