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The Ending Of An American Haunting Explained

This article contains mentions of sexual assault.

You've heard of the Blair Witch; now get ready for the terror of the Bell Witch.

It's an influential figure in Southern folklore who supposedly haunted a Tennessee family 200 years ago, and she may very well dwell in that space to this day (via The Southern Weekend). However, centuries ago, she had her sights set on the Bell family, and her presence has been written about in various affidavits and eyewitness accounts in the years since she made her presence known. It's a good story, making it ripe for adaptation.

That's why the legend has received numerous accounts over the years from books to movies, but none have caught on as well as 2005's "An American Haunting." The film's made waves since it became available on Hulu, as it tells the story of the Bell family who invoke a curse after a business deal turns sour. The family then begins experiencing strange happenstances, such as the sound of someone creeping on the roof and terrible convulsions for the young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) at night. Supposedly, the curse was placed on the family from Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), but there are much darker machinations at play.

The curse holds sinister secrets

Much of the movie's runtime involves characters discussing how Kate Batts is a witch. Surely, she must've placed a curse on the family after the land dispute. As with many other horror movies, the answer isn't so crystal clear. Everyone has a secret they keep close to their chest, and it turns out John Bell (Donald Sutherland) has the darkest one of all. 

As the characters learn at the end of "An American Haunting," the curse didn't come from Kate Batts. It materialized out of Betsy's lost innocence after John sexually assaulted her — his own daughter. Once Betsy's mother, Lucy (Sissy Spacek), learns of this, she poisons John, ending the curse. 

Kate Batts's message of "You cursed yourself" is more literal than audiences may have anticipated on first watch. John brought the demon into his household for his sins, despite viewing himself as an otherwise good man. A pound of flesh was necessary to lift the curse, but that didn't mean the Bell Witch was gone for good.

The curse lives on ...

The 19th century isn't the end of this story. The movie utilizes a framing device of a mother noticing strange occurrences with her daughter, similar to what's described in a journal written by Richard Powell (James D'Arcy) describing Betsy's symptoms. After reading it, the daughter's picked up by her father, and it's at this point the mother sees the Bell Witch. She puts two and two together and goes running after the car, understanding her daughter has faced sexual abuse from her father, too. 

It's a haunting final twist and shows how the cycle of abuse repeats through generations. And the knowledge that the ones who are supposed to protect young girls are the ones who could inflict the most harm is more evil than any spirit out there. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).