Movie Review

An American Haunting

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense terror sequences and thematic material

Reviewed by: David Criswell, Ph.D.
CONTRIBUTOR

Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens, Adults
Genre:
Supernatural thriller, Drama, Horror, Mystery
Length:
1 hr. 31 min.
Year of Release:
2006
USA Release:
May 5, 2006 (wide)
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Freestyle Releasing LLC

Witch in the Bible

Demon Possession and Influence—Can Christians be demon possessed? In what ways can Satan and his demons influence believers? Answer

THE OCCULT—What does the Bible say about it? Answer

What is the Occult? Answer

Demon

Satan

Devil

Is Satan a real person that influences our world today? Is he affecting you? Answer

Repentance

Featuring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D’Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood
Director: Courtney Solomon
Producer: Christopher Milburn, Andr Rouleau
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing LLC

“Possession knows no bounds?”

“An American Haunting” is based on the “true” story of the Bell Witch; the only recorded haunting in American history in which a person is believed to have died as a direct result of a spirit/demon. Of course, there have actually been nearly twenty books written on the subject; most of which advocate different theories on what really happened. The “true” account involves John Bell and his family in the early 1800s. He and his family allegedly experienced a haunting by a spirit called “Kate,” believed to be the spirit of a witch. In 1820, John Bell was found dead of poison, but his death was attributed to the spirit “Kate.” True or not, General Andrew Jackson (later President of the U.S.) visited the place of the famous haunting, and the site has since become a tourist trap in Tennessee.

The movie’s position is one of many theories behind the legends. However, the actual position the movie takes remains a mystery until the end. The first hour or so of the movie simply involves the appearance of the spirit which torments and physically assaults the daughter of John Bell. The local pastor is called in to help, but his help is only temporary. The demon often flees at the name of Jesus (though not always), but always reappears no matter what the pastor or the others do. In the end, a terrifying secret is learned, and the purpose for the spirit is made clear.

Unlike other movies of this genre, there is no nudity, only one instance of foul language (in which the pastor tells the demon, “d… you to Hell”), and only one scene of blood (when John Bell coughs up some blood on his handkerchief). There is also a scene where the young victim says she “used to believe in the Lord.” The idea is that she lost faith in God because of the spirit, although the movie’s explanation for the haunting (see below) may provide an alternate reason for her loss of faith. However, viewers should be aware that the movie does depict a large dose of violence against the daughter by the spirit itself. It drags her around, tosses her against walls, slaps her, and presumably rapes her, although this last scene is intentionally ambiguous to some extent (and not particularly graphic in nature). In a later flashback, you can see blood on her blouse, making clear that she was raped.

The major problem with the movie is its obvious incompatibility with the true nature of demonic oppression. Although the movie offers a possible explanation (which I will discuss below in a spoiler section), it appears as if spirits may simply haunt and assault innocents based on a simple curse. Although the pastor’s prayers appear to grant a temporary cessation, the demon reappears, and in one scene tears the Bible up. The appearance is given that the demon may act freely against whomever it has been called upon to haunt.

Of course, the true believer knows that demons cannot directly act upon the person of anyone without God’s permission. Those who trust in Jesus need not fear being haunted by demons. In reality, legitimate demonic oppression is always connected in some way to the occult. Use of Ouija boards, seances, and other popular forms of the occult sometimes lead to spiritual oppression, but even in most of these instances, the oppression is mild. A demon cannot physically assault a person except where the person invites that assault through some act or deed connected to occultic spiritualism. In this context the movie is inaccurate, although its “explanation” is worthy of explanation.

SPOILER BELOW:

It is revealed near the end of the movie that the daughter was not actually raped by the demon at all, but by John Bell himself. The “demon” is revealed to be the spirit of John Bell’s daughter. Her hauntings were mere nightmares, but her spirit is seen leaving her body when she is asleep in order to haunt her oppressor, John Bell. The movie intentionally leaves some things ambiguous, such as who poisoned John Bell, but it is interesting to note that the movie attempts to offer a rational explanation even while depicting the actual literal spirit of the girl as being the force behind the haunting.

This explanation is one of many theories, and is, in some ways, satisfying from a theatrical point of view, but, of course, is completely detached from the Bible when it suggests that the spirit of a living person can leave their body to haunt someone. It also fails to explain why she haunts herself, save perhaps in some bad Freudian context of self persecution.

SPOILER ENDS

In any case, it is obvious that the spirit depicted in this movie is not one which fits in with a Biblical view of demonology. It is preferable to the overt blasphemy and gore of many of today’s haunted house stories, and, indeed, this movie hearkens back to the haunted ghost stories of the 50s, such as “The Uninvited” or the original “The Haunting”. Fans of those type of movies will doubtless enjoy this one. It is perhaps most reminiscent of the recent “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. While it lacks the overt mixture of mysticism and Catholicism found in that film, it falls far short of it in effectiveness.

From a cinematic viewpoint, the film is competent, although it contains a number of clichés, and the use of music is perhaps its worse cliché. Instead of the subtle approach, the music blares out in over dramatic fashion, reminding us of why haunted house stories lost popularity a few years back. Nevertheless, this is one of the better movies of its genre.

It is appropriate to close by noting that the presumably repentant father cries out toward the end of the movie that “God has forsaken me.” However, the true believer knows that God does not forsake anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21). It was Jesus who was forsaken for one brief moment in history (Matt. 27:46), because it was He who bore the punishment that we deserved. Demons need not torment the guilty on earth, for the unrepentant will be tormented after Judgment Day, but the one who calls upon the name of Jesus will never be forsaken or forgotten (Hebrews 13:5).

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Mild

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive
Positive—Whether or not this is the accurate version of the Belle family history, I personally feel that this film has the potential to be very powerful in the recovery of sexual abuse survivors. Often times people see things “clearer” through the eyes of metaphor. Without going into the psychological aspects of rape and sexual trauma, I will say that when that occurs there is a “Tear” or “split” in the victims spirit… The results of that vary, but this movie offers an interesting opportunity to see something horrific through the eyes of another. Though the film claims to be a true story, I couldn’t help but get the impression that the entire story wasn’t simply used as a vehicle to convey more of an abused victim/survivor story.

Ironically, sexual abuse is a silent pandemic in our nation. Furthermore, when victims find themselves in a treatment program, the word “haunting” is quite often used to describe the flashbacks and issues of safety that they may feel. I found it almost poetic that the title of the film was “An American Haunting.”

Not to debate the reviewer, but in the film’s version it wasn’t actually a demon doing the “haunting,” so scriptural references to abolish it may not be effective. After watching this film, an interesting conversation was sparked. The conclusion we came to (while questioning that very issue) was that although God did not design our spirits to leave our body and terrorize anyone, God also did not design fathers to rape their daughters. Though likely not accurate, this film is very worth watching, (*FOR THOSE WHO WOULDN’T BE AFFECTED BY SEXUAL ABUSE TRIGGERS*) simply for the opportunity to educate one’s perspective. One out of every three girls is being sexually assaulted, and yet in the media very little is ever covered on it. People still fear it, which tends to only lead to further shame in the victims.

Whether the “facts” in this film are nonsense or not, I applaud the movie makers for having the courage to take such a sensitive subject matter and use it to give the viewers something to empathize with and ponder.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4
Misty Wagner, age 30
Positive—This, in my opion, was a very enjoyable movie. The acting I thought was very good. The scariness wasn’t over the top, but good at the sametime. They only objectional part I saw was when they would show the possessed girl in a long white sleeping gown/sheet with blood on it, implying that she had been raped. Their could have been a much more kosher was to have portrayed that part of the story. I don’t remember any language (we use a TV guardian to filter out foul language anyway), or any sexuality other than the implied rape, but not shown. Otherwise I thought it was a very good movie.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 3½
—Pastor David McDaniel, age 34
Negative
Negative—There has been one documented case in American history where a spirit has killed someone. This movie is about this case. It even has a title card at the beginning of the movie stating this. Ready for the punchline? No one EVER dies from a spirit in this movie!!! No one. In fact, there is only one person who dies at all in this film, and he is poisoned by his wife. Honestly!

This movie is simply terrible. It is absolutely inept in just about every single area. it isn’t scary as all. the director has no idea how to create tension, instead choosing to rush headlong into scene after scene of a poltergeist torturing a teenage girl, while the parents, pastor, and schoolteacher sit downstairs pondering what it all means. You would think they would be in the room sleeping on the floor with the child to make sure she was safe. This movie rips off just about every cliche from every other haunted house/possession movie from the past (from “Poltergeist” to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”).

What is the plot of this movie? Basically, a father molests his little girl one night. Her innocence (maybe?) becomes a poltergeist and starts to choke and beat herself up nightly. Why it chooses her instead of the father is beyond me. Maybe guilt? Maybe shame over the molestation? How does a person who is still alive becomes a vengeful spirit at the same time anyway? Rest assured the movie makes no attempts to answer these questions (or any others you might have). This is one of the worst movies I have seen in QUITE a while. It’s not really offensive. Pretty restrained when it comes to the violence, and the showing of the sexual abuse. Too bad the movie is so completely terrible in just about every other category. I wouldn’t even bother renting this waste of celluloid.
My Ratings: Offensive / 1
—Quincy, age 34
Negative—I must admit that this film is spooky, but in very bad ways. It got so annoying that I was tempted to get up and leave. All the scary parts of this film is shock factor. Not much room for tension building. Just a bunch of noisy events that scare you, not because they are genuinely scary, but because I just hated to hear the suddenness of the thunderous attacks. It relied far too much on shock, and not anywhere near enough on tension building. Honestly, this film’s scary moments are just too noisy. But, some people believe that the only way they can make a horror film is to base it almost entirely on shock factor. It’s a cheap effect as far as I am concerned. Especially when it’s used way past the point of total monotony, like this film achieves.

“American Haunting” was scary because it was so annoying. The ending took me a bit off guard, but that wasn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of cheap, way overdone, unnecessarily loud thrills. I’m sorry, but when a blanket is yanked off of a person, it doesn’t sound like an f-18 suddenly kicking on it’s throttle for a split second in their bedroom. That particular scene would have been far more chilling had the audio remained ambient. It would have made it seem more real and closer to home. But instead we are treated to ear piercing noise that just ruins the whole effect the scene tries to achieve. Atmosphere is more about sound than image. I wish horror producers would realize that. If it has to be loud, let it be justifiably loud, as in a thunderstorm or something. Don’t base the whole of the film’s frightful scenes on sudden, excessive volume.

Visually however, the film was pretty good. It was high on visual atmosphere, with some artful cinematography. The actors and actresses did good considering the content of the script. Spiritually speaking, I did Not like the way that the spirit seemed more powerful than it should have been. No amount of resistance would work. But, we are told from Scripture that if we resist the evil one he will flee. However, considering the prevailing dark family secret portrayed in the film, I can understand that something like that would be a pretty big invitation to an evil spirit, so the film is forgivable on that point.

All in all, this movie is good on visuals, but not on sound. The scary moments are just not good at all for two reasons. The excessive sound ruins them, and there is no real tension leading up to them, except the realization that you are about to have your ear-drums smashed again.
My Ratings: Offensive / 3
—Joel, age 32
Negative—This is one of THE worst movies I have ever seen. I had no idea what to think by the end. …I would not recommend this movie to anyone. It was a huge waste of my time—nothing like what I expected.
My Ratings: Average / 1
—Julia, age 21
Comments from young people
Positive—This movie was ok. The effects were awesome, but the story was a little out of whack! I mean the dad was raping the little girl… Overall, this was a good movie… I would advise younger children NOT to see this (maybe teens to adults).
My Ratings: Average / 4
—Aaron R, age 14
Negative—This movie was so lame! I went to it with some friends, and I actually was falling asleep. The plot was slow, and I didn’t even understand the movie. It made NO sense at all! Poor camera angles, decent acting at best, save your money! Don’t waste an hour and a half of your life on this B-movie, I wouldn’t even encourage anyone to rent it! It could have been done WAY better…
My Ratings: Average / 2
—Brittany, age 16
Movie Critics
…A cringingly awful period ghost story…
—Boston Globe, Ty Burr
…a standard, creaking, fake-spooky ghost story (with Bible verses thrown in for good measure)…
—Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum
…Is it scary? To start with, yes. Then it just gets repetitive. …this is just another noisy knock-off of William Friedkin’s finest hour.…
—BBC, Matthew Leyland
…C+ …a supernatural tale whose overbearing clamor is redeemed to a large extent by engaging performances and fine 19th century period detail…
—Associated Press, David Germain
…At times, the narrative thread slips the movie’s grasp and there are flat spots in the storytelling where characters just scream and thrash about. …such interludes feel flabby and gratuitous…
—Newsday, Gene Seymour
…Conventional, that is, except at the very end, when viewers realize they’ve been swimming in a barrel full of red herrings for an hour and a half.…
—Plugged In, Tom Neven