Red River, Tenn., 1817. The Bell family seem to have made a good life for themselves on the frontier. John Sr., a moderately prosperous landowner, has a loving wife, beautiful children and good friends. When a court rules against him in a land dispute with a neighboring farmer, he sees it as a small setback.
Despite a ruling in her favor, though, that neighbor feels she has not received justice, and she swears vengeance on the Bells. Such an oath might not be taken too seriously except for the rumors that the neighbor is a witch.
Shortly thereafter, a mysterious black wolf with piercing yellow eyes appears on the Bells' land. Then strange things start to happen to Betsy, the Bells' teenage daughter. At first they're just bad nightmares. But they get progressively worse. Slamming doors. Shattering windows. Flying objects. Ghostly voices in the dark. Betsy's body is flung around the house, dragged across the floor and bludgeoned by an unseen force. The entity then starts to attack others in the household. The Bells call in help from the local pastor, who represents the voice of faith, and the local schoolteacher, who represents the voice of cool, scientific reason. Neither can explain what is happening as Betsy moves ever closer to death.
Are the Bells cursed? Why is Betsy singled out for the worst abuse? Will they ever be free of it?
An American Haunting is a fairly conventional Hollywood ghost story, with lots of moments calculated to make you jump in your seat and plenty of things going bump in the night. 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.
The Bells are a close, loving family. John Sr. goes so far as to offers himself to the entity if it will only spare his daughter. Despite encountering frightening circumstances and grave danger, both the schoolteacher and the pastor stick with the Bells to try to help them.
John Sr. fairly accepts the court's judgment against him and tries to be gracious to the other party in his loss. Countering the neighbor's demands of "a pound of flesh," the court makes it clear that it favors mercy, saying, "The loss of his good name is punishment enough."
The entire story centers on the possibility of either ghosts or demons attacking the Bells. Associated with that is the idea that it has been brought about by an alleged witch's curse.
The Rev. Johnston has no doubt that demons are involved. The schoolteacher, Mr. Powell, is at first skeptical, but upon witnessing the frightening attacks, he too becomes convinced of demonic activity. ("There was something unholy in that room," he says.) Early in the haunting, Johnston sits down with the family and says, "A few chapters from the Bible will solve this house's problem." He reads the story of Jesus casting out demons and then leads the family in a prayer: "Demon, in the name of Jesus Christ, be silent and leave this house forever." At first, it seems the "exorcism" has worked, and the Reverend exclaims, "Hallelujah, God has answered, and your house is silent."
The entity returns with a vengeance, though, assaulting Betsy violently and levitating her in the air. Johnston rebukes it: "Demon, in the name of Jesus Christ, leave her!" It drops her and seems to leave, only to return the next night and every night thereafter. During another attempted exorcism, it grabs the Bible from Johnston's hands and rips every page from it, flinging them around the room. (He responds by saying, "Damn you to hell!")
As things get progressively worse, Betsy asks a friend, "Do you believe in the Lord?" The friend affirms her faith, but Betsy's not so sure about her own, saying, "I used to." In a prayer, John Sr. asks God why He is punishing him. Acknowledging his errors, John Sr. says, "Even saints commit sins of some sort." When he tries to get the "witch" to lift the "curse" by giving her his gun and asking her to kill him in exchange for leaving Betsy alone, she maintains that she's not a witch and has cast no curse. "You have cursed yourself by your own actions," the woman says.
The Bells' slaves find one of John Sr.'s shirts and Betsy's bedclothes in the woods; both have blood on them. Thinking this is some sort of voodoo curse, one of the slaves begs Lucy Bell not to throw them in the fire: "That'll let the Devil in," she says.
It's said that John Sr. helped found the local church. The court that rules against him in the property dispute consists of the church's elders, and the session is held in the church sanctuary. He's found guilty of usury—charging unfair interest in biblical terms—and of violating church law.
[Spoiler Warning] The story's end intimates that John Sr. has sexually abused Betsy.
Even though the entity is never seen, its effects certainly are. It flings objects around the room, including tearing a cross off the wall and hurling it at the schoolteacher. Betsy's friend is hit by a fireplace poker. Betsy is physically thrown around the room and dashed against walls and furniture. She is dragged across the floor, and we see her fingernails leaving grooves in the wood. She is also suspended by her hair and then dragged up a set of stairs. Her face is pummeled. Men get thrown against the walls when they try to help her.
John Sr. shoots at a wolf in the woods. Later, the wolf lunges at John Jr. and tries to bite his throat. The wolf knocks two people off a fleeing horse and attacks them on the ground. The entity fells a tree in front of a racing carriage, causing the carriage to flip through the air, hurling its occupants about.
[Spoiler Warning] John Sr. tries to commit suicide, but his gun misfires. Lucy poisons her husband.
Crude or Profane Language
None. The words "hell" and "damn" are both said, but are being used in a theological context.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Rev. Johnston arrives at a Christmas party well on his way to getting drunk. "I'm not so stewed that I cannot find a friend's door," he insists. When he asks for another drink, John Sr. refuses, saying, "You're three sheets to the wind already." In an aside to her husband, Lucy says, "We'll have to talk to James about his drinking." There are also a few scenes of social drinking of wine. John Sr. smokes a pipe.
An American Haunting is supposedly based on a true story that was "validated by the State of Tennessee, the only case in U.S. history where a spirit or entity caused the death of a man." Take that claim with a grain of salt, realizing that it was written by movie marketers. It was "validated" only in the sense that a lot of people have repeated variations of the story over the last 100-plus years. (It was also claimed that soon-to-be president Andrew Jackson visited the Bell family but that he and his entourage were chased away by the entity. Or course, there's no evidence that such an event took place in Jackson's memoirs or in those of his colleagues.)
Director Courtney Solomon, who wrote the screenplay, might be playing fast and loose with the facts for the sake of making a thrilling film, but he is to be congratulated for exercising relative restraint when it comes to the violence and gore so often seen in this genre. Yes, it's scary and intense—let me repeat myself—An American Haunting is scary and intense. But it's not obsessively bloody. And Solomon has produced a story free of profanity, one that is respectful toward the Christian beliefs of its characters. (Even if the Rev. Johnston is a bit too fond of wine in one scene, he is shown as stalwart in his faith.)
That said (and what I'm about to write contains a huge spoiler), Solomon posits the existence of poltergeists, supernatural spirits that reveal their presence by creating disturbances and loud noises. And in the last 30 seconds of the film we learn the source of the poltergeist in a twist that puts new meaning to the word wicked.