A distant relative of an American family said to have been haunted by a tormenting spirit tells Steve Pratt how a new film has sparked new interest in the story.

AS a child, Pat Fitzhugh's mother would read him tales from books about the famous Bell Witch haunting. "I enjoyed hearing scary stories," he says.

Those childhood tales sparked a lifelong interest in what has been called "America's greatest ghost story" in which an unseen spirit terrorised a family at their Tennessee farm home nearly 200 years ago.

What's different is that this story has been substantiated by eyewitness accounts, affidavits and manuscripts written by people who experienced it first hand.

It's also become something of an obsession for Fitzhugh, as he explains over the phone from his Tennessee home. He's devoted himself to researching and writing about the legend, attempting to sift out the truth from the false accounts surrounding it.

So he was particularly interested in An American Haunting, a new film now released on DVD, although he realised it might not necessarily be accurate. "It wasn't bad but beforehand I adjusted my expectations and realised this was a Hollywood version. It's very good from a movie standpoint and they did a good job with casting," he says of the movie starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek.

"This isn't the first film about the Bell Witch. There have been others but low budget ones. They haven't enjoyed the publicity and promotion of An American Haunting.

"The biggest thing with the movie is that it helps raise awareness of the story. I used to get about 150 emails a day but when the movie came out it went up to 2,000 a day, most of them from people wanting to know what the real story was."

In the film, John Bell and his family are tormented and abused by an unseen, unknown presence on their farm. Their daughter is attacked by the spirit which slaps her, beats her and flings her around the room. Bell fears the haunting was caused by a local woman, branded a witch, who put a curse on the family as the result of a land dispute.

Many believe that the spirit that visited the Bells nearly 200 years ago is the same one behind odd occurrences in the area in more recent times.

Fitzhugh welcomes the interest aroused by the movie. "My ambition for my research is to paint a real picture of what happened," says Fitzhugh, who is distantly related to the Bell family through marriage on his mother's side.

He has a website devoted to the Bell Witch and has written two books on the subject, as well as giving lectures and appearing on TV to talk about it. "It's an evolving work. There's no end to the research that can be done," he says. "I have found out that the people and places were indeed real, and many of them led very interesting lives, much more than the legend would have it."

He acts like a ghosthunter but keeps an open mind about whether such spirits exist. "I write evidence. I consider myself a non-biased researcher who also works as a storyteller. I have researched different ghost stories but Bell Witch has been a pet project since 1978 so I have spent a lot of time and money researching it," he says.

"Unlike most ghost stories and folk tales, the people and places really existed. Something did happen. Whether it was a ghost or spook, I don't know."

The scene of the haunting has changed, with the original Bell house being demolished in 1843. The land is still used for crops, tobacco, not corn as back then. A small stone with an inscription marks the spot where the house stood.

"The nearest road is a quarter of a mile away and the land is completely private. No one is allowed to go there without written permission. The people who own the land don't want to publicise the exact location of the house. In the past people who knew threw parties there and trashed the place," he says.

He receives new facts about the Bell Witch practically every day, via his website. If he feels it warrants investigation, he'll do that but a lot of claims prove false . "It's back to that lethal combination of human imagination and a six-pack of beer," he laughs.

* Pat Fitzhugh's website is at www.bellwitch.org

* An American Haunting (15) is released to buy by Lions Gate Home Entertainment, £19.99.