AN AMERICAN HAUNTING
The story starts with the disclaimer that there has been one case of a spirit actually causing the death of a person. We then enter Red River, Tennessee, where we see a young girl, Julia, running through a forest pursued by something. She reaches her house and shuts and locks the door on nothing. She runs up the stairs to her bedroom, still in a panic, and shuts and locks that door, picking up something to use as a weapon. The invisible spirit (itself) chasing her rattles the door for a few seconds but then stops. She slowly approaches the door and then glances at her mirror where she sees the spirit taking the form of a young girl dressed in a colonial nightgown. She screams and then we see her lying in bed, seemingly having had a dream. Her mother comes in and calms her down. She finds a doll and a document on Julia's floor. She goes downstairs and reads the document, which is a letter written to a girl named Betsy back in the 1800s....
We see two girls, Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Theny Thorne (Zoe Thorne) chasing after a boy named Joshua (Sam Alexander). They catch him and tease him a little bit, and it's obvious that they both have little crushes on him, and he has a crush on Betsy. Later, we see a Christmas party at the house belonging to Betsy's father John (Donald Sutherland). All of the major town figures are there, including the town preacher James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) and the schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy). Also in attendance are John's wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) and his son John Jr (Thom Fell). We see Betsy and her friends playing around with some mistletoe in an effort to get Richard to kiss Betsy. John reprimands her a little bit, but Richard laughs it off and dances with her. Later, we see Lucy and John enjoying some alone time and reflecting on how wonderful their life is.
A few days later, though, we see John in front of a panel of judges regarding some land and slaves he had lent to a local nut named Kate Batts (Gaye Brown). Apparently he had charged her a twenty percent interest rate, which the court says is usury, but they let him off with a slap on the wrist. As everybody's leaving though, Batts says that her punishment will be much worse than the one the court gave, and that Betsy will taste of it too. A few months later, in spring, we see John, Richard, and Junior out for a hunt. John sees a deer traipsing through the forest, and signals the others to circle around while he heads for a frontal attack. As he's hunting the deer though, a giant black wolf with bright yellow eyes attacks him. He fires a shot at it, but the wolf disappears. As John stars in confusion, Junior comes up and says that they got it. John says, "The wolf?" but Junior just looks confused and responds, "No...the deer."
That night, we see Lucy getting ready to go to sleep when she suddenly hears someone walking around. She goes to check it out and eventually bumps into John, who heard the same sound. Meanwhile, in Betsy's room, we see something tearing her sheets off repeatedly. Meanwhile, the wolf howls outside, and John recruits Junior and they go out hunting for it. Meanwhile, back in the house, the spirit gets impatient and starts grabbing and hitting Betsy. Lucy tries to intervene, but the spirit shuts her out. Eventually it stops and the rest of the family is able to get in, where they tend to her. The next day we see Richard teaching class. He goes to ask Lucy something, but finds that she has fallen asleep. He tells the class to take fifteen minutes of physical activity. Once they're gone, he wakes Lucy and asks if she is alright, and she says she's fine, though he obviously doesn't believe her. Outside, we see Betsy swinging on one of two swings when suddenly she sees a little girl next to her, though she can't make out a face. The little girl holds out her hand and Betsy moves to touch it, but suddenly the girl's hand turns black and she turns into some kind of demon. Betsy screams and falls forward off the swing, to the consternation of her classmates, who are only more confused when she tells them about the girl who wasn't there.
That evening, we see that John has invited Reverend Johnston over. He informs the reverend of what happened and Johnston gathers the whole family in prayer and they do a chant which will supposedly get the spirit out of the house. It seems to work, as nothing has happened by ten to midnight. However, while the rest of the family is downstairs, the spirit reappears in Betsy's bedroom and pulls her up by the hair and starts slapping the hell out of her. The men hear, but are again kept out. Eventually they get the door open and see what is being done to Betsy, and after some quick words from Johnston, the spirit departs. The next day, we see the two Johns and Johnston trying to convince Richard of what happened, but he keeps rationalizing it away and, in an effort to placate John Sr., promises that he will spend Saturday night there and prove that nothing supernatural is occurring. Later in school, though, we see Richard collecting tests from class (except from Emily, who is asleep again). He dismisses students for the day, and Joshua goes over to Betsy and reminds her they were going down to the river today. She tells him that she can't, but he keeps insisting until she yells at him in a voice somewhat unlike her own. She returns to normal and looks at the scared faces around her and runs off. Back in her bedroom, she sees her journal flip open and the word "Remember" appears upon a blank page.
A few nights later, on Saturday, we see that Richard has been true to his word and is set up outside Betsy's bedroom. Things appear calm, but suddenly Betsy finds it difficult to breathe and open her mouth, and it soon becomes clear that the spirit intends to rape her. Meanwhile, the other denizens of the house slowly become aware that something isn't right. They go to Betsy's bedroom and interrupt the spirit, who kicks up an almighty ruckus before leaving. They take Betsy downstairs where Richard still spouts out rationalizations, although they are quelled when the spirit shows up again and starts harassing everyone and tearing pages out of Johnston's bible...to a point. Richard tries to communicate with it and we learn two things -- that it is there because of something the Bells did, and that it seems to have an aversion to the Psalm of David, since that was the book it tore out.
Some time later, we see the physical toll this is taking on John, who is becoming grayer and frailer. One day, he is looking in a mirror when his skin starts turning black and his tongue gray. He drops the mirror but realizes it was a trick. He then sees a ghost representation of Betsy and starts, but then realizes it's just Lucy...if that's all it ever was. Later, we see one of Kate Batts's slaves bring a bag full of something that Kate is having returned to them. The head maid for the Bells takes it and brings it in. Lucy says she doesn't want it, but the maid insists that they should open it. When they do, they find clothes belonging to John and Betsy that are covered in blood. The maid freaks at this and says that this signifies the coming death of John and Betsy. A few days later, we see Betsy sitting in the schoolyard watching a game of soccer when the ball goes into the forest. Betsy goes to get it, but as she does she again encounters the little girl. She follows the girl and eventually winds up with her in a cave. The two splash each other at a little pond, but the girl abruptly stops and starts walking around the pond. Betsy meets her halfway and is suddenly attacked by the girl, and the next thing we see is Betsy waking up screaming at night in bed with Theny, having apparently had a nightmare, although it's pretty obvious by now it wasn't just that. Betsy confesses to Theny that she doesn't believe in God anymore just in time for the spirit to show up and screw with both girls, although it's still primarily Betsy who gets it. Later, the adults are trying to get what happened out of Theny and a catatonic Betsy, but all they can get is scared utterances.
More days pass, and things get worse. John, now having to use a cane to get around, makes his way over to Kate Batts's farm. He gives her his gun and begs her to remove the curse and take her pound of flesh from his own skin. She holds the gun to his head for a minute, but then hands it back to him and says, "You brought this curse on yourself." We later see John in a field, where he begs for mercy from the spirit and tries to kill himself, but the gun keeps misfiring while the spirit whispers, "Not yet, John...." Not long after, we see John in prayer in the town church begging God or Satan to remove the spirit. Unfortunately, nothing happens and we later see John with Richard telling him that he has been forsaken by God. Richard points out that so long as Betsy is in this house, she is unsafe, and the two hit upon an idea. The next day, we see Richard and Junior driving a carriage with Betsy in it like a the hounds of hell were after them. Unfortunately, the hounds -- or the spirit, rather -- catch up, and the spirit knocks down a tree, cutting off their path and flipping the carriage over, breaking the horses loose. As if that weren't enough, the wolf from before comes back, this time accompanied by an unnaturally strong wind, and attacks Junior. Richard takes advantage of this and nabs one of the horses, takes Betsy, and rides the horse out of there. Suddenly, the wolf appears out of nowhere and gives pursuit to Richard, eventually knocking him and Betsy off the horse. That evening, we find everyone back at the Bell homestead, and they slowly admit to each other that there is no escape from this spirit.
More time passes. We see Betsy getting attacked, but now the family does nothing but wait for it to be over. After one bout of this, we see Lucy head upstairs to check on Betsy, only to find her dead. Lucy cries and wails, and suddenly Betsy wakes up in time for Lucy to check on her and tuck her in. After a few weeks pass, a change occurs. The spirit starts leaving Betsy alone and begins taking its rages out on John, who becomes even weaker than he was before. One morning, we see Lucy out on the porch swing when we see nothing walking toward her, even though the boards are sinking as though somethings there. The spirit sits down next to her and Lucy asks what it wants, The spirit says, "You know...." and we suddenly see an image of John bursting into Betsy's room one night and raping her. Later, he throws the bloodstained dress of Betsy's and his bloodstained shirt in a bag for safekeeping, and suddenly we're back with Lucy. That night, we see her giving John some medicine. He drinks it, but suddenly is having trouble breathing, and he realizes that Lucy has poisoned him. He dies, and as we see a much healthier Betsy standing over his grave that winter, we hear Lucy saying that after her father died, Betsy became much better, and that she thinks that the spirit was something Betsy created as a way of getting even with her father and exacting some sort of justice upon him.
Back in the twenty-first century, we see Julia's mom finishing the letter just as Julia comes downstairs to tell her that her father has arrived to pick her up (divorce). Julia's mom smiles and says okay, and walks her out. She picks up a package someone left on the doorstep as we see Julia getting in the car with her dad. Julia's mom closes the door, looks up from the package...and screams at the ghost image of Betsy standing in her living room. Betsy looks out the window with a sad expression on her face at Julia. Julia's mom opens the door, and we see Julia looking at her house with an equally sad and scared expression. Julia's mom realizes what this means and why Betsy is there -- to tell her that her daughter is being raped by her ex-husband -- and runs after the car, but can only watch as her ex-husband drives off with their child captive to his perversions.
As the credits start, we see a definition of a poltergeist as a spirit who haunts a person, or a supernatural energy created by a young girl under enormous pressure. We then see a disclaimer saying that this film has depicted just one of the many theories surrounding the events of the Bell haunting, and that the haunting has been documented in over twenty books.
Betsy Bell is tormented by a spirit named Kate that follows her wherever she goes. It starts out with what is considered poltergeist activity (strange noises, things moving around the house, etc...) but then becomes abusive and begins pulling Betsy's hair, scratching and slapping her, etc...
In the end it's John Bell who is abusing and raping Betsy Bell. Betsy has conjured up this "protector" spirit because of his abuse. That's the big twist. And its the mother Lucy Bell who poisons John Bell due to this abuse. The spirit which is apparently Betsy Bell's spirit then returns in 2006 to warn a relative of the Bell's that her ex-husband is abusing their daughter.