By Paula R. Stiles
Some of the oldest and scariest tales in North Carolina are about witches. Witchcraft is found in every culture of the world and NC has stories from all over the Old North State. Whether the flint-hearted Spearfinger and Stone Man among the Cherokee in the Mountains, or the conjurers of the Coast, witches have struck fear in Carolinians for hundreds of years.
People are afraid of witches because they can curse you and have the evil eye. It’s called “maleficium.” In Currituck County, people avoided the Rosemary there because it was allegedly first planted by a witch. A woman named Polly Poiner in Dare County over a hundred years ago drove a local man to murder by supposedly cursing his animals just by looking at them.
But the scariest thing about North Carolina witches is that they’re not human — in fact, there’s no real difference in the Carolina stories between them and a ghost. So, it’s said that even after Polly was strangled by Absalum Clarke for bewitching his cattle, and he hanged for it, she continues to haunt the site where she once lived. If you try to plow the land, a rope will come out of the rows like a snake and turn into a hangman’s noose.
Because they can also be ghosts, witches can haunt a house that hasn’t previously been haunted and appear in any form they like. In the “witch house” tale, popular in the Uwharries and Guilford County, someone decides to take shelter on a stormy night in an isolated, abandoned farmhouse. Around midnight, a black cat jumps out of the fireplace and leaps up onto the table next to the man.
“Well,” says the cat, “looks like it’s just you and me tonight.”
“Gonna be just you in a minute,” says the man and he takes off into the storm. He runs and runs until he collapses, panting, near a fence.
The cat is there on top of the fence, grooming itself. “Boy, that was some race we had,” comments the cat.
The man staggers to his feet. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” he says and he takes off again.
In some versions, the witch appears in an even more terrifying form — as a headless man. In Celtic lore, headless men are dark fairy harbingers of death known as the “Dullahan.” But there’s also a variant where the headless ghost appears to a woman taking shelter in the house with her children and shows her a great treasure in the fireplace. So, the witches in these tales aren’t always evil, though they are always scary.
Many NC stories about witches involve their ability to turn into animals or possess them. Anything that happens to the animal, happens to them. It is a common theme that a person will be attacked by a black cat, dog, or sow (or a lizard), cut off the animal’s paw in defense, and later visit the suspected witch, only to find she is missing a hand, or even bleeding to death.
Witches are also vulnerable to silver. An animal that is a witch can be killed by being shot with pieces of a silver coin. If a witch is injured in this way, she can only recover by borrowing something from the household of the person who injured her.
Another vulnerability of a shapeshifting witch is that the witch will leave her (or his) own skin behind when traveling as an animal or spirit. The vampire-like Boo Hag of the coastal Gullah people dies if she can’t return to her own skin by sunrise. It is possible to prevent a witch getting back into her human skin by coating the inside with salt while she is gone.
One of the most famous hauntings in the United States (it also happened to be a witch) was the Bell Witch of Tennessee. This is the only historical instance of a ghost (or witch) actually killing a victim — the family’s patriarch, John Bell (1750-1820). The family the Bell Witch persecuted came from Eastern NC. John Bell was born in a part of Edgecombe County that would become Halifax County in 1758 and lived much of his life in the part that later became Wilson County. This was where his children were born. The Bells then moved to Tennessee around 1805, where they were harassed from 1817 to 1821 by a witch that often took the form of a spectral dog. The witch apparently bullied John Bell to death (like a Boo Hag) and the hauntings ceased shortly thereafter.
No one ever discovered the origin or identity of the spirit known as the Bell Witch.
Barefoot, Daniel W. Seaside Spectres. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 1. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.
Carter, Catherine T. Ghost Tales of the Moratoc. John F. Blair, Publisher, 1992.
Cross, Tom Peete. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology, 16:3 (Jul. 1919): 217-287. Reprinted Forgotten Books, 2018.
Fitzhugh, Pat. The Bell Witch Website. 1998-2017. http://www.bellwitch.org/story.htm. Accessed 30 Oct 2018.
Morgan, Fred T. Haunted Uwharries: Ghost Stories, Witch Tales and Other Happenings from North America’s Oldest Mountains. Bandit Books, 2009.
Parsons, Elsie Clews. “Tales from Guilford County.” The Journal of American Folklore, 30:116 (Apr.-Jun. 1917): 168-200.