Are There Witches in the Smoky Mountains? Talking Southern Superstitions

witch smoky mountains

Tales of witches and supernatural ongoings in the Smoky Mountains are as old as time (photo by Kharchenko_irina7/iStockPhoto)

Witchy superstitions and stories are practically tradition in the South. Here are a few of the most famous witches and tall tales.

I grew up at my grandmother’s knee hearing stories about witches and goblins from her Depression-era childhood. With this in mind, I try to come to the topic of the supernatural in the mountains with something of an open mind. I want the tales of Big Feet and wild creatures to hold some truth. I’m ensorcelled by the idea of an ancient, mystic magic that only a select few can access. I’ve also followed dowsers using their rods to look for water or graves or some other underground treasure.

I’ve heard the lore and the stories about the mountain women who knew which herb or root or weed could help cure you. But my skepticism lingers. Perhaps, it’s for self-preservation. If we live in a world where witches can curse us and cause our cows to give blood instead of milk, what hope can we have? 

The mountain culture was a potent mix of religion, superstition and old mountain knowledge passed from one generation – and sometimes one culture – to the next. If the people who settled in the Smokies believed in witches in the Old World, why wouldn’t they believe in witches in the new one?

Camp Fire at Night
Are there witches and goblins hiding out in the Smokies? (photo by SF.Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

Are there witches in the Smokies?

Some people identify themselves as witches. Of course, some people believe other people to be witches. Are they witches in the sense that they fly on brooms and control the natural world with a power the rest of us can’t access? No. 

I connect to the lore of the mountains through my grandmother. The culture of rural Southern Indiana and the people of the mountains were similar in many ways. For instance, Nanny, from the time I was little, could recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” from memory. She had a special little flair, a little performance to make it extra creepy. The poem – written in 1885 – had its roots in the same ground as the stories mountain folk grew up telling their kids. 

In the mountains, they would tell stories about ghosts and goblins and witches snatching up naughty little kids and eating them. Riley’s Goblins don’t eat the kids – they just secret them away to some kind of Devilish afterworld. Even though Nanny told her stories for entertainment, I understood their original purpose from an early age. They were designed to keep people in line. In other words, to add a little extra motivation to walk the right path, respect your elders and all that.  

Woodcut of a Witch from 1643
“Evil” witches were often blamed for anything that went awry (woodcut of a witch from 1643)

Southern superstitions

It’s scary to live in a world you don’t understand. Even today, it’s our natural inclination to fill in gaps in our knowledge. Today’s conspiracy theory is yesterday’s superstition. We’re certainly not as likely to believe in haints or curses or even witches. But we will find something to latch onto in the face of the unknown. 

In the old days, in the mountains, there were four basic kinds of witches, though you could argue really, it’s just two with some subsets.

There were evil witches whose role was to cause misery. They put hexes on people, maybe in consort with the Devil himself. I also read on the website North Carolina Ghosts that joining the Devils team was fairly easy. At night, go to a hilltop, curse the Lord three times, and shoot a hole in a handkerchief. If the hole bled, you were in. I would think the whole gunshot ringing out in the dead of night wouldn’t be a great way to initiate yourself secretly into Satan’s team, but it’s not like could just go to the Devil’s weekly potluck and join in. 

What could evil witches do? Just about anything. They were also blamed for any inexplicable bad thing that happened. Cows go dry? Crops falling? Bad health? Headaches? The answer was the same. Hexed by an evil witch. 

Man Water Dowsing
George Casely uses a hazel twig to find water on the land around his Devon farm. According to the original caption “Casely has the power of divining and has sunk a well in several of his pastures” (USGS.Gov)

Good witches and modern-day practices

You’d go to your good witch or witch doctor to get the hex lifted. But how much of this was psychosomatic? Hexes willed into existence by anxiety and lifted by belief in the power of the positive supernatural? I’d love for there to have been studies on it.  

Another category – or possibly a subcategory of good witches – are the medicine witches or healers. These, in my opinion, are the closest thing we had to real witches in the mountains. But it wasn’t magic. It was knowledge. Medicine women – or men – could use herbs and plants to aid in healing. So, they had knowledge passed down through generations – and possibly across cultures – of the medicinal qualities of every plant in the mountain. You can buy echinacea at the supermarket today to enhance the body’s immunity. But they could pick it from the mountain fields. 

The final category is the water witches. The people who use a dowsing rod to find things underground, usually water. This is a form of witchery that’s still practiced today. You get two metal rods – or a Y-shaped wooden stick – and walk the Earth focused on the thing you’re seeking underground. The idea is the water – or the grave – carries a natural signal that is not noticeable by our conscious selves but can be divined by our other senses. I’ve seen people dowsing and of course, they swear it works. To me, it feels like the time my Aunt Beth taught me how to use the Ouija Board. Specifically, who is pointing that stick at the ground? Is it a supernatural force or are you just guessing? 

a creepy woman in the woods holding a heart and with spear shaped finger on her hand with a raven on her shoulder looking at the camera
Legend says that Spearfinger was a shapeshifter who would often appear to children in the guise of an old woman. She had a spear for a hand, which she would hide under her robes (AI-generated image)

Famous witches of the Smoky Mountains

1. The Witch of Gatlinburg


The Fear Mythos wiki page tells the story of the Witch of Gatlinburg, who has more aliases than a Batman villain. Crow Face, The Mountain Maid, Bird Mother or Smoky Mountain Witch, is known to wear a bird-skull mask or an actual bird skull. Though the “legend” is rooted in a story dating back to 1817, I’m pretty sure this is a modernly concocted Witch story created by the Internet people. 

2. Spearfinger


What I am 100% sure is not a modernly concocted tale is Spearfinger a shape-shifting witch whose legend dates back to the Cherokee people. Spearfinger – so named because she had an obsidian knife for a finger – was known to roam the mountains searching for Cherokee children who wandered astray. She’d eat their livers as witches are surely wont to do. 

3. The Bell Witch


Tennessee’s most famous witch isn’t from the mountains at all. The legend dates to the time settlers were first arriving in Cades Cove. The Bell House located in Adams, Tennessee in the middle of the state has drawn paranormal enthusiasts from around the world, for more than 100 years, including President Andrew Jackson. Various versions of the story have also been told in movies and TV shows through the years. 

The origin of the story involves the farmer John Bell, who encountered a strange, dog-like creature near his farm and took a shot at it. This was – as you may guess – the Bell Witch in one of her shape-shifting forms. Of course, the witch did not take kindly to the potshot and spent years tormenting Bell and his family. Now they call her the Bell Witch but seems to me she was more of the Bell Ghost. But maybe she was the ghost of a witch – something of a supernatural double whammy. 

The Bell Witch Ghost Sketch WIth Dog
The Bell Witch of Middle Tennessee is probably the most well-known witch story in TN (Sketch is from “An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era” (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection)

Cultures from around the world tell the stories of witches that can hex, hurt or heal. They also tell of beings with the power to bend the natural world to their will. But do they exist? Have they ever? The rational mind leans towards no. However, we all recognize there remain phenomena that we can’t explain or understand. Is there something with our species that a rare few can unlock? Is there a power in the natural world that a handful of us can access? Unless we experience it ourselves, we may never know. 

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