In 2005 academic Mark Spencer and his wife buy a beautiful mansion in Monticello, Arkansas, only to discover its dark history. A socialite jilted by her lover committed suicide there over half a century ago, and now haunts the house.
When Mark Spencer finds the long-hidden love letters between Ladell Allen Bonner and her secret lover Prentiss Hemingway Savage, he uncovers the story of a hidden love affair that dates back to 1948.
“There, scattered, are all these letters. And these letters are addressed to Ladell. I thought these letters that I held in my hands, were possibly the answer to that mystery, that question: why did Ladell die?”
For director James Bryce, this treasure trove of historical documents proved invaluable –
not just as the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the house’s hauntings, but also as an unparalleled insight into the characters of the real people whose spirits now haunt the Spencers’ house.
Says James: “It’s exceptional to have such intimate knowledge of the lives and motivations of the spirit characters in Paranormal Witness. We usually have clues, historical documents, stories handed down. But this cache of letters really is remarkable. They reveal a heart-breaking story – over the course of 83 letters, we see a romance blossom, wither, and end in tragedy.”
The Allen Mansion was built in 1906 by a wealthy bank president called Joe Lee Allen for his wife and their three daughters: Lonnie, Lewie and Ladell.
A dazzling socialite, Ladell was famously the most beautiful daughter, and her story would prove to be the most interesting and ultimately, tragic.
Prentiss Hemingway Savage grew up in Monticello and had met Ladell when they were both teenagers in Monticello in 1913. They dated, but they didn’t stay together. They both then married other people.
But in March 1948, 35 years after their first romance, Prentiss visits Monticello and comes back to the Allen House to see Ladell – now divorced, taking care of her ailing mother, Caddie, and grieving over the death of her only son.
They immediately fall in love, even though Prentiss is still married.
In one of his letters Prentiss writes:
“I don’t know why I should be worrying about when or how you write me so long as you want to. Typewritten envelopes are not noticed by anyone so hereafter write me when you wish and don’t wait so long darling. Your letters are the next best thing to being with you and I love to get them.”
Time passes and we see, from the letters, how Prentiss’ love grows:
“Yes, I hate that thought of seeing someone and then having to say goodbye. It’s awful some times and I dread it, but we better look forward to the pleasures and maybe the thoughts of saying goodbye won’t be so ever-present in our minds.”
In his letters he talks about Ladell tending her rose bushes and how fond they both are of gardening.
“Yes honey, I guess you are a better gardener than I am because my roses are not even started yet, but I have uncovered them and they are not dead and that is something.”
Prentiss promises to leave his wife – things seem to be perfect:
“These last five days will live in my memory always as the happiest ones in my entire life… I love you. Don’t ever forget I’m thinking of you always.”
But then something goes wrong with the affair. Prentiss seems to get cold feet about leaving his wife. His letters change in tone over the months and they became less frequent. He becomes cold and distant.
“It is so easy for someone to say just go ahead and do so and so but when it comes to doing it one finds it much more difficult, and especially if there are some other things to get settled that you just can’t seem to settle. It is hard for me to write you just what I mean.
I am not in much of a mood to write today because I have this problem on my mind and I want to try and settle it soon, and so if my letters don’t sound like you would like to have them, please overlook it for the time being.”
Previously, Prentiss had written that he would ‘surely’ be in Monticello for the holidays. But, reading the letters, it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would come to Ladell’s mother’s famous annual Christmas party.
“The way things are now I do not believe I had best try and go to Monticello during the holiday because this would complicate things.”
Prentiss Hemingway Savage didn’t come to Monticello for the Christmas holidays in 1948, and Mark Spencer believes that might have tipped Ladell over the edge. She had pinned her future on the return of her childhood sweetheart. She was a divorced 54-year-old who’d lost her son, her marriage, and was caring for her ailing mother. Prentiss was her only hope for a fresh start.
Prentiss’ letters stopped – the rest is silence.
Ladell’s death certificate states that she was admitted to hospital in the early hours of 26th December 1948, and she died on January 2nd 1949, from mercury cyanide poisoning. She’d taken her own life. It must have been a prolonged and agonizing death – Mercury Cyanide, unlike the more famous Potassium Cyanide, takes a long and gruesome course through the body before causing death.
James continues: “Writing this script I felt very lucky to have access to so much intimate information about the real people who inhabited this house in the past. Although we did not have time to use as many of them as I’d have liked, or to tell the whole story of the doomed affair, the letters really gave the ghostly characters an emotional, three-dimensional back-story.
It also meant the film became a kind of detective tale – I could plant clues which would lead to the ultimate explanation of who was haunting the property and why, making sense of the series of seemingly unconnected paranormal events that plagued the Spencers and their friends.
For example: early in the story the gramophone mysteriously plays on its own, then later we hear it echoed in the ethereal music from the Christmas party from 1948. Bronte hears the sound of ice cubes – they resonate across time from the drink Ladell takes to her room to wash down the mercury cyanide tablets. And Prentiss’ correspondence about their respective rose bushes becomes symbolic of their blossoming love. Then, when it goes wrong, Ladell destroys her rose bushes in a fit of rage and despair – and in the process, drops the lipstick which Mark and his kids will discover over sixty years later under the rose bed. I also asked the Production Designer to include roses in the props and set dressing wherever possible – an attentive viewer will spot roses embroidered on chairs, bed covers, even a lampshade!”
The events in the house - and the fabric of the house itself – are seemingly caught in a repeating loop of the last moments of Ladell’s life at that fateful Christmas party. The Spencers hope that by telling her story they can break this loop and, finally, give poor Ladell some peace.