The Axe Murders of Villisca, which I wrote, was released on January 20th by IFC Midnight. I got a chance to sit in a theater and watch an audience squirm, scream, and laugh. It was a blast. It also brought back some memories.
The house depicted in the film has a history. A dark one. On a warm summer’s night in 1912 in the rural town of Villisca, Iowa someone made their way into the home of the Moore family and murdered eight people, six of them children. The killer was never caught. In the years since, the house has earned a reputation as one of the most haunted spots in America. The Villisca Axe Murder House.
I knew this because I was researching a new script. Director Tony Valenzuela and producers Kevin Abrams and Seth Caplan had come to me with a story based on Tony’s own visit to the house years before. He described voices, dark images, and, most intriguing of all, a sensation that the house was compelling him to acts of violence.
I love a good haunted house story. I dove into the script with gusto, typing out scenes of ghostly children and mad, axe-wielding ministers. I was just finishing my first draft when the producers told me I’d be taking a little trip. They’d like me to join Tony on a return trip to Villisca to tour the house … and stay the night.
Yep. The Moore house is now a museum during the day, popular with ghost hunters, true crime buffs and the morbidly curious. For a significantly larger fee you can have the whole house to yourself from dusk to dawn.
I flew into Omaha, met up with Tony, and drove through hypnotically flat farmlands toward Villisca. The narrow, two-story 19th century house stands on a quiet street not far from the town’s center. A tour guide led us through the rooms, decorated as they might have been over a hundred years before. He told us his own story of becoming infatuated with the house, revisiting it over and over and finally moving in next door. Tony nods along as the young man describes his uncanny and uncomfortable attraction to the spot. It’s a house that invites obsession.
You can feel the weight of the history of the house as you walk in. A heaviness to air and a quiet sense of despair. The house doesn’t look you in the eye. It glances at you sideways, it peers at the back of your head, studying you. The guide took us through the details Tony and I knew only too well. How the murderer had walked from room to room, starting, it’s believed, with the parents, using the blunt side of the axe to crush the sleeping couple’s skulls. Then he moved on to the children. There are nonsensical details to the crime – every mirror was covered by blankets, a candle had been placed at the head of each bed, the killer had cooked a breakfast for himself leaving his half-finished meal on the kitchen table.
I knew these details. I had used them in my writing. But now I was standing where this family had stood, walking through the living room where these children had played, climbing the stairs to the bedrooms where the family slept.
The upstairs children’s room is particularly famous. YouTube is thick with videos of visitors in this room playing with the ghosts of the children. A ball inexplicably rolls across the floor, the closet door swings open, whispered giggles seem to emanate from the walls. Paranormal investigators adore the place. One group had just stayed in the house the previous night. They had forgotten a motion detector in the upstairs hallway just outside the attic door.
Tony and I spent the day touring Villisca. We visited city hall, pouring through files and photos dating back to the murders. We walked the cemetery, finding the gravestones of the victims. We chatted with locals, asking their theories on who committed the crimes and why. The murders were followed by a massive but sloppy investigation and two widely publicized trials, both ending in acquittal. A mentally unstable minister confessed to the murders, describing the voice of God urging him to “slay utterly.” But he was never convicted.
Panic and fear gripped the small town in the months following the murders and the endless speculations and accusations tore at the seams of the community. To this day, the unsolved crime festers in the town like a wound that never quite healed.
As the sun set, Tony and I returned to the house with our sleeping bags. The gold of the sun faded and the rooms grew dark. One work lamp was the only lighting for the house, the rest was shadow and silence. Or almost silence – there were the creaks and sighs of an old house. I was finding myself a little too morbidly fascinated, a little too eager to see the unseen. Luckily producer Seth Caplan arrived and immediately changed the mood.
Seth walked in with a cheerful greeting and took in the setting. “Wow! It’s a like a real haunted house,” he said, pulling out his laptop. “Do they have wi-fi?”
We worked late into the night in the living room discussing the story beats and plot points. By necessity, the names of victims would come up and I found my neck pricking. Were these little girls who had died here listening? Were they wondering why I was speaking of them in the third person when they were standing right beside me, close enough to hold my hand? Did they flinch as we described their deaths? Their bodies discovered the next morning, the blood already congealing, any prints lost in the crowd of curious neighbors peeking in on the grisly crime scene.
When we finally finished up and prepared to sleep, I made a decision. The plan had been to roll out our sleeping bags in the living room. But if I was going to write about this place, I was going to be open to this place. I left Tony and Seth downstairs still chatting about preproduction, and made my way to the children’s room on the second floor. I chose one of the beds and lay down in the dark, cool room.
I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. But I felt something. Something sad. Something lost. Do I believe in ghosts? I’m not certain, but I do know that when a rock hits a pond, the water ripples out. I could feel the ripples of that crime. I could feel it as a presence. I’m not sure if that house is haunted, but I was haunted. Haunted by the horrific things that have happened. After all, what is a ghost but a thought, a memory, a truth so difficult it seems to take shape, seems to push a door, roll a ball, seems to whisper our names when no one is there.
The next day morning sunlight filled the house. I went back downstairs and rejoined Tony and Seth. We were packing up our stuff and making plans for breakfast when a high-pitched beeping sounded, growing faster and louder with each beep. It took us a moment to realize it was coming from upstairs. We ran up the stairs and found the paranormal investigators’ motion detector. The room was empty, the house was still, but according to that little machine, something was there. And I have to agree.