CREEPY CORNER: Why I Have a Problem With the Villisca "Ax Murder House"

When a place is stripped down to just horror or "boo for bucks" even I can't get excited.
Publish date:
November 13, 2014
murder, ghosts, creepy corner, haunted houses

I've been trying to figure out how to write about the Villisca House for a long time. (For the purposes of this Creepy Corner, I'm going to call it the "Villisca House" instead of the "Villisca Ax Murder House" -- hopefully the reasons will become clear.)

When I first learned about the Villisca House years ago, I was intrigued. A house frozen in time with a dark past and a reputed haunting? What more could a Creepy Cornerista want?

But the more I've read about the Villisca House, the town of Villisca, Iowa, and the notoriety surrounding the house and the town, the more I wonder if this is one of the worst versions of a "haunted house" attraction. I'm all for allowing the public to visit or experience a supposedly haunted location, but there is a fine line between respecting the past and trotting out a tragedy for gain.

There are houses, sites, locations all around the world that do it right. Lemp Mansion and the Whaley House are two that come to mind. While both locations actively acknowledge that the houses are considered haunted -- hauntings that occur as a result of tragedies -- there is a dignity to the way the past is represented. (Just ignore that awful "The Haunting of Whaley House" movie.)

I really like what the Whaley House posts on their website in an essay by Byrd Wood titled, "Haunted Houses: Preservation Help or Horror?"

Old buildings come with a past. That past may be an important event found in history books or it may be just a rumor fueled by late night ghost stories. But either way, hearing such stories can help us feel more personally connected to a building's history and to the people who were a part of it. Preservationists are accustomed to being "haunted" by the past. We should celebrate any ghosts that make that past more vivid and compelling for others. Reprinted courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation

When handled with respect, hauntings, ghosts, and folklore can add to the vitality and emotional resonance of a place. When a place is stripped down to just horror or "boo for bucks," even I can't get excited.

I admit I haven't been there, but I fear the Villisca House is going, or has gone, that direction.

In case you haven't heard of the Villisca House, here's the basics of what you need to know.

On June 10, 1912 an unknown person entered the home of Josiah and Sarah Moore in Villisca, Iowa. This person proceeded to brutally bludgeon Josiah and Sarah as well as their four children, and two of the neighbor's children who were sleeping over. An axe was the reported murder weapon.

Strange details add eerie mystery to the murders. All the mirrors in the house were covered with clothing, as well as some of the windows. A slab of bacon was found resting against a wall, and "on the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water."

Additionally, all of the victims' faces were covered with clothes, and were battered far beyond what would be necessary for a swift killing. Only 12 year-old neighbor Lena Stillinger showed any defensive wounds.

To this day the murder has not been solved.

The reason the Villisca House was brought to my attention again is because a man recently stabbed himself at the house while "ghost hunting." The details are vague, but apparently just after midnight (the approximate time the murders took place over 100 years ago), his cries were heard and other members of his group found that he had stabbed himself with an unknown object. The man was taken to the hospital and is alive.

The people in the house were just a few of the hundreds of overnight visitors the Villisca House hosts every year. It has become a popular tourist attraction where, for a little over $400, a group can spend the night in the house. The house has been restored to its appearance on the night of the murders.

Some point to a curse or an evil that haunts the house, others speculate that the man was already mentally troubled and got overwhelmed by the excitement of the investigation. Personally I suspect this poor man was tormented by his own personal, non-paranormal demons, and something in him snapped.

But the renewed attention being brought to the Villisca House and the town of Villisca troubles me.

This is a house that has been preserved purely as a sort of monument to the death and suffering that occurred inside its walls. I can't help but detect a hint of "the Villisca Axe Murder House struck again" delight in some of the coverage of the stabbing. While other sites of human suffering have been preserved, and are also tourist attractions -- prisons, asylums, hospitals, other homes -- usually (sadly not always) there is an element of "learning from our mistakes" or historical significance to such places.

The Villisca House is a place where eight people, six of whom were completely innocent children, were murdered. That reason alone is why people flock to its doors. It is historical rubbernecking.

Many residents of the town of Villisca have spoken out that they wish the murder could be put behind them. Some say keeping the sensationalism of the murders alive, and the hopes that the spirits of the murdered family are still stuck on the site of the their death, is a violation to the memory of the deceased. The victims are being used as pawns for monetary gain.

You could argue that it's all for the sake of ghosts. The Villisca House has for some time been considered a haunted hotspot. And while some supposed evidence has been collected that might point to a haunting -- children's voices, "orbs," doors opening, disembodied footsteps, etc. -- I wonder at what point is it just distasteful to prod the dead in the name of entertainment? It's easy to forget, and I'm guilty of this too, that many of these "haunted locations" are also crime scenes.

I really, REALLY, don't mean to be a Creepy Corner Killjoy this week. You know I'm all for a good ol' spooky experience. But maybe you'll notice, long time Creepy Corner readers, that I rarely encourage actively bothering the dead -- ghosts or not. I believe we owe the dead, either their spirit or merely their memory, and ESPECIALLY innocent victims, dignity. In my opinion, the way the Villisca House is shopped out as the "Villisca Axe Murder House" is far from dignified.

And I would wager to say that the murders committed in the Villisca House are frightening enough on their own. Home invasion, mysterious killer, covering all the mirrors? That's some pretty chilling stuff WITHOUT the overnight ghost hunting. The facts themselves trump the tourist trap element of it all.

I guess what I'm saying, and this is a good reminder for me too, that as paranormal enthusiasts it's important to remember that somewhere at the heart of every good ghost story is a human story. Once that becomes secondary to an EVP or an orb photo, you might as well pack up the Creepy Corner and turn on the lights.