In the fall of 2019, we spent the night at the Villisca Axe Murder house in Villisca, Iowa. This is the home in which Josiah Moore, his wife Sarah, their four children (Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; and Paul, 5), and two family friends (Lena Stillinger, 12; Ina Stillinger, 8) were bludgeoned to death by an axe-wielding murderer on June 9, 1912.
The murders that occurred in this house remain unsolved and many believe the house has been forever tainted by what happened that night. For the full story, check out this Smithsonian article.
A Day Visit to Villisca, 2017
2019 was not my first time to the house. Two years prior, my boyfriend and I stopped here for an afternoon tour on our way to a concert in Des Moines. The intrigue and mystery the house brought us during the day lingered, and when our friends said they’d be down to spend the night, six of us booked our overnight trip.
The house has no electricity nor running water. The interior is decorated with items from that period, although none have been claimed to be original pieces from the house, which has changed hands over a dozen times since the murders. Throughout the house, you will see what appear to be small offerings – money and small toys left for the children. This is a home that appears to be captured in time, tidy, but not sterile, and appearing to be lived in although no one has actually lived in this home for years.
When we visited in 2017 for the afternoon, we had some strange experiences, but nothing too jarring. Our tour guide was intriguing and told the story as if she’d been there at the time. We wandered the house, exploring each room in the home, trying to decipher whether the pain and sadness we felt was inspired by the story we’d just heard or whether the house was actually affecting us with its tragic history.
While we were exploring the cellar, which was locked and sealed when we returned for our overnight trip, we noticed our camera was not working. We’d taken thousands of photos on this camera and never had this problem and haven’t had these problems with it since. It could’ve just been a fluke, but it added to the creepy feel of the home. The cellar was only lit by the light coming in the entrance and the floor was dirt and mud. This memory is especially vivid for me as I stood in a dark corner of the cellar, waiting to have my photo taken by a camera that didn’t seem to want to work at the time. We were finally able to get a photo and get out of that creepy area.
The house felt creepy and we both felt a strange weight of sadness while we were there, but nothing particularly paranormal seemed to happen while we were there. Maybe it was the sunny weather or the distraction of others touring the house at the same time, but we knew we’d want to visit again, under quieter circumstances to get the real feel for the house.
The Overnight Trip, 2019
One evening in 2019, while hanging out with friends, the Villisca house came up in conversation. Our friends immediately became intrigued and started researching what went on there. “OH MY GOD, YOU CAN SPEND THE NIGHT THERE!” our friend exclaimed. “Let’s do it.” We all agreed and spent the next week determining the earliest availability we could all free up our schedules to go.
My boyfriend and I were already quite familiar with the story, had watched several shows and videos of experiences there, and even choked our way through The Axe Murders of Villisca movie, which turned an intriguing true crime story into a bizarre supernatural one. We’d heard theories and listened to mediums and ghost hunters, but we wanted to experience it for ourselves.
We gathered some “ghost hunting” equipment, as silly as some may have seemed, loaded up on batteries, cameras, a temperature gun, sound recorders and whatever else we thought we might need to document our night at this house. Although the electricity had been removed from the home, I took an EMF detector to determine whether anything in the house could emit something that would affect us.
It was a chilly day in November, 2019 when we arrived. This time, the tour was awkwardly led by a young woman who seemed to have gotten the job solely because she lived close to the house. She arrived an hour late and mostly read some details off her phone, getting some of the story wrong and missing the intrigue and power of the story the previous tour guide had so powerfully shared with us. Fortunately, we’d read the stories ourselves so we let her go on her way while we got settled in.
There were 6 of us – my boyfriend and I, our closest friends and her sister and brother-in-law. The weather was expected to be freezing that night, so fortunately the home had window-unit heaters in two of the rooms that heated the house sufficiently enough and there is a barn with electricity and plumbing in the backyard where we could warm up and get a break from the house, if needed. It was so cold out, my memory foam pillow actually froze in the car. A local cat kept us company in the barn and was a nice distraction from the spookiness.
It all started off as normally as it could have. While the house does not have electricity, there are several street lights outside that light the interior quite well through the thin curtains. We studied the house, visited the rooms and had a “family” dinner in the barn to prepare for our long night. We remained sober so as to not taint our perception and even tried to limit caffeine as best as we could, although we’d find throughout the night that we didn’t want to, or maybe we couldn’t, fall asleep.
The Ouija Board
In watching multiple paranormal videos of the Villisca house, several seem to have been able to apparently communicate with the deceased family members, particularly Sarah Moore, the wife. In particular, there’s a video of women ghost hunters who claim Sarah is communicating to them through their EMF detector, but the video is completely dark and I personally don’t believe what they’re saying is happening is actually happening. Too much room for interference and deception to get more views. Regardless, we decided to try our hands with a Ouija board.
Four of us sat on the floor of the upstairs children’s room and started asking questions to whichever spirits may have been present in the room at the time. We’d sit and wait and experienced no movement, aside from a tired hand repositioning. I guess I’m glad I have honest friends who’d rather have no movement than trick me into believing something happened. Absolutely nothing came out of using the Ouija board for us.
Toys in the Living Room
As the night went on, we decided we needed some gas station pizza, so around 7:30pm, the guys left us ladies at the house alone. The three of us were sitting in the living room, chatting, passing balls that had been left in the house back and forth. The ball had floated out of our reach, so we just left it and carried on our quiet conversation. With no movement in the room, one of the balls suddenly rolled back to us and stopped abruptly. We all looked at each other and tried to come to a scientific explanation of what had happened, but while the house is drafty and the construction is uneven after all these years, we couldn’t replicate what had happened. We had cameras rolling in other rooms, but had not captured what had just happened in this room, but it certainly spooked us. I started filming shortly after, but no further activity like that occurred.
There are many reports of this type of activity in the house that people attribute to the spirits of the children playing with visitors. You’ll see balloons, toys and balls spread around the house for just this purpose. Maybe is was a draft, maybe one of us exhaled a little too deeply, or maybe one of the children had enough spiritual energy to push the ball back to us. We only noticed it happen that one time and concluded that it was simply a spooky experience with a logical cause.
The Downstairs Bedroom
Family friends Lena and Ina Stillinger slept in the downstairs bedroom the night of the murder. It is said Lena was the only one who appeared to wake up during the attack and may have tried to fight off the attacker. While the room felt spooky, nothing seemed to occur in it during our visit.
The small closet in the room was several degrees colder than the rest of the room, even though the closet door was right next to the wall heating unit. One might say this is because spirits make the air go cold and perhaps Lena had tried hiding in the closet during the attack. But logic tells me the closet had minimal circulation, thus the heat didn’t enter the closet as much as the rest of the house.
Blood on the Ceilings
Something I haven’t encountered yet in my studies of this home is the current existence of blood stains from the murders. Of course, you cannot see this with your naked eye, but upon viewing the home with a UV light and corresponding yellow glasses, the stains become much more apparent. And they make sense.
It is logical to assume that the house has been painted multiple times in the 100+ years since the murders occurred. However, consider how infrequently ceilings get painted. In the Villisca house, the ceilings of the ground level rooms are quite tall and in the upstairs rooms, the ceilings are angled with the slant of the roof. In my research (burn my Google search history...), I found that blood can be detected under multiple layers of paint. I came to the conclusion that it could very well be possible to detect the blood splatters left from the Villisca axe murders even through a few layers of paint.
As I walked through the rooms where the murders occurred, I shone my UV light along the walls and ceilings. While the walls showed very little biological matter, the ceilings told a different story. Although not visible to the naked eye, I could see splattering on the ceiling above the parents’ bed as well as in the downstairs bedroom. The ceilings in the upstairs children’s bedroom didn’t have much to show, but that could be because the low ceilings were easier to paint and likely needed to be painted more frequently as they were likely touched more than the other ceilings in the home.
I would also assume that there would be smearing from cleaning up the blood, as the women of the town started cleaning prior to a proper investigation, but I can’t help but think that these splatters could be blood from the murders showing through the paint. Their positioning makes sense based upon the room setup (the parents’ room doesn’t offer many options for positioning of furniture due to its small size and angle of the ceiling). I also captured similar footage from the downstairs bedroom that would align with this theory.
Looking at the transition between the ceiling and the walls of the parents’ bedroom, I could see streaks running down the walls. I don’t believe this is all blood, but instead, possibly remnants of where they cleaned up the blood that left streaks in the wall.
I was also able to detect some glowing from the floors in the parents’ room and the downstairs bedroom. This was much more spread out and smeared and could honestly be any type of biological material, but perhaps the blood that soaked into the flooring and can still be visible by UV light. This would make sense since it is reported there was a large amount of blood on the floor, even filling a shoe. Years of foot traffic would wear off the finishing on the flooring. Or perhaps it’s something else. But there’s definitely something there.
The attic is located through a small closet upstairs between the two bedrooms. It is rumored that the killer hid in the attic until the family went to sleep. Some people say they can smell the odor of a cigarette, as if the ghost of the murderer lingers in there, chainsmoking, and it’s likely you will find a cigarette left there by a tourist to enhance this belief. While we did not smell smoke, we did spend quiet time in the attic in the dark.
The six of us sat in the attic, trying to remain silent as the wee hours of the morning arrived. The room was lit only by nearby streetlights through the small windows. It was enough for us to see each other and shadows of the toys and few pieces of furniture in the room. It felt creepy, but we didn’t notice any paranormal activity in there. A hunting camera had been set up to record the room overnight, but upon checking it the next morning, it had never started recording.
We did have a startling experience while sitting in the attic, however. During a moment of silence, we heard a loud bang in the upstairs children’s room. No one was in there. None of us, at least.
The Upstairs Children’s Bedroom
This was one of the spookiest rooms of the house and seemed to get even more so as the night wore on, particularly around 3am. After hearing the noise while we were in the attic, we went to investigate the loud bang we’d just heard.
I wish I had an amazing story to tell here, but what had happened was one of the bed frames was broken and had shifted so that the frame had come apart in the broken section. It’s the bed on the right in the photo below. It appears the foot of the bed frame had been broken and perhaps the temperature had adjusted to just the right degree that allowed the metal frame to constrict just enough to pop out of place, resulting in a loud, echoing banging sound.
In the photo, you can see the foot of the frame looks solid, but there’s a weak spot on the top left where the skinny rail connects to the wide corner piece. We re-positioned the frame back into place and left it, although it did separate again, though seemingly not as loudly. We ended up just leaving it in its broken state rather than fight with it all night and risk hearing the banging sound again. Visitors are asked to stay off the beds – this may be why.
As the night went on, it seemed more and more activity was occurring in the upstairs children’s bedroom. We attempted to take a nap in the living room around 1am, but it was near impossible to sleep. I’d started feeling sicker and sicker to my stomach as the night went on. Perhaps it was the supernatural powers in the house overcoming me, but more likely it was the late-night gas station pizza combined with reacting to the weird occurrences in the house.
I’d set up a camera rolling in the bedroom, but it died after a few hours of rolling, so I set up another after 3am. We’re still reviewing our hours of footage, which is quite the task, so there may be more to add to this story at some point. But a few things really startled us that I wish we would have gotten on film.
Around 3am, we were all in the living room, which is directly below the children’s room. Two were sleeping (in hindsight, I wish we would’ve made them sleep in the barn because they were quite the snorers and distracted greatly from our recordings), I was trying to nap and failing, and the other three were awake. The four of us heard a loud thud upstairs, but this was different from the bed sound. It sounded like a thud, like something hitting the floor loudly.
This was not something we could just ignore, so the four of us went upstairs to investigate. When we got upstairs, the closet door was open several inches and the bells that were hung on the back of the door were swinging back and forth, as if the door had just opened. Although the bells were moving, they were quiet, since they were swinging on the back of the door. We couldn’t find the source of the banging sound, so we sat up there for awhile to see if anything else would happen.
We tried talking to the spirits, but didn’t get any reaction. At 3:27am, I set up a fresh camera to start recording the room, we shut the door and we went back downstairs after a while. I haven’t gone through all my video footage yet to see what may (or may not) have been captured while it was running.
Throughout the night, we’d notice the closet door would be open, even though we kept shutting it. There has been speculation that this is due to the draftiness of the house and suction opening the door. I think that is a logical explanation, but when we tried different things to replicate that happening, such as opening the attic or back doors, we couldn’t get it to open on its own. Logic tells me it was simply airflow, but as the night went on, it seemed the door wanted to be open, even though we weren’t going in and out of the house.
Yes, I brought dowsing rods. I’d never used them before and purchased them just prior to our trip, so I didn’t have much experience using them. I’d seen them used in videos and the things you can do with them, so as a test, we tried them in the kitchen.
We did get some crazy activity out of them. For example, at one point, they started spinning in circles after asking a question. However, I’m 99.9% positive it was my very slight hand movement and potentially the different in temperature between the warmth of my hands and the drafty kitchen causing any change. We asked some goofy questions (specifically about the killer’s affinity for bacon, if you dare learn that story…) and got goofy results.
Maybe dowsing rods can effectively determine some things, but I don’t believe they helped us communicate with spirits in the house.
I also brought an EMF detector to determine if there was any sort of electrical or magnetic energy in the house that could potentially make us think we sensed something. I’d tested it at home and was able to get readings on appliances. At the Villisca house, the only real readings I got were expected – readings from the two wall heating/cooling units and from a couple android devices.
We tried to replicate using the EMF detectors to get the spirits to communicate with us as seen in a YouTube video, but we really did not notice any real response unlike those who made the video who claimed they had full conversations with Sarah.
Although the barn was not added until 2004, it also had a creep factor to it. The upstairs was set up to be somewhat of a lounge, decorated with some strange decor. This was where we could go to take a break from the house, warm up, charge devices and use the restroom, but at one point in the night, we had a bizarre experience.
My friend and I had gone out there for a bathroom break. We were standing in the main room by the restrooms when the lights in the other room turned off for no apparent reason. We were alone out there, no one was upstairs and there was no sound. The lights just went off. Then they turned on again shortly after.
Later on, when two others came out to the barn, we had them walk around upstairs to see if that would cause the lights to flicker. We’d thought maybe our previous trip up there had shifted something and tried to find a logical explanation of what had happened. We couldn’t replicate it and it didn’t happen again. We decided it was spooky, but not completely unexplained nor paranormal. The weather was quite cold and it’s possible it could have been wiring or some other logical explanation.
The Sick Feeling
Something I’ve heard in other videos of overnight experiences staying at the Villisca Axe Murder house is a sick feeling starts to overcome people as the night goes on. This is something we experienced while there. Again, there could be a logical explanation for it. We’d traveled a couple hundred miles that day, our diets were different than usual (including delicious local gas station pizza), there was dust in the house, we were awake all night and in a constant state of awareness which could have altered our digestion.
As I laid on the living room floor, trying to nap for an hour, the sick feeling ate away at me. I was at the point I thought I might throw up. The sick feeling continued to linger even after we’d left the property in the early morning and seemed to dissipate the closer we got to home. While I do believe there are rational explanations for it, I wanted to mention it as it had been noted by others.
Is the Villisca Axe Murder House really haunted? Maybe. We definitely had some bizarre experiences that could be seen as paranormal, but I also believe there are logical explanations for the things that happened. I didn’t see any ghosts or paranormal activity, but I do think there’s something spooky going on in the upstairs bedroom.
Would I spent the night there again? Absolutely. I would love to go back, knowing what I know now and being better equipped, maybe fewer people for less distractions, I would love to see what happens again.
What would I do differently next time? I would be more prepared, more sound recording devices, more cameras, night vision cameras, things like that. I would also keep the group small and limited to people who really want to take this seriously. Two of our group members ended up going to sleep in the living room around midnight and unfortunately, their snoring severely interfered with our recordings. Next time, I would have anyone who wants to sleep, go out into the barn.
What was the creepiest thing that happened that night? Hearing that thud in the upstairs bedroom in the middle of the night was pretty creepy. Then, going upstairs a couple times and finding the closet door open added to the creepiness.
How can I experience the Villisca Axe Murder house for myself? Details for day and overnight visits can be found on the official website. A virtual tour is also available.