This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here.
The Villisca Axe Murder House is the site of a historical murder. It was here, in the tiny town of Villisca, Iowa, that two adults and six children were found bludgeoned to death in their beds in 1912. No one was ever convicted for the crime, and the house passed through a series of hands until it became a museum in the 1990s.
It was around this time that the place developed a reputation for being haunted. Museum guests said they heard footsteps in empty rooms and saw objects move around unassisted. As a result, the house began to attract self-proclaimed paranormal investigators from around the world, and the museum’s owners, Darwin and Martha Linn, sensed a market opportunity and opened it for overnight accommodation.
On the night of November 7, 2014, a ghost hunter and his elderly parents checked into the Villisca Axe Murder House. Johnny Houser is the building’s caretaker, and he was the one to check the guests in that night before he went home to bed. He had no idea that only a few hours later, the couple’s middle-aged son would be found in a pool of blood with a hunting knife protruding from his chest. Apparently he’d stabbed himself in the Axe Murder House—for no clear reason at all.
Here, we’re exploring the story from Johnny's perspective. This article is an excerpt from the third season of VICE’s podcast, Extremes. In Johnny's own words, he describes what happened that night, and how the incident changed his feelings about the house. After the stabbing, even he—the building’s own caretaker—stopped doing overnight stays and started avoiding being there alone.
When I came to the house originally, I didn't believe in ghosts. Honestly, I thought it was stupid. I remember texting my buddies and just saying, “look at my job’s website with the ghost photos” like, you know.
I got my job at the house not long after I’d moved to Villisca with my wife at the time. Every day I’d go for a walk, and I’d see Darwin [the building’s owner] out the front, in his bib overalls working on the place. And I would just bombard him with questions: “Okay tell me the suspects! Okay, go over the crime scene with me!”
One day Darwin looked at me and said “you're here every single day, I might as well pay you to do something while you’re here—do you want a job?”
So I took right over the building's maintenance: the groundskeeping, the website. Like it just kind of all fell into my lap, which I loved.
The clientele at the Villisca Axe Murder House ranges from young women who are really, really, really into true crime, to lots of senior citizens who come here for senior bus tours. We have a group of senior ladies that come down and try to figure out who the axe murderer was amongst themselves. We also get a lot of ghost hunters. I mean 90 percent or our overnight clientele are paranormal investigators.
That night that changed everything in 2014 started off like any normal overnight. I was in the barn, just waiting for the car to pull up. I saw the car stop, and this gentleman walked towards the barn and I could see he had a hunting knife attached to his belt. He was wearing camouflage pants which is kind of normal attire around here, so I just shrugged and let him in.
He seemed very normal to me, no red flags really. My red flag was at first that he was there with his mom and dad. But then instantly I'm like, don't be a jerk, maybe that's their thing. He was probably, I'm guessing, in his 50s. They were quite elderly. Finally he told me how he was going to give the house a piece of his mind so I said, “oh, cool, have fun with that”. Then I went home to bed.
The next morning I woke up, picked up my phone, and I was tagged in a million things on social media. I saw all these headlines: “Man Stabs Himself at Axe Murder House”. I just couldn’t believe it.
I rushed over to the house where I made a couple of my friends meet me. I didn’t want to be flying solo in a situation like that. So we walked in, and right on the floor in the kitchen was a blanket wrapped up, and there was a little teddy bear foot sticking out of it. A lot of people bring teddy bears and dolls and stuff to leave as tokens for the kids, so that bit was normal, but this teddy was all covered in blood. And my first thought was, “not again, not again in this house.”
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I went in with a bottle of bleach and a towel, because I'd seen that on The Sopranos, and dumped bleach all over the floor and mopped the towel around with my foot. At that point the house’s other owner, Martha, came in and she was crying. She was like “this is supposed to be fun. Should we just close?” I told her we couldn’t close. I told her that if we closed people would say we had to close because the house was too haunted. Pretty soon, we’d have people breaking in, so I told her “let's just keep going”.
From there we kept going. I later found out that the gentleman with the hunting knife had been in the house by himself, doing some sort of a solo investigation in the kid’s bedroom. And that’s where the mum and dad found the knife shoved through their son’s chest. He’d been life-flighted to a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, and he’d survived.
That was all I knew. I never heard anything more. I wanted to reach out to him, but I never did and it wasn’t until a few years later that I found out what had happened.
A TV show about paranormal activity was filming at the house. It was called Kindred Spirits, and the producers had convinced the guy to revisit the house. So one day I just walked into the barn, where they had all their equipment, and I saw the guy just sitting there, in a chair, and out loud I was like: “you!”
I was shocked to see him. So I sat down and I said “I have a million questions for you.” He said he’d try to answer as best he could, so I told him that my first question was why he brought a knife.
And told me he usually concealed-carries handguns, but he didn't know the laws in Iowa, so he thought he’d just bring a knife instead. Then I asked him my biggest question. I was like “what happened?”
He told me he’d been alone in the bedroom provoking—trying to get the ghosts to come at him. Then he said he woke up in the emergency room and didn't remember a thing. At that point he started crying really hard. He told me that it ruined his life. Everybody thought he was crazy or thought he was after money or to be on a TV show, and he just said that he wanted to finally tell his side of the story so people wouldn't think he was insane.
What really struck me was that when we all walked into the house together, he was right next to me. And the first thing he did when he walked into the house was apologise. He apologised for getting loud and yelling and screaming and doing the “come at me bro” stuff. I could hear the shakiness in his voice, and he was saying it looking up to the ceiling and I was just thinking “this is so weird, so bizarre.”
After the incident in 2014, I have never really spent the night at the house again. I'm just kind of done with staying the night at the Axe House. I'm never going to say a ghost stabbed him—come on, let's get real—but maybe there is something in that house that preys on people that are mentally ill, or not rooted in any kind of faith or protection. I want zero to do with any of that.
Is there anything evil about the house? Well I think that what happened in the house was evil. I mean there's no doubt about that. But I think when you go to the house looking for good you're going to get good. I think when you go there looking for the bad you're going to get bad. I think it just reflects back to you whatever you're wanting to get out of it.
Certainly the murder in 1912 was evil and horrible, and I think that that leaves an imprint on places. You go to Auschwitz or places where tragedy has happened and that feeling is there, you know something bad happened. I think evil leaves a fingerprint.
In any case, I want to keep the house going. I'm afraid that if somebody else buys it they’d make it into a circus sideshow joke. We actually had a person that wanted to buy it and make it a murder museum and move into Los Angeles. And it was like, no, I don't ever want anything like that happening to it. I really hope I'm the one that keeps it going, and I hope that my kids, someday, are running it and keeping it going too.
This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes. You can listen to the full story here, free, only on Spotify.