Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Haunted Heart of America: In-Depth Investigations of the Villisca Ax Murder House, Myrtles Plantation & Other Frightful Sites


I received a copy of this ARC free via NetGalley from Llewellyn Publications in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2 Stars

That cover though...

I was perusing NetGalley and once I saw this cover, I had to have it. I was also drawn to it because of the subtitle referring to Villisca. I've been to that house and can confirm 100% it is haunted. I am always interested in reading about the experiences of others who have ventured there. I visited during the day and it was creepy AF. I can't imagine what it would be like to spend the night.

The problem with this book almost everything else. The subtitle itself is a bit misleading. Many of the investigations are not in-depth, and I feel like the Myrtles Plantation was placed on the cover to catch peoples' attention because it is so well-known. There was hardly more than few paragraphs about it, and not much evidence collected. That was the issue with a lot of the places the author discussed. There were some investigations he could have left out of the book entirely. I understand he likely included some of those places to show that not every investigation will yield evidence, but there were so many that it was repetitive and unnecessary.

I found it incredibly cruel during the Villisca investigation that the author would bring in an ax from the barn to try to "spark activity". Regardless of the fact that this place is now a paranormal investigator's dream, eight people were brutally murdered there, six of them children under the age of 13. I can't think of anything more terrifying than to have been murdered so brutally, stuck in the place where I'd been murdered, and then some guy comes in with an ax to get my attention. This incident bothered me quite a bit. From my own personal experience, I do believe at least a couple of the children are still there. Wouldn't that be re-traumatizing? The author also pointed out that he did not know if any of the items in the home belonged to the Moore family. When I visited in 2007 (incidentally, the same year the author did a few visits), Darwin Linn, the owner of the property, took us on the tour. Someone in the group asked this very question and Darwin said that it was always possible that something belonged to the family, but so many people lived in the home between 1912 and 1994 when he and his wife purchased it that most likely very few, if any, items had been in the family's possessions. The pieces there now had been purchased to replicate what a family home would have looked like in 1912. I would like to quickly recount my own experience, to support some of what the author mentioned. The tour consisted of spending time at the house, Darwin's museum downtown, and then the cemetery where the Moore and Stillinger families are buried. It felt very strange to be standing in the home and for a moment I considered going back outside. But curiosity got the better of me and my friend Shelly and I began exploring. We explored the first floor but it was not until we started climbing the small staircase that I began to 'feel' the house. I started to get dizzy and headachey, but continued taking pictures, hoping to catch something, anything. At the top of the stairs is the landing where Josiah and Sarah Moore slept. There are still ax marks in the ceiling and that was unnerving. To the left in the short hallway was the attic, and straight ahead, the hall opened up into the room where the Moore children slept. The attic is the only place that I experienced camera trouble. Every time I used the camera before or after the attic, I took pictures with no problem. But standing in the door to the attic, I attempted to take photos multiple times. My camera would lose focus, and then simply not take the picture. I spent nearly ten minutes trying, and ended up with only two or three before finally moving on. I do believe the murderer hid in the attic, based on the evidence of cigarette butts being found there after the murders. I also believe the trouble with my camera was perhaps the murderer's way of continuing to keep his identity hidden. At first I did not put any stock in the idea of the murderer being there too, but it does make some sense to me after my experience.

Another issue I had with this one was what seemed like a lot of unprofessionalism. The field of paranormal research is not taken very seriously a lot of the time. Skeptics look at shows like Ghost Adventures, where apparently every entity they encounter is an evil spirit who cusses at them and wants to kill them, and dismiss the field as a whole. There were several investigations where random people joined, whether it was other hotel guests, employees from the restaurant, etc. This seems like a terrible idea, especially when avoiding outside contamination is crucial to determining if something is paranormal or not. I also found it strange that he allowed it when considered in regards to a specific incident at the previously mentioned restaurant. On one investigation the author was struck by a small object and writes, "There were three other people in the basement with me, and one of them could easily be trying to make me think something was being thrown." How does that even make sense? Given the fact that we are not told who most of the people are with him most of the time, we must assume they are members of his team. And if he could make a statement like that about members of his team, why on earth was he allowing people he does not know to randomly join? We are also never given much information about team members or their qualifications. He just lists the people who are with him at certain locations and I guess we are expected to know who they are. In addition, he makes a really weird comment very early on when describing one of the females who investigated at Waverly Hills around 14%. He makes a point to mention the "...the talented Michelle (who was the most beautiful investigator I had met at the time)." Okay? How is that relevant? During another investigation, around 31%, he describes another as "...Betty (a supposed psychic)..." So, is she or isn't she? Does he know the people he is investigating with? Or is he questioning her ability after an unsuccessful investigation? It doesn't really make sense. I also found it really strange that when he and a team were investigating private homes, the residents stayed in the home, sometimes even taking part with the team. This also seems like a potential source of contamination.

A lot of the time here, not a lot of explanation was given for why the author felt or thought something. In one encounter the author says he was convinced that a shadow entity he saw was the same entity referred to by others as "Mr. Death". Yet this is the only time this Mr. Death name is mentioned. We are never told why the author thinks as such. This kind of ties into another issue I have here, in regards to the history of the places he visits. One of the things I love about many paranormal books is that the team delves deep into the history of the location, not just about the history of the hauntings. I think that part is crucial, to give the readers a good sense of the place that they are reading about. When investigators do so, it says to me that they are trying to learn everything they can that might aid them in their search. This book simply does not have much of that.

In the end, I am afraid I can not recommend this book in its current state. Those interested in the paranormal will find the same flaws I did. Skeptics would jump on those same issues and shout about how fake it is. I think this has the chance to be a good book, but there are some changes that need to be made. I would gladly read a later edition that has fixed some of these issues.


  1. Have you ever heard of Joe Nickell? He's a scientifically grounded investigator of paranormal activity, one who has appeared on podcasts like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I read a couple of his books years ago and enjoyed his analyses of how things might have happened, or what was causing certain observations..

    1. His name was not familiar to me until I read a bit of the article you linked and realized I had read one of his books recently called Relics of the Christ. It was okay. As I read the article I found it interesting that he pointed out Ghost Hunters as the problematic show, whereas Ghost Adventures is literally the dumbest of any of the shows, because those idiots always assume it is an angry spirit or demon who is cussing at them and wanting to hurt them. I find Ghost Hunters much more willing to say, these are all the things not paranormal, and over here are things that could be but we do not know for sure. I think they always look for logical or reasonable answers first and don't just always assume it is a ghost.

    2. I haven't met any, personally. I've visited sites that were supposedly haunted and not felt anything, but I go in dubious, so I probably scare the spirits off. :-p Personally, I think some inexplicable experiences are brain glitches -- brief moments when our brains get confused and create weird images or sensations for a second.

    3. That may happen, true, and not everything is paranormal just because it can't be explained. But I have also been lucky to have some really cool experiences that made me a confirmed believer.

      Besides the Villisca house, my daughter's father and I went to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park a few years ago. It was definitely an experience - lots of activity for sure. We were up on the fourth floor where two young children are supposed to spend a lot of time. There is even a bench in one of the halls where guests leave small toys, candy, and quarters. Chase was asking if there were any kids who wanted to play hide and seek and we both heard a voice say, "Hi". It was amazing. Then as we were leaving that hall, I heard what sounded like someone walking behind me, running their hand along the wall. Every time I stopped, the noise would continue another second, then stop. There were three different textures on the wall and I tested them out, and it was the middle panel, about the right height for a younger child. Also got a couple very cool pictures. And we stayed on the 3rd floor and there were tons of noises throughout the night from the floor above that sounded like stomping on wooden floors and furniture being dragged about. Yet all the floors had been carpeted for a couple decades by this time. It never felt dangerous or unsafe. It was very peaceful, like the spirits who are there have stayed because they loved it so much in their lifetime, it is where they want to stay.


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