As RAGBRAI rolls into Villisca on Day 2, riders may want to take advantage of $5 tours of the Villisca Ax Murder House. So what really happened? A tour guide explains one of Iowa's most gruesome, unsolved crimes. Bryon Houlgrave/The Register
Editor's Note: This story originally published on Jan. 12, 2017.
Iowans have heard the stories about what happened on June 10, 1912 in small-town Villisca, Ia. — home of the Villisca Axe Murder House, the site where eight people were brutally murdered.
California-native Tony E. Valenzuela knew that the house was "supposedly haunted," but had no idea what to expect when he took an overnight tour on a bitter cold December night in 2010.
"We went there and we spent the night and it was intense," Valenzuela said. "I had my first supernatural experience there."
Inspired by the spooky overnight stay, Valenzuela made his feature-length directorial debut with "The Axe Murders of Villisca," centered around the unsolved murders of two adults and six children in the southwest Iowa home more than 100 years ago. The 1 hour, 18-minute horror film, which is rated TV-MA, is currently available on Netflix. It is already watchable via iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu and select cable On Demand sections.
It joins the ranks of other movies and documentaries that cover the mysterious tragedy, where "some believe that the secret remains sealed inside the walls and stories of paranormal activity inside the house have been reported," according to a previous Register story.
In November 2014, authorities said a Wisconsin man was hospitalized following a self-inflicted stab wound during an overnight tour. The movie notes that "any similarities between that incident and this film are coincidental."
Valenzuela had previously made about 45 short films prior to the Villisca movie. He's also the creator of BlackBoxTV — a YouTube channel dedicated to horror and science fiction short films. Valenzuela said he used social media as a tool to find some of the scariest places in the United States.
"It came between the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky and Villisca," Valenzuela said. "I asked people to vote and they decided on Villisca."
Four years later following his own overnight stay, Valenzuela attempted to bring that experience to life. He even had nightmares about the murders where his "brain was still trying to solve it."
"What really intrigued me was this unsolved murder," Valenzuela said. "I was trying to capture the dark psychological conception of what it feels like being in the Villisca Axe Murder House.
"We're definitely choosing sides on what we think happened and who did them (the murders)."
The movie follows three Iowa high school students who all have unique backgrounds: Caleb (Robert Adamson), Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) and Jessica (Alex Frnka). Valenzuela said he based the characters off three close friends from high school.
The trio goes to Villisca for a daytime tour of the house, only to wind up back inside later that night searching for the truth.
For the film, Valenzuela said the majority of the exterior footage was shot in Iowa and spoke very highly of the state's allure.
"There's nothing like Iowa," Valenzuela went on. "There's nothing like Villisca in California or in the western United States — with the deep blue skies and the clouds coming in.
"Iowa is a beautiful place to film."
Will the movie be a box-office smash? Probably not, as it's more likely to be a horror online-streaming fix. But Iowans shouldn't be too disappointed in the portrayal. It currently has a 7.8 rating by IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes says 86 percent of people want to see the film.
Tours and overnight stays at the Villisca Axe Murder House are available daily. More information can be found on its website: www.villiscaiowa.com.
Aaron Young is a reporter at The Des Moines Register, focusing on what Iowans are talking about on the internet and on social media. Email: email@example.com. Phone: 515-284-8213. Twitter: @AaYoung15. Facebook: Facebook.com/AaronYoung28.