“Axe Murders of Villisca” is out now from IFC Midnight, and well worth a visit if you want to explore a trans-generational ghost story in America’s heartland. “Villisca” is based in part on the house in Villisca, Iowa where eight notorious and still unsolved 1912 axe murders took place. In the film, three outcast teenagers break into the house in search of answers, but discover something far beyond their worst fears.
As a writer myself, I’m drawn to stories about a film’s inspiration. In this case, because the inspiration was a true crime story in the Midwest (very much my wheelhouse), I was doubly intrigued. Author and screenwriter Owen Egerton was kind enough to chat with me about the origins of this film, and how a story of a mass murder becomes a 21st Century ghost story. Perhaps not surprisingly, it began with a real-life incident in the life of director Tony Valenzuela.
Egerton explains, “Tony was, at the time, doing some live YouTube episodes where he would visit haunted locales. And the house in Villisca is a very popular destination for paranormal investigators and ghost hunters. So Tony went there with two friends, they spent the night, and Tony had a really terrifying experience. He was hearing things, seeing things and even feeling things.” Valenzuela described voices, dark images, and, most intriguing of all, a sensation that the house was compelling him to commit acts of violence. “This moved him so much that he wanted to make a film about the house and his experiences, so he got together with producers Kevin Abrams and Seth Caplan, and they went looking for a screenwriter and found me.”
Valenzuela and his team already had the basic outline, but knew they needed a professional scribe to polish the bare bones into a strong frame. Egerton says of their earliest draft, “It was a beautiful document filled with cool images and characters, which drew me into the project. Tony and Kevin were the ones who created the original document, which really birthed the beginning of the story. They already had in mind these three characters that go into this house where these murders had taken place. So it was, from the beginning, less about the murders and more about the experiences of the three teenagers who are at a pivotal point in their lives. I took it from there, added more tension and danger and fleshed it out into a script.”
Upon joining the team, Egerton returned to the house with Valenzuela and Caplan, flying in to Omaha from Austin, and then driving the rest of the way to Iowa. He recalls that “the tour guide told us his own story of becoming infatuated with the house, revisiting it over and over and finally moving in next door. Tony nods along as the young man describes his uncanny and uncomfortable attraction to the spot. It’s a house that invites obsession.” The tour guide “had his own feelings and experiences with the house and was very knowledgeable on the history of the crimes and trials. He was himself a fascinating individual.” Interestingly enough, the three teens in the film tour the house just as the three filmmakers did. Egerton did not simply transcribe his own tour experience, however. “For the script, we made the tour a bit more quirky and upbeat, but that’s not to say the real tour isn’t excellent. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has that kind of morbid curiosity or the true crime buff.”
The team spent the night at the house, with Valenzuela and Caplan prepping for the eventual shoot, and Egerton getting a feel for the living space. He says, “Do I believe in ghosts? I’m not certain, but I do know that when a rock hits a pond, the water ripples out. I could feel the ripples of that crime. I could feel it as a presence. I’m not sure if that house is haunted, but I was haunted. The house is an eerie experience. It’s a small, beautiful house in a quiet town, but there’s the sense that something tragic happened. There’s a heaviness to it all. I didn’t personally see any paranormal activity, but I can attest to the fact that the house is haunting, if not haunted.” That overnight session resulted in a story not just about the murders themselves, but a secondary layer concerning the “presence” left behind and how it affects the three high school student protagonists.
Although Egerton writes primarily fiction, don’t think for a second that he doesn’t become knee-deep in source material to flesh out his stories, including “Axe Murders of Villisca”. He did far more than just spend a night in an old house. He tells me, “It would have saved me quite some time if the research had just been Wikipedia. I read Roy Marshall’s book ‘Villisca’, and actually read quite a bit about the crime and the follow-up trial. It was a long, drawn-out tragedy for the people of Villisca. I recommend Marshall’s book to anyone interested in the subject. There’s nothing about the haunting in there. It’s the crime, the trial, that sort of thing. The research was daunting. I read books and articles, including original articles from the time which are really fascinating. I read the confession of Rev. Kelly, a haunting piece.” Although Kelly confessed to the crime (and is strongly suggested to be the killer in the film), he was acquitted and the case remains officially unsolved.
And the case resonates 100 years later. “When Tony and I visited Villisca, we spoke with locals about the case, and you’d be surprised how many people still have passionate opinions about what happened. We also went to City Hall and looked through some of the original documents. The thing about writing, whether it’s a book or a screenplay, is that you end up doing way more research than actually makes itself known in the final product.”
At this point in the conversation, I made it known to Egerton that I had some books myself, and completely understood. My first full-length book didn’t use a fraction of my research, and even after the first draft, another third was cut out. I was somewhat surprised to learn that a similar excision process exists in the world of fiction. As he recounts, “I just finished writing a novel about a character who is obsessed with Hollow Earth Theory. So, as part of writing it, I spent the last few years immersed in the theory, its history and the bizarre conclusions you can come to if you accept it. As you know, when it comes time to edit, you wind up cutting huge swaths of material out and only keeping what is essential to the story. There’s a tendency, or really more of a temptation, to keep it all in because it’s so fascinating.”
One last point and that is to address such critics as Noel Murray, who asks, “Was an actual horrible ax murder not scary enough to support its own movie?” This does seem to be a recurring theme in early reviews, which seem to focus more on what they think the story ought to have been than on the merits of what it actually is. Egerton understands the criticism, but makes it known that the story stands on its own. He tells me, “Perhaps the title misled them, but that is not the story we set out to make. I think it may be a bit presumptuous to assume that the viewer wanted a true-crime story. It is a haunted house story. Its origins are in a true crime story, but that isn’t what we were going for. We didn’t intend to retell the actual crimes, we were just going for something fundamentally different. Something in the tradition of ‘The Changeling’ or ‘The Haunting’. Stories that are more about the people being haunted than the tragic events that gave birth to the haunting.” And in that light, the film clearly succeeds.
But what about that original story? Egerton notes, “In all honesty, I think that would be a great movie and I’d love to explore it. The murders were followed by a massive but sloppy investigation and two widely publicized trials, both ending in acquittal.” So yes, you could tell a grim story about such a murder spree. Or you might even turn it into a courtroom drama with Rev. Kelly being grilled, acquitted, retried and acquitted again. But that is a story for someone else to tell.
“Axe Murders of Villisca” is out now from IFC Midnight. If you haven’t seen it yet, see it. If you have seen the film, now you know the story behind it. Many thanks to Owen Egerton for chatting today… now let’s see that Hollow Earth book get its own film treatment!