It’s one thing to visit haunted house attractions during the Halloween season, but it’s another to investigate the paranormal year-round. Thankfully, paranormal experts and enthusiasts have done the heavy lifting, so the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor. Though, I’m not sure walking around an alleged haunted location hoping for an encounter of the spiritual kind is the way to spend any day, but who are we kidding? Everyone loves a good ghost story and a firsthand experience is the best. Right? Right? Iowa enjoys its haunted houses, institutions and museums as much as the next state. So, looking around, here are the top haunted locations in the Hawkeye State.
Villisca Axe Murder House
Located about 90 minutes southeast of Omaha, the Villisca Axe Murder House earned its reputation as one of the most-haunted houses in the state because of the killings of eight people in 1912. On a warm summer night in June, someone used an axe and other weapons to bludgeon the Moore family and two guests. The axe was used to inflict head trauma. More than 100 years later, the murders remain unsolved, despite two trials for one of the suspects.
Paranormal experts have investigated the small two-story wooden house, discovering the presence of ghostly spirits. People spending the night inside the house report strange goings-on, shadowy figures, voices and items moving. “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” is a documentary taking a look at the story of the house and its haunting.
House tours are offered 1 to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $10 for day visits. Groups of less than 12 people can spend the night for a fee. You may want to plan alternative accommodations in case the spirits prove to be too much.
Historic Squirrel Cage Jail Museum
Where: Council Bluffs
One of 18 revolving jails – squirrel cages – built in the United States, the Historic Squirrel Cage Jail was used by Pottawattamie County law enforcement from 1885 until 1969. Built in a cylinder style, standing three floors high, the Council Bluffs jail’s circular rotation was known to drive prisoners mad. The jail closed because it often got stuck and replacement parts were difficult to locate.
At least four inmates were known to have died while in custody. People have reported hearing footsteps, voices and whispers. Items are said to move on their own. The jail attracts paranormal investigators who seek out the spirits believed to haunt the location. Flashlight tours are also popular, so amateur paranormal sleuths can search for ghosts.
Where: Fort Dodge
Up to 25 spirits – including James and Adeline Swain, the mansion’s builders – are believed to roam the Vincent House in Fort Dodge. People have reported seeing adults and children freely walking about the property. A paranormal investigator has confirmed the presence of ghosts.
It’s common to hear voices, footsteps and even furniture being moved on the second floor. The house’s caretaker treats the spirits with respect. He has explained that the spirits don’t realize they’ve crossed over. They see visitors as spiritual.
The Vincent House can be rented for events.
Imagine sitting next to a ghost or watching as figures float down a hallway. At Farrar Schoolhouse in Maxwell it was a common occurrence, according to local folklore. For about 80 years, the schoolhouse served the community.
Located about 30 miles northeast of Des Moines, the elementary school closed in 2001. It was purchased by a couple five years later. It didn’t take long for them to notice strange occurrences, such as slamming locker doors and voices seemingly coming from thin air.
Today, the Farrar Schoolhouse is available for haunted tours, as well as overnight stays. You may want to reserve a hotel room in case the overnight haunts become too intense.
Cresco Theatre and Opera House
Interested in watching a movie at one of the Midwest’s most-haunted theaters? Buy a ticket, get some popcorn and plop down in a seat to enjoy a new movie at Cresco Theatre and Opera House. But beware. The person sitting next to you may not be of this world.
Ghostly figures have been seen sitting in the auditorium, as though they’re watching a production. Spirits of vaudeville performers have been seen on stage. Workers have reported strange sounds, doors opening and closing and hearing voices in the basement. So, you may want to buy an extra serving of popcorn for your neighbor.
Opened in 1915, Hotel Ottumwa has been the scene of numerous ghost sightings. A woman in white had been viewed by employees in the basement. A gentleman in a suit roams hotel hallways. Shadows, heavy breathing and apparitions are common at the downtown hotel. The historic building was closed for about a decade until it was purchased in the mid-1980s and reopened, once again offering accommodations.
Mason House Inn
You may just find Casper among the 25-50 ghosts believed to reside at the Mason House Inn and Caboose Cottage. The bed and breakfast was once a hotel along a train route and routinely hosted travelers. Today, the house continues to attract travelers, with about 300 spirits known to have spent time visiting it.
Rather than fear them, the owners and guests alike embrace the spirits, who are considered nice and polite. While they may play around and absorb energy from outlets and devices, they tend to follow the requests of people staying at Mason House, about 45 minutes west of Fort Madison. Simply advise the ghosts to leave you alone and they’ll comply. If you want them to hang out on your room, invite them in for the evening.
The owners open their home to paranormal investigators who have confirmed the presence of the spirits. This house doesn’t have demons, as it had been mistaken for a house with a similar name.
The Black Angel
Where: Iowa City
Standing nearly 9 feet above the graves it overlooks, the Black Angel is said to curse people who touch it or try to harm it. Erected in the early 1900s to watch over a family’s gravesites, the bronze statue became black over time because of oxidation. Or did it? Some people believe the angel turned black because of all the people it cursed to death. People who have touched it or cut off its fingers are believed to die violent deaths.
Located in Oakland Cemetery, the Iowa City attraction is known to draw students from the University of Iowa. Myths involve strange things happening to female students who are kissed near the Black Angel. Halloween visits to the statue are believed to cause people’s deaths.
Historic Iowa State Penitentiary
Where: Fort Madison
Is the old prison on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River haunted? Opened in the mid-1800s and serving as the longest operating prison in American history, it’s likely spirits of inmates executed at Historic Iowa State Prison or who died while in custody may roam the cells and grounds. About 40 prisoners were executed, while at least one guard was murdered there.
Stony Hollow Road
Lucinda, a young bride who feared her fiancé had left her for another woman, killed herself by jumping off a cliff. Shortly afterward, he arrived, delayed by muddy roads. Today, near the cliff on Stony Hollow Road, a gravel road outside of Burlington, ghost seekers can call out Lucinda by shouting her name three times. She is said to appear at the top of the cliff. But, and this where you may want to reconsider calling for her, if she lays a rose at a person’s feet, it supposedly means that person dies within a day.
Whether you’re a believer in ghosts or just an adventure seeker, Iowa has dozens of haunted locations to explore. Just prepare yourself for the folklore involved, so nothing bad happens. Be safe. Have fun. And sage when you get home.