The ‘200 Demons’ House: A Skeptical Demonologist’s Report
Sparking an international media frenzy, a house in Gary, Indiana, was—according to two unnamed “clairvoyants”—besieged by over 200 demons. Of three “possessed” children, the daughter “levitated”; one son, who talked with an invisible boy, growled and spoke in a deep voice; and his older brother walked backward up a hospital exam-room wall! Investigating Gary police confessed themselves baffled. A captain’s personal car seemed to have become possessed when its driver’s seat began to move inexplicably to and fro.
After the family moved out, the subsequent renter found herself besieged by curiosity seekers after the events were publicized and sought relief. At one point she called police to complain of reporters and photographers who were on her property. The mother of the “possessed” children also was not talking—except to a national TV show with which she reportedly had an exclusivity agreement. Various agencies and individuals were noncommittal as well, citing issues of medical confidentiality and privacy. Nevertheless, CSI dispatched me to investigate the case. As I would discover, the devil was in the details.
The alleged demon house is a nondescript rental cottage with enclosed porch at 3860 Carolina Street in Gary, the onetime “murder capital of the U.S.”
Although not reported publicly until January 28, 2014 (Kwiatkowski 2014a), the strange events began soon after Latoya Ammons moved into the house with her three children (then seven, nine, and twelve, respectively) and her mother, Rosa Campbell, in November 2011. Campbell recalled a profusion of flies that swarmed their porch in December; that motif recalls the Amityville horror house of the mid-1970s—a case that proved to be a hoax (Nickell 2012, 293).
Soon came noises that Ammons interpreted as footsteps on the basement stairs and the creaking of the basement door—consistent with the sounds old houses commonly make with changes in temperature (Nickell 2012, 111–112). In one incident, her mother reportedly awoke to see a “shadowy figure” and “leaped out of bed” to find “large, wet bootprints” (Kwiatkowski 2014a). However, the earlier report of a priest seeking permission to conduct an exorcism (Maginot 2012) stated that it was the next morning that “they saw on the wooden floor of their living room what looked like muddy footprints like from a boot.” Campbell probably had a common “waking dream,” which occurs between being fully awake and asleep (Nickell 2012, 353–354). As to footmarks that might have been made at any time, one does not need to invoke the supernatural to explain them.
Significantly, there were never any reported haunting or demonic activities in the house other than during the Ammons family’s tenure. The landlord, Charles Reed (2014), insists there had never been any such problems before they took up residence. While to the Department of Child Services (DCS) Ammons blamed her children’s irregular school attendance on the demons—saying “the spirits would make them sick, or they would be up all night without sleep”—in fact the family had a “previous DCS history regarding educational neglect” (Washington 2012). Records show the agency made that finding in 2009 (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
As well, as Charles Reed (2014) noted, there were no alleged demonic activities during the tenure of the subsequent renter. The only thing that was scaring the new tenant was local curiosity, notably that Gary police officers were frequently driving by the house, and Reed phoned the department to ask them to stop. Reed, who has thirty-three years’ experience as a landlord, told The Indianapolis Star: “I thought I heard it all. This was a new one to me. My belief system has a hard time jumping over that bridge.” I called to ask if anything had occurred since to change his view, and spoke with his wife Nancy Reed (2014). Although she stated that they were making no further comments about the case and had obtained an attorney, she did answer my question: She said her husband’s skepticism remained unchanged.
Although Mrs. Reed told me that the current tenant did not want to be disturbed—and that was obvious, given that woman’s having called police to report bothersome reporters and photographers—nevertheless I was on assignment for CSI and determined to take my best shot. Arriving at the residence (with Steve Duerr of CFI–Indiana, who took the photo in Figure 1), I saw the woman resident in the doorway and a male companion putting something in a car parked in front. I bailed out of Steve’s car and approached. I began by identifying myself and apologizing for the interruption. Although she continued her position of making no comments, she was not unpleasant to me and we actually spoke for ten to fifteen minutes.
When I said offhandedly that she no doubt knew of the alleged incidents better than I, she quickly replied, “Not really,” explaining that she had not followed the case and only wanted to live in peace. The gentleman interjected, pointedly calling the reputed demonic events there “hocus-pocus”—adding, “or whatever.” He informed me they were moving out. The house had been purchased—for $35,000—by Zak Bagans, the executive producer and host of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures (Kwiatkowski 2014b).
Soon after the Ammonses had moved into the house on Carolina Street, the ghostly goings-on transformed into a full-blown case of poltergeist activity—after the German word for “noisy spirit.” The oldest son told a child psychologist that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.” The youngest son, according to Ammons “was once thrown from the bathroom when no one was even near him” (Kurp 2014). A religious statue was broken (Maginot 2012). Ms. Ammons told DCS that if the children were not asleep by eleven in the evening, “the spirits would come out and keep them up all night throwing things, moving things in the home,” and so on (Washington 2012).
Countless historical examples show that such disturbances typically center around a child or children and involve mischief a child could cause and, indeed, many times was actually caught causing. I call this activity the poltergeist-faking syndrome (Nickell 2012, 325–331). Motivation varies: In one newly tenanted home mysterious fires resulted when a boy missed his former playmates; a schoolhouse outbreak was inspired by the gullibility of their teacher and townsfolk; and other “poltergeist” antics were produced by an eleven-year-old girl looking for attention. All such motives could apply to the Ammons children.
First, the children’s move to a new neighborhood might have caused difficulty. Lacking new playmates, they may have begun to irritate each other, resulting in Ammons reporting to their physician “that the children fight one another and are abusive to one another and then they pass out” (Washington 2012). (In other words, they act out their anger but pretend not to be responsible.)
Second, the mother’s response to the occurrences encourages their misbehavior. Consider the DCS report giving information from a knowledgeable confidential informant—apparently a medical professional—who complained to the department. He is referred to as “RS” (for Report Source, cited in Washington 2012):
RS states [one of the boys] reported there are ghosts in the home, thousands of them and he can see them. . . . [T]hey don’t talk to him but after the mother tells [him] that he can tell the medical professionals the truth he later says yes. . . . RS states they believe the children are performing for the mother and that she’s encouraging the behavior.
Mother Sets the Stage
Latoya Ammons is a religious believer who has a high superstition quotient. She believes in invisible entities and consults “clairvoyants,” one of whom told her “the house was infested by demons.” She insisted to Inside Edition, “I know that for a fact” (Ammons 2014). At the suggestion of one of two clairvoyants who claimed the house was “filled with more than 200 demons,” a frightened Ammons created an altar in the basement where the terrifying events were believed to have begun. It consisted of a statue of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—and a white candle and incense burner (Maginot 2012). The Gary police observed “multiple religious shrines” and “bibles throughout the home” (Washington 2012).
She told medical personnel that her home had “various demons and evil spirits due to someone dying in the home,” and that she had “taken the children to various temples and churches to remove the demons.” One psychologist said of Ammons that she did not appear to be “experiencing symptoms of psychosis,” but another wondered “whether her religiosity may be masking underlying delusional ideations or perceptual disturbances” (qtd. in Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Several professionals concluded that the children were acting deceptively and in accordance with their mother’s beliefs. For example, a psychologist who evaluated the youngest son reported that he tended to “act possessed” whenever he was challenged or redirected, or when he was asked questions that he did not wish to answer. She went on to observe that the boy seemed both coherent and logical—except when he was talking about demons. Then, his stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” she said, adding that the stories changed every time he related them (Wright 2012).
The psychologist determined that the boy did not have an actual psychotic disorder, concluding, “This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced,” she said, by other relatives (Wright 2012).
As a consequence of their evaluations, the DCS removed the children from Ammons. The agency stated that she needed to employ “alternate forms of discipline not directly related to religion and demon possession” (DCS Case Plan 2012). Ammons was permitted supervised visitation and, after about six months, the children were returned to her in November 2012. Meanwhile—outrageously—no fewer than four exorcisms were performed on her by a priest named Michael L. Maginot, one with his bishop’s official permission—though not on the children who were allegedly possessed! Ammons now says her children left their demons behind, but she credits God, not psychologists or the DCS, with resolving the family’s problems (Kwiatkowski 2014b).
It remains to discuss the phenomena that so astonished other superstitions folk involved in the case—including the priest, his bishop, and one Captain
Charles Austin of the Gary police. Like Ammons, Austin has a high superstition quotient. Already an admitted believer in the supernatural, including
ghosts, he became a believer in demons after visiting the house on Carolina Street (Kwiatkowski 2014a). It didn’t take much: He and other officers naïvely
played ghost hunters. They used cameras and Austin’s iPhone
to snap pictures in which they could see—in mottled shadows and cloudy white forms (such as can be caused by a rebounding flash)—shapes that resembled faces and figures. These are called simulacra, the result of one’s ability to perceive images in random patterns (Nickell 2012, 64–65).
One such exterior photo, showing what looks vaguely like a blurry image of a person standing in a porch window, might have been a simulacrum, or a reflection of someone on the sidewalk, or a fake photo, as from a cell phone’s hoax app (Flynn 2014). Although The Indianapolis Star captioned it “Photo by Hammond Police,” it was not. The Hammond Police Chief assured me it was not an official police photo, that agency having had no involvement in the case, never mind what may have been produced unofficially by an individual (Miller 2014). At present, the photo is too questionable to be admissible as evidence.
Again influenced by television ghost shows, the officers used a tape recorder to supposedly record spirit sounds—or rather a sound, perceived as the word hey (Kwiatkowski 2014a). Such electronic voice phenomena (EVPs, as they are called in the parlance of ghost hunting) are typically verbal simulacra—that is, syllable-like effects perceived in the randomness of static and background noise (Nickell 2012, 146, 273). In this instance it appears to have been an inadvertent aspiration (it is not the word hey) made by a person close to the microphone at the time (Flynn 2014). Ghost hunting involving such equipment is a pseudoscientific pursuit and a fool’s errand. As to Captain Austin’s self-moving car seat, his mechanic found that his driver’s seat motor was simply broken (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Turning to the phenomena attributed to the children, these were obviously produced by the children themselves. Anyone who has seen any of the countless TV shows and movies that have proliferated since the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist would know how to manipulate his or her eyes, growl, speak in a deep voice, feign a trance, scream and thrash, or otherwise simulate being “possessed.” When the youngest Ammons boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him” (Washington 2012), it is apparent he simply launched himself.
Similarly, when his sister “reported being thrown across the room and grabbed by dark shadows” (Washington 2012), she was no doubt self-propelled—if, given the word “reported,” the event happened at all. Much has been said about her having been “levitated” above a bed (Kwiatkowski 2014a)—part of the stock effects of alleged demon possession as shown in numerous movies. However, no levitation has ever been documented by science. The girl’s mother has given different versions of the feat, but when she mentioned the incident on Inside Edition (Ammons 2014), she did not use the word levitation. Rather, she stated that as she watched, “It [a demon] attacked [her daughter] and it raised her up off the bed, snatched her off the bed”—describing a quick action, not a prolonged floating. I take it that, as with the other incidents, the twelve-year-old simply propelled herself upward, no doubt taking advantage of the springiness of the mattress. (If she arched her body, supported at head and feet, she might have appeared to float briefly.)
The most significant claim involved the oldest son and described him—as sources endlessly repeated—“walking backward up a wall” in front of witnesses including a DCS case manager and a nurse. The incident happened at Lakewood Methodist Hospital, where I talked with a public relations official (Morrison 2014) but was not allowed to speak to the nurse; I also met the case manager Valerie Washington (2012), but her superiors also did not permit her to speak about the matter to me. Nevertheless, I can say that there was more to the incident than people learned from some sources—such as the New York Daily News (Golgowski 2014), which had the mother claiming demons caused her son “to walk on a hospital ceiling.”
The accounts tend to imply that gravity was overcome, proving a supernatural occurrence. In fact, while the boy put first one foot, then the other, onto the wall of a small hospital exam room, his grandmother, Rosa Campbell, was holding his hand (Washington 2012) or both of his hands (Ammons 2014). Thus the laws of physics were not contravened. The boy was obviously supported, braced by the rigid arms of Campbell who no doubt instinctively steadied him and helped him maintain his balance as he progressed, perhaps to the ceiling, “and he never let go. He flipped over and landed on his feet in front of the grandmother and sat down in the chair. A few minutes later he looked up as if he was back to himself” (Washington 2012). In short, this was a stunt of an agile boy, not in the least proof of the supernatural.
The priest (Maginot 2012) reported flickering lights, appearing oil, and a litany of other incidents, including some that he was only told about. For instance, a bottle “levitated” and wobbled before being thrown into Latoya Ammons’s bedroom, a common “poltergeist” act) where it broke a lamp. (Too bad the object was not dusted for fingerprints. I suspect Ammons misperceived, first seeing the bottle in mid-flight traveling approximately toward her—conditions like those that sometimes cause airplanes to be reported as “hovering” UFOs [Hendry 1979, 37–38]). Ammons took the family to her brother’s, “but the entity seemed to follow them there”—a fact that should surprise no one. Maginot’s report (2012) is rife with the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (‘we don’t know what caused this, so it must have been demons’).
It was not enough that the Rev. Michael Maginot helped foster ignorance and superstition in the case, at the expense of science and reason, but he seemed happy to become a star—presumably with his bishop’s blessing (if that is the right word). Maginot contracted with Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures to produce a documentary on the case. He also signed a contract with Evergreen Media Holdings—whose chairman, Tony DeRosa-Grund, produced the horror movie The Conjuring (previously exposed in SI as nonsense [Nickell 2014]). Worldwide, that movie grossed $318 million. Apparently with a straight face, Maginot told a reporter the reason he signed with Evergreen was that he felt DeRosa-Grund would not sensationalize the case (Kwiatkowski 2014c)!
Another hopeful is Captain Charles Austin, whom I twice tried to reach on visits to the Gary police station. According to the Indianapolis Star, he “said he expected notoriety and figured a movie would come of this” (Kwiatkowski 2014b). He is right so far, but if he is not careful, his legacy may be that of one more person lampooned for being on a fool’s errand.
As to Ammons, she was apparently so eager to tell her story to The Indianapolis Star that she signed releases giving access to her family’s medical, psychological, and social records in otherwise restricted files. Stated the reporter (who made them available to researchers: see Kwiatkowski 2014a for urls), they were “not always flattering.”
In summary, no demons possessed anyone in this case, except in the figurative sense. What were really unleashed were the dark aspects of superstition, ancient dogma, lust for notoriety, the greed of cynical hucksters, and the stubborn unwillingness of some to be reasoned with.
Barry Karr, CSI executive director, arranged for me to go to Gary, and CFI’s CEO Ronald Lindsay authorized the funding. CFI–Indiana’s Reba Wooden had requested my investigation, but I first spent several days in telephone and online research—assisted by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga. Subsequently, CFI volunteer Steve Duerr of Indianapolis accompanied me over three days of traveling and interviewing. Thanks are also due to Steve’s wife Sue and mother Shirley for comfortable accommodations, and I am grateful to Pat Beauchamp, Paul E. Loynes, and other staff members for help in various ways, especially Tom Flynn for technical audio-visual analysis.
Ammons, Latoya. 2014. Interview on Inside Edition television program, “Homeowner Claims Her House Was Haunted by Demons,” January 30.
DCS Case Plan. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014a.
Flynn, Thomas (audio-visual expert). 2014. Consulted February 20–21.
Golgowski, Nina. 2014. Haunting in Indiana leads to family’s exorcism, child’s levitation: Reports. Online at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/haunting-indiana-home-leads-exorcism-levitation-report-article-1.1593169; January 27. Accessed Jan. 28, 2014.
Hendry, Allan. 1979. The UFO Handbook. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Kurp, Josh. 2014. Can you hear the “demon” voice that cops in Indiana are taking seriously? Online at http://www.uproxx.com/up/2014/01/can-hear-demon-voice-indiana-police-officers-taking-seriously/; January 28. Accessed January 30, 2014.
Kwiatkowski, Marisa. 2014a. The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons. Indianapolis Star (January 28).
———. 2014b. Alleged demon home sells for $35,000. Indianapolis Star (January 30).
———. 2014c. Priest signs film deals after well-publicized exorcisms. Indianapolis Star (February 6).
Maginot, Rev. Michael L. 2012. Report Seeking Permission of Bishop for Exorcism, submitted to Bishop Dale J. Melczek, May 21.
Miller, Brian (Hammond police chief). 2014. Return call to Joe Nickell, February 7.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2014. The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons? Skeptical Inquirer 37:2 (March/April), 22–25.
Morrison, Evelyn (Methodist Hospitals spokesperson). 2014. On-site interview by Joe Nickell, February 7.
Reed, Charles. 2014. Quoted in The Indianapolis Star (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Reed, Nancy. 2014. Interview by Joe Nickell, February 5.
Washington, Valerie. 2012. Intake Officer’s Report of Preliminary Inquiry and Investigation, State of Indiana Department of Child Services, April 23.
Wright, Tracy. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014.