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Demon House Deconstructed

Special Report

Kenny Biddle

May 21, 2018


Demon House is a documentary by Zak Bagans, best known for his Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures. During its run time of one hundred and eleven minutes, Bagans and his film crew head to Gary, Indiana, to investigate a property he recently purchased after it was propelled into the national news. Claims from the tenant, Latoya Ammons, and her mother included strange noises, kids becoming violent and speaking in strange voices, a twelve-year-old girl levitating above her bed, and a nine-year-old boy walking backward up a wall and along the ceiling. A psychic, who is never named, claims there were over 200 demons in the house. These claims were investigated in 2014 by Joe Nickell, senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. I recommend reading his article for further information. I’m going to focus on several of the claims specifically made in the finished film.

The film opens with a warning that sets the tone for the rest of the viewing: “The following documentary may not be suitable for all audiences. This film shows real people, places and events involving alleged demonic possession. Demonologists believe that demons can attach themselves to you through other people, objects, and electronic devices.” Demons are rooted in mythology and have never been proven to exist. However, even if they were known to exist and we were to believe this warning, Bagans just put all of his fans at risk of demonic possession. If you watch the film in a theater, on your television, or stream it to your computer, tablet, or phone, you would run the risk of being possessed by a demon (according to Bagans and his demonologists). However, fifteen seconds later the blame for such an event is shifted to the viewer when an additional line comes onto the screen: “View at your own risk.”

In the opening scenes, we see Bagans walking alone (something repeated a bit too often throughout the film) while he does a voice over. At one point he tells the viewer “I’m one of the world’s leading researchers on ghosts and demonology.” I found this to be an odd and bold claim. I checked his Wikipedia page (categorized under “Pseudoscience”) and various sources for references to published papers or articles that presented his research. Besides his TV appearances, he coauthored two books, Dark World: Into the Shadows with the Lead Investigator of the Ghost Adventures Crew (Victory Belt, 2011) and I am Haunted: Living Life Through the Dead (Bagans 2015). I could find no listing or mention of Bagans associated with any actual research— no articles, papers published in journals, not even instructional videos. He seems to be basing his claim on his highly dramatized television series (and appearances on other shows). This certainly does not qualify one as “one of the world’s leading researchers on ghosts and demonology” (or on anything).

Bagans refers to this current case as “the next Amityville,” which doesn’t say much for him, as the Amityville case has been shown to be a hoax over and over again (Nickell 1995, 2003; Kaplan and Kaplan 1995; Moran and Jordan 1978). Bagans is fully embracing the idea that the film is “cursed,” even stating it outright at the end of the opening monologue: “The truth is … this film is cursed.” He pulls inspiration from past films that were allegedly cursed, such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Poltergeist (Taylor 2017). He tells us that he “fell ill,” crew members quit or had to be fired (one each), witnesses and experts ended up in the hospital, and that it took three years to finish the film. As Brett Taylor writes in his article “Hollywood Curse Legends,” “When a movie deals with the subject of demons, it is all too easy to believe in a curse. Be it superstition or not, many people believe that merely dealing with occult subjects, dabbling in them, is a sure way to invoke malevolent forces.” Whether Bagans truly believes what he promotes in his film (and TV series) or is just selling it as snake oil, it’s clear that he is giving his fans what they want: scary demons and a bravado that crumbles at the first site of any actual threats.

The voiceover Bagans does for the beginning, as well as throughout the rest of the film, is monotone, bland, and just outright boring. His voice lacks enthusiasm and emotion—no fear, excitement, or anxiety. If this was simply a film I stumbled upon while browsing through Netflix, I would have stopped watching within the first few minutes.

The melodramatic and sensationalized reenactments throughout the film (many of which are repeated ad nauseam) didn’t help pique my interest either. The goat-head demon costume used for several cut-scenes made this documentary comical and silly rather than the serious investigation Bagans apparently believes he’s conducting. What’s worse, most of the reenactments do not match the described “paranormal” events.

For example, Latoya’s brother Kevin agrees to take a ride with Bagans (and crew) and tell them about his experiences. Latoya herself refuses to speak with Bagans, most likely because she had reportedly made an exclusive agreement with a national TV show (Nickell 2014). Kevin states “They were all sitting in my living room, and they started this … little weird evil little chant outta nowhere. And it started where … my youngest nephew started. He stopped, my oldest nephew picked it up. He stops, my niece picks it up.” The recreation that follows consists of the younger boy (portrayed by an actor) with his eyes rolled up into his head, breathing heavily with a guttural sound. The older boy is doing the same but with more of a short shrieking sound. The camera pans over to the niece who is now standing in the corner (facing the corner) and shrieking in a very Hollywood-style demonic voice, making angry faces. Kevin doesn’t mention their eyes rolling back or the obvious changes to the children’s voices, nor is there any attempt to describe what the “chant” was. There’s also no sign of Uncle Kevin in the reenactment scene (or explanation of his whereabouts), making one wonder how he witnessed this event in the first place.

Another experience Kevin describes involves the three kids fighting with each other in the car. Kevin states “And then my nephew looked up at my mom and said ‘get your hands off me, you old bitch.’” In the re-enactment, the scene shows an all-out fight between all the family members, with the niece screaming loudly. The younger nephew is shown saying “get your f*ckin hands off me, bitch” first, then another, mostly unintelligible phrase starting with “f*ck” and ending with “bitch.” These sensational changes (rolling eyes, voices, harsher dialogue) for the reenactments are misrepresenting the events described, presenting the viewer with a false narrative that is heavily biased toward the filmmaker’s beliefs. 

When Bagans arrives at the house, he states in a voiceover, “Some squatters have moved in. It takes some convincing to get them to leave.” This is an interesting development, since the squatters seem not to have noticed (or been bothered by) the 200 demons allegedly sharing the house! This should have been a red flag for a serious investigator. Unfortunately, Bagans gets a text from a self-proclaimed psychic telling him about a “demon being very, very large almost like a hulking type figure—Horns turned back and centurion feet.” (As this is a good description of the costume being used for the demon reenactments, I’m guessing this text was the inspiration for it.) Any skepticism from the squatters was immediately forgotten, and Bagans marches bravely ahead.

Bagans reviews video footage of Family Case Manager Valerie Washington (2012) as she describes the incident when the younger boy in the house “went up the wall and came back around, and stood in front of us.” When asked (during the same video footage) “What did you do when that happened?” Washington responded “I left ’em”—and then laughs about it. The grandmother (Latoya’s mother) laughs as well, stating, “she walked out, I saw her.” This was hard to watch, since they were talking about a boy they presumably believed to be possessed by a demon … and they were laughing about “running away.” Whether the boy was dealing with demonic possession or behavioral problems, I fail to see any humor in this situation. Perhaps this representation is due to editing, and I would hope that a child’s welfare would not be a laughing matter to anyone.

Joe Nickell, during his investigation of the case in 2014, met with Washington. Although she was not permitted by her superiors to speak about the case, Nickell was able to gain additional information from the Intake Officer’s Report of Preliminary Inquiry and Investigation she filed in 2012, which is the same one Bagans is reading in the film. In fact, while the camera pans over the document, you can read the lines below what Bagans is reciting, which state “weird grin on his face and began to walk backwards while the grandmother … hand and he walked up the wall backwards while holding the grandmother’s … .” This appears to indicate that the child was supported by the grandmother throughout the entire event, just as Nickell concludes in his investigation. This is not an event that should bring “demon possession” to the top of one’s list of explanations. I was doing this trick with my younger brother about thirty years ago. 

The next big claim comes in the form of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), alleged ghostly voices that only show up on recordings. Lt. John Gruszka, of the Lake County Police Department, was making an audio recording during a Wellness Check a week after the “wall-walking” incident. He was carrying the recorder and making notes and commenting on things as he made his way through the house. He claims there is an unidentifiable voice that appears on the tape. Gruszka claims, in the film, that it says “Hey.” The alleged EVP comes in between Gruszka noting there was stuff all around and being surprised the fire department hadn’t been here. We have to remember that Gruszka is holding the recording device close to his mouth, speaking into it, while making his way through the house. It sounds like he took a quick intake of air before immediately speaking again. This was also an uncontrolled environment, so any strange noises could have dozens of explanations.

The film then switches to aerial footage outside of St. Stephen Martyr Church in Merrillville, Indiana. In an ominous voiceover, Bagan states, “In light of these developments, Reverend Maginot gets approval to perform a minor rite on the mother, Latoya Ammons.” We are led to believe the exorcism is being performed in the church after seeing several interior shots. However, the photos of the exorcism that are presented are from the living room of the house, not the church. In addition, I didn’t understand why they decided to perform this on the mother. Even if we accept the belief in demons as real, it was the children who demonstrated all the spooky evil stuff!

Then I found an article in the National Catholic Register, which interviewed Maginot about his involvement with the family (Armstrong 2014). According to his interview, “Days later, when the police were investigating with me … . At the end of the interview that night, I put a crucifix on Latoya, and she began to convulse. I realized that she had an aversion to holy things. ‘You are possessed,’ I told her. She looked embarrassed and said, ‘I know.’” It was after this that the priest did a minor rite on Latoya. Maginot is also quoted stating “I also did a minor exorcism on Latoya—this is a matter of going through the rite just one time, and it does not need permission from the bishop.” That’s odd, because Bagans just told us that the priest received (and thus presumably needed) approval to perform this. Further research found that Maginot needed approval for a “major” exorcism that was scheduled for June later that year.

Nevertheless, we see photos of Latoya sitting in a folding chair in the living room of the house. Maginot explains, “I saw she had an aversion to holy objects. I put the crucifix on her head; she began convulsing. I took it off; she stopped convulsing. And I did it a second time, again watching. Consistent. Did it a third time.” This is a different version of events than the interview Maginot gave. Bagans’s film leads us to believe this all took place during the exorcism, but it apparently happened prior to it. In addition, the priest reported no convulsing during the minor rite in his interview with the National Catholic Register. Also revealed in that interview was that the convulsing came every time the priest mentioned a particular demon’s name (perhaps coincidentally one which Latoya had previously looked up). This documentary does a poor job of presenting an accurate timeline.

There are five photos taken of Latoya during the minor rite. All show her sitting in the same chair and basically in the same position. The last one shows her without a wig and a crucifix against her forehead. There is no sign of convulsing here. The photographer in me notices a few things about the photograph: Latoya, the subject of the image, is in shadow. Ambient light from a window to the right is creating shadows on the left side of the image. If the flash were used, these shadows would be overpowered and our subject would be brightly lit. The low light environment would cause the camera to keep the shutter open a bit longer. If there were any “convulsing” going on, it would be extremely obvious in these images. If she did react the way the priest claims, there would be motion blurring and distorting the image.

The film then focuses on digging up the dirt under the basement stairs, finding random objects, like a press-on nail, a pair of panties, a pin to a shirt, and some sort of lid, among other things. When you pause the film at the right time, these items can be seen on the report. Yet Bagans does his best to twist these findings into something paranormal, and so does Fr. Maginot. There’s a short clip of him and Bagans talking about the found items, and the priest states that it could be from necromancy—the supposed practice of communicating with the dead. This is just speculation and seems to be to further along the theme of the house being “cursed.”

Cut-scene showing document detailing several items that were found under the basement stairs, including a pin to a shirt, a lid, and garbage.

There’s a segment that looks at a mysterious oil that is found on blinds in the center bedroom. I can’t comment concerning the source of this liquid (I’m not sure whether it was actually an oil), but I will comment on a claim associated with this fluid. Bagans states that a new CPS worker would be the next to “fall victim to the malevolent energy in this home.” The police captain, Austin, states, “The CPS opened the cabinet, and she took her left hand … and she touched the drippings … and when she touched the fluid, the whole half of her hand changed like all the blood had been drawn out. White.” We then see a photo of a hand (sleeve matches the previous picture of the CPS worker) and see … nothing unusual. There is no discoloring seen in the photograph whatsoever. In the end of this short segment, the viewer is left with the question, “Yeah, okay … so what?” There’s no relevance to the alleged oil dripping from the blinds … except of course linking it thematically to well-known horror films such as The Amityville Horror (1979) with its bleeding walls.

Screenshot of CPS worker’s hand that was described as “half of her hand changed like all the blood had been drawn out. White.” No color change can be seen.

It is interesting to note that in between scenes there is a cut-scene that shows a distorted typed document. When paused, it reads, “Oil seems to condense and drip unto the steps from …, she made above. It also appeared all over the blinds in her bedroom. The p---[word unclear, likely priest] wiped down the blinds, and closed and sealed the door for 1/2 hour and when … [words unclear] again, more oil appeared.” From the way it is worded, this seems to be a report from the priest that indicates a possible source for the oil above the steps. Sadly, the rest of this document is not provided.

A cut-scene showing a document mentioning a possible source for the oil. The entire document was not obtainable.

Bagans then tells us that with “Evidence in hand, he [Maginot] requests permission from Bishop Dale J. Melczek to conduct an official exorcism on Latoya Ammons. His request is granted … immediately. There is a document that the camera is panning across while this voiceover is going on. The document is titled “Report Seeking Permission of Bishop for Exorcism.” When reading the print of the first shot panning over the document, there is a line that states “On Friday morning, April 20, 2012, in the midst of my weekly Bible Study Group, I received a call from Chaplain David Neville of Methodist Hospital, since I was on call for Fr. Joseph Uko, to come to the North Campus to perform an exorcism on a boy witnessed … .” It seems there is a lot left out of this story, since this request is for an exorcism on the young boy who reportedly walked up a wall, not the mother. However, without seeing the entire document, I can’t be sure.

Almost a half hour into the film, we finally learn that Latoya, the mother who started this whole situation, wouldn’t talk to Bagans because she was already committed to another television producer who had optioned the rights to her story. So Bagans heads over to the house’s original landlord, Charles Reed. Here Bagans finally starts to show something resembling decent investigation methods. According to Reed in an interview with Marisa Kwiatkowski of WKYC, “there were no problems in the home before or after the Ammons and her family lived there.” Bagans also notes, after speaking with a female squatter, that “the people that were squatting in the house originally told me they didn’t experience anything there.” The squatter’s husband had some stories to tell, but only after Bagans slipped him some cash (the film cuts back to a scene filmed when Bagans first showed up at the house). Journalistic ethics generally prohibits reporters from paying sources (for several reasons, including that it provides an incentive to make up stories), but at any rate it seems that whatever the issues going on there, they rested solely with the troubled family, not the house.

We cut back to the original landlord’s house, with Reeds handing Bagans an article in which Latoya’s stepmother was interviewed saying the family was outraged by Latoya’s claims. Bagans also has the house inspected, which uncovered black mold in the attic and “probably” carbon monoxide leaking out of the furnace and the water heater exhaust. This is where Bagans stumbles a bit into the unfamiliar territory of actual research. After getting off the phone with the inspector, the scene has an obvious edit—the phone suddenly disappears, and it appears Bagans has already been speaking, but the beginning has been cut out. He makes an attempt to bridge the gap between the inspection results and some sort of explanation that sounds “sciencey”… yet, his explanation is unintelligible nonsense. He is clearly uncomfortable with what he’s trying to say.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can lead to symptoms such as stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes, or skin. Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions. Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath” (CDC 2017). According to the Mayo Clinic (2018), the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include “dull headaches, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision, and loss of consciousness.”

A former resident, Mika, then drops by with her three kids. The kids are asking Bagans about the house, the demons, and why he started investigating, when the camera pauses on one of the girls. There are some quick cut-scenes of the center bedroom blinds (with the oil on them), photos of the oil on the blinds, and the second CPS worker’s hand (the one that supposedly turned half white). Then we’re back to the kids asking Bagans questions. This is a typical Hollywood set-up telling the viewer that something is going to happen to this particular girl.

And it does. According to the film, the girl attempted suicide a few days later. For some reason, the mother felt the need to call Bagans just after it happened. We hear her on the phone saying she was still waiting for the police to arrive. I can’t imagine why a mother would feel the need to call Bagans immediately after her daughter allegedly attempted suicide. The only concern she should have is the life of her daughter, not calling a TV ghost hunter. Later on, Bagans is with a family member who is describing the injuries as “she had holes in her wrists and her eyes were like red.” When asked to clarify, she said, “It was little cuts, like she had stabbed her wrists … with a pen.” Bagans then likens these injuries with the stigmata of Jesus (the definition of stigmata appears on screen).

Suicide is a sensitive subject, and I certainly do not mean to belittle the experience if this was a genuine situation. However, the investigator in me just doesn’t buy it. The entire segment—from the recorded phone call and one-on-one interviews, to the exorcism performed on the daughter—all lacked believability and seem staged. I hope that I’m wrong about this, because exploiting such a subject to promote a film would be a great injustice to those who suffer from mental illness or depression. As Ben Radford (2017) notes in his book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, Bagans has a history of exploiting suicides for his personal projects, such as when he recorded an EVP of what he claimed was the ghost of troubled actor David Strickland (who killed himself in a seedy Las Vegas motel in 1999) and used it in his music. 

Before we get to that, Bagans claims that a microphone on Mika picked up another EVP, allegedly saying “Run, Latoya.” It’s not clear what is really said, but we have to remember that the woman was wearing an open microphone while Bagans, three other kids, and at least one camera person are somewhere in the house. This could easily be attributed to any of these people.

After Mika and her kids leave, Bagans is “overcome by something” and sort of attacks his cameraman, Jay. The scene appears staged, mostly from Bagans’s bad acting and watching a third crew member do absolutely nothing to stop the “attack” or help the other crew member. The “attack” consists of nothing more than some pushing and walking (almost like someone learning to dance with a partner). Even though the camera guy states “You basically slammed me against the wall,” that’s not what we see in the video (which was captured on surveillance video with no audio). This continues the theme of distorting events throughout the film. The whole ordeal is made even sillier with Bagans suddenly being outside (and now being filmed with a microphone) and saying “Billy, what in the f*ck just happened?” It’s not the first time he’s claimed to be possessed, and I doubt it will be the last.

After a discussion with the original CPS case manager, the photo of the second CPS case manager’s hand is shown again with a list of injuries allegedly sustained within thirty days of visiting the house. These include three broken ribs (from jet skiing), third-degree burns (from a motorcycle), broken hand (she hit a table), and a broken ankle (from running). These are all normal things that can happen when engaging in the activities she was doing. What if we extended the time frame to three months? Or a year? How many more injuries or misfortunes could we add to the list? Let’s flip this to the other side and ask how many positive things happened to her in those thirty days?

An image of the home inspector appears along with text stating that after returning home from the house (no time frame is given this time) a variety of misfortunes occurred: a tree nearly fell on his car while driving home; he was choked by an unseen force while sleeping (was it a “force”?); he developed cancer soon after (many people unfortunately develop cancer, but it has nothing to do with demons). The priest adds his own anecdote: a time when he fell off his bicycle—which was turned into “thrown down from his bike”—he blamed the demon. Captain Austin, also has some bad experiences. He tells a story about slipping on ice two days after visiting Bagans in the house. Captain Austin was also shot during a home invasion call he responded to (he recovered). We are led to believe these events were due to the house.

These are tactics that play up the “cursed film” angle. Bad things happen due to career, hobbies, or life. If you take a length of time, say thirty days, and list all the bad things that happened to you, I have no doubt the majority of us could come up with a few things. For example, since my last article was published, I had three days in a row where large machines I was working on failed and I had to work many hours into the night to fix them. I also sliced my hand while rearranging tools, stepped on a thumb-tack while walking barefoot, and found that several old computer files of photographs were corrupted. Did this all happened because I exposed a hoaxer? No! It’s because shit happens.

Then we finally get to some actual ghost investigating. Enter Dr. Barry Taft, most famous for working on the case that inspired the movie The Entity (1982). Taft takes out several meters, such as a handheld frequency counter and geo magnetometer. Everything seems normal until they get to the 60 Hz calibrated Tri-Field meter. Dr. Taft tells us that “Then, a few feet away from the wall [in the basement], about half way up my body, I started seeing like a 1 Hz oscillation.” The scene shows both Dr. Taft and Bagans in the basement of the house, with Taft holding the meter as the needle bounces around. Bagans then does a mini-possession routine, complaining about his eyes hurting (maybe because he’s not wearing the glasses that he had on earlier). When he comes back to stand by Dr. Taft, the meter is now bouncing around while being held just in front of Bagans (who has his hands in his coat pockets). Dr. Taft claims that Bagans is giving off 20 mG, and we see the meter needle bouncing around on the right side of the scales.

There are a lot of things wrong with this scene, many of which would not be obvious to the casual viewer. First, even though the meter is calibrated at 60 Hz (+/- 20% of reading), it has a frequency range of 40 Hz to 100 KHz. This means that the device is measuring the strength of any magnetic field within that range, not just the strength of a 60 Hz frequency. The meter does not distinguish between the frequencies it is measuring. The “calibrated at 60 Hz” is an important fact, since the “+/- 20%” that comes with that affects accurate readings. A 20 milligauss reading, if it is measuring only a 60 Hz field, could be an actual reading anywhere between 16 Hz to 24 Hz. This margin of error is only at 60 Hz. We don’t know how far off the meter would be if it’s measuring frequencies above and below that calibration.

Dr. Taft makes a statement that he is getting “a 1 Hz oscillation.” The meter is set to read magnetic fields, which displays the measurement in milligauss, not hertz. Hertz is a unit of frequency, while milligauss (which the meter is displaying) is a measurement of field strength. This may be just an honest mistake, but it is still worth pointing out.

What really stands out during this segment is that Dr. Taft has the meter on a lower setting. It is set to the “Magnetic 0 – 3” milligauss mode, both when we first see them in the basement and a few moments later when he claims to have a 20 mG reading directly in front of Bagans (the meter is just about against Bagans’s chest). At one point Dr. Taft turns to Bagans and puts the meter to his chest, but nothing happens. Dr. Taft then can be heard softly saying “Let’s try magnetic,” and switches the selection dial from “Electric” to “Magnetic 0 – 3.” This gives the crew the effect they were hoping for; Dr. Taft states “Look, look, look. It’s magnetic. We didn’t get that before, did we?” During an interview scene that is cut in, Dr. Taft is saying “20 mG coming off you, that’s a little high. Why would your body be emitting … now remember, bio-magnetic fields are really weak. You would need a super-conducting sensor.” The mode selection dial on the meter can clearly be seen set to the 0–3 scale; this would make the reading between 2 and 3 mG, not 20 mG, when reading the correct scale. The reading was simply not accurate. The needle on the display was bouncing around like it was overloaded. I’ve reached out to Dr. Taft for comment on these discrepancies, but my efforts to contact him failed.1

Screenshot showing the Trifield meter set to 0–3 scale, while Dr. Taft claims it was reading 20 mG.

I contacted AlphaLab Inc., a manufacturer and distributer of laboratory gauss meters, tri-field meters, AC milligauss meters, DC milligauss meters, air shipment meters, and more since 1993. I spoke with Bill Lee (2018), president and owner, about the Trifield meter and its use in a normal household. He informed me that a 3 mG reading would be a typical reading in a house that had power on.2 This is consistent with the readings we see in the film, which bounce between 2 and 4 mG (since it was set to the 0–3 scale).

When I mentioned the needle bouncing around to Lee, he explained, “the standard motor used in almost everything, like air conditioners, refrigerators, etc., is called an asynchronous induction-motor. They are designed to operate just a little slower than 1800 RPMs, which is 30 revolutions per second. They fall behind a little bit of the 60 Hz; they’re operating maybe at 29.5 Hz, which goes in and out of phase with the 60 Hz. You see a higher and lower drain, therefore a high-low-high-low magnetic field.” During the scene where Dr. Taft is holding the meter to Bagans, we can actually hear one of these motors running in the background. In a scene a few seconds later, we see that the cameraman is standing next to the house’s water heater and furnace—which has one of these motors (and is most likely the source of the sound).

View of the basement showing cameraman standing near the furnace, which contains an asynchronous induction-motor that can cause fluctuating readings with the Trifield meter.

I was able to obtain a Trifield meter, the same one used in the film, for my own testing. Simply walking through the house had the needle dramatically oscillating between 0 and 3 mG, as long as I had it on the 0–3 scale. Once I changed it to 0–100, it became much less dramatic. Also, I found that I could create the same “20 mG bouncing needle” effect seen in the film (when Dr. Taft is holding the meter in front of Bagans) by having my iPhone in the front pocket of my jacket. I can’t be sure if this is what caused the reading in the film, but it does show how easy it is to make such an event happen.

The author in similar a position as Bagans, with the meter reading between 1 and 3 mG.
An iPhone in the author’s pocket easily makes the needle bounce around.

Lee also mentioned that high level fields, such as those around 20 mG, could produce an audio hum that could be heard on audio recordings (such as professional camera equipment used for a ghost hunting film). Another scene has the cameraman complaining about getting “crazy interference” at one point. If they were actually getting a high reading—and we don’t know, since they were on the wrong scale—this is a plausible explanation for the interference.3

The film crew then takes a break, but we see that Dr. Taft is “affected” by the house. Bagans narrates “Weeks after this investigation, we discover something disturbing captured on this camera.” The camera follows Dr. Taft as he walks to the back bedroom. As the camera passes through the doorway, a “black anomaly” comes into the top left of the screen. Bagans takes the footage to Ed Weibe, a video engineer for NASA for thirty-two years.

Weibe states, “Really increased the luminosity just a little bit, just to see some of the other detail in the object. Prior to that, we can see that it’s different intensities; there’s not the same intensity. So, say it was a … we thought it was a hand or something like that from someone else, say, the cameraman, perhaps. His hand wouldn’t be broken up in different intensities; it would all be one hand. I’m 100% sure that is not the cameraman’s hand.”

I disagree with his conclusion (and his reasons for that conclusion) and think it was most likely the cameraman’s hand. First, looking at the details of the scene, I noticed that all the blinds are down and the cameraman is not using a light. Therefore, we’re working in a low-light environment with soft light coming from the blinded windows. The cameraman enters a dark hallway, and the anomaly shows up as the camera pans to the right, across light coming from a window in the bathroom. The anomaly is dark because the cameraman is blocking the soft light from the main room behind him and the brighter light coming from the bathroom window. This is creating a silhouette effect.

The anomaly, dramatically dubbed the “black mass,” is between the wall (just in front of the camera) and the camera lens. It is also out of focus, indicating that the object is close to the lens. When Weibe increases the luminosity to “see some of the other detail of the object,” the attempt fails because it only increases the brightness of the overall image, including the blurry anomaly. It does not sharpen any details or make anything easier to identify. We see some surveillance footage of the event, taken from the far corner of the main room, but the cameraman is blocking our view of what his camera is viewing. The date/time (counter) on this surveillance video are blocking the exact area we need to see: the cameraman’s head, camera, and position of his left hand. Curiously, the time stamp doesn’t appear in surveillance footage after this event.

Surveillance shot of the cameraman when he recorded the black mass. His left arm and hand are obscured by his body.
The time stamp overlay was removed in later surveillance footage.

When holding a professional video (or still) camera (even when on a rig), the left hand is usually used to adjust the zoom, focus, and any other options. Since the cameraman was entering a smaller and darker area, it’s understandable that he would try to adjust the focus or angle for a better shot or maybe to turn a light on. When one grabs the lens to adjust this, your hand is in a “C” shape, so that your fingers wrap around the top and your thumb is around the bottom. Most likely what happened is that while looking through the LCD screen (camera view), he went to grab the lens to make the adjustment and overshot it, sticking his fingers in the frame. He quickly realized what happened and moved his hand out of the way.

Keep in mind, this footage wasn’t discovered until weeks later, according to Bagans. As Ben Radford notes in his book Investigating Ghosts, “Good investigators must fully investigate any unexplained phenomenon at the time it is occurring; noticing something strange on an audio or video playback days or weeks later is pointless.” This anomaly would have been in full view on the large LCD screen the cameraman was looking at, yet he fails to make note of it or mention it to Dr. Taft who is right in front of him. It only comes to light weeks later, after the cameraman was “removed” from the crew a few days after this event. This is far too late to investigate possible causes in the same location (the house was bulldozed after filming wrapped up).

I reached out Ed Weibe (2018), who agreed to answer some additional questions concerning his analysis of the video footage. It turns out that he did perform other enhancements beyond what is shown in the film, though none I would consider relevant to determining what the object might be. One included comparing how dark the anomaly was compared to other shadows and BT709 standards, a recommendation of the ITU-R, which specifies standards for high-definition TV (I’m not sure what this had to do with solving the mystery).

In our conversation, Weibe also mentioned that he had been on a previous episode of Bagans’s “Aftershock” edition of the Ghost Adventures show, where he was introduced as a paranormal investigator. The episode featured a video from Weibe taken at Sloss Furnaces that allegedly shows a headless ghost. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the video impressive, and it resembled someone wearing a hoodie with his head down in front and ducking behind an object. Another teammate who was present during this video was shown to be wearing similar clothing.

Despite the enhancements Weibe did, nothing beats simply trying to recreate the event to see if it’s possible. That’s what I did. I was able to duplicate the anomaly quite easily in my own home, which I assure you is not haunted by ghosts or demons. When I mentioned this to Weibe, he told me that there was additional footage that wasn’t used in the film. The additional video, according Weibe, ruled out the possibility of the cameraman’s hand in his opinion. Unfortunately, this missing footage can’t be taken into account until it is released.

Screenshot of the author’s recreation of the alleged black mass.
Screenshot of author’s recreation of the black mass while viewing the black mass on monitor. That is not his thumb; it’s his fingers lumped together in front of the lens.

Weibe also told me the cameraman’s arm was never in a position, at the time of the anomaly, to suspect his hand was the cause. He also mentions the cameraman’s elbows were back and the camera rig was in the way. This caused me to look at the surveillance footage again. As I watched the cameraman going into the hallway, it is easy to see (and obvious) that his left arm, elbow, and hand are blocked from view by his own body position and a backpack he’s wearing. I also found that the camera rig being used in the film has the operator’s left hand-hold only a few inches from the lens and completely accessible.

After this segment, we’re told that the cameraman, Adam Ahlbrandt, starts acting very strange, like he’s confused. I’m not convinced, since in the first scene showing this we see him sneaking a peek to make sure the others are noticing him. He hurries off to the basement by himself, and we’re treated to some spooky background music as Ahlbrandt walks around the basement by himself. We’re told he was vomiting blood back at the hotel room, in Bagans’s room—if true, it was not filmed. We see Ahlbrandt acting crazy and violent in the hotel, while Bagans and crew fearfully watch from down the hall. Surprisingly, not one other guest comes out to complain about the disturbance or see what’s going on.

He eventually calms down enough to talk to the crew, requesting they “cut the cameras” (turn them off), which is not done. Instead, they hide a camera under a table and continue to film while Ahlbrandt goes into a possession-type story, mixed with bits of threatening Bagans. Soon after that Ahlbrandt is “removed” from the crew.

But Ahlbrandt is not just a camera operator. According to his IMDb page, he’s an actor and cinematographer, known for films such as The Burnt House (2009), Cross Bearer (2013), and The Cemetery (2013). He’s known for violent horror films and has credits as a director, writer, editor, producer, special effects, and so on—pretty much every aspect of making a film, with eight credits as an actor. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that his hotel outburst was nothing more than a performance for the camera. I’m surprised this segment didn’t end with another exorcism.

Finally, Bagans is boarded up in the house alone so he can stay the night. He wanders around the empty house for a while, which is tracked by both Bagans’s handheld video camera and the surveillance cameras he had set up throughout the house. I noticed something peculiar: the video counter was missing from all of the surveillance camera videos. Earlier, when the NASA video engineer was reviewing surveillance video, a counter was onscreen. Now, when nothing important needs to be covered up, the counter has disappeared. This inconsistency suggests shady investigative methodology.

The experiences Bagans has while “locked down” in the house are as anti-climatic as the rest of the “evidence” that has been presented so far. First up is an EVP that he hears (and records) while looking through the glass window of the basement door (which is now closed). This is right next to two windows (to his left) in the kitchen area. The noise is faint and sounds like someone outside. If Bagans would have had microphones outside the house to monitor noise activity, at least we could have had some type of comparison. As it is, the recorded noise is not impressive in the slightest.

Bagans’s next experience is a bit more entertaining, even though it’s still on the silly side. Throughout the film, Bagans has mentioned several times about having a dream about a demon with a goat head. We endure cut-scenes of someone in this costume throughout the film. He continues this theme with another EVP—that of an angry goat. When I heard it, I recognized the sound right away. I did a quick Google search that yielded several videos of angry “demon” goats making noises that were very similar to what we hear in the film (see, for example, Simons 2016). It would not have been hard for Bagans to look up “angry goat” videos on his phone (it has been established he does have it) and play it from the room across the hall or even a small Bluetooth speaker.

Bagans freaks out and tells the “demon” to stay away as he cowers on the bed. Bagans’s handheld camera, which is set on the mattress next to him, suddenly goes out of focus (how convenient). In the extremely blurry view of his camera, we see a dark human shape move from right to left and out of the room. What I found strange here is that the “dark figure” was in the room. I tracked the door frame before the video went out of focus and it is obvious that the figure is in the room. During this whole scene, the video cuts back and forth between Bagans’s camera and a surveillance camera mounted in the corner of the room (with no counter). We never see Bagans get up off the bed from the surveillance camera point of view. Through editing, it would be very easy for Bagans to get up and walk out the doorway, then back again, creating this little scene without the viewer knowing for sure if it was staged or not. I’m leaning toward it being staged.

Closing out the film, Bagans revisits the people he’s met throughout filming and focuses on any negative aspects in their lives. He makes sure to keep things mysterious, even his own issue of diplopia (double vision). He claims it is permanent, though that seems to be a rare diagnosis. With treatment (including corrective lenses, an eye patch, eye exercises, or surgery) people often make a full recovery (Holland 2017). I don’t know the severity of Bagans’s condition, nor am I qualified to diagnose such a condition. I hope he’s not embellishing his condition to make it seem like the house was the cause, even though that’s exactly the impression I get here. In any case, I do hope he makes a full recovery.

The film concludes with the house getting demolished. Bagans decides it “needs to go away,” since he believes it has caused so many problems. It’s a shame, since there is no opportunity for anyone else to investigate the claims or to follow up on Bagans’s own work. I’m quite surprised that he demolished a potential cash cow; ghost hunting groups tend to pay a lot of money to stay in places like this overnight, or even just a few hours. Bagans could have made back the purchase price of the house pretty quickly, I’m sure. Yet I suspect that tearing down the house served two other purposes: first, to end the film on an altruistic “I’m protecting others” note (even though we learned that prior tenants, the tenants after the Ammons family, and even the squatters all had no issues in the house whatsoever). Honestly, trying to protect his viewers is already too late since each and every one of them had something attach to them just by watching the film (remember the “warning” in the beginning of the film). The second reason would be to keep other investigators, especially skeptical ones, from investigating the location and perhaps recreating some “evidence” in the same way Bagans and his crew did.

Good news, though! He kept the basement stairs and some of the dirt from the floor. I imagine it will be on display at his museum in Las Vegas soon (if it’s not already). I guess he’s not too worried about the “curse” of the house. I plan on visiting the museum later this year, so I’ll check it out.

Overall, I found this film to be a drawn-out version of Bagans’s television show. The voiceovers were boring, the overdone reenactments were ridiculously silly, and the acting (such as Bagans’s “almost-attack on Dr. Taft”) were worthy of several eye-rolls if not an audible guffaw. The research and investigation methods were heavily biased by his personal beliefs. Bagans and guests attributed pretty much anything and everything to the alleged demons or “curse” of the house without any good reason. Worse, I saw no actual investigation of paranormal claims; there was ample retelling of experiences and anecdotes, lots of speculation, misinterpretations, and shady editing, but no solid investigating. I wouldn’t call this a documentary, since there’s evidence of cherry-picking information and manipulation of events. There’s a lot you’re not being shown, and for good reason. It would take the suspense out of what little they have to offer. The film has been labeled a “pseudo-documentary,” meaning it is filmed in a documentary style but doesn’t portray real events. That sounds about right to me.

Special appreciation for research assistance from Shannon Bradley Byers, Rick Fisher, Anna Hill, Ruth Himes, William Lee, and Benjamin Radford.



Notes
  1. I attempted to contact Dr. Taft through social media, email, and a phone number listed on his own website. Both the email and phone number are no longer in service.
  2. Bill Lee noted that the meter is sensitive enough to pick up power lines outside the house. However, with power on in the house, the magnetic field from the house wiring would override any readings from the outside power lines.
  3. It has been brought to my attention that when using these Tri-field meters, they are too sensitive to be held by hand. I asked Bill Lee about this, and he told me it was fine. Our hands don’t have an effect on the magnetic scale. However, because our bodies are conductors, we can have an effect on the electric field. Holding the meter would often increase the electric field reading. Also, our bodies often reflect radio waves and have an irregular effect on the meter, so you would need to back away from it to get an accurate reading. 


References

Kenny Biddle

Kenny Biddle's photo

Kenny Biddle is a science enthusiast who investigates claims of paranormal experiences, equipment, photos, and video. He promotes science, critical thinking, and skepticism through his blog I Am Kenny Biddle. He frequently hosts workshops on how to deconstruct and explain paranormal photography. Email – parainvestigator@comcast.net