Studio: Freestyle Digital Media
Director: Zak Bagans
Writer: Zak Bagans
Producer: Joseph Taglieri, Mike Dorsey
Stars: Zak Bagans, Kevin Ammons, Mike Maginot, Valerie Washington, Charles Austin, Brian Miller, John Gruszka, Charles Reed, Barry Taff, Ed Weibe
“Ghost Adventures” host Zak Bagans investigates an allegedly haunted house that may have cursed a Gary, Indiana family.
Whenever criticism involves alleged paranormal activity, that criticism becomes a lightning rod for the subject’s supporters (or shills) to angrily shout about the fix being in from a close-minded cabal. In an effort to head off vitriolic feedback, I want to flip the usual format by leading with a concluding paragraph. That way we can save everyone the effort of having to read further than necessary just to work themselves up over comments in conflict with preexisting convictions.
“Demon House’s” dominant issue lies in the fact that it doesn’t move the needle separating skeptics from believers. And really, the greatest sin any documentary can commit is failing to influence a predisposition to even consider an alternate possibility. Basically, whatever you already think about the legitimacy of Zak Bagans’ paranormal investigations and this specific instance of a supposedly haunted Indiana home is what you’re still going to think after end credits roll.
For the film’s first minute, ominous text cautions, “demonologists believe that demons can attach themselves to you through other people, objects, and electronic devices. View at your own risk.” With this loaded warning that would make William Castle drool, “Demon House” plants feet firmly on P.T. Barnum ground.
Theatricality continues as Zak Bagans, “Ghost Adventures” host and “Demon House” guide, dramatically chews on hammy narration through a clenched-jaw drawl. “This was some serious sh*t that meant something,” Bagans vaguely intones over a montage of him striking pensive poses while striding through a crumbling old church. This church has no known role in the “true story” about to be told, although it is useful for providing cutaways like a crucifix partially frozen in snow or a child’s doll conspicuously positioned atop a pile of creosote and chipped concrete.
This is more than an introduction to “Demon House.” This is an introduction to the movie’s means of manufacturing drama from recreations or staged scenery, as actual evidence of a haunting is unsurprisingly scarce.
“Demon House” chronicles the case of a Gary, Indiana home that made headlines for repeated reports of demonic activity. Bagans purchased the vacant house sight unseen upon first learning of its history, and thus set out to authenticate claims that the basement could hide a portal to Hell.
Bagans begins by tracking down Latoya Ammons, whose family suffered at the center of stories related to the house. Latoya and her mother Rosa have no interest in recounting encounters with possessed children and exorcisms however. We’re told this is because the women are wary of anyone who has been inside the house boomeranging its evil back at them. Later we learn about a deal made with a Hollywood producer for a feature film adaptation of the family’s traumatic terror. Contractual obligations of exclusivity may be more persuasive than supernatural threats it turns out.
The question in cases like these, and “Michelle Remembers” and “The Amityville Horror” can be included as two other examples, isn’t whether these events really happened. The question is whether the people who went through the experience believe that it really happened. In that regard, I do deem “Demon House’s” talking heads to be authentic. Interviewees who discuss what might have happened in the house include Latoya’s brother Kevin, a trio of police officers, and a CSP caseworker, all of whom come across as sincere about what they witnessed.
Other than those motivated by money in exchange for their ghost stories, there is no outward reason to disbelieve that many of these people remember these events as seeming real. There is ample reason however, to suspect that every paranormal instance cited has nothing to do with a supernatural source.
One of Bagans’ recurring themes involves applying a scalable timeline to ailments befalling people who had been inside the house. Two days after talking to Bagans, a Gary police captain wound up in an emergency room after falling in an icy parking lot. As an Ohio native, I can assure anyone reading that falling on ice in February in the Midwest is far from an uncommon occurrence. Within 30 days of investigating the house, a CPS caseworker broke three ribs while jet-skiing. Rational minds might chalk up this accident to, you know, the inherent dangers of jet-skiing. Not so here. Could have been a demon.
To be fair, even though the implications are clear, “Demon House” presents these details factually, never overtly claiming that paranormal phenomena caused such afflictions. The movie doesn’t have to. Zak Bagans knows full well that his core followers will eagerly eat up everything as evidence of demonic activity without having to draw the conclusion himself.
Truly, that’s a credit to how crafty Bagans is. Bagans is keen enough to see where holes can be poked and attempts to at least acknowledge obvious counterpoints that cast doubt on conjecture. He doesn’t permit doubt to linger long though, another testament to how well he knows how to frame information, or an illusion of it, through presentation.
Bagans confirms with a home inspector that the plentiful presence of asbestos, black mold, and more than one carbon monoxide leak could easily be to blame for the illnesses and erratic behavior affecting anyone in the house. That’s effectively the last word heard from the scientific side of quantifiable theorization. Offering this casual dismissal as a momentary distraction, it’s immediately back to wild speculation about a satanic rite gone wrong perhaps unleashing a curse on the home and its occupants.
Police recall finding personal items including panties, socks, a comb, and a red tin buried in basement dirt near remnants of candle wax. Again, Bagans infers through a question mused aloud that this could be evidence of a ritual without actually making a declarative proclamation. This is precisely the kind of parlor trick that leads devotees to conclude, “that’s proof!” Proof of what is anyone’s guess. If these are items required for a spirit summoning, shouldn’t a supposed expert in demonology be able to identify the specific ritual, or is this a spell exclusively known only to occultists practicing black magic in this basement?
A similar “yes, and?” comes up when interviewees discuss oil mysteriously appearing on window blinds. Why would anyone be surprised by any gunk inside a squatter haven riddled with mold and leaking carbon monoxide? More importantly, how does this point to paranormal activity? If a Bible verse said, “behold, Lucifer’s coming shall be foretold by a stream of oil at the site of his summoning,” maybe this might mean something. But like the CPS worker breaking a bone one month later, “Demon House” connects dots that aren’t even near one another.
Such examples sum up “Demon House’s” problematic credibility. The movie puts suggestive comments in play without contextualizing significance behind them. In another instance, Bagans mentions that “a couple clairvoyants claim that the house was home to 200 demons.” How about interjecting a follow-up fact? Let’s start with, who were these clairvoyants and how did they conduct a census that counted 200 supernatural spirits?
Bagans ends his movie with a “like I said at the beginning” statement, so I’ll wind down the same way. “Demon House” pretty much leaves everything right where it was at the outset. Bagans believers will hear garbled EVP audio while watching blurry replays of dark smudges and excitedly hail positive proof of the paranormal. Skeptics will merely yawn when an old wooden home decayed by decades of inclement weather produces strange sounds while six people walk across its cacophonously creaking floors.
I’ve never seen “Ghost Adventures.” After spending 90 minutes with him on this excursion, I confess I don’t know what to make of Zak Bagans. I.e. I can’t quite tell if he is a straight-up charlatan or genuinely believes his work is “real.”
I will concede that his sense of showmanship earns fair grades. Does “Demon House” work as a documentary? No. Does it fare better as a mildly freaky film? Based on how much mood is made out of appropriately eerie music and atmosphere, yes. If you trust these are actual events caught on camera, you could even be signing yourself up for at least one night of bad dreams.
I do want to offer a reminder that no matter what did or did not happen, real people are suffering real consequences. Personally, I find it in poor taste at best and irresponsible at worst to focus on supernatural solutions when a high volume of homicides and crippling poverty rate are clearly at fault for destroying families in Gary and similar communities. Believe what you wish, but there is nothing paranormal about these problems at all.
Review Score: 50