Seph Lawless is a photographer on a mission to expose the creepy parts of America. While much of his previous work has been political in nature (like highlighting the effects of globalization, and the impact of the Recession, etc.) his latest series is all about creepy for the sake of creepy.
The series, “13: An American Horror Story,” leads viewers on a journey across the country, getting up close and personal with abandoned homes that have dark histories of violence and the occult. We chatted with Lawless about his latest series, and got the inside scoop along with some photos of the houses and the chilling stories behind them. Read on if you dare.
The Sayer House (Kentucky) – After both parents committed suicide, their four small children raised themselves for more than a decade in this home.
Your latest photo series, “13: American Horror Story,” is downright terrifying (and awesome). How did you come up with the idea to photograph these supposed haunted places all across the country?
I was approached by a production company out in LA a few months ago that wanted to do a reality television show about my work. Based on the year long travel across America between 2012-2013 in which I ventured into some of the most abandoned and secluded areas of the country. I called the project Autopsy of America.
Part of the concept was me interviewing locals of places I had ventured into. Some people started sharing horrifying details about certain secluded homes that visually looked haunted, so I decided to document these homes and go inside to further explore these locations.
How did you go about finding these “haunted” places?
From my first project “Autopsy of America” which consisted of images of abandoned factories, hospitals, amusement parks, schools, shopping malls and houses even entire neighborhoods. I came across some real scary looking houses that looked haunted visually and started to investigate through interviewing locals in the areas in which these rather secluded homes were hiding.
(Akron, Ohio) – Home to of the most notorious serial killers in American history, Robert Berdella (also known as the Butcher of Kansas City). This is his childhood bedroom. In his prison psychiatric profile, Berdella spoke of his rough childhood near Akron, Ohio. Specifically, he mentioned his rape at age 16, an act that triggered his desire to move to Kansas City and kill off everybody in the sex industry in the process.
The Cater House Estates (Madison, Ohio) – Home to the local Sheriff at the time, Donald Caters shot himself after the home went into foreclosure in 1968. The house remained vacant and haunted ever since, with locals alleging they hear voices from the house regularly. The home was demolished in late 2013.
(East Cleveland, Ohio) – An abandoned house where Serial killer Anthony Sowell hid victims” bodies. The house is now demolished, but locals crossing the street refused to walk on the sidewalk directly in front of the house, saying the home made noises.
Bailey Mansion (Hartford, Connecticut) – This haunted house inspired the popular television series, American Horror Story.
While you were photographing these places, did you encounter anything strange or paranormal? What was the freakiest thing you saw/heard/felt?
Drastic changes in temperature. It”s common for it to be much colder inside abandoned structures, often times 10-15 degrees below outside temperature. There were varied temperatures throughout certain houses, which was strange and very uncharacteristic in my line of work of almost 20 years.
What was the creepiest place to photograph in this series?
Definitely the vacant and abandoned homes that were used by two serial killers that operated independently in East Cleveland, Ohio, over the last several years. Just knowing I was in those houses over those years and could have came across those two serial killers butchering and torturing victims inside those homes is daunting and to be in those homes now is just surreal.
Both serial killers, Anthony Sowell and Michael Madison, have since been convicted, and according to court testimony, used several abandoned homes in the area to kill and hide victims bodies.
The Temple Haunted Mansion (Detroit, Michigan) – Home of the triple priest murders of 1902. This mansion was demolished by the city of Detroit on Monday, the same day Lawless” book was released.
The Nova Haunted House (Youngstown, Ohio) – This was the place where Benjamin Albright shot and killed his son by accident, then killed himself and his wife after being struck with anguish and guilt in 1958. The home was left vacant ever since and still has personal belongings inside.
The Haught Mansion (Brush Park, Michigan) – In 1941, this was used as a brothel for upscale gentleman. Years later, several dead bodies were found in the cellar of the mansion. Each body was marked by what appeared to be a perfect circle on the torso and chest areas.
The Milan Family Mansion (Ohio) – This was long suspected to be haunted. The owner was a practicing witch known by locals as the Milan Witch, and is said to be buried underneath the front porch.
What, if any, precautions did you take when entering these places to photograph them?
I carry a gun at this point. I”ve had too many confrontations with derelicts and criminals to not protect myself. Besides that, I always explore alone. I feel safer in a strange way and more in tune with my surroundings without distractions.
Aside from weird/paranormal experiences in these houses, are there any other stories from photographing these places that you”d like to share?
One abandoned home had nothing but doll parts all over the place. There were also metal saw tools neatly displayed on metal shelves throughout the home. Other rooms were completely covered in plastic.
Another house had everything left inside it, from family portraits to vinyl records and books. It was like the owners just disappeared and everything remained there, rotting away.
The Doll House Mansion (Philadelphia, PA) – This is an abandoned mansion full of nothing but dolls and organized metal saws and tools neatly displayed on metal shelves throughout several rooms.
The Urn of Sacred Ashes House (Nashville, Tennessee) – The young boys” ashes remain untouched, even though the entire home caught fire.
The Oliver Family Mansion (Chester, Pennsylvania) – The Oliver family went missing in 1898. The mystery baffled investigators and the family was never found, but locals say they can see them in the windows of the mansion.
Do you believe in the paranormal at all?
I believe there are things we can”t explain yet, but I think one day science will be able to explain it. We”re just not there yet. As a paranormal skeptic, I”m more concerned with my reality of being attacked by a derelict, murderer, or criminal that often inhabit these places. So do I believe in ghosts? Not really…I believe in science. I believe in humanity.
I have seen and heard things that I couldn”t explain, like witnessing doors violently slam shut. Then I check the door and it”s heavy and hard to move. Once I got home and edited pictures, I could see shadows and silhouettes of what appeared to be people hiding in the dark that I couldn”t see while inside some areas. Chances are it was a real person just watching me quietly, which is frightening in itself.
The Hooley Haunted Mansion (Texas) – This was home to several strange deaths throughout the 70s, when the mansion served as a bed and breakfast for passing transients.
Is there a message that you”d like viewers of “13: American Horror Story” to take away from your pictures?
Yes. The truth is always stranger than fiction and humanity will always be more frightening and deadly than any apparition that may exist.
Do you have any plans to keep documenting other creepy places in America (or the world), after this series?
Yes, I”m leaving in a few weeks for Europe to explore some really creepy places that I”ll be sharing across my social media sites like Instagram and my Facebook Fan page. My European exhibit opens in Munich, Germany November 20, 2014 at the Amerikahaus Art Museum and the museum directors are flying me out for the opening to curate opening night. The exhibit will be up for four months then travel to other European cities to be named upon arrival after negotiations.
I”m also planning a very secret project one that really has never been seen by the general public. It”s so remote and so vast it”s completely surreal and it”s actually on U.S. soil which makes it that much more interesting. The images are extremely rare and have never been photographed to this extent and will be releasing that project in late 2015.
This is Seph Lawless keeping his cool in a very creepy house.
If you like what you saw, there is even more creepiness to be had in the full “13 An American Horror Story Book,” available here.
I knew America was creepy, but not this creepy. Wow. My hat is off to Lawless for taking, quite possibly the creepiest photos ever. For more photos from Seph Lawless, make sure to visit his website. You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.