Every year, the month of March rolls around and threatens to age me.
I’m not a big birthday party person, but I do like to mark my birthday in some memorable way. And this year, that way involved trekking two and a half hours west, to a small town called Mount Carroll, Illinois, which is home to Raven’s Grin Inn, a year-round haunted house.
Let me just repeat that: A year-round haunted house. Open from 7 p.m. to midnight. And on weekends from 2 to 5.
All. Year. Long.
Everyone goes to haunted houses in October. Why not go in late March? So my husband and I packed up the car and headed west.
At our luxury cabin, Hickory Hideaway (lovely spot with a fireplace and hot tub), we asked the owners about the haunted house. “Is it scary? Or funny? Or both?”
“I’d say the best word is theatrical,” said the smiling man, playing along and not giving up the ghost.
And so we made our way up the country roads, headed towards this theatrical concept, one of us (me me me) more nervous than the other.
We passed highway signs pointing towards Raven’s Grin Inn, and concluded that it’s the main draw to Mount. Carroll, population 1,600. We also saw a man pulling the carcass of a dead squirrel off the road with his bare hands, and I swear if we’d opened our windows we would have heard a sucking sound from the pavement.
Not long after, we found a sprawling old property (built in 1870), on a dead-end street, just behind a small, fairly typical Midwestern downtown. This was Raven’s Grin Inn.
Around it, there were old wire fences and overgrowth. Rusting metal and a turret. Tarps strewn about and skeletons here and there. It was a little bit Addams family, a little bit Hoarders, and here we were, taking it all in.
At 7 p.m., we joined two women who’d also driven in from Chicago and bought our tickets from Jim, the man who built all of the components of the house, and also lives there with his wife. Before meeting him, I’m not sure I could have told you what I thought a man who ran a year-round haunted house would look like. But after meeting him, I can say he totally fit the bill. Crazy hair. Disheveled. Wild eyes. A laugh straight out of The Shining.
I don’t want to spoil the experience for others going. So I’ll just share some highlights of our 2.5-hour tour here.
- Theatrical is, far and away, the best way to describe the experience.
- There are scary moments, too, and many of them revolve around a kind of on-the-spot psychoanalysis “who is this guy and why does he laugh like that?” question about the owner, who leads the tours through the house and doesn’t shy away from making extended eye contact while maniacally losing his shit.
- There are no fog machines or costumed characters chasing you with a knife. Rather, it’s more of a psychological and anticipatory terror here. (See last bullet point about maniacally losing his shit.)
- There are slides and secret passageways, and genuine screams were a regular part of our tour. There were also plenty of puns and more fart jokes than I could count.
- It is, far and away, the weirdest, wackiest place I have ever been.
- I was relieved that there were those two other women on our tour. And they said the same to us. Creeeeeepy!
- 2.5 hours is way long for a haunted house tour—even a year-round haunted house–but you could tell that the guy was having a blast and is talented in a totally out-of-the-box way. He’s entirely in love with the horror medium.
Would I go back? Well, no. Once was good.
Do I regret going? Not at all. I wanted to get a glimpse of the kinda guy who would build and run a year-round haunted house, and I got that. Before I went, I expected well, a haunted house. Now that I’ve been, I see it more as performance art, and have a whole different level of respect for it.
And it was definitely a theatrical birthday.