If life were a horror movie, you’d run out of gas on Route 20, somewhere past the spot where La Porte, Indiana, turns to dusty backroads. You’d wander east on Wilhelm Road in search of help and come upon Carl Carder’s property, where the first sign you’ve stumbled onto something weird is the Ferris wheel in the yard. The second is the air, thick with dread.
But this is a movie, so you enter Carder’s barn anyway and find the handmade hatchets, mutilation shears, and medieval skull crusher, arranged artfully on walls and tables. Mouth agape, you back into . . . holy hell, is that an electric chair? And then, the creak of a floorboard above. “Hello?” you call out, and, idiot that you are, you tiptoe into the loft and discover the rack and the guillotine. No one hears your screams echoing through the empty fields.
OK, so nobody is getting garroted in Carl Carder’s barn. The truth is much stranger. Using nothing more than Internet photos and materials from a hardware store, the soft-spoken Michigan native, 67, has spent more than $300,000 painstakingly re-creating dozens of medieval torture devices. Over here is the scavenger’s daughter, a notorious 16th-century metal rack that compresses the body, squeezing blood from the nose and ears. Over there is the rat box, which I’d rather not describe. Carder’s eye for detail is so stunning that if you were to put his spiked interrogation chair in a River North gallery, critics would call it edgy. Unflinchingly bold. Some might even mistake it for a political statement. A businessman once offered $5,500 for the chair but was rebuffed. “It’s mine,” says Carder. “If he had any idea how much time went into it. . . .”
One of 14 children—“he’s somewhere in the middle,” says his sister Mary Heuer, who lives nearby—Carder has always been stubbornly peculiar. Like the time he paid for a 1966 Ford by unloading thousands of pennies from the bed of his pickup truck. Then there was the run-in regarding provocative signs at the edge of his property (“Every body has something to hide / Mine’s behind this fence / Where’s yours”) that snarled traffic until the county asked him to remove them. The torture stuff began in the ’90s when one of Carder’s nephews burglarized his house, and Carder did the most sensible thing he could think of: He built a jail and imprisoned the thief. From there, the hobby just sort of progressed: shackles, iron collars, Spanish ticklers.
It’s safe to say the neighbors don’t understand. Carder’s property has become a magnet for fraternity pranks and drunken high schoolers, and few seem to appreciate Carder’s Variety Land, his yard full of meticulously restored amusement park rides, open six months a year. (The $5 admission includes a tour of the barn.) “All the old ladies are afraid of him,” says a neighbor, Dave Albin. “But he’s the nicest, most generous guy to me. He epitomizes the picked-on kid who creates his own world and prevails.”
So we’ve got a mild-mannered, possibly misunderstood genius and undeniable craftsman with a penchant for provocation. In other words, he’s a born artist, and rather than focusing on, say, jewelry or pinball machines, he’s chosen a niche so gruesome it has alienated his own children. Either the fuss genuinely confounds Carder or he enjoys goading people. Sure, he comes home from his factory job at 11 p.m. and goes straight to work constructing iron maidens. What’s the big deal? “It’s my life, and this is how I choose to live it,” Carder says. “I’m doing what I want to do.”
Photograph: Nathan Kirkman