Enter if you dare: Raven’s Grin Inn
DESTINATION Mount Carroll, Illinois
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 145 miles; 3 hours by car
I am profoundly uneasy—which is the point of a haunted house, but still. Sitting in the pitch-black parlor of Raven’s Grin Inn in Mount Carroll, Illinois, I’m thinking this is how horror movies start: A head-smackingly clueless woman wanders into a place that ends up being infested with chainsaw-massacring psychopaths. This is the part where I roll my eyes at the movie screen, because anybody that stupid deserves to have her brain eaten by zombies.
On Halloween, people camp out at Raven’s Grin waiting for the owner, Jim Warfield, to escort them through the four-story, 15-plus-room monument to the macabre. But tonight, I’m the only one here. The tour, which lasts an hour, starts in the parlor, with Warfield, 61, delivering a monologue detailing the house’s history, along with a bit of his own eccentric autobiography: He bought the 140-year-old mansion in 1988 for $3,000. There was no working plumbing or electricity, but Warfield moved right in. Then he spent a year turning it into the haunted house of his dreams. “People thought I was cr-a-a-a-a-azy,” he cackles. “Maybe I am.”
Tonight, Warfield’s voice has a manic edge as he recounts how his first wife left him because of the house—specifically, the ghosts who pulled her hair whenever she went down to the wine cellar. Suddenly I hear something skittering. Rats? Cockroaches? Rabid feral possums? I’m pondering the increasingly alarming possibilities when the couch I’m sitting on lurches forward. It’s a relatively gentle motion, but I’m on my feet in a nanosecond, shrieking. Warfield turns on the lights. And then I see that the skittering wasn’t Willard but Warfield, shuffling around in a pair of fuzzy slippers.
“With kids, I let them push the couch button,” he says. “[They] like to scare their parents.”
There are lots of buttons and mechanicals in Raven’s Grin. Stone walls swing back to reveal labyrinthine passageways. Warfield’s beloved Nosferatu Santa answers Christmas wishes with a bit of ghastly animatronic humor. Each room is a combination of outsider art installation, musty theme park, and grisly freak show. “Welcome to the tanning salon and beef jerky machine,” Warfield says as he rounds a corner. A mannequin the color of a roasted holiday ham starts screaming.
Going past the Loni Anderson monster (which defies description beyond that), we head to the backyard, where I crawl through a hearse that opens up into a tunnel. We walk up the tunnel’s ramp and ascend to the second floor. Warfield abruptly asks me how my health is. If I’m not in good health, he says, I shouldn’t take the attic slide. He demonstrates the slide, which is basically a trapdoor on which you lie face-up. When Warfield pushes the button, the floor opens and you vanish, steeply and speedily, into blackness. The contraption strikes me as very, very similar to the one Sweeney Todd used to dispatch his customers.
Pondering Sweeney and beef jerky, I say I’ll take the stairs. In the parking lot, there are a dozen people waiting for the midnight tour. I tell them to watch out for Loni Anderson before I disappear into the night.
PLAY: Raven’s Grin Inn (411 N. Carroll St., Mount Carroll; 815-244-4746, hauntedravensgrin.com) is four stories of macabre fun. $12. >> Trail of Terror (800-946-2108) is a collection of autumn attractions, including cemetery tours, corn mazes, wine tastings, and festivals. Runs September through October; locales vary.
STAY: Built in 1886, Hotel Glenview (116 E. Market St., Mount Carroll; 815-244-1630, hotelglenview.com) is within walking distance of Raven’s Grin and has a view of the town square. There are no televisions or phones in the rooms, just comfy beds and, if you get the suite, a sitting room with a microwave and coffeepot. $50 to $90 a night. >> Prairie Path Guest House (1002 N. Lowden Rd., Mount Carroll; 815-244-3462) overlooks more than 30 acres of woods. The innkeepers, Buster and Fern Stadel, offer three rooms with queen beds ($79 to $89 a night) and a breakfast that includes chocolate zucchini muffins. No pets or children, please.
EAT: Sievert’s Steaks & Stuff (121 W. Market St., Mount Carroll; 815-244-7553) is known for its thin-crust pizza as much as the titular steaks. If the servers don’t know your name when you arrive, they will by the time you leave.
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Photograph: Courtesy of Adam Drendel/hauntedillinois.com