|One of the places that has inspired me over the years|
Let's go back, oh, 12 years or so into the past. I was a fresh-faced kid in college, living in an apartment with good friends, remembering the good times I'd had haunting our house around Halloween with my dad when I was growing up, and dreaming of the day when I would have some yard space of my own to carry on the tradition. I was also, as many young people seem to be, completely enamored with the internet.
As such, I found myself frequently searching up Halloween and home haunt related web sites. At some point in there, I discovered a little gem known as the Halloween-L e-mail list.I joined, and was a member for several years; I made some fun friends, learned a lot, and gleaned TONS of inspiration from these fabulous folks. It was a great time.
One of the things I learned about, in my time on the list, was a haunted house that was open year-round. Called the Raven's Grin Inn, it was said to be amazing! Unique! Totally bizarre! Scary, but not like what you're used to! Off the wall! Rumors of secret passageways, pranks and scares, and huge slides that dropped you several stories within the house flew rampant across the board. Supposedly the guy that ran the place lived inside the house too. And best of all (for me), it was IN ILLINOIS. Some of the listers went out to visit the place after Transworld (the big Halloween convention / trade show in Rosemont, IL) one year, got a tour and a behind-the-scenes of the place too, and came back raving about it. It sounded amazing and yet completely indescribable: just one of those things you need to experience on your own.
Unfortunately, while it WAS in Illinois, the place was three hours away from me. I always wanted to head out there but could never get anyone willing to make the trip with me, and even though it SOUNDED right up my alley, I wasn't sure I wanted to just meander out there all by my lonesome. And so it remained on my "gosh, I'd really like to see this place one day" list.
As it happened, I did not make it out to Raven's Grin until the year 2008. I went with my two good friends Melly and Sarah, and not only did we visit the place, we ended up working there for the night AND befriending the owners. It's a rare place that holds up to over a decade of anticipation, but Raven's Grin did. It was everything that it had been rumored to be AND MORE.
Here's bits from a write-up I did shortly after that first visit, along with some pictures:
Between Oregon and Mount Carroll (home of the Raven's Grin Inn), there is a whole lot of nothing. We had printed out directions from the RGI website (http://www.hauntedravensgrin.com/), based on landmarks, as Sarah and Melly got hopelessly lost in cornfields the last time. We also had Sarah's GPS with us. The Garmin was optimistic about its route, so we decided to stick to the theme of the day (grand adventure!) and give it a chance to get us there.
We spent about 40 minutes traversing cornfields in mostly pitch black areas. At times, the Garmin would direct us that a turn was 200 feet away and we couldn't even see the road it was telling us to turn on! But the roads would always appear at the last second. It was a bit surreal.
Eventually we made it to Mount Carroll and stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, since we didn't know if there would be one available to the public at RGI. Sarah announced that this area looked familiar to her. We made a couple more turns and she points and says 'there it is!'
I look and I see...nothing.
"Right there!" she says, and points once more at...nothing.
Finally I am able to make out a faint dark blue light in the darkness. "That blue light?" I ask. She confirms. It doesn't appear that there is any road to get TO the blue light, but she has me turn anyway, and all of a sudden there we are! The huge old house looms out of the darkness at us. The parking lot has a decent number of cars, so we sort of make our own space next to one of them and get out.
The house, at first glance, is part art, part abandoned junk heap. In the darkness, it's hard to take in most of the details, and there are a LOT of details to take in. There are several large tour groups milling around outside, and I am just ridiculously excited to be here.
Melly got out to smoke, and Sarah began searching frantically for the $20 she had to get in to Raven's Grin.
|Sarah searching frantically for her money|
While they were both occupied, I headed over to get the tickets, since it looked like a number of people were waiting already, and we thought it might be awhile.
I walk up to the ticket window and a lady peers out at me. I greet her and inquire into getting a tour. She tells me that it'll probably be about an hour from now and goes on to say that they're a little disorganized tonight because the 3 people she has on standby to work the house aren't answering their phones, so they're shorthanded tonight. I say "well, there's three of us! If we can get a free tour, and you can tell us what you want us to do, we'll help out!"
Melly and Sarah have walked up behind me at this point, just in time to hear this exchange.
The lady looks at us for a second, then says "ok."
We look at each other...excited...suspicious (is she pulling our legs?)...and a bit trepidatious (what kind of place IS this, exactly, where someone can walk up off the street and the employees can just give them random jobs for the night?). "Really?" we ask her. "Sure!" she says. "Just walk over by that gate, and give me a second."
I turn to Melly and Sarah. "I just volunteered us to work here in exchange for a free tour, do you guys care?"
um. Stupid question. Of COURSE not!
Ridiculously excited, feeling like we're all in high school again, we wait by the large wrought iron gate. A few moments later, the lady (who introduces herself as Jessica) ushers us in, thanks us, and asks us what our time limit for the night us. We all agree that we pretty much don't have one, and she can feel free to use our services as needed. She thanks us and begins ushering us past a number of doors. This side garden area is a tangle of plants, darkness, and various detritus. Peering through the window into the kitchen gives me a glimpse of strange oddities that my brain doesn't really make sense of. We meet Zombie, a large, scrappy black stray tomcat that hangs out by the house, waiting for dinner.
She ushers us into a door towards the back of the house, where we appear to be in a basement, but I think it was the first floor. The inside of the house is a mystery of pathways, trails, rooms, slides, stairs, doors, windows, ramps, and god knows what else...so most of the time, I had no sense of where I actually WAS. We walked through some of the behind the scenes areas, where she positioned each of us at our various 'scare' points, told us when we'd be able to tell a group was coming through, let us know that we could switch jobs between groups if we wanted. During our instructions, a somewhat disheveled looking man wandered by. "Jim," she says, "these girls are going to be helping us out tonight." He looks at us blankly for a moment and walks off. "Oh, he doesn't care," she says, waving her hand dismissively. We look at each other, excited. A glimpse of the infamous Jim Warfield, tour guide extraordinaire and owner of the Raven's Grin! And he could care less that three strangers are wandering around in his home with absolutely no idea what they're doing there!
Jessica left us to return to her job. We had a great time that night, scaring the patrons and talking about our experiences working haunted houses in the past. (I was particularly glad to have been stationed at the bottom of the first slide, as it gave me a better idea of what I was in for when it came time to ride the terrifying Bed Slide I'd heard so much about...and wasn't entirely sure I was going to be able to talk myself into doing.)
I felt so at home there...all the decorations, and really everything in the house, has a very 'homemade' feel to it. The best way I can describe it is like a giant version of my dad's yearly halloween yard haunt. If someone gave my dad a big old house and said 'here, do whatever you want with it' and gave him 21 years to do it...this is the sort of thing my dad would come up with.
About an hour and a half in, Jessica came in to relieve us for a 'smoke break'. We went outside for a bit, got a few things from the car; Melly had a cigarette, I pet Zombie some more. We talked to Jessica for a few minutes...'so, how long have you worked here? Are you related to Jim?"
"I married him," she says.
OH mah gawd! We were hired by Mrs. Raven's Grin!
She met him on a tour about six years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. They've been married for four years.
Shortly thereafter, it was back to our stations. Groups continued to filter through, and periodically Jim would appear in the back staging area, looking as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. "Here they come!" he'd whisper in eager anticipation. We had no idea where he came from or where he disappeared to when he left us.
The door by Sarah's station had a speaker in it that would, when irritated in just the right way (by moving the door, breathing on it, or even just looking at it funny), begin to speak in a child's voice, "Mommy? Mommy? Is that you? I'm so scared, Mommy. Please come and get me, I'm scared. I'll be good, I promise!" After the 200th or so repetition, we all went a little mad.
Sometime between 11 and midnight, Jessica returned to relieve us of our duties. She ushered us up to the bathroom (where we encountered Louse, the other guy leading tour groups through the house, and the last group), then to the front room of the house to wait for our tour.
The front room, like most of the other rooms, is jammed full of seemingly random props. Masks and movie posters and skeletons and homemade beasts and old clothing and a piano and dust and old furniture and god knows what else.
We spent a half hour or so chatting with Jessica and meeting the animals of Raven's Grin. She kept coming out with cat after cat after cat. We were introduced to the famous Mr. Tuxedo, who is well into his golden years at the ripe age of 17. After a bit, Jim joined us as well. It was great talking to them about the house and their experiences there. The door to their living area (yes, they live in the house; four small rooms, I believe they said) is just off the front room, so we asked if they'd ever had any mishaps with people wandering in on them.
'Not really,' Jim said. 'Most of the time things work out pretty well. I can tell you that one time, I was home by myself, in bed in my underwear, napping, when I woke up to the sound of voices. I got up and walked in here to find a man and his wife just standing in the front room, pointing at different props and talking. And there I am, in my underwear...which say "Home of the Whopper" on the front."
We laugh, and then I say "this is going to sound kind of strange, but my dad has those underwear!"
(It's true, he does.)
Jim leans towards me and says "this is going to sound kind of strange, but I'M your dad!"
Eventually we got around to starting the tour. They ushered us outside to wait by the front door, so we could have the full experience. We stood out there for a few moments, until we heard a disembodied voice command us to 'get away from the door!'. We step back, and a moment later the door begins to creak, clank...and lower straight down, like a drawbridge!
It hits the ground, and Jim charges out, dressed safari-style, with a stuffed cheetah draped over his shoulders, pointing a large gun at us. He ushers us into the house, and back into the front room (that we had just vacated), which is now dark save for the TV screen in front of us. We sit on the couch across from it and spend 5-10 minutes watching...a man, wearing a rainbow clown wig, laughing maniacally and wrapping himself in toilet paper.
Thus begins one's tour at Raven's Grin.
Eventually Jim comes in, sans safari gear, and begins to regale us with stories about the inn itself and various props in the room. The lights stay off, and Jim is armed with only a flashlight, which he shines directly on his face (from the chin up), spooky-story style. Periodically he switches it off and then suddenly appears standing right next to you, to give you a startle and a laugh.
And here is where it all comes together for me. I have, up to this point, greatly enjoyed my time in the Inn, in the presence of these lovely people and their delightfully eccentric home. I have an overdeveloped sense of the whimsical and the absurd, so I find it delightful, but I recognize that if a 'normal' person were to wander through the home, most people would just be wondering what was UP with the crazy people that lived here. The house shines on its own, but it is really just a backdrop...the true star of the show is Jim Warfield, with his amazing personality, sense of humor, and perfect sense of the theatric. While we were working earlier, we could hear different parts of the tour throughout the night. He tailors each presentation to the audience, and can take a group of any age through the house. He must have 50 different spiels memorized for different areas, and he does this year round, several times a day...and has been doing it for 21 years. Yet every time, with every group, it sounds fresh. Every time, he changes things up just the slightest bit, adding or taking away or interacting with the group. Even after having sat with us for half an hour, talking to us like 'normal' people, he was able to jump straight into touring and entertaining us as if we had never seen him before. It was fantastic. And he was giving us the baudy, adult tour...which had us absolutely in stitches.
The tour of Raven's Grin is something that words will never do justice to. It's impossible to describe and absolutely necessary to experience. Highlights include:
*Jim almost chopping Sarah's finger off with a pair of garden shears, to which I am amazed that people (myself included, mind you) will pay someone to let them into their house, terrorize them, generally act completely insane, and still allow them to take your finger and put it into a set of garden shears. I NEED a job like Jim's. ;)
*the awesome changing pictures on the walls...I've never seen pictures that morph as well as these
*twisting, turning, and winding our way through the house and having NO idea where I was most of the time
*climbing through the back of a Hearse, implanted into one of the house walls (INSIDE the house, somehow), into a coffin-shaped hallway
*the fantastic, huge, arched stone wine cellar (where the REAL haunting is supposed to happen)
*the terrifyingly exhilerating Bad Dream Bed Slide. Which, yes, I went on.
I will take a moment to describe the slide, for it is full of awesome. You start in a bedroom at the top of the house...on the floor is a bed, twin-sized...surrounded by several disclaimers and warnings on the wall. (Such as "two people have broken their legs on this slide!") If you choose to go on the slide, Jim puts a burlap sack on the bed, then a pad for your butt (a new addition, which Sarah and Melly note make the ride MUCH smoother). You lay on the sack, wrap your feet in the bottom pouch, and put your arms through a padded ring. Jim gathers the sack around you and you hold it together around your body. Then he pulls a lever and the bed lifts straight up! And you rocket to your doom down the inky black pit that appears below you, straight into the darkness of the wine cellar.
It was something else. And I can't wait to do it again!
We've since been out there with numerous groups, including: friends, my parents, and even my kids (ages 3 and 6 at the time of their visit), and every single person has always had a blast, every time we've gone. Jim and Jessica Warfield, the owners (who do indeed live inside the house), are fantastic people.
|My dad, 3 year old daughter, 6 year old son, and my husband posing by the Raven's Grin wagon.|
|Yes, my three year old is ringing the doorbell. Because the adults wouldn't!|
If you're able to make it out to Mount Carroll before Spirits opens, I highly recommend you check them out. Of course I KNOW you're all planning on coming out to Spirits after it's up and running, so I know you'll get there eventually, but believe me... Raven's Grin is worth more than one visit. You won't be disappointed.
For more information, visit their website at http://www.hauntedravensgrin.com
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