ROCK FALLS – “I think it's that way. Go that way. Go. Go!”
It's funny how in tense situations, someone always rises to the role of leader. Hiding behind a bush on Saturday night, watching groups of people make their way through Rock Falls' Haunted Haven, that's one of the first things I notice. In every group, there's someone – older, younger, boy, girl, doesn't matter – who leads the rest of the group through the different stages.
Huddled in the darkness, I recognize a group of boys I met earlier while talking to people in line: three 14-year-olds and one 13-year-old. Three of the four had been to Haunted Haven before, but it was one of the 14-year-olds' first time. As they made their way out of the zombie-filled cornfield (first and last spoiler, I promise), you could see him in the light: the tallest of the group, wearing a burnt-orange Texas Longhorns sweatshirt – entirely unflinching, or maybe just doing an awesome job of masking fear. Either way, it looked like he was taking point.
Missy Schultz and her husband, Jay, have been running Haunted Haven for the past 4 years, and it's now rated the No. 1 haunted house in the state of Illinois, according to HauntedIllinois.com. Talking to SVM photographer Alex Paschal and me from inside her ticket trailer, Missy seems pretty excited about the rating. She's pretty excited about the whole thing, actually. She's been working in haunted houses for 14 years now.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," she says, her reflective contacts glowing in the darkness. "I live for this."
Her husband, dressed as "Tweaker The Pink-Haired Clown" in a mask with a pink wig, dons a punk outfit and smells like cotton candy. He's working among the some 40 actors inside the haunted house tonight. But before he heads inside, we're standing around a fire pit outside the trailer and he starts talking to me about "steamers" – people who are so afraid, they wet their pants, and then because of the cold weather, you can apparently see the steam rising.
He laughs, "We have Depends in the trailer."
"Last year, they were hanging in the window," Missy says.
On the weekend before our visit, Missy recalls nine "steamers" and one woman who vomited.
Back in line there's a family of three: a father with his two daughters, 5 and 8 years old.
"She's been talking about this for a couple of weeks," he says of his 8-year-old, who is clinging to his side. "She's been begging to come, and now she's scared."
"Daddy I want to go!" she says, tears streaming down her face.
Just before we leave, a party bus pulls up the driveway, and a group of 13-year-olds piles out.
As we're making our way back to the parking lot, I see the group of boys from earlier in the evening.
So how was it?
"Meh, OK," the tall one in the Texas sweatshirt says with a shrug.
Earlier, "Tweaker" gave us a tour of the space, with the lights on, so I know what the boys went through.
Just OK? Yeah, I'm not buying it.
Where: Corner of Route 40 and Grennan Road, just off of Interstate 88
When: 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. every Friday and Saturday in October; 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Halloween.
Age: 13 and older, unless accompanied by a parent