Mount Carroll, Illinois, is populated by more dead bodies than living people. At least that's what Mount Carroll lifer Jim Warfield told us after a marathon tour of the Raven's Grin Inn, the year-round haunted house he operates and also lives in. Maybe it's a thing he says for dramatic effect—but after spending the previous six hours wandering around town, it's not a stretch to imagine that corpses outnumber the living.
I read about Mount Carroll a few months ago in a Budget Travel feature about the 13 finalists for Coolest Small Town in America. The quality of the locales on the list was questionable, I'd decided, mostly because the town in which I grew up, Flagler Beach, Florida, was one of them and I know for a fact the place is a fucking cesspool by the sea. But a tiny place in Middle of Nowhere, Western Illinois, with a year-round haunted house that looks from pictures on its website not unlike something out of a Rob Zombie movie (House of 1000 Corpses, specifically) and is only two hours away from Chicago is a place that can't be bad.
Really, "small town" doesn't do Mount Carroll's smallness justice. My boyfriend and I arrived at around 2:30 PM on a recent Saturday afternoon, figuring we'd check into our room at the Hotel Glenview—the only game in town—then sightsee until it was dark. That way, we could go to the haunted house knowing we were making an honest effort to be as scared as possible. (Raven's Grin is open most of the day, pretty much every day, but daytime seems like a weird time to go.)
A thing about visiting a town this size: everyone wants to know where you're from, but mostly they want to know why the hell you're there. I tell the hotel's owner, Larry DeSpain, we're from Chicago and that we came to visit Raven's Grin (a common answer, apparently). He replied, "Ah. From 'the Big City.' Around here, anything east of Rockford is the big city." Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say DeSpain and his wife seem cosmopolitan, but they don't seem backwoods either; more like an older suburban couple fulfilling a lifelong dream of making a home of a quirky-but-not-quite-crumbling 19th-century hotel in the sticks—he'll fix up the rooms, she'll sell antiques, jewelry, and things in the lobby. It was like we paid admission to an interactive small-town play acted out in real time and everyone had a role they were taking fairly seriously even though the pay sucks. For instance, Sassy Townsman number one is played by the guy who said, "Don't bother, there's no history around here," while I read the placard outside their library (a Carnegie library).
The play's budget must've been tight because, mostly, there weren't people out and about in downtown Mount Carroll on a Saturday. When you're surrounded by it, it's hard to decide if the quiet is soothing or eerie. Are the people you do run into around town really that friendly or are they conspiring against you? Is everyone else already gathered in the basement of the Raven's Grin, putting on their robes, and chalking a pentagram onto the floor?
By the time we checked into our room, lamented the absence of a television, and finished our ten-minute lap around the downtown area (which comprises maaaaybe two square blocks), we still had about four hours to kill until nightfall. So we snooped around Raven's Grin.
The house itself—a three-story, 19th-century inn with peeling gray paint and naked winter vines crawling everywhere—practically escapes notice because there's so much going on around it: old cars piled up next to the entrance (one of them is suspended about seven feet off the ground and appears to be coming through the side of the house); a six-foot-tall rusted metal skull with Plexiglas eyes; little wooden cat cutouts with bloody paws that dance along the top of a chain-link fence. It's creepy, sure, but it's also really impressive—the work of a mad artist, one who may or may not be watching us through a window as we skulk around and take pictures.
Elsewhere in town there are bars with cheap beer and a bowling alley with eight lanes, a TouchTunes jukebox, and a Saturday special ($10 per person for two hours of bowling). We witnessed the quietest birthday party in the history of bowling alley birthday parties, bowled five games, and had dinner at Bella Food & Spirits, the town's surprisingly nice, surprisingly crowded fine dining restaurant—we had to sit at the bar because we didn't have reservations.
We let the anticipation build. We also drank kind of a lot in the meantime.
It was around 9:45 PM when we headed to the Raven's Grin. By the time we emerged, I'm pretty sure it was nearly midnight. It's the slow off-season, we were enthusiastic, we laughed at all Jim Warfield's jokes (even the awkward "adult" ones), and we wanted to be scared, so I think we got an extended tour of the house with extra stories, details, and scares. Like the bit he did where he pretended he was going to cut off my index finger at the knuckle with garden shears. Ha ha.
Here's what I think: Mount Carroll is like the staging ground for an eternal game of tug-of-war between charm and a sort of sinister gloom. Just when one side is getting the edge, the rope is yanked back in the other direction. It keeps things interesting.
I'd tell you more about what goes on inside the Raven's Grin, but that would defeat the purpose of recommending you visit, and I absolutely recommend you do.
Don't be scared just because you're outnumbered by dead people.