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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

‘Haunt family’ pours soul into horror attraction

Brandon Clark
The Haunted Haven barn stands illuminated by red spotlights. Owner Melissa Norton has run the Haunted Haven for 14 seasons. (Brandon Clark | Northern Star)

ROCK FALLS – Ghouls, goblins and other hellish creatures stalk the patrons of Haunted Haven, a popular horror attraction nestled in the cornfields of Whiteside County.

Owner Melissa Norton has been running Haunted Haven, at 29038 Grennan Road for 14 years. Norton’s love of horror comes from her mother.

“My mom was always a scary movie fan, and I would watch horror movies with her while my dad was working,” Norton said. “Mom always decorated for Halloween; and there I was, 3 years old, sitting on the floor with her and crumpling up newspapers to help make dummies for the yard.”

Norton carried on the tradition, decorating her yard and expanding on the design each season until one year she decided to take things to the next level.

“We completely gutted our house and put everything into storage, even our bed. It took us about a month to transform the entire house,” Norton said. “I did this for three years until the state came in and gave me a pretty little packet that said I couldn’t do it anymore.” 

In order to operate, haunted houses in Illinois must adhere to guidelines set forth by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

“Before the state came along, I didn’t charge,” Norton said. “But after that, my options were to stop or go commercial. So, we bought the barn and have been out here ever since.”

Norton contributes part of her success to her dedicated troupe of volunteer scare actors. 

“I’ve got about 30 actors, and the group this year is 110% about the haunt,” Norton said. “They’re my haunt family, and I love these guys.”

Scare Actor Joseph Savre has been with Norton for 12 years and said he was hooked from the first time he went through Haunted Haven as a customer. 

“I’ve always loved everything horror, and I love entertaining the crowd and seeing the scares and the laughs,” Savre said. “It’s really awesome when you can get a little kid to come up and hug you.”

Finding dedicated volunteers has gotten harder for Norton over the years.

“When we were in our early stages, it was easier to get actors. I went to the college and looked for people in drama class and theater,” Norton said. “Over the years, times have changed, and finding volunteers who can commit to being here every day is harder, but that’s life.”

Running an operation this size without dedicated help can make Norton’s job nearly impossible, and with a narrow window of business, Norton needs all the help she can get. 

“Unfortunately, in my line of business, it makes it hard because we are only open 14 to 15 days a year,” Norton said. “We’ve got that many days to make it or break it, and when people don’t show up, my show is not up to par. Without them, I can’t open my doors.”

Krista Hicks is Norton’s haunt manager and one of the demonic clowns seen stalking the grounds. Hicks has been with Haunted Haven for the last 10 years. 

“People would be surprised at how hard this is,” Hicks said. “You run around all night in the cold, and the next day you feel like you’re going to die, but it’s rewarding.”

In addition to overseeing the smooth operation of the haunt, Hicks helps with training new actors, painting and decorating. 

“Teaching the new kids and seeing them fall in love with what I love makes it all worth it,” Hicks said. “They’re enthusiastic and full of energy, and by the time we’re done, they can out act me all night long.”

Norton keeps the scares fresh by redesigning the haunt each year. This year’s theme is “resurrection.”

“It was amazing, I loved the dollhouse room. There’s all these creepy dolls sitting around, and the lights are flashing around you,” Penelope Reynolds, a customer who walked through the haunt said. “And just when you’ve lost sense of where you are, the actors seem to pop out of the walls and get you.” 

Running the business is hard work, and Norton admits at times she’s thought about closing the lid on Haunted Haven’s coffin. But every year, she rises from the grave of her doubts to unleash hell upon Rock Falls. 

“With owning a haunted house comes the good and the bad,” Norton said. “It’s hard sometimes, but I can’t give it up. I eat, sleep and breathe Halloween.” 

October 31 is the haunt’s final day and tickets can be purchased at the gate or customers can go online to buy a Slash Pass and skip the lines. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are sold until closing at 10 p.m.

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