SOUTH BELOIT - When the South Beloit Lions Club asked Rich and Verda Barclay if they would mind their group running a haunted house in their barn, it was a no-brainer.
"I said, 'of course. I love Halloween,'" Verda said.
Northern Illinois Fear Fest will celebrate its 20th anniversary this Halloween season. Although a lot has changed in two decades, owners Rich and Verda are still enamored with the haunt and have even more surprises in store for visitors such as a Gargoyle awaiting guests in the funhouse and a new casket wall in the haunted barn entrance.
What started out as an aging barn and a few props has morphed into a massive business featuring a haunted barn, a funhouse and haunted hayride. Each of the three attractions takes about 18 minutes to tour, providing a full evening of entertainment.
As the years go by, the Barclays continue to up their game, providing more scares and surprises as soon as visitors are waiting in line for the attractions.
Each year Northern Illinois Fear Fest pulls in 6,000 - 7,500 people, including many from the Chicagoland. It employs more than 60 people during the height of the season in addition to volunteers. People can't seem to get enough of the old-fashioned creepiness of an aged barn.
"A third of our business is repeat customers," Rich Barclay added.
All ages explore the site. The Barclays have helped more than a couple senior citizens enjoy it, including a woman with a walker who comes every year. They also have ushered in a few wheelchair-bound customers.
Some people might not realize Northern Illinois Fear Fest is a year-round business. The tear down alone takes a month. Rich, who is retired, and Verda, who works in accounting, attend trade shows for new items, groom the site, make repairs and clean props in addition to mending costumes. They also have fire and building inspections and paperwork to do, in addition to communicating with employees ranging from age 16 to 69.
Although the Barclays allow friends and curious people to come volunteer, they noted it takes four to six weeks to complete the necessary background checks and paperwork.
In the summer the Barclays market Fearfest in parades by driving their drivable casket and by late August, they are almost ready for the big season.
Although there are plenty of other haunts to visit around Halloween, the site offers what the Barclays call "old school startle."
"We started out with an old creepy barn, so we had the perfect set up," Rich Barclay said.
The fun began two decades ago when the South Beloit Lions offered to run a haunt at the historic barn. The Barclays home was built in 1832 with the barn - fastened together with wooden pegs and square head nails - built shortly thereafter. The Lions ran the haunt for eight years before the Barclays took over.
The Barclay family made many happy memories in the haunt. When they first started, their son was 6-years-old.
"Everyone thought he was a prop," Verda Barclay said.
While making repairs on the barn, the Barclays also discovered some strange noises which has convinced them the site is truly haunted. They weren't scared off and bravely spent years perfecting the barn's floor plan.
Their best props were castaways from friends such as old doors, or most recently, an rusty gurney to hold a Frankenstein. Their barn would feature a variety of attractions over the years ranging from a Norman Bates shower scene to a collection of creepy baby dolls.
"They scare grown men," Verda Barclay said.
Several years ago, the Barclays started building the fun house, another attraction that would offer a more interactive experience with actors.
At the fun house, visitors can get a reading from a fortune teller and visit some of the Verda Barclay-inspired scenes such as an Alice in Wonderland handing out faux body parts. Guests can also stroll through the "carn-evil" offering an eyeball ring toss and a spooky holiday scene with gingerbread skeletons and scary Grinch.
Barclays remain excited about all the creative opportunities the site allows them.
The best part of the site, however, remains the many squeals heard coming from those daring enough to enter. Scaring guests is a thrill that never wanes.
"It's an adrenaline rush. That same rush you get when are scared, you get when you scare someone," she said.