By Carson Gerber
---- — Jeff King was working late one night by himself inside one of the historic circus barns at the International Circus Hall of Fame when he heard the large, sliding front door open and someone call his name.“Yep. I’m in the back,” he yelled. No answer. King walked up front to see who it was. The barn was empty.“It was a really creepy feeling,” he said.King chalked up the incident to spirits who he says haunt the barn, and Jack Rhinaman, president of the ICHOF, said it’s just one of many paranormal occurrences people have experienced inside the building that also houses the hall of fame’s museum.If you’ve got a haunted barn, you might as well turn it into a haunted house, and that’s exactly what King and Rhinaman have done.For the last five year, volunteers have turned the 10,000 square foot barn and museum that used to serve as the winter quarters for the country’s most popular circuses into a frightening haunt called Ringmaster’s Revenge.After the museum closes for the season at the end of August, volunteers swarm the barn and work round the clock for 30 days to transform the rooms into harrowing horrors for people looking for a good scare during the Halloween season.“It’s a lot hours, and there’s times where there’s a lot of frustration,” said King, the lead builder and actor at the haunted house. “But the end product always makes it worth it.”And the end product looks terrifying. People enter the barn, and are led through dozens of rooms full of twisted bones, psychotic clowns, disorienting strobe lights, pitch-black mazes and demented circus animals.“The barn itself has its own little attitude, too,” King said. “It makes its own weird little noises and sounds.”“Most people think just driving out here is scary,” said Michelle Rhinaman, Jack’s husband and also an ICHOF board member. A narrow road winding along the Wabash River leads up to the grounds at the hall of fame, located at 3076 E. Circus Lane. A sign posted at the entrance of the road reads “Dead End,” and it leads past a few houses and open fields that make it feel like you’re driving into the middle of nowhere.“It’s just so eerie out here,” Jack Rhinaman said. “Especially on nights with the full moon and the clouds rolling over.”The drive might be creepy, but the real freak out starts once you park and get your ticket. King said don’t be surprised to run into an evil circus ringmaster or weird clown before you even get in line for the haunted house.“The biggest thing about scaring people is coming from somewhere they don’t expect you, and doing something to them they don’t expect,” King said.Like the time he tied a young girl’s untied shoe while she was standing outside. The girl thought it was a family member until she looked down and saw a terrifying mask staring back at her.“I’ve always like to scare people,” King said. “And there’s a good sense of accomplishment when you see your ideas actually doing that. It’s just fun, and I really enjoy doing it.”The scares are what makes Ringmaster Revenge fun, but what makes it arguably one of the most unique haunted house experiences in the state is the barn’s singular role in circus history.Built in 1917 by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus as part of its winter quarters, the building was originally used to repair tents and build and repair wagons that carried exotic animals during the circus’ off-season.Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey bought the barn in 1929 and used it until 1943. After that, circuses stopped coming to Peru to house their animals and supplies during the winter months.The International Circus Hall of Fame purchased the barn in the 1980s, and restored it to its original condition. In the 1990s, they installed the museum. Now, it’s one of only 55 National Historic Landmarks in Indiana.Patrons walking through the haunted house don’t know it, but they’re actually observing historic circus artifacts while they’re getting scared out their pants. There’s an old cage that used to house lions and tigers that now holds an angry-looking stuffed gorilla. There’s an old brick kiln the circus used to make steel for its wagons that’s now surrounded by bones and skulls.“Circuses are dwindling,” Michelle Rhinaman said. “You don’t see many circus museums, let alone the added attraction of a haunted circus museum that’s also a part-time haunted house. It’s the whole package.”It’s also a great outside-the-box way of raising awareness about Peru’s circus history and drumming up support for the International Circus Hall of Fame, she said.“A lot of people that come out don’t know this is an historic circus site,” she said. “Once they realize it, a lot of them come back in the summer to see the museum.”All the ticket sales to Ringmaster’s Revenge go back to the ICHOF to help maintain the site and fund new projects. On a good year, the haunted house raises around $1,200. That’s not bad for a building that would otherwise sit unused for eight months.“It’s not a huge money maker, but we try to be frugal with what we pay to put it together,” Jack Rhinaman said. “We need money to keep the lights on and heat on, and we can make enough here to pay for all the fuel we use in a year.”King said it’s a win-win-win situation: He gets to build a haunted house, the museum makes some money and the around 40 kids who volunteer as actors and builders get to have fun and learn a little circus history.“There’s usually one night where no work gets done when we’re setting up, because all the kids are inspired by the history that’s here – the wagons and how big the circus really was here in Peru,” he said.Kassidy Rhinaman, a teenager who volunteers as an actor at the haunted house, said the barn’s history is interesting, but for her, it’s all about the frights.“I get really nervous when people come through, because I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to scare them,” she said. “But when I do, it feels really good.”“Seeing the actors’ faces when they really scare somebody is priceless,” said Dannielle Rhinaman, who works up front as an announcer. “It’s like you just gave them a million bucks.”Dannielle said she volunteers at Ringmaster’s Revenge even though she’s scared of the dark and hates haunted houses. But as the daughter of Jack and Michelle, she said it’s kind of a family obligation.“I’m afraid of the dark and I hate haunted house. That’s why I stay up front. Plus, if I didn’t do this, I’d probably be homeless,” she said with a laugh.Although Ringmaster’s Revenge is all about having a good time in one of Peru’s most unique circus landmarks, King said he and the actors take their scares seriously. They really want to freak you out, he said. That’s why they have a pee-your-pants board at the back of the barn. If an actor gets a patron to pee his pants with one of their scares, they can put a mark down on the board.“When you’ve seen grown men curl up in the fetal position, you know you’ve done your job,” King said with a laugh.Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at email@example.com.