Harrison County family takes Halloween so seriously it's scary

Billy Roberts poses for a portrait in the Haunted Barn in Cynthiana, Ky., Sunday, October 27, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins
Billy Roberts poses for a portrait in the Haunted Barn in Cynthiana, Ky., Sunday, October 27, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

The Roberts family's haunted barn is a true DIY attraction.

There is Billy Roberts dressed as a demented clown alongside his 5-year-old mini-me son, Dray, with his own scary mask and tiny, billowy striped pants. Billy's brother Troy, burly and a little wild-eyed, staffs the nearby meat room dressed in Carhartts and armed with a cleaver.

Billy and Troy's mom, Jill, helps with the costumes. Their sister Nicki Powers, outfitted as one of the undead, serves as mistress of ceremonies. Billy's daughter, Shelby, is a giant, caged Frankenbunny with rotten, razor-sharp teeth. Their wives, Angie and Meghan, sell tickets with their friends, Billy says, "for the social aspect."

Some childhood pals and Harrison County scare enthusiasts fill out the cast of zombies and assorted creatures of the night who feast pre-show on decidedly unfrightening fare — a Crock Pot filled with warming hamburgers — as their festering sores are touched up with red makeup.

Billy, 40, now a mechanical engineer at 3M, said it all began years ago when he was a University of Kentucky resident assistant at Boyd Hall. There was a Halloween contest. A friend signed him up, and they won first place.

"It all started with a mask and a circular saw," he said, not explaining why two college guys happened to have ready access to a circular saw.

After Billy left college, "little brother" Troy, 31, who towers over Billy, joined the scare team. They were for a long time a traveling show. They put up several haunted houses for charity at different locales in Cynthiana. They even created a couple at a firehouse in Tennessee. The Robertses would usually split the profits from the gate and put the money back into the business.

Billy, leading a behind-the-scenes tour through the haunted maze, points to one of his first purchases: a life-size clown.

"I discovered that people are terrified of clowns," he said. They don't even have to be especially ghoulish, just clownish, he said, smiling.

In the past few years, the Robertses have been using a friend's barn, charging for admission but also collecting canned goods for the local food pantry. But they long for a permanent place of their own where they can store all their equipment and make some permanent structures. For now, though, they are dependent on the kindness of strangers. This year's planned six-day schedule was cut short when the farmer who lent them the barn needed to put up his burley crop.

Still, several hundred people managed to get to the haunted barn before it closed.

Getting there is even part of the adventure.

Signs are minimal, Billy said, because the city doesn't allow them. The barn is a bit of a guess to find for anyone who is the slightest bit directionally challenged.

It doesn't hurt that the road to the barn north of town is long and narrow and winds through endless empty pastures flanked by shadowy trees. It's hard not to think, "This is how all horror stories begin."

The barn itself is not the towering teetering stuff of nightmares, but low, metal and modern. Inside, though, the Roberts boys have worked their dark magic.

Billy and Troy say they have been scaring folks for as long as they can remember.

They'd cover themselves in leaves and lie in wait for trick-or-treaters, popping up just in time to get them shrieking. They tended to be drawn to things covered in gore and had a talent for finding the sweet spot for terror.

Sister Nicki recalls what she called "torture" (her brothers say, "fun") as they would make her think there were sounds coming from under her bed and would do unspeakable things to her dolls.

Over the years, haunting has become a shared hobby for the siblings.

Some families might share handmade scarves or slippers at Christmas. A few years ago, Billy got the evil bunny costume his daughter now wears.

For the Roberts family, the big holiday shopping day isn't the day after Thanksgiving, but Nov. 1, when everything at Halloween Express goes on deep discount.

It takes about two weeks to assemble the haunted workings inside the barn, but they work on it year-round.

Troy can talk for days about how to create the perfect texture of rotting flesh. He can make a life-size body, complete with entrails, in about three days. (Properly drying the faux intestines takes most of the time.)

They have perfected, for example, the technique of charging in on a visitor to their haunted barn but not touching them so as to elicit a scream and then disappear.

They know the appropriate angle to appear most gruesome and have mastered the staging of rooms to create a sort of terror ebb and flow.

They've also learned some things that don't work. Aliens in a haunted house? Not that scary.

In real life, Billy comes across as the kind of bespectacled guy whose most daring weekend might involve a cold light beer and an early game of football on TV. But the haunted house, he said, "shows a little bit of my twisted side."

"You get to kind of be yourself when you are behind the mask. You get to do whatever you want," Troy said. He adds with no small measure of pride that every year usually one grown person is scared enough to wet himself.

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