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Circus of Screams

If clowns, dolls and pumpkin patches seem happy harbingers of Halloween, be forewarned that an Eagle Point funhouse is no mere child's play.

"It's amazing how many people are afraid of clowns," says Ron Savage, who built a circus-themed scare show at his Highway 62 home.

Filled with more than 30 actors intent on harrying visitors through a 5,000-square-foot maze of monsters, murder and morbid mayhem, "Circus of Screams" is not recommended for children younger than 8. Yet thousands flocked to the attraction in its first two years of operation as a fundraiser for local youth programs, says Julie Ball. True to the haunted house's claim, screams punctuated the nearby highway's traffic noise, she adds.

"We just kind of bring 'em in slow and then hopefully make 'em pee their pants."

Savage, 47, and Ball, 51, retained the circus motif that previous proprietors favored before selling the plywood structure on eBay. But the Eagle Point couple redecorated half for maximum chills and thrills. Costumes, fixtures, audio tracks and sensory effects change every year with the couple's growing collection of gory goods.

"You never know what's going to be used for a prop around here," Ball says, looking over the "autopsy and science lab," with its decrepit gurney and rusted IV stand purchased at an auction of cast-off medical equipment.

Passing the room's disembodied organs and assorted gore, visitors enter Ball's brainchild: the doll room. Ball says the profusion of poppets positioned in cribs, cradles, strollers and high chairs was inspired by a recent scene in WalMart. Shying away from the shelves, a little girl traversing the doll aisle confided in her friend: "Dolls creep me out," Ball recalls.

Horror film icon "Chucky" and his bride preside over the baby dolls suspended from the ceiling, pinned to the glowing walls and languishing in pools of blood. Many animated, the dolls chatter in eerie sing-song tones and manifest jerky movements of the undead.

"I like all the zombie babies," says Lacey Smith, of Eagle Point, who with friend Liz Leonardo outfitted the entire room. Both girls' brothers competed in wrestling for Eagle Point High School, which volunteered to help again this year for a share of the profits.

This year, Rogue River High School's wrestling team joined in, building part of the structure, props and staffing the attraction. Each group stands to earn about $5,000 that helps pay for uniforms, equipment and travel, Ball says. Otherwise, the teams would hold their own fundraisers to bolster the schools' sports programs, she adds.

"Honestly, it saves the parents."

Last year, Oregon Conservatory of Performing Arts signed on. Ball and Savage allow any local youth group to apply, provided it can supply teens ages 15 and older to work over the course of a month leading up to and during the circus' nine-day run, which continues today through Halloween.

Drawing on any able-bodied assistant, the couple makes its circus a family affair. Savage's uncle, Larry Taylor, of Medford, created misty murals in invisible paint that materialize under black lights. Friend Jim Davis, of Wimer, air-brushed numerous panels with vibrant visages that glow in the dark and shift when viewed with the 3-D glasses passed out at the door.

Savage's mother, 69-year-old Linda Beard, of Medford, surprised her son and Ball with her enthusiasm and willingness to devote weeks to the project. She's wielded a paint brush, impaled mannequin heads on poles and decked out spooky trees with cobwebs.

"We didn't have anything of this size around here," Beard says, adding that it gives local teens something to do.

If previous years are any indicator, teens and adults can't get enough of the haunted house and pay $7 per pop several times leading up to Halloween or $5 with a donation of canned goods for local food banks, Ball says.

"We had people coming back four and five nights."

Ball acknowledges the circus is likely just one stop on a "crawl" of local haunted houses, more of which seem to emerge every year. Given relatively inexpensive admission prices, visits to all of them are within most families' budgets, she says.

"There are people that go to all of 'em," Ball says, adding that themes are so varied among local haunted houses that competition isn't an issue.

"Ours is about scaring people."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Kris Leonardo, 'mad doctor', left, Lacey Smith, 'Chucky', Liz Leonardo, 'clown', and Connie Snider, 'ring master' will be bringing terror to a haunted house in Eagle Point. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch