Some days, Mark Fuller still can’t believe his friend Ian Austin is gone. As Fuller and his friends prepared for the opening weekend of Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction last week, they were doing so without one of the haunted house’s co-owners. Austin died in a car accident in April at age 40.
“There’s a small, tiny piece of me that still thinks he’s going to show up and just kind of jump out and say, ‘Ha! Gotcha!’” Fuller said.
It would have been in keeping with Austin’s character. A fan of Halloween since he was a child, he loved scaring people, especially as his alter-ego character, Socko the Clown, whom he dressed as each year at Circle of Ash.
The annual haunted house extravaganza has been a Linn County tradition for 19 years and is currently co-owned by Fuller, Chelsea Haugh, Amy Larkin and Brad Peterson. They are dedicating this season to Austin’s memory.
Austin was a friend and mentor
Haugh and Fuller were brought on as co-owners of Circle of Ash about five years ago, after years of volunteering behind the scenes. Both started as customers who became enamored of the haunted house.
“I called and said, ‘I want to scare people,’” Fuller said. “They said, ‘OK, come on out.’ I did, and I never left.”
Both have day jobs; Fuller is an assistant in the social sciences department at Kirkwood Community College. Haugh works at Berthel Fisher as a legal support specialist.
She was a teenager the first time she visited a Circle of Ash attraction, Frightmare Forest, and she remembers impatiently waiting to turn 16 so she would be old enough to volunteer.
“Me and my girlfriends would all get together and make our parents drive us to every haunted house in the county,” she said. “When I was in high school, I had to write down my goals, and one said, ‘Become an owner of Frightmare Forest.’”
For both of them, Austin was one of the first people to welcome them into the organization.
“Ian was one of those rare communicators,” said Haugh. “I think everyone who was friends with Ian thought he was their best friend … That man was the best man at more weddings than I can count on my hands and feet.”
She was also Austin’s roommate for more than two years.
“He was a big brother, he was a mentor to this place,” she said.
Haunted house is a labor of love
Running Circle of Ash isn’t easy. The haunted house has been based at the Linn County Fairgrounds in Central City the last few years, and almost every year flooding has made part of the grounds inaccessible. It is a business, but it doesn’t bring in enough revenue for the owners to take home paychecks. And it sometimes seems there are a thousand moving parts, from complicated light and sound shows to coordinating around 50 volunteers and actors each night to scare the thrill-seeking masses each October.
Austin was the one who handled much of it. Without him, his friends had to teach themselves how to run the electronics, some of which he invented.
“We had a members pow wow at his funeral. We kind of had to,” Haugh said.
They decided they had to carry on, for Austin, but also for themselves.
“We all gave each other our world to continue,” Fuller said. “I think it will bring a sense of normalcy. This is what we do.”
The owners and volunteers curate and construct every element of the haunted house, as well as a maze — renamed Socko’s Fun House this year in Austin’s honor — and Frightmare Forest.
“Ian and I worked on the vortex tunnel that’s at the beginning of the haunted house — we built that in our driveway,” Austin’s father Rickey Austin said. “He was an inventor. A lot of the stuff at the Circle of Ash was stuff he invented.”
In addition to his involvement with Circle of Ash, Ian Austin had his own company, Haunt Labs, to market his inventions and props to other haunted houses. He also worked at Trapeze in Cedar Rapids as a software engineer and had previously worked at Honeywell, Intermec and Norand.
“He was interested in Halloween ever since he was a kid. He would put together haunted houses in our garage,” Rickey Austin said. “When kids came to our house in the neighborhood, he would take them in there and scare them.”
Ian Austin was involved with Circle of Ash almost since it began, when it was simply Frightmare Forest, and was part of its growth since then.
“It was kind of his second job — he gave it every free moment he had,” Rickey Austin said.
He visited Circle of Ash just before the season began, for friends and family night. He said he could see the passion his son had is being carried on in the efforts of Ian’s friends.
“They really did a lot of work, and he’d be very proud of them. It’s good to see it,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect, and I don’t think they did either. But they all stepped up to the plate and made it happen.”
If You Go
• What: Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction
• Where: Linn County Fairgrounds, 201 Central City Rd., Central City
• When: 8 p.m. to midnight, Fridays and Saturdays in October, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 27 and 31
• Cost: $22 to $37
• Details: circleofash.com
Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org