DELLS BUCKET LIST #9 - Going behind-the-scenes of RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT!

Holding someone’s head in the palm of my hand, especially one detached from their body and shrunken down to the size of a coconut, is something I know I’ll never forget.

This admittedly freaky occurrence took place recently during my behind-the-scenes tour of downtown’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “Odditorium,” where getting to hold a few of their authentic shrunken heads was one of the many highlights.

While my hands-on experience is not one that usually takes place due to the fragile nature of these relics, when you visit Ripley’s Believe It or Not! you’ll be able to see the genuine shrunken heads up close, as well as spend time touring their vast collection of other eye-opening and unbelievable exhibits.

While interviewing owner Kevin Ricks, who also owns a Ripley’s in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I learned how even a smaller market like the Dells (compared to the corporate owned larger ones in New York and Orlando), can feature many highly unusual and unique artifacts. This is due to his close friendship with Ripley’s archivist Edward Meyer, who he describes as the Robert Ripley of this century.

Kevin told me: “To give you an example, what we’re going to showcase this year – we’re going to introduce Shrunken Head Alley. There’s five known Caucasian shrunken heads in the world – Ripley’s owns I think three or four of them, and we got one. That’s something a franchise my size wouldn’t normally get.”

Being that everywhere I looked I saw rare and historic things, some of which that were centuries old and from all over the world, I couldn’t imagine what some of the larger markets might be privy to. Displayed throughout Ripley’s three levels of artifacts and oddities are puzzling illusions, interactive exhibits, unique folk art, an amazingly even the real head of a “vampire.”

While being shown a tour of the facility by general manager Jim Gehrke, we made our way up a hidden spiral staircase to their newest exhibit: The Vampire Gallery - which can only be accessed through a secret entrance in the fireplace. This is where, along with an elaborately carved Tibetan Skull Mask, a genuine executioner’s axe, and a warlock’s chest, I saw the severed mummified head of German serial killer Peter Kurten, who was dubbed The Vampire of Düsseldorf, and now rests with his head split open, rotating on a hook as centerpiece of the gallery.

Jim joked: “Glad he doesn’t get dizzy, because he spins all day long!”

Kurten, who was executed by guillotine for his bizarre and horrific crimes of sexual assaults and murder, had an affinity for the sight of blood.

When I asked Kevin about him, he mentioned: “He’s what really inspired vampirism to come out.” Kevin went on to tell me that while him and his wife Corena were doing research about Kurten, they learned that as a teenager he once visited a museum that showcased different torture devices and their history, and that Peter wished to be featured in one someday.

“So as my wife and I are trying to build this whole thing around him we’re like, should we really do this? This is kinda freaky!”

I have to admit, seeing the guy’s split open head spinning around, hair and eyebrows still intact, was definitely freaky.

I asked Jim if the building ever had any weird occurrences possibly due to having so many unnerving things in it.

“The staff has been saying since this new section has come in, that they have been hearing more things, but personally I’ve only experienced it one time. It was about 3:30 in the morning. My wife and I were back there (in the temple exhibit), and all the sudden it sounded just like a plate glass window crashed up in the front. So, I grabbed the Dewalt drill - I guess for protection reasons - and a flashlight, and headed out to the gift shop. And there was nothing anywhere! But there was just this crash, it was just like if a front window went out in the place, but I found absolutely nothing.”

After seeing all the eerie things Ripley’s has to offer firsthand, I don’t doubt Jim whatsoever.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is open Friday through Monday during the off-season, and seven days a week starting in March. You can save money by purchasing a Dells Downtown Discovery Pass at which gives you admission to Ripley’s, along with Wizard Quest and the 4D Special F/X Theater. Be sure to stop by the Ripley’s themed gift shop Tomb Traders Bizarre on your way out, as well as the medieval themed one next door called The Point, where you can find a vast array of unique swords, armor, and knives.

- Chris Dearman

*** I'd like to thank everyone at Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Concept Attractions, Inc. - especially Kevin Ricks, Jim Gehrke, Kelly Jo Gehrke and Jessie Mistele. I'd also like to give a big shout-out to Jason Okansen for taking some photos - to see more of some of the Ripley exhibits visit here.