Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

For most of the year, the century-old red barn behind the JS West hardware store on Washington Street is a normal storage building. But this month, it will conjure up Tuolumne County's cackling witches, ravenous zombies and menacing monsters.

The "Realms of Darkness" haunted house will return to the county for the 13th consecutive year on Thursday and continue through Halloween night.

The haunted house is hosted by Tuolumne County Hi 4-H teens and their families each year to raise funds for the volunteer organization.

"It's really creative and it brings out a whole different side of kids," said Sue Moore, a retired 4-H staffer and the haunted house's "hostess of the dead."

The volunteers have added an alien room and new creepy-crawly special effects to the two-story house of horrors this year, said props manager and special effects expert Rick Nelson, who is better known around Halloween as "Beetlesauce."

"It's different every year," he said. "We never do it exactly the same."

Nelson said the journey through the outdoor graveyard and 8,000-square-foot house can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes for visitors, depending on how long they can handle the spine-chilling, hair-raising show.

Last year, 2,068 people braved the haunted house, according to Moore. Nelson said the number of attendees has been increasing since the 1999 inaugural year, which attracted between 1,100 and 1,200 visitors.

The haunted house made its debut at The Junction shopping center and moved to the JS West barn in 2007.

Moore said building, decorating, operating and tearing down the spooky set is about a two-month process for the volunteers.

This year's team, which includes about 40 youths and 19 adults, started setting up the house at the end of August and has picked up steam this month. Nelson is on his annual week-long "haunted house vacation" from his job to devote more time to the project.

The number of volunteers usually increases after the house opens because some 4-H members only show up for the actual haunting. Last year, volunteers racked up a total of 2,949 hours, according to Moore.

After expenses are covered, the teens receive portions of the proceeds based on how many hours they work and they must spend their shares on 4-H activities or projects.

Some of the proceeds will also benefit the club's adopt-a-family holiday program and potential members who cannot afford enrollment fees, which were increased by the state this year.

Admission is $6 per person and tickets will be available at or at the door. A $3 group-rate is available for 10 or more people who purchase tickets online.

"Realms of Darkness" will open its doors from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 25 and 30; 7 to 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 19, 20, 26 and 27; and 7 to 9 p.m. on Halloween night.

The evening shows are not recommended for young children, but a matinee event is available for "the faint of heart," Nelson said.

The well-lit, child-friendly event will be held on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 3 to 5 p.m. for $1 per person.

For more information, call Nelson at 352-0476 or Jay Wallace at 768-8209.