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Sonora “Realms of Darkness” Haunted House to reopen for Halloween season


The red barn off of South Washington Street still bears the musty cobwebs from the 2016 Halloween hiatus of Tuolumne County 4-H’s “Realms of Darkness” haunted house.

But come Oct. 19, the traditional Halloween fright maze is set to return, replete with all the scares Sonora could ask for.

“When the old creepy barn is already old and creepy, it's pretty easy to just add to that,” said 4-H program representative Kelsey Sterrett.

The haunted house was shuttered during the 2016 Halloween season due to safety concerns and insurance liabilities by the Modesto branch of JS West, which leases the red barn property.

Sterrett said appeals to the local JS West as an intermediary to Modesto had allowed for the resumption of the annual Halloween maze.

“When we re-signed the new contracts, all the verbiage was the way they wanted, so I think that’s good,” Sterrett said.

The “Realms of Darkness” haunted house started in 1999 and acts as a fundraiser for the 4-H organization’s teen program.

Twenty-two Tuolumne County elementary, high school and homeschool students and 14 adult volunteers have enrolled in the project to design, construct and eventually staff the gruesome horror show.

“It incorporates multiple kids from all the different schools,” Sterrett said. “It gets them out of that school pride and into that county pride.”

The students have been working at the red barn site since Labor Day. Just two weeks before the grand opening, the sprawling interior labyrinth is only now beginning to reflect the elaborate spook-inducing decorations of the final product.

The winding black hallways are already set with the tactile and sensory embellishments that enhance the scare experience. Through a web of dangling black threads, some rooms are already set with Halloween iconography featuring dusty antiques, open crypts, distorted monsters, and spatters of blood and gore.

Sonora High School Senior Heather Kingsford, 17, who has worked with 4-H for five years, said that just last weekend the student crew began curating their rooms with their chosen topics.

Her room, “The Bloody Dentist,” will use drills and a handful of actors for a morbid recreation of the common anxiety-ridden experience. And as the holiday comes ever closer, word-of-mouth excitement will continue to mount for the haunted house, she said.

“Tons of people, all the kids at the school, they always talk about it,” she said. “Last year we didn't have it, and here in Sonora it's the only thing you can go do. People enjoy going with their friends.”

Other rooms designed by student volunteers include an insane asylum house, a killer clown room loosely based on the perennial fearsome clown film “It,” as well as the recurring witch, spider and cage rooms, she said.

“I think it's pretty fun. We all get connected through it make new friends and stuff,” she said.

For many students, Sterrett said, that fun comes from a sense of accomplishment and a confirmation that “they are capable of doing something.”

“It's just that they get to be in charge and they get to see something from absolutely bare-bones nothing grow into this huge haunted house that people come to see” she said.

Project leader Jay Wallace, sometimes referred to as “Igor” (the hunchbacked counterpart to Gene Wilder in 1974’s “Young Frankenstein”), said that besides the obvious enjoyment the students draw from their participation in the haunted house, they are learning the even more important lesson of responsibility.

“They get to learn multiple things. They get to learn how to work together, they learn minor construction, they get to learn about acting with makeup,” he said. “It's like they have a job. They have to sign in, they have to sign out. They learn a lot of life skills in there, and half the time they don't even realize they are learning any of this stuff.”

Wallace, who worked on haunted houses in the Sonora and Modesto areas while he was in high school, provides guidance on construction, acting and the usage of props within the student-designed rooms.

Visitors come from as far away as the Bay Area and the valley, he added, to see the haunted house in all of its terrifying glory.

“They come into it and they have told me before that our haunted house is better than one they've ever been to,” he said. “They are going to walk through the barn and they are going to get scared.”

As the haunted house nears completion over the coming weeks, a fire marshall will evaluate the site for safety, Sterrett said.

The students have put an additional focus on the safety precautions to adhere to contractual obligations for working at the site, she said. The maze will also be ADA compliant so that all guests can be accommodated.

“It's just really a nice location mainly because the kids can take the bus there after school. It's centrally located for the people to come. It's not located far at all.”

Though Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year, “Realms of Darkness” has already proven to be a success for the students involved, Wallace said.

“We do it for the kids. That's why we do it,” she said. “It's seeing the kids and how they react and seeing how they learn and keep them involved. It seems like the haunted house has done that more than other things have.”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.




The Realms of Darkness will be open from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 19 through Oct. 21 and again Oct. 26 through Halloween night Oct. 31.

4-H recommends a $10 donation to visit the haunted house, which will benefit upcoming 4-H youth and teen programs.