The Monday Interview: Karl O'Connor, owner, The Nightmare Realm

Karl O'Connor with characters from The Nightmare Realm in Cork. Picture: Miki Barlok

Thousands will pay to be terrified over the coming weeks in Cork and Dublin when they enter the Nightmare Realm, a smash hit that had a scary business start. Pádraig Hoare speaks to owner Karl O’Connor

Armed with just a personal credit card and no lender backing at the height of the financial crash, Karl O’Connor took a chance in his belief that people love to be terrified.

Thus began the Nightmare Realm.

The Kerry native had a business plan that just didn’t click with cautious lenders in 2009.

Self-finance and self-belief built the brand that has become a Cork staple every October since 2011 and is now in its second year in Dublin.

He was convinced that people would pay to be scared out of their wits.

“It started in Tralee way back, at the low of the crash around the 2008-2009 mark.

“I build props and displays for a living. I have a degree in production design,” he says.

“There was nobody willing to spend a lot of money on props and sets at that time — it would have been seen as a very risky thing to do.

“I took it upon myself to go out and build this stuff myself and start running my own events.

“It started with Christmas events and then Halloween events, and then there was music events — all sorts of things like that. But it was the Halloween one that really took off,” he says.

He now has the financial backing of Ulster Bank, but back at the beginning, it was a hard sell.

That meant using his own credit card to get the Nightmare Realm up and running.

The Monday Interview: Karl O'Connor, owner, The Nightmare Realm

“Way back then, you wouldn’t be going to a bank looking for a load of money for a scare-house attraction because they would laugh you out the door.

“I have to give credit now to Ulster Bank who back us at the moment and they have been a major help. But way back when we weren’t with them, things were a lot different.

“I kind of understand where banks come from, because we would have been seen as high risk.

“We’ve no tangible assets — we’ve got props, we’ve got sets, but if the dirt hit the fan, they are not going to be able to sell the stuff.

“Some people just don’t get the concept of paying someone to be scared.

“They don’t understand it, and I understand them not understanding it, if that makes sense. Why would you pay to be scared?

“But the reality of it is that it is an enjoyable experience. It gets the adrenaline going, it’s like a rollercoaster without the rollercoaster.

“It’s your own mind that winds you up, and we play on that,” says Mr O’Connor.

The proof is in the numbers.

Tens of thousands of customers will go through the doors of the Nightmare Realm in Kennedy’s Quay in Cork and the RDS in Dublin, building from the 1,500 or so when it began almost a decade ago.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to see customers coming out — they’re just so energetic and gasping for breath, they are laughing at their friends who have been terrified. It gives enormous satisfaction.

“It’s one thing being creative but it has to work from a business point of view also.

“Without the audience that follows and the team behind the Nightmare Realm, it is nothing,” he adds.

“The team is incredible. The office backroom team, marketing, the actors — there is a whole range of people that are so dedicated to getting the entire business aspect right. They’re the lifeblood of the event really,” he says.

The Cork audiences were instrumental in building the strong brand, according to Mr O’Connor.

“2011 was our first year in Cork. That’s where it really took off.

“We started getting a very large audience that wanted bigger and better — they wanted more actors, they wanted more sophisticated scares.

“That’s what we had to give them every year. We kept reinvesting and reinvesting.

“For the first couple of years, we were building. Anything we made out of the event, it was put back into it.

The Monday Interview: Karl O'Connor, owner, The Nightmare Realm

“It kept growing and growing and growing. Because the audience demanded it.

“What we did back then at the beginning just wouldn’t wash now anywhere.”

It turns a profit every year that will sustain the Nightmare Realm but Mr O’Connor said other ventures such as 3D billboards and props keep him in business, while his partner Bill Cremin also has an ice rink business, Cool Running Events.

Planning for the Nightmare Realm begins in January, says Mr O’Connor

The men are also looking at further events and niche attractions for the future.

“There are loads of events and sideshows coming down the tracks but they are a year in planning before coming to fruition.

“We’ve very conscious of our brand — we have a strong name, a strong product, and a strong look,” he adds.

“The Nightmare Realm, you are dedicated to from the summer on. Planning begins in January or February but you really get going in early summer. It is a full-time job in that sense.”


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