Facing fears while terrifying punters at Cork's Nightmare Realm

Despite being scared of her own shadow, Jess Casey volunteers to join the crew at the Nightmare Realm to see if she has what it takes to terrify the punters.

For a journalist, I really do have a lot of irrational fears; heights, spiders, crowds, the dark, embarrassing myself in public.

I like to completely disregard the old adage of ‘face your fears’ preferring instead to just cover my eyes and cower quietly in a corner.

I’m not a fan of terrifying myself on purpose, scary movies are all fun and games until I’m alone in my room later on and I hear a noise downstairs.

In fact, all it takes is the first few chimes of ‘Tubular Bells’ to pop into my head and I’m scurrying to turn on a nightlight.

I’m such a wuss that I’ve also been known to let out a screech or two after hearing an unexpected noise, sometimes something as harmless as a door closing loudly.

At the grand old age of 25, I’ve just accepted that I am and forever will be, a complete scaredy cat.

So I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy when I was asked along to the Nightmare Realm, more nervously excited and a little bit terrified, to be honest.

Take one massive warehouse filled with mutant “pig butchers”, carnival freaks and “demonic children” and combine that with my illogical fear of the dark, loud noises and embarrassing myself in public and you’ve got a recipe for disaster right there.

The Realm has returned to Cork this year, freakier than ever before. The extreme walk-through horror event promises to prey “on your deepest fears and nightmares” by “twisting them into a deadly reality.” Since its beginnings in 2009, the Realm has gotten bigger every year, attracting thousands of terror junkies.

Far from the typical ‘haunted-house’ experience, expect impressive sets, gruesome props, blood-chilling characters and terror lurking in every dark corner.

This year, the show has moved to a new venue at the Port of Cork, with access across from Goldberg’s Bar.

Facing fears while terrifying punters at Cork's Nightmare Realm

This has allowed the team to create an even bigger stage for their horror show, complete with three different themed haunts: The Slaughter House, Chop’s Carnevil and Torrence Manor.

This year, a series of ‘Scare Workshops’ were hosted for the first time, open to the public but with the successful candidates hired to take part.

Workshops then continued, to teach the actors “the true artistry of fear.” I’ve been invited along to the Port of Cork, to take part and to see if I might have what it takes to terrify.

It’s here I meet Karl O’Connor, the driving force behind the event.

Karl spends a lot of his time travelling the world, visiting the very best horror attractions, to see what works best when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of people.

For someone so well-versed in terror, he’s very mild-mannered.

No previous acting experience was required for the initial workshop, he tells me, adding they wanted to cast a diverse bunch for this year’s event.

“Some of the lads were just naturals. We’ve a really exciting group this year.”

The actors start to drift in and assemble.They seem like a pleasant bunch for a group of people who are being paid to psychologically maim members of the public.

The workshop gets underway with a run-through of how to deal with groups of customers and the different types of reactions they generally may have. I’m surprised to hear there’s actually quite a few categories; the physically intimidated, the verbally abusive, customers who freeze in fear and refuse to move, customers who cry, customers who laugh hysterically, customers claiming to have a panic attack and the ones who actually do.

Interestingly, the actors are also taught how best to intercept what Karl calls a “conga-line” -a group of people who decide to form a line, clinging onto each other for protection.

The bravest of the group usually tend to go to the front, leading the way. But one tip for if you plan on visiting the Realm this year, forming a conga line won’t protect you.

I won’t give away the actors’ secrets but let’s just say, there will always be something lurking behind you, even at the back of the queue.

The actors then make their way through a very extensive warm-up routine, both their bodies and their voices.

Facing fears while terrifying punters at Cork's Nightmare Realm

Muscles have to be well-stretched in order to twist and transform yourself and many of the actors will need to keep both limber and low to the ground.

The actors also have to warm-up their voices well, in order to preserve them throughout their performances.

The group then practices a series of unhinged growls, heavy-breathing, insane laughter, snarling and crying. After warm-ups, the actors practice the different types of scare methods they’ll use; pop-scares, literally popping out of the dark and launching themselves at their unsuspecting victims; rush-scares, think zombies running at you, snarling like rabid animals; and my favourite, the talker, which involves unnervingly conversing with customers while copying their every move, even as they try to back away with you.

It might seem a bit understated but watching 18-year-old Nightmare Realm veteran Jennifer Healy pounce around manically during a role-playing exercise, I reckon encountering this actress using this method would have me traumatised.

Returning for her third year, Jennifer has been known to make grown men cry.

“My first year, I made two boys cry,” she giggles.

“They were in their twenties and they were just bawling crying. I was only 16. It’s really intimidating at the start, all the groups but once you get past your first week, it’s just so much fun and the adrenaline just comes over you. It’s your job you want to scare them and it’s very fun!”

Her friend Sabina Allen, her first year at the Realm, reckons she’s going to use a similar tactic.

“It’s not just screaming, it’s all about the eye-contact and slow-movement, that’s what gets people scared.”

Also on their first year at the Realm are Gavin Foley, 16, and Paul Morey Stout, 16.

They both heard about the workshops through social media and decided to come along, they tell me.

“I’m looking forward to scaring kids, terrifying them,” Gavin laughs. “But if one of them starts crying, I’ll walk away slowly, let them past,” he adds.

Paul acts, sings and dances and has found the workshop today good. “They’ve taught us new things, new skills we can use. I can’t wait now until opening night.”

After the workshop, it’s agreed I’ll come back during a dress rehearsal a couple of weeks later, to get my monster on and see if I’ll be able to scare some visitors myself.

On the night, I chat with Nuala Maunder as I wait to get my make-up done. Nuala, who attends a drama course in the School of Music, is rocking an impressive full-face of zombie prosthetics. When I tell her I’m usually terrified of this kind of thing, she bursts out laughing.

“Oh god me too! Me too! I would not have come here before, I’d be too scared.”

The team’s lovely make-up artist Aileen then sets about transforming me into a member of the undead.

“We’re going to blot out all the colour in your face and lips,” she says me as she constructs latex and tissue paper wounds and rotting flesh on my face.

“We want you to look like you’ve been dead for a very long time.” Looking fab and feeling ready to try my hand at scaring, I find Karl who casually invites me to take a tour around the event first, to see the actors in action.

Big mistake, I’m terrified.

I last less than ten minutes in The Realm’s Slaughterhouse; screaming, shrieking and firing expletives at every freaky creature that lunges out at me. As I beg to be let out a fire exit, I think it’s pretty clear I don’t have what it takes to scare anyone and I won’t be scaring anyone here tonight.

“That’s ok,” Karl says reassuringly as I leave. “You’re so scared, you’d be great craic as a customer... if you managed to make it through.”


Liz O’Brien talks to Niall Breslin about his admiration for frontline staff, bereavement in lockdown, his new podcast, and why it's so important for us all just to slow down.Niall Breslin talks about losing his uncle to coronavirus

Podcasts are often seen as a male domain — see the joke, 'What do you call two white men talking? A podcast'.Podcast corner: Three new podcasts from Irish women that you should listen to

Esther McCarthy previews some of the Fleadh’s Irish and international offerings.How to attend the Galway Film Fleadh from the comfort of your own couch

Whether you’re on staycation or risking a trip away, Marjorie Brennan offers suggestions on novels for a wide variety of tastesThe best fiction books for the beach and beyond this summer

More From The Irish Examiner