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The freaks and monsters of the haunted house

Scaring comes naturally for Stephen Kristof, who started a haunted house at the age of 13.

Kristof, now 28, is the founder, lead designer and director of Realm of Terror in Round Lake Beach.

From late September to early November, he oversees makeup and costume crews, and as many as 80 actors and maintenance staff. From the time makeup gets started at around 5 p.m. until the crowds finish up after midnight, Kristof describes the scene as “chaos.”

“There’s something unique about haunted houses you don’t find anywhere else. It’s performance theater, part amusement ride, you get the thrill-seeking adrenaline aspect of it,” he said. “It’s a unique combination of so many different art forms, the culmination is beautiful and fun in a way that’s always interested me.”

Stephen Kristof, Realm of Terror creator/director. | Provided

Every year, changes are made to the Realm of Terror. This year, the theme takes guests through a “dark portal” into another world, similar to the “upside down” in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” The warehouse is filled with various temporary structures so that guests never know where they are, creating the illusion sometimes of being underground.

For the actors, who come from a variety of day jobs such as school administrators, technicians for Fortune 500 companies and staff at Taco Bell, they put on masks and costumes and get ready to “attack” the thrill-seeking guests as they pass through their rooms.

For guests, the thrill of a fright is about escape, he said. For 30 minutes, visitors are able to transport into another, terrifying world where their fears of the dark, of tight, claustrophobic spaces and of suspense cause an adrenaline rush that takes over the thoughts of work or their everyday lives.

“You never know where the next attack is gonna come from, above or below or what side,” Kristof said. “It’s the fear of the unknown, as long as we keep people on their toes they never feel safe.”

Still, safety is ensured at the haunted attraction. Though an occasional flailing arm hits an actor who spooked a guest, there are sometimes visitors who attend the haunted house for the excuse to shove or punch — those people are removed.

At the end of a night, the cast and staff get together and exchange “war stories” over pizza.

“After the show it’ll be 1 a.m. and we’re done, throats are sore, we have headaches, we’re still sitting for another hour laughing about the night. You think about the person that got so scared she turned around and slapped her boyfriend for bringing her, or the 6’ 5” guy who ran out of your room because he was so afraid of you,” Kristof said. “We all become one family.”