House of horrors: Domain of the dead

A shelf of skulls and other creepy props

The owner of the Realm of Darkness Denise Seiss handpicks all of the creepy props to create a horrifying experience. Gray Bancroft | Washtenaw Voice





PONTIAC– Situated near the heart of Pontiac, MI, sits a haunt that more than lives up to its name. The Realm of Darkness, in its 45 rooms and 22,000 square feet, is rumored to actually be, in fact, haunted.

Denise Seiss, the haunt’s owner, purchased two trunks and an aged red lamp at an estate sale early on in the haunt’s history, which now reside inside of Realm. Both, according to Seiss, contain paranormal energy.

“There’s a lot of things in Realm. The building isn’t haunted, but I’ve got documentation of people,” Seiss said, speaking of the spirits that allegedly roam Realm’s halls.

Even without the real-life hauntings, Realm has brought  plenty of terror to the table since opening officially in 2001, getting its namesake from a haunt in St. Louis that Seiss bought props from, “The Darkness.” “The Realm,” tacked onto the beginning of the haunt’s name, is of Seiss’ own invention.

Each room inside the haunt has its own theme — handpicked and designed by Seiss herself — ranging from an asylum, to a butcher shop, to a torture room. One room in particular, christened “The Doll Room,” took Seiss two weeks to perfectly put together. This attention to detail is what makes the Realm of Darkness so unique – one will never see the same haunted house twice, because every fall the design changes.

Realm has two different components to the haunt, and one of them – entitled the “House of Nightmares” – is completely in 3-D, which took five days to paint. Haunt participants don cardboard glasses before they enter the 3-D segment, and are met by neon paint splatters, glowing eyes, and cracked floors, all painted to give the illusion that they may actually fall through the ground.

“Realm is very very detailed, very decorated. Everybody has a different style, but I love detail.” Seiss said.

Despite gruesome decor and ghostly music, no haunt would be complete without the things that go bump in the night: Realm’s actors. For one of them, however, it’s more unhinged than that. Jay Swendris, known simply in character as “The Hatter,” has coined a signature Joker-like laugh, which can be heard, disturbingly, throughout the entirety of Realm. Swendris has had plenty of time to perfect his craft, performing in haunted houses on and off for the last 20 years. He had one reason for it: an immense love for acting.

“We put a lot of heart into our characters, I’ll tell you that. We put a lot of heart,” said Swendris of himself and the other actors at the haunt.

In addition to the past two decades of haunting, Swendris has also been involved in eight independent films. Because of all of the acting opportunities he’s been involved in, he is used to spending hours trying to get everything just right. Swendris can usually be found near the front of the haunt acting as a “ringleader” of sorts, chanting madly at those who dare to enter.

Standing eerily beside him, one can find the lovely, and very dead, Gina Dailide. Her character, described as being based on the role of  “the victim,” is often attacked by a murderous clown whose weapon of choice is a chainsaw. Dailide had always been involved in theater throughout school, so when she saw the ad for the job on Craigslist six years ago, she jumped on it.

“I’ve always been into it (horror). When I was little, my brother built haunted houses for Halloween in our garage,” Dailide said. “I’ve always loved haunted houses (and) I love horror movies.”

Gary Hale, however, is someone you’d least expect to find walking the halls of a haunt. Hale is an electrical apprentice and a part of the Army National Guard, but by night, he goes by simply “Bubbles” while in character, for the fake blood bubbles that spurt from his mouth. He found work in horror acting almost by chance nine years ago, on a lead from a friend.

“I went, and they had me mess around for one night, just to figure out if I liked it or not and if I was any good. I climbed on some stuff that I wasn’t supposed to, but for some reason it worked, so they liked me,” Hale said.

Bubbles is Hale’s own brainchild, and his muse during his nights at the haunt. Perhaps the most unnerving element to the character is his Mickey Mouse-esque speaking voice, which Hale refuses to break out of when behind Realm’s doors.

“I wrote up a biography on my character and how he became who he is, and then all I did was every time I was gonna act, I just looked at my script and remembered how my character was born,” Hale said.  “Now, whenever I have my mask on, I’m just the character.”

But characters couldn’t be anything without their faces, after all – something Ann Grimmett knows well. Grimmett is the makeup artist for all the actors in the haunt, save for a few, who Grimmett says she has slowly been converting with her airbrushed magic.

Magic itself may be what made Realm a reality. Back in 1976, Seiss designed her first haunted house from basic curtains and rope, in three empty classrooms, to raise money for a special education field trip. In the course of one weekend, Seiss managed to raise $700 – enough to cover costs for all of students – and has been in the haunting business every Halloween since.

Since that time, the haunt has grown every year, and continues to bring in fear-seekers every Halloween season with its thrills, chills, and ultimately, the passion it holds for all things truly terrifying.



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