Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is one of the the best-known horror shows in the United States. We journeyed down to Orlando, Florida to see this year's collection of nightmares, and talk to the designers who build some of the most elaborate horror attractions ever made.
Full disclosure: Universal Orlando flew me to Orlando and put me up in one of their resorts for this tour and movie screening.
Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) started in Universal's Orlando theme park in 1991 as an experimental way to boost sagging autumn attendance. That first three-night event was such a success they had to stop letting people in, since the limited number of attractions would have been overwhelmed. The event has continually expanded from there, moving to a full week and eventually to almost an entire month of scares (this year it runs from Sept. 19 through Nov. 1, but not every single night).
The exact nature of HHN evolves from year to year – that's one of the reasons people keep coming back. From purely original themed areas and mazes, most of them based on general horror themes (vampires, serial killers, etc.), Universal eventually developed their own signature character, an evil clown named Jack. Jack's been on hiatus for a few years, partly because HHN has started using licensed characters and movie properties. This year's event included houses or areas based on The Walking Dead, The Purge, Aliens vs. Predator, Dracula Untold, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, along with John Carpenter's original Halloween movie and SyFy's makeup/FX reality show Face Off. Their original creations included a mega creepy doll house, a cannibal colony, a factory for psycho clowns, a spooky bayou, and a dark masquerade.
How does HHN work? The Universal Studios part of the park is emptied around dinner time, then is transitioned over to the horror theme in an hour before being reopened (it takes six to eight hours to reset for the next morning). Some parts of the park become open scare zones, with "scareactors" in costume prowling around and sneaking up on guests. The dark masquerade was my favorite area of this type, with performers in fancy ballroom outfits and masquerade masks, many of them on stilts. A closer look revealed the masks hid bloody, torn faces and gruesome disfigurements.
The entire New York City backlot area of the park was converted to The Purge: Anarchy. You can argue the relative merits of the Purge movies themselves, but conceptually it makes for a terrifying scene to walk through, with TVs and audio announcers broadcasting the Purge announcements, sirens blaring, and the sounds of gunfire echoing from the buildings. Performers ran through the dense crowd wielding chainsaws and other weaponry, and at times someone interacted with the crowd, directing the performers to go after certain people in the audience. Here's a quick Purge photo I snapped with my phone.
There's also a ribald Bill & Ted stage show that features attractive performers dancing, stripping (PG-13 though), and packing 20 minutes with pop culture gags that were funny at times, mostly when they were being directly antagonistic toward Disney and the hyper-saccharine nature of most family Florida vacations. There's a bit with a puppet Smaug that's downright brilliant, and only one part that really felt uncomfortable (a fat-shaming segment featuring Elsa singing, "Do You Want to Eat a Sno-Cone?").
The big attractions, though, are the haunted houses. It's really more accurate to call these "horror mazes." A few of them are repurposed attractions, some are on the huge soundstages on the property, and others are crammed into temporary tent structures (basically steel frames with vinyl stretched over them). You wait in line and then work your way through the maze, experiencing the gory props and jumping when a scareactor leaps out at you. Take my advice and shell out for the Express Pass. The wait for Walking Dead got to two hours Friday night, and as fun as it was, it was not worth two hours in line (we got an "R.I.P. Tour" that skipped the lines entirely).
These mazes vary in their effectiveness based both on the maze itself and on your timing as you move through it. The Dracula Untold maze was a bit lame, for instance, but the Dollhouse of Doom was incredible. It was filled with seriously disturbing, creepy, terrifying stuff, and every room was packed with detail. That's part of why the scares were so great, because you'd be too focused on the Teddy Ruxpin that had been flayed and disassembled and displayed on the wall to notice the music box ballerina jumping out to scare you.
What do I mean about your own timing affecting the experience? You walk through each maze at a fairly brisk pace, ushered along by attendants inside. If the timing was just off, you'd spend the whole time watching the 3 people ahead of you get scared, then walking through empty rooms as the scareactors reset in their hiding places. This happened once or twice. But when you hit the sweet spot (and you could kind of influence this by trying to walk at a different pace), the experience was great. My second time through the AVP maze I hit all the scares, and this maze features very authentic Aliens controlled by puppeteers, not actors in costumes. When a xenomorph bursts through the wall at you, gleaming in the flickering strobe lights, the inner mouth extending toward your face, it's both awesome and scary. And then you notice the three red dots of a Predator gun scope tracking across the wall toward you…
The Walking Dead maze was also impressive, carrying you through key locations from last season. From the prison to the supermarket with a helicopter stuck in the roof, down the tracks to Terminus, it's twice the size of any other maze and features between 50 and 60 performers. At one point, a skillful combination of actors, dummy zombies, mirrors, and strobe lights turned walking through one room into an absolute nightmare. You turn the corner and for just a second you get a taste of what it would feel like in the seconds before a zombie mob devours you. It looks like there are dozens of them surrounding you.
Universal brought a bunch of horror and theme park press out mainly to focus on two of the HHN areas. First up was the Face Off: In the Flesh zone. This is one of the open areas that guests simply walk through on their way to other parts of the park. It's particularly cool for a few reasons. It features some of the best makeups from SyFy's Face Off (which is a Universal property, so, you know, brand synergy!), some of them remade by the actual Face Off contestants that originally created them. They're also set up specifically to be photo opportunities – you can't take any photos inside the mazes, so this is actually quite cool. The performers pose on their little vignette platforms and will even crouch down to let you take a selfie with them.
Several Face Off alumni were on hand to talk about horror makeup and HHN: David "Doc" O'Connell, Eric Garcia, and Laura Tyler. It's interesting that HHN has created a whole other venue for makeup artists and creature designers to work in – for all three, HHN was their first gig. Doc actually started working as a scareactor after loving HHN as a kid, then he noticed what the makeup crew was doing and thought it looked awesome. Tyler started doing very basic makeup applications, honed her skills, went on Face Off twice (eventually winning), and scored a gig working on the Hunger Games series before returning to HHN.
She also pointed out how different working on a real movie or haunted house gig is from what we see on Face Off. On the show, one person sees the whole project through from start to finish, but real productions are much more of a team effort. At Halloween Horror Nights, planning for the next year begins not long after the season wraps up. Michael Aiello, HHN's creative director, told me, "It is a year 'round process. Our concept phase takes us through the new year. Production starts in February and March and takes us to the opening."
That means that different people are handling concepts, sculpting, creating the actual appliances, and then applying them nightly to the performers. Garcia told me that it's possible to work as a freelance designer and sculptor because Universal farms out some of the work to third party studios, who also make money designing and selling monster makeup and masks online. While there may have once been a divide between west coast makeup artists (who work all year on movies) and east coast artists (who often worked seasonally, driven by the haunted house scene), that divide is falling. "I'd have said yes [there is a divide] a year ago," Tyler told me. "But so many productions are going east coast. There's been an explosion of movie work in the east."
At that point Tyler and I started geeking out together about our D&D characters (she has an 11th level high elf druid who is also a silver dragon), but I found time to talk to Aiello about his pet project: Halloween.
The use of "branded content" like Freddie, Jason, or the Universal classic monsters has been a big success for HHN. But one of Aiello's favorite characters had eluded them – Michael Myers, from John Carpenter's classic 1978 slasher Halloween. This year's HHN features a house that takes an interesting angle – it puts the audience through a fairly linear retelling of the film's plot. You enter the house to see Michael's dead sister, visit Annie struggling in the front seat of her car, all the way to final scene where Dr. Loomis fires six rounds into Myers. The whole time the masked, silent figure of Michael Myers confronts you from dark corners and stalks you through twisting passages.
A screening of the original film (the first time most of us in the audience had ever seen it on the big screen, Aiello included) was a perfect prelude to a tour of the Halloween maze. The screening was also attended by Malek Akkad, son of the original movie's producer, Moustapha Akkad, and producer himself of most of the movies in the Halloween franchise. It was great seeing his obvious pride in what his father had helped create, and his subsequent stewardship of the franchise. He revealed that the script of the 11th Halloween movie (third in the rebooted series) is in development, with hopes for a Halloween 2015 release.
Seeing the movie and then immediately going through the Halloween house was great, since it showed off all the detail the HHN crew put into the house. There's a Howard the Duck comic book on the couch, and the Shamrock jingle occasionally plays on the TV, a nice nod to the outcast third movie in the series. My favorite part was a replication of the closet scene. Obviously they can't stick you in an actual closet, since you have to keep moving through the house. But the claustrophobic switchbacks totally captured the "lost in a closet" feeling, especially with the closet doors you walked past shaking as someone seemingly hammered at them from the other side. And of course a masked Myers is there to wave a butcher knife at you at a crucial moment.
I have to make special mention of the sound design at HHN. The ambiance of the park itself is impressive, like an apocalyptic horror party. Most of the lights and turned off, replaced by dramatic spotlights and colored glows. Throbbing music or eerie organ chords fill the air. Within the houses, each scareactors' actions are timed to a prerecorded soundtrack (that I believe they activate themselves). This accomplishes a lot, like allowing them to make sounds no human could make, keeping the experience consistent, and of course saving the performers' vocal chords from utter destruction – they'd be screaming their heads off every 20 seconds for eight hours a night. There was one scare in particular, in the Dollhouse of Doom, that made this horrid, discordant harmonized shriek that makes me shiver just to think about.
Next year is HHN's 25th anniversary, and everyone on the creative and PR teams suggested it would be a big year. For a horror fan, it's really a unique experience – if nothing else, it feels pretty cool to have this thing you love that is so often marginalized take center stage and be celebrated. So I think I might go back in 2015.