Read about the history of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, here.
It’s a late September evening at Universal Studios’ annual Halloween Horror Night in Orlando, Florida, where the weather has gamely volunteered for scene-setting duties. A prelude of forked lightning is followed by fierce rain, the determination of which is only matched by that of the damp horror fans queueing up to subject themselves to what the night has in store.
We – a gaggle of plastic poncho and laminated lanyard-wearing journalists – troop into the theme park led by a man dressed in scrubs. (He’s a HHN guide in this year’s uniform, not, as I first assumed, part of a medical team on standby to resuscitate wimpy UK types who, earlier that day, leapt at the sight of a costumed child in an atmospherically lit bit of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter).
Ahead of us are eight themed Halloween horror mazes and numerous Scare Zones, each one designed to spook, startle and generally put the willies up us. Now in its 24th year, the people who run this joint more or less have doctorates in freaking visitors the hell out.
Anticipation levels are high and the day has been streaked with rumours about the scares that await us. You’ll be chased down the street by a man with a knife. Blood will drip from ceilings onto your face. If you scream loudly, they’ll target you more. Don’t go first. Don’t, whatever you do, go last. And finally, you’re not scared of clowns, are you?
The route to our first horror house takes us through one of the event’s outdoor Scare Zones. “Okay, it’s started now,” someone tells us, “this is it. Anything could happen”. We progress gingerly through a park street, alert and drawing closer together. Co-protective pacts are whispered from ear to ear. We’ll stay as a group, won’t we? No-one’s going to leave anyone behind, are they? Of course not, we all reassure each other kindly. I look down at my well-worn trainers. I could leave you lot for dust in these, I think, happily. You’re all zombie meat.
Diligently making sure I’m flanked by scare-absorbing writers on each side, we enter The Purge zone. ‘Enjoy The Purge’, a sign wishes us, as we pass by upturned cars, flashing lights and mist-belching fire drains. There’s one! I jump. A scare-actor. And… he’s not actually that frightening. I’m going to be fine, I think. I survived. The object of my fear turns around slowly, sips not-all-that menacingly from a Starbucks cup, and rejoins his press group. I survived a blogger in a poncho. It’s going to be a long night.
Soon, bona fide scare-actors dressed in masks are swarming through the crowds, periodically lunging at likely candidates. Having carefully dressed to appear as tough and intimidating as is possible when head to toe in Dorothy Perkins, I hope I won’t be a target. Several shrieking chainsaw chases later, I make a mental note to go even tougher wardrobe-wise if I ever do this again. Per Una-tough.
The sparse attackers who lunged, leered, and yelled at us in the street are a picnic compared to what’s waiting inside The Walking Dead haunted house. As the biggest maze in the event, over sixty characters dwell within recreated sets from season four of the AMC series, each one expertly made-up and tasked with playing us punters like a fiddle. I won’t spoil any of the house’s minutely observed details here (and not, I should add, because I miss them all by hastening through it, shoulders hunched and arms tucked tensely in to my sides like Mr Burns on a crowded tube train), but suffice it to say, it’s the job of these zombies to make you shriek, and they’re no shirkers.
Next comes a house themed around From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, which has a slightly raunchier vibe, quickly followed by Alien Vs Predator (very little raunch) and then Dracula Untold, a maze heavier on creepy garden ornaments than fangs – a sort of Homebase of the damned. Of the three, Alien Vs Predator is by far the most atmospheric, no doubt helped by the fact that my tentativeness has by then abated enough to take in the minutely observed details of the animatronic Xenomorphs and living, breathing Predators around us. When you’re confronted by a six foot nine Predator in a dark corridor with nothing to protect you but a novelty lanyard, you learn something about yourself. Me? I found out I’m cowardly and lack resourcefulness.
En route to the fifth of this year’s eight houses, a clown-based monstrosity entitled “Giggles and Gore”, we tramp through more Scare Zones. Some voodoo-practitioners are sacrificing a guy in the Bayou of Blood, while a bunch of bloodthirsty dandies are enjoying a Mask-A-Raid Ball. Stilt-walkers stalk the streets, and crustacean-coated pirates lurch drunkenly in the road, spewing insults at passers-by. “It’s like Bromley on a Saturday night” I quip to a co-scaree to illustrate my worldliness. “Aaaaahhh!” I squeal at a static fire hydrant to illustrate that my worldliness is all a sham.
The next two houses feature creepy clowns and creepy dolls. There are cursed ballerinas, halls of mirrors, overweight topless men dribbling into bibs, and chortling maniacs with – yes more chainsaws – threatening to decapitate you. Adult babies with disproportionately sized heads ask winningly to be picked up and then lurch at you like cobras. Barbies are stapled to walls, and the heads of Tiny Tears dolls decorate a doorway. Anyone complaining that George Lucas ransacked their childhood with those prequels can get a reality check here; I saw things done to Teddy Ruxpin that no one deserves, least of all him.
All this is appetiser though, for this year’s main course: the Halloween maze, an exact recreation of the suburban house from John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. The chilling sight of a lone Michael Myers earlier in the evening is no preparation for multiple Myers-es looming into view behind you in mirrors and stepping, knife-raised, out of hallway closets and directly into your path. It’s a masterfully done thing, this year’s Halloween house, and best saved until late in the evening when you wrongly think you’ve sussed all the possible ways you can be made to wet your knickers in the name of fun.
Dessert was the Roanoke Cannibal Colony, another master in misdirection that proves the Halloween Horror Nights are still capable of surprise, even this late in proceedings.
From top to tail, the whole thing was a joy, the product of talented, dedicated performers and designers who cherish their horror fandom so much they want to share it with the rest of us. In one evening, I went from ‘haven’t yet made it through an entire Paranormal Activity’ wimp to ‘bring it on, creatures of the night’ Buffy wannabe. Just as the event’s ingenious creators are, I’m already planning next year’s visit.
Visit www.universalorlando.co.uk for further information. Frequent Fear Passes cost £56 per person and offer admission to Universal Orlando® Halloween Horror Nights on selected September and October dates. 2-Park Bonus with Halloween Horror Nights® Combo Tickets cost £162 per person and offer admission to Universal Studios Florida®, Universal’s Islands of Adventure® and Universal CityWalk® for 14 consecutive days PLUS admission to Halloween Horror Nights on any of the selected September and October dates that fall within the 14 consecutive day period. To book call free 0808 271 4453 or visit www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk.
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