Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights: a horror institution

The home of monster cinema, Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights continue a grand scare legacy…

Read about what happened when Den of Geek went along to this year’s Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Orlando Resort, here.

In October 1991, Universal’s latest horror release was little-loved sequel Child’s Play 3: Look Who’s Stalking. The studio that had dominated the classic monster era of the thirties and forties, immortalising the careers of Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi, was pushing a tired franchise through multiplexes stuffed with sequels to eighties slasher movies. But in its recently opened Orlando theme park, a seed was being planted that would grow into a worthy homage to Universal’s cinematic roots: the annual Halloween Horror Nights. 

A year earlier, Universal Studios Florida had opened after a bumpy few months of delays, rethinks, and set-backs. In its very early days, a more accurate version of the park’s tag-line invitation to “ride the movies” might have been “stand in line for the movies then receive a voucher to come back another day to ride the ones that aren’t working”. Amongst others, its tent pole Jaws ride suffered major technical difficulties, leading to a pricy overhaul and legal proceedings against its original designer.

While this drama was ironed out and the park settled into the slick hymn to Hollywood production it eventually became, its entertainment designers were busy planning a new event: Fright Night. For $19, visitors could enter a three-day festival of scares designed to make their faces paler than their stone-washed denim jeans. The first event (see clips from it here) was predominantly a collection of live shows on outdoor stages. Attendees were terrorised by the likes of burly actors in The Thunderdome or a Michael Keaton-wannabe in Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Tours. Between the shows were parades of Universal classic characters – Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature… And in amongst it all was what would go on to become the event’s headline act: the haunted house.

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The Dungeon Of Terror was Fright Night’s first such house, a collection of grim characters and scenarios through which visitors tip-toed, ducking and shrieking while actors – who provided their own make-up and costumes – leapt out behind from hidden spots shaking home-made noisemakers to lunge at the passing crowds. It was a cheerfully low-key first outing, a rag-tag assortment of spooks and victims, all conjured up with face paint, dry ice and the power of suggestion.

The following year, Fright Night started an ongoing process of tweaking what worked and what didn’t (even today, the haunted houses are constantly reworked to deliver a variety of scares so attendees never experience the same thing twice). It dropped the majority of its numerous stage and street shows, doubled the number of haunted houses (one based on Wes Craven’s 1991 suburban horror The People Under The Stairs joined The Dungeon Of Terror), and was rechristened Halloween Horror Nights.

In the years that followed, the event’s live shows were steadily dialled back while the haunted houses grew in number. Tenth, fifteenth and twentieth anniversaries passed by while the Halloween Horror Nights and their themed haunted houses established themselves as a local – and eventually international – month-long institution.

Twenty three years on from that first outing, a host of horror locales from slaughterhouses to tombs, hellish hotels, and demonic ocean liners have served as backdrops for the event’s mazes. The first decade saw a few more horror titles being used as inspiration for the haunted houses, with Psycho, The Mummy and Pitch Black joining The People Under The Stairs in the first few years. One house fondly remembered by Universal Orlando Resort’s Director of Entertainment, Mike Aiello, paid homage to Universal’s classic monsters with a haunted house painted wholly in black with details picked out in UV paint and strobe lighting, creating the effect of walking around inside a flickering black and white film.

It wasn’t until 2007 though, when a deal was made that allowed houses to be dedicated to modern horror classics A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, that Halloween Horror Nights began to really bring the movie genre to life. Since then, any self-respecting horror property (whose rights allow it) has been celebrated at the event in haunted-house form. Saw, The Thing, Silent Hill, The Cabin In The Woods, An American Werewolf In Paris, Resident Evil and more have all been transformed into live experiences.

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The days of scare-actors – as they’re now known – bringing in home-made costumes are also firmly in the past. Auditions for in-maze and outdoor ‘scare zone’ roles start each year in July and continue weekly until each gory mask and professional prosthetic has been filled. Scare-actor roles are now so in-demand according to Aiello that auditionees sometimes take to extreme measures – head-shaving and the like – to secure their place in the event.

“The people that we cast,” Aiello explains, “about eighty percent have worked the event the last three to five years. We have people in the event who have worked all twenty-four years of Halloween Horror Nights. We have individuals that literally take vacation from September to the beginning of November just to work the event.”

Aiello has first-person experience not only of casting those actors, but being one too. He first attended the event as a child (it comes with a recommended minimum age of 13) when it was Fright Night, and went on to be a scare-actor in 1997’s Hell Hotel maze. “I jumped out of a washing machine eighty times an hour,” he remembers. Now he heads up the team designing each maze and conceiving new methods of unsettling the visitors inside them.

In the twenty-four years of Halloween Horror Nights, those methods have evolved thanks to increased budgets and the help of technology (the actors no longer scream and shake cans of nails and screws to create the scare, but can save their voices using foot-operated sound effects pedals), yet remain pleasingly lo-fi in many ways. There might be concealed speakers, lighting, lasers, animatronic puppetry, sound and video effects nowadays, but a satisfying amount of the scares still come from the good old-fashioned childhood shock of being startled by someone jumping unexpectedly in your path.

As you walk through each expertly lit and sound-tracked haunted house, damp tendrils – perhaps intestines, perhaps cobwebs depending on the scene being set – drape unsettlingly over your face. A potential scare lurks around every corner, and just when you think you’ve got the hang of the hiding places and the rhythm of when to flinch, a hand will reach down from above, or a ‘statue’ will spring to life. Each house is a choreographed ballet of misdirection and surprise.

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“I’ve seen people lose their facilities,” says Aiello. “This year, with the Halloween maze, we’re finding there are two rooms that people literally will not go in. They literally stop and you see this jam that occurs, they don’t want to go any further. They’re literally pushed by everyone else saying ‘just go!’. Both times I went through on our preview night, someone either in front of me or behind me was crawling on their hands and knees out of the maze.” If he’s exaggerating, then it’s not by much. The Michael Myers experience at Halloween Horror Nights 24, which asks you to walk through a a painstakingly made replica of the suburban house through which the killer stalks his victims in John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher flick, is an absolute triumph.

Between facility-losing and crawling on their hands and knees then, why on Earth would people willingly put themselves through it all? Aiello’s answer is a simple one. “In its basic sense, this is a really great Halloween party, we want people to leave having had a good time.” It’s not all about fear, he explains, it’s also a question of fun. “Every single time you’re scared in a movie, it’s usually followed by a laugh, that’s a really important thing. Horror is a very visceral and communal activity.”

With next year being the event’s landmark twenty-fifth anniversary, it’s likely to be a Halloween party that horror fans won’t want to be without an invitation to.

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.