[WARNING – some of what is below could be considered spoilers if you are planning on attending…]
As part of the Syfy Digital Press Tour, on the first night we were taken over to Universal Studios for a special “RIP Tour” of Halloween Horror Nights XX, the 20th year of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. I’ve never attended a horror-oriented event before, so had no idea what to expect and wasn’t originally planning to attend but as I heard more about it it sounded interesting.
We took a boat launch from the dock at the Portofino Bay Resort, where we were joined by a couple of bloody jesters, who would pop into people’s faces and assumed scary poses for cameras.
We were first brought in to a small reception room where we met Mike Aiello, the director of HHN, who started as a “scareactor”. He showed us a couple of videos, and talked about some of the concepts, and then we broke into smaller groups of about 6-8 people each and were led by a tour guide, dressed in hospital scrubs and carried large lighted sticks (so we could follow them better). We were then brought into the park, and our tour guide started explaining the setup.
[Each house and zone has a bit of a story behind it, so I’ll give the formal description with each…I also may have the exact order we visited things mixed up – there was a lot of walking, it was dark, disorienting, and late. At least that is my excuse, and not the drinks from dinner… 😉 ]
Scattered around the park were 6 “scare zones”, which were in the open areas of the park that you walked through, and each with a unique theme. The first encountered was Esqueleto Muerte: Revel in the seductive taunts of Death as you wind through a glowing skeletal nightmare. Here I found the costumes to be visually interesting in their glowing stripes, although not very frightening itself. In fact with one exception I didn’t find the scare zones very frightening at all.
I should mention that HHN is recommended for people 13 and up, and of course it certainly depends on the person, but I did see kids younger than 13, and in a couple cases they were needing reassurance from their parents that it “wasn’t real”, “funny”, etc. I can see this being too much for younger children. Not to mention that there was plenty of alcohol available (including jello shots in “blood bags” being sold on IV poles seemingly at every corner), and the language from guests was fairly unrestricted.
We then approached the first of 3 houses, in rapid succession. The lines for them varied from 60-90 minutes that I could see, but our RIP Tour allowed is basically full front of the line access, and we were able to go right in:
Hades: The Gates of Ruin – Hades bids you welcome. Make your way into the Underworld, and come face to face with the most terrifying creatures of legend as you cross through the Gates of Ruin.
Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook – The truth, as they say, is far stranger than fiction, and in this instance they happen to be correct. Although Shadybrook’s doors have indeed been closed for the last 15 years, the place is still very much alive with all of the criminally insane souls that have ever walked its halls.
Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate – The Spirit Seekers have come up with a machine that actually gathers spirits toward it. The group has decided to do a live broadcast from inside one of the most reportedly “haunted” sites in the entire United States, The Wyandot Estate, built in the 1920’s in Carey, Ohio by the entrepreneur Malcolm Wyandot and his wife Lydia. The house has been rumored to be haunted since Malcolm brutally killed 13 dinner guests and his wife Lydia before committing suicide on October 30, 1929. The team is about to get more than they bargained for as the murdered hear their call and answer with terrible violence.
One problem I could see was that for the most part we went through like a conga line, one after another. This meant you could often see ahead of you as to where the scareactors would pop out, and then you could figure out all the nooks and crannies where they hide. There is a lot of noise and flashing lights which the scareactors synchronize to, however, so the “boo” factor is pretty high. And they are also not permitted to touch you – so if you are focusing ahead, and they come out from behind, you probably wouldn’t notice them at all, whereas a fright from behind can be exponentially more scary. So running through these three houses the way we did, we didn’t feel too scared at all.
That said, the houses were VERY detailed, especially for temporary structures, and most of the costuming as well. Of the three, Psychoscarepy was the most interestingly themed, with a real sense that the inmates were loose – however I believe in this house there were some masked scareactors who looked like typical cast members just wearing masks, without full body costumes.
The Wyandot Estate was very detailed as well. The “outside” of the building, like an old bed and breakfast, also reminded me of the architecture of Rapture in the game series BioShock – maybe is was the curved signage over the porch, and the retro decor.
From there we went through another scare zone: Saws ‘n Steam: Enormous trenches in the earth’s crust have opened below its vast oceans, exposing them to intense heat. Steam power is essential to the inhabitants of New Yorkshire, but diminishing oceans have put the city in jeopardy, forcing the citizens to evil lengths. Beware upon entering the city, as the water in your body is now a coveted resource. And the citizens will stop at nothing to get it.
Now this is the one where I did get a bit startled. Total steampunk atmosphere. Men with chainsaws roam about and chase you. But that wasn’t it so much. There is an alleyway we walked through, with billows of “steam”, and scaractors about. You could see them, skulking and taunting you – but then I walked through one of the clouds, and just as I emerged on the other side, one of the scaractors popped out. The disorienting cloud really worked, even though I knew that was the most likely point that they could get me, it still worked.
I believe at this point we worked our way back to another scare zone, Fear Revealed: The souls of Chaos, Death, Sacrifice, Mythos and Vengeance — He created them and gave them terror. Each with a part to play, they fulfilled their tasks. Their malice provided him bone, their rage gave him blood, and their terror fulfilled his soul. What has been 19 cycles for some have been eons for him. He’s waited patiently for the final piece, and now on the 20th cycle… HE IS REVEALED.
Here we meet Fear Himself, the icon of HHN XX. Having created all the previous icons, he’s the Big Daddy. And he’s BIG – as in tall, walking among but towering over the crowd. Also in the area are some of the past icons and other scaractors, interacting with the guests but totally within character – some of the performances were amazing.
This is where my memory of the order of things breaks down, so I will just run down the remaining houses and zones.
First, the houses:
Zombiegeddon: The United States government has re-taken the continental United States, and is actively engaged in clearing the remaining infested pockets of Canada. The government also licenses and sanctions private companies to capture “un-live” subjects and use them as practical targets during these training sessions. Dozens of independent training consultant “companies” spring up, promising the best training that money can buy…and then there’s ZAP…The Zombie Awareness Program.
This was another well themed house, with good scaractors. The zombies wear collars which are meant to control them. And they have lights indicating status – so remember, “Yellow is mellow, Red is DEAD…” And hope they don’t lose power…
Havoc: Dogs of War: Ten years ago, the Shadowcreek Enterprise was tasked with developing an elite corp of soldiers. They succeeded. Through an inhalant that includes a compound of testosterone, adrenaline, and other anesthetics, Shadow Creek’s latest run of volunteer test subjects are ready for inspection. The project name: HAVOC. The subjects are known simply as the Dogs of War.
My favorite in general. A “super soldier” experiment gone wrong, with imagery that made me think I walked into the game Doom 3, which had creeped me out back then, and that was just a computer game…the scareactors all shaved their heads for the role, and there is a particular point where there are two of them writhing and screaming in pain, with the flashing lights, that was really, really creepy. And perhaps this was the one house we went through that had a couple of women genuinely screaming right behind us I think actually enhanced it.
Catacombs: Black Death Rising: During a plague of Paris and Marseilles in 1534, thousands died due to an undisclosed viral outbreak. A group of doctors took it upon themselves to quarantine the most infected citizens of the city. They had no way of knowing that the townspeople would betray them, sealing them into their doom. They have been unable to escape for almost five hundred years. Now that the dead inside have found a way out, they are rising to take their centuries old vengeance on any living being that dares to enter the Catacombs.
A lot of the scareactors were dressed as the “doctors” of the time, with the long beak-like masks that contained herbs thought to protect them. However, I thought this made them look more comical than scary.
The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes: Ashes to ashes, forever now dust. For years she has existed in the shadows, never getting her due. Misunderstood by all around her, she has had enough of her playthings at the Good Harvest Orphanage – now is the time for vengeance. This burned out shell contains the souls of the forgotten
and the lost who all scream one name: Cindy.
This was creepy, just from the subject matter I think (and a little more from BioShock perhaps). Cindy has an interesting real-life story – she was the icon character for HHN in 2001, as the daughter of a mortuary owner, and she and her playthings would control everything. However, several child abductions in the area forced them to abandon that idea. She made a couple appearances since then, but this is the first time she has had a house.
Horror Nights: The Hallow’d Past: The name brings with it millions of tales, each filled with thousands of screams. Now, you have the opportunity to travel into a realm where Horror Nights isn’t just an event, but a reality.
Probably my second favorite. It brought together the icons of the past into a new house, in a well blended way, posed as a “museum” to the past.
There were two effects worth mentioning that I can’t remember which house they were in. There was the “spinning tunnel” effect – you are on a walkway, and the walls of the tunnel spin around you, creating an illusion that you are turning to the side. It wasn’t bad, but part way through I felt a “thunk” and the effect dramatically increased – I don’t know if the tilt of the walkway changed, or what – but the following-over feeling was greatly increased.
The second was a pretty simple thing. In one of the hallways between scenes in the house, there is a strobe light, and some simple ghostly images painted on a dark wall you are walking towards before taking a right. When the strobe flashes, the image glows brightly but briefly. After the flash is done, it appears like the ghost is coming out of the wall towards you. It’s a very simple effect and I won’t bore you with the details, but sometimes the simple things have the greatest impact.
And the scare zones:
Zombie Gras: This Mardi Gras parade has gone severely off course. Infected by the North American zombie infestation, the undead walk among us, searching for their next meal… Well themed to match Zombiegeddon, but nothing terribly memorable from what I saw either.
HHN: 20 Years of Fear: Step into the shadows of the last Twenty Years of Fear. Move toward the lantern, and encounter the most frightening characters of Halloween Horror Nights past. A collection of some of the favorite characters of HHN past, all in one zone. The Ice Queen mimicked our tour guide holding the lighted staff with her own staff as if we were in a marching band…
The Coven: The Cult of the Raven has unsettled spirits, and its Sirens are screaming throughout the witches’ realm. As you creep past their obelisk, beware their spells. For those who don’t believe will be condemned to death. The non-believers pleading for their lives was a nice touch.
Somewhere along the way, we also took a short break and visited a small museum of sorts (a real one), where there were props from previous HHN events. You can see some of them in the image gallery below.
Lastly, we got reserved seating for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. Although it seems out of place from the rest of HHN, it is a funny look at the year’s pop culture happenings, featuring Bill and Ted having to deal with them being replaced on their own show, and featuring the appearances (if not the real bodies) of The Situation, Snookie, Doctor Who (Tennant version), MacGruber, Lindsay Lohan, Tom Cruise, and many others.
After that I was well exhausted, as were my group mates, so we all headed back to the resort. But for those attending, the park does operate 4 of the featured attractions during HHN – Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black, The Simpsons, and Jaws. And there was also a special magic show by Brian Brushwood called Menace and Malice.
Overall, it was a very interesting time, entertaining if not specifically scary to me at least. Although I can’t imagine trying to do everything in a single night without the RIP Tour – it could probably be done if you are there beginning to end, as we started late and there was a little less than an hour left, but I had been up almost 23 hours at that point…but if you are at all into “haunted house” scares and detailed theming, Halloween Horror Nights can’t be beat.