For 24 years, Halloween Horror Nights has turned one of the most popular theme parks into the scariest place on Earth.
The rain stopped a few minutes ago, and in the sultry evening heat, everything has started to ooze a creamy mist, like the surface of an alien planet, or a graveyard. That’s when I round a bend and see the sign:
“Enjoy the Purge.”
Fall in America is the time for turning leaves and pumpkin spice everything, and also building haunted houses. If you’re Universal Studios, your haunted houses contain the horrors of your entire film and TV collection, which is what I’m in Orlando, FL to see.
Each year during the fall, Universal turns an entire half of its Universal Orlando theme park into one extended spookfest. After dark, the kid-friendly attractions go dark and the painted performers, scare machines and haunted houses come to life to give park goers a chance to get creeped.
This year, the attractions include a variety of film and TV treasures turned horrific: From Dusk ’til Dawn, Halloween, The Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator and the latest Dracula film, Dracula Untold. There are also a few original creations, including a macabre dollhouse factory, a re-creation of the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke and, hand to heart, a creepy clown house.
Setting the stage between these attractions are the street scenes, entire outdoor areas given over to one horror show or another. That’s where I find The Purge.
Many of the performers that will make up this scare are taking a breather, due to the rain, but what’s here is, I have to admit, awe-inspiring. The 2013 film starring Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones star Lena Headey told the story of a a future world where one night every year no laws apply. Theft, vandalism, rape, murder and every other thing generally forbidden by law can be committed without fear of persecution on just this one night. Hawke and his family lock themselves behind doors to wait out the terror, and much of the action occurs within their presumedly safe abode. This year’s sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, took the action out into the night of The Purge, inspiring The Purge‘s street scene at Universal, where a school bus barrier directs the flow of passersby through a narrow passage filled with mask-wearing, weapon-wielding crazies. A large traffic sign surrounded by sandbags proclaims, “Blessed be our Founding Fathers.”
As the crazies swirl around me, muttering fanatical phrases under their breath, I have to wonder — not without some worry — what it is, exactly, the founders were fathers of. And then I’m through the scene and on to the next attraction.
This is the magic of the haunted house, the knowing that it’s not real, even as the creeps get under your skin. You’re always moving, always proceeding to the exit and the next scare, whatever that may be. Unlike the experience of watching a horror film, at Horror Nights you always know the ending: You go home. The tensions last as long as you want them to. Immerse yourself and allow the fear to take you if you please, or else enjoy the spectacle but don’t take it seriously. The choice is yours. It’s drive-by terror tourism.
It’s this variety of choices, this need to hit a number of notes in circumstances that can be continuously malleable that differentiates the art of creating these scares from the work of making the films on which they are based. Even something like The Purge, featuring real human characters, involves work that its creators wouldn’t have to do for the film.
“You have to keep in mind it’s a haunted house,” says Universal’s Laura Tyler. Tyler was the winner of Season 5 of SyFy’s reality TV makeup effects show, Face-Off. “Seeing it on camera where it’s well lit and prepared … and then you go to a haunted house where people are sweating, it’s interactive, it’s right in your face, it’s in dark lighting and all of the conditions are constantly changing. I think the makeup just has to endure and be … more contrast, a little bit more amped up.”
Tyler is an expert in going from screen to the real world, and back again. When she was 17 she worked at Universal Orlando painting airbrush tattoos on tourists’s bodies. She heard about Halloween Horror Nights, applied to work on it and got an upgrade to painting airbrush horror effects on performers’s faces. She’s been moving up ever since.
“If you told me back when I was 17 that I would have a character here, I probably would have told you you’re crazy,” Tyler says.
One of the street scenes in this year’s Halloween Horror nights is a selection of scares scripted from characters that appeared on Face-Off, including one of the looks that Tyler created during her competition.
Tyler will not be applying the look each night, but she is “on call,” filling in wherever she’s needed throughout the Horror Nights season. Her favorite house this year, she says, is Alien vs. Predator.
“I have a soft spot for it,” she says. It was one of her favorite film franchises growing up. “They really took a lot of time trying to immerse you in the environment this year. You walk through that — I couldn’t even get scared because I was just ‘Ah, it’s pretty!’ Some guy is jumping out at me. ‘Oh, no, you’re pretty!’ It’s just so well done it’s like a big piece of artwork you just want to go in and enjoy it.”
Taking Tyler’s advice, I went to see the AvP house for myself, and she was right: It’s a work of art. There are scarier houses at HHN24, and some that are more inventive, but the AvP house is an astonishing experience.
As you move through the house, designed to resemble an Aliens universe space ship, visual storytelling cues like maps and photos on computer monitors and scrawled bits of text lay out the tale of what happened, which, to be honest, isn’t that hard to suss anyway. Somehow aliens broke loose on a colonial thing and the marines got called in and then predators showed up. Got it.
From there it’s sit back (or walk through) and enjoy the spectacle.
Turning corners, walking through doors, you will never know when a xenomorph might leap out at you. Even knowing they’re animatronic devices, not creatures, it’s still terrifying.
Walk down a passageway with metal walls and grates on the floor and ceiling and then — bam — a grate falls down to the floor and an alien is right there, reaching for you through a hole in the roof. Marines litter the house, some eviscerated, some still standing, shooting pulse rifles loaded with blanks over your head, or around another corner. One marine in a dark corner of the house is being slowly dragged under the floor by a swarm of aliens. Game over. Predators lurk behind doors, reaching out for you, as prey, even as they engage the aliens and marines. It’s out and out chaos, and as Tyler says, more of a work of art than a scare.
The sets and costumes were all created by hand, at Universal. Each year while the current Horror Nights is still running, the Horror Nights team begins work on what will become the next one. Last year’s animatronic American Werewolf in London werewolves became this year’s aliens, for example.
Horror Nights creators say the hardest part of AvP was actually casting the Predators. In the original film, camera tricks were used to make 7’2″ actor Kevin Peter Hall look like even taller than he is in real life. In the AvP haunted house, there are no cameras, so the actors cast to play the iconic hunters would all have to be naturally tall. In practice, some look better in the outfit than others, but that’s a nitpick. As an Alien and Predator fan, like Tyler, I was open-mouthed staring the entire way through, and when I was done I wanted to do it again.
The Halloween house is a similar experience. Using material pulled from all of the Halloween films, but leaning heavily on the first, it tells the story of Michael Myers’s evolution form scared kid to walking murder monster. Each room is a vignette paying homage to one of the signature scares in the films. The bedroom where Lynda is murdered, for example, and the kitchen cupboard where her boyfriend is pinned to a door with a knife. There’s even an allusion to the creepy masks from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Then, of course, Michael shows up to scare the pants off of you, sort of. Like AvP it’s more a work of art than a truly scary experience. I was fascinated by the artistry.
Tyler says the biggest difference between what we would see on a movie screen versus what the creators have to do to bring those same looks into a haunted house is in the streamlining. Prosthetics which have to be painstakingly applied for a day of shooting on film, for example, might be changed to masks that performers can take on and off, or even switch off to other performers throughout the night. In a film, there’s only one Michael Myers. In the haunted house there may be as many as 20 at one time, and up to a hundred playing the character throughout the season.
“Here all of the makeups have to last for a whole month,” Tyler says. “They’re not changing it at all, but they are going to be making sure that the costumes will last. A lot of the things we do on [Face-Off], we’ll, you know, glue certain things. On the wrath creature that I had on the show, I literally took latex and just glued it to her body. Obviously we can’t do that here.”
Rounding out the film-to-house attractions at HHN24 are Dracula Untold and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Untold is based on the new film of the same name. It attempts to tell the tale of Dracula’s rise, but the experience (unlike, I am told, the film) is muddled. A village ravaged by impalers and war offers an unpleasant, but not-too-scary experience. By the end I was praying for vampires but honestly never saw one. Luckily there were plenty in the next house.
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, based on the television series based on the film, was a more energetic affair. The house is set in the “Titty Twister” strip club/roadhouse, and, as you would expect, there is rock and roll, nudity and vampires. There are also black-clad gunslingers attempting to ward off the blood suckers as you make your way through the house. The ambience makes it a memorable experience, and a few genuine scares should entertain even those who aren’t familiar with the source material.
The absolutely most terrifying experience of the night, however, is “Giggles and Gore,” the clown house. I’m warned before entering “If you don’t like clowns, do not enter this house.” I don’t, but I do. A less-than-five minute journey through an amusement warehouse turned clown-creation slaughterhouse later and I wish I’d heeded the warning.
Helpless victims lie strapped to tables or lashed to machinery while their limbs are hacked and clown features are forcefully applied. Grinning, leering and chuckling, red-nosed maniacs loom around every corner while the screams of those being transformed fill the house. The experience is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen, on or off a screen.
Tyler says working in the park this year, helping create modern, in-person scares based on her favorite films is something she still can’t get used to.
“I have to pinch myself every morning.”
If working in her nightmare factory was my day job, I would have to pinch myself too. But probably for the opposite reason.
Photography by Russ Pitts.