Greg Nicotero, Lauren Cohan, and images of fear from Halloween Horror Nights Orlando 26

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Jan 25, 2021, 4:52 PM EST (Updated)

October is here, and so is the fear – especially in Orlando at Halloween Horror Nights.

If you’re like me, the kickoff to the 10th month of the year is automatically accompanied by a flight plan of haunted attractions (not to mention horror movies and candy, both of varying degrees of quality). At least every week of Halloween season is spent finding either a big-budget or local haunt to scare the bejesus out of me, and fill me with a giddy, fear-induced laughter.

But my haunt season always begins with the biggest, best attraction out there: Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights. Now celebrating its 26th anniversary, and running through Halloween night, HHN Orlando has a special place in my scare-loving heart as I remember going to the theme park in my hometown in the early years of this annual party, and watching it evolve over time.

Utilizing its sizeable budget, expansive sound stages, cast of exceptional actors, a crew of mind-blowingly talented set designers – and throw in some roller coasters and rides – the event stands alone. Moreover, the ability to secure well-known movie properties and bring them to life certainly adds to HHN’s appeal.

For instance, HHN26 includes an American Horror Story haunt (combining elements from the “Murder House,” “Freak Show” and “Hotel” seasons), as well as mazes based on The Walking Dead, The Exorcist, Krampus, Halloween II and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

“They’re so iconic, and so memorable, and everybody knows everything about them; that’s kind of your Achilles heel, isn’t it?” asked Michael Aiello, Director of Entertainment – Creative Development at Universal Orlando about the event’s power to play on audience familiarity to make a good haunt.

“It’s a film, it’s on a flat screen, and you’re watching it, and you’re very passive; we take you and dump you in a 360-degree immersive environment, and actually have Twisty the Clown come after you, and have Walkers from every angle come after you, and Regan coming after you.”

“It’s one thing to see it on the screen,” said Greg Nicotero, effects master and The Walking Dead executive producer. “Being a fan, I’ve gone to Martha’s Vineyard to see where they shot Jaws, and I’ve stood on the bottom of the steps in Georgetown where Father Karras falls [in The Exorcist]; there’s something about this genre that elicits this kind of connection … they want to feel somehow connected to this material, and what I love about Universal is these guys create the opportunity to experience it right in front of you.”

He said he’s “kind of jealous” that the Universal team gets to focus on creating scares all year long, while he has a four-month hiatus on TWD. Nicotero, who directs five episodes this season on the show, also said he thinks crafting scares at the event is harder than his job on set.

“There’s a huge difference between being live and shooting film,” Nicotero told me. “Shooting we can cut, move the camera, go have a cigarette, get some water, chill out; we have to concoct our scares artificially with camera angles and lenses.

“These guys have to do it live every night. It is way harder to do it live because of the audience expectation ... they have a much harder job, and the scares have to be much more meticulously crafted.”

Nicotero added that he went through The Walking Dead maze with some of the actors from the show, and that Lauren Cohan and Alanna Masterson were “literally hiding behind me” as he coached them where the scares would be.

This year’s HHN marks two firsts for the event: The first American Horror Story house, as well as a direct sequel house, Halloween II.

Charles Gray, Show Director for Houses, called AHS an “uber-maze” this year, with nearly double the rooms of a normal maze.

“Still, with that many rooms, there are still so many amazing moments in three seasons. How do you select them?” he said his team asked. “We had so many conversations about what people want to see, or what characters they wanted to encounter; one thing we took a risk on, which paid off in our rehearsals, was taking dialogue from the show so you’re living the scene."

For “Halloween: Return to Haddonfield,” the sequel maze begins right where the 2014 Halloween maze ended, much like the film Halloween II picks up immediately following the end of the original movie.

“That’s the first time we’ve done that,” said Gray. “We had toyed with the best way to present it, and decided to take the actual blueprint of the finale of the last house. So, for people who saw the house before, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I remember the closet, I remember him getting shot out the window,’ and then we continue from there on Michael’s journey to get Laurie in the hospital.”

Meanwhile, to tackle a film such as The Exorcist, where a majority of the action takes place in the character Regan’s bedroom, Gray said his team made the decision to present the story as a fever dream (“So you’re all over the place”) instead of chronologically.

Beyond previously established franchises, Universal Orlando crafts original houses, such as the clown-heavy “Lunatics Playground 3D,” the Wild West-themed “Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch,” and “Tomb of the Ancients” for those with mummy issues.

This is in addition to fived themed scare zones -- street areas that are essentially haunted houses without such as “Lair of the Banshee,” “Vamp ‘55”, “Dead Man’s Wharf” -- and The Repository, an immersive paranormal VR experience.

While last year’s HHN was something of a greatest hits for the 25th anniversary, Gray said one of the mission statements for the haunts this year was “claustrophobic.”

"With The Walking Dead, what makes the show scary a lot of times is when they are on top of the person ripping them apart, and we wanted to have that feeling that they are right there. 'Tomb of the Ancients' is the same thing; we have ceilings in there, and everything is very claustrophobic. It makes it a lot more terrifying."

For his part, Gray said he can’t pick which house is his favorite, since they’re all his babies, but does still get creeped out by the sacrifice scene in “Tomb of the Ancients.”

“There is a scare-actor as a priestess ripping this guy’s heart out, and the moment she turns at you and stares you down sends chills down my spine,” he said. “I’m like, ‘aaaagh, stop looking at me!’”

But as The Walking Dead’s Maggie, Lauren Cohan, can attest, even not looking doesn’t serve as protection from getting scared.

“If you think it’s less scary with your eyes covered, you’re sorely mistaken,” she said.

So what did I see during my visit to Halloween Horror Nights Orlando?

I did keep my eyes open and I encountered a lot of scary happenings. In the gallery below are just some of the faces – from Leatherface, Michael Myers, Twisty the Clown, Pazuzu, walkers and more – that leapt from the darkness, and into my camera frame.

Take a look at my gallery of fear below, and be certain to check out Halloween Horror Nights if you’re up for a fearful October night in Orlando.