Here we are, at the end of October, a generally spooky month that was downright scary this year. The chaos of the world was terrifying, so we were extra thankful for the designed frights of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. The annual fright-fest is, according to Senior Director of Creative Development of Universal Orlando Entertainment Michael Aiello, "An opportunity for us to place our guests in a living horror film.”
While every major city and small town hosts its own haunted hayrides, fright factories, and corn mazes nowadays, Universal Orlando has been scaring the pants off Halloween revelers for nearly three decades. That legacy has allowed them to perfect the experience, leveraging film-quality environments, costumes, and special effects to transform the family-friendly vacation destination into what Aiello calls a "horror theme park."
Bigger, better, and more blood-curdling than ever, this year's event (claiming victims through November 3) features five scare zones, unleashing nightmare-conjuring creeps — from Chucky and Killer Klowns to neck-biting New Year's Eve celebrants — into the park's streets, as well as a new Academy of Villains stage show. The biggest draw, though, is the event's 10 haunted houses, where guests encountered plenty of frightening familiar foes.
We recently braved a behind-the-scenes tour of all ten houses — including five original creations spilled from the twisted minds of Universal's scare-masters — and came away with many weeks' worth of night-terror fodder, as well some insights from Aiello on what makes them tick.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
As advertised, this house brings the iconic slasher-film psycho back in full force. "We're taking you back into Haddonfield," Aiello told SYFY WIRE. "You're going to be relentlessly attacked by Michael through the extent of this maze."
When not jumping at the sight of Myers — who managed to make us scream like school kids multiple times over — fans will appreciate detail-drenched recreations of familiar scenes and locations, such as the Haddonfield Police Station and the film's concluding shootout
One of the event's most inspired original concepts, Slaughter Sinema is also one of our favorite houses this year. Equal parts fun and frightening, it takes guests through scenes of grind house films that never actually existed. Described by Aiello as, "The shelf on the video store that no one ever rented," the schlocky selection includes B-movies starring everything from a man-eating Yeti to a dive bar filled with biker werewolves.
Even cooler, each themed area kicks off with an immersive drive-in theater setting, complete with original movie posters.
Trick 'r Treat
Those who count this straight-to-DVD classic among their favorite Halloween flicks will want to tour this house a few times, as it's absolutely brimming with fan-servicing details and All Hallows' Eve authenticity.
"It's just oozing with traditional Halloween. It's like you walk in and go, 'I feel like a kid again' and now I'm being scared," Aiello says. Speaking of "oozing", this house goes the extra mile, recreating the film's famous projectile vomiting scene in a fashion that will have you reconsidering your candy intake come Halloween night.
Dead Exposure: Patient Zero
Another of HHN's original creations, this zombie-infested affair somehow manages to put a fresh spin on the rotting corpse genre.
Aiello credits the creative use of paint, strobe lights, and other practical effects with making zombies scary again. "Take a room, paint it completely black, go back and just outline all the details in UV, then strobe it intermittently. You're walking through a completely black environment, and when we want you to see something, we'll show you."
A truly terrifying experience, Dead Exposure will ensure you never take public transportation in Paris... at least not during the undead apocalypse
The Horrors of Blumhouse
This one double-downs on the frights by recreating two films in one house. Guests first enter Happy Death Day, which offers a unique twist Aiello says stays true to the film's Groundhog Day-like formula. "You're actually walking through some of the rooms two or three times, because the day keeps repeating in the movie. You're going to see the same environment, but be scared differently every time."
Once properly disoriented by Happy Death Day, the house puts you in the center of The First Purge, where relentless chaos — and plenty of masked madmen — keep you from catching your breath until the exit's reached.
Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After
If you ever wondered if Rapunzel could flay human flesh with her hair or what Humpty Dumpty's spilled innards really look like, you'll want to line up for Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After.
One of the event's more disturbing original houses, Aiello describes it as, "Taking well-known fairy tales and characters and putting them through the Horror Night's filter." For fans, this means not only experiencing the aforementioned childhood-tarnishing encounters, but also witnessing extremely twisted takes on The Wizard of Oz, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and other storybook favorites gone horribly wrong.
Seeds of Extinction
According to Aiello, a population-wiping meteorite provides the set-up for this original house, but it's not the cataclysmic collision that will kill you. It's the plants. Apparently, the space rock has spawned some sort of predatory plant species, one that, of course, feeds on frightened humans. A combination of fantastic theme-ing, such as this disturbing version of mother-nature reclaiming a small-town mall, and jump scares aplenty, will see this one taking, er, root in your future nightmares.
Carnival Graveyard: Rust in Pieces
Carnivals can be scary when they're not attempting to frighten you, so imagine attending one that's been created to specifically damage your fragile psyche.
“We've taken these horrific, sort of carny-esque characters and placed them in a junkyard of old carnival trash” says Aiello. “It's a gauntlet, where people are going to interact with these horrific carnies that have claimed this area, and once a year they open it up to people to claim as victims.”
While this house's many demented characters had our pulses pounding, it was the constant buzzing chainsaws and barking dogs in the background that's since taken up residence in our subconscious.
While we're not getting a new season of the Netflix hit this year, Aiello invites fans to revisit the first season in one HHN most fan-servicing houses. “We've picked the best moments from the series, so you're gonna go to the Upside Down, you're going to visit the Byer's home, and along the way, you're going to be attacked relentlessly by the Demogorgon.”
The Upside Down antagonist does indeed provide many of this house's best frights, but it's the live actors — from a crazy-eyed Joyce Byers and spot-on Sheriff Hopper to all the kids played by scary-real lookalikes — that make you feel at home in Hawkins.
Before entering our favorite — and the most frightening — house of this year's event, Aiello offers this set-up: “We're dropping you into that home at the height of the activity, so in act three of the movie, that's when the coffins are bursting through the home.” What he doesn't tell us, however, is that every last detail, from the smell of the damp soil surrounding those caskets to the powerful wind blowing through the bedroom breached by the possessed tree, has been accounted for.
An incredibly immersive and authentic house with scares to spare, Poltergeist is this year's spine-chilling highlight.