Last updated: 05:02 PM ET, Fri September 30 2016

Halloween Horror Nights 26: Homegrown Terror

Destination & Tourism | Barry Kaufman | September 26, 2016

Halloween Horror Nights 26: Homegrown Terror

All photos courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando’s annual celebration of bone-chilling carnage and mayhem,  has always held a mandate to make every year somehow more over the top than the previous. For its 26th iteration, that was no small task.

Halloween Horror Night 25 was, to put it mildly, cranked to 11 on nearly every level. In addition to delightfully warped scare zones and scare houses from iconic properties like “An American Werewolf in London,” HHN25 also brought back one of its biggest icons, Jack the Clown.

“Last year was amazing,” said Show Director Charles Gray. “It took a lot of work to make it bigger and better.”

While horror is subjective—to some, a clown is just a clown but to others, it’s the living embodiment of every child’s nightmare—it’s safe to say that Halloween Horror Night 26 is a worthy followup to an incredibly terrifying year.

Much of that credit can be given to the iconic franchises headlining this year’s event.

Films like “The Exorcist” create the opportunity to immerse yourself in more psychological thrills than visceral blood and gore (that said, beware the vomit room). Of course, iconic properties like “Halloween,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Walking Dead” offer up plenty of opportunities for jump scares from ghouls and maniacs.

However, to truly get a feel for the pride and craftsmanship that go into Halloween Horror Nights, you have to visit some of its homegrown properties. This year offers up three.

The first: “Ghost Town: The Curse of Lightning Gulch,” was considered a “requel” of sorts. “We did a ghost town before,” said Gray. “This is a retelling of Lightning Gulch.”

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In Ghost Town, you walk through what Gray refers to as an “evil Brigadoon,” an Old West town that only appears when lightning strikes. Stuffed to the gills with scareactors, cannon fire and alarming peals of thunder, the storyline behind Ghost Town intrigues, but mostly in service to some top-shelf scares.

The second original shows the real power of these original scare zones. If you’re a fan of horror, seeing icons like Michael Myers or Leatherface is like meeting your favorite celebrities. The flipside of that is that when you see them, your brain instantly goes back to the scene in the film being recreated before your eyes. It doesn’t damper the horror much, but it does take you out of the moment.

In an original scare zone like “Tomb of the Ancients,” however, that reference doesn’t exist. All your brain knows in that moment of fight or flight is that you’re somewhere dark and confined and truly unsettling. I’m not going to lie; I consider myself pretty brave but recovering from Tomb of the Ancients took me a little while. It’s that good.

The third original scare zone is a real testament to the care that the creative team puts into each year’s event. Officially titled “Lunatics Playground 3D: You Won’t Stand A Chance,” the official showcase for this year’s icon, Chance, works on several levels. The first, fitting for the asylum setting, happens entirely in your mind. New technology has taken the “Asylum in Wonderland 3D” experience from last year in boldly terrifying new directions. Prepare to have your mind toyed with and your perception of reality completely washed out by your own screams.

The other, deeper, level is in its storyline.

Those who attended HHN25 will remember the chaos Jack the Clown left in his wake, and the story of “Asylum” is that Jack skipped out leaving Chance to take the rap. This doesn’t sit well with Chance, who proceeds to flip out and dispatch her would-be captors in brutal fashion. By continuing the storyline of last year’s event, Asylum tips a pin to long-time fans who have seen characters, elements and themes pop up from year to year.

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Case in point – the asylum Chance brutalizes, Shadybrook, was also the setting of last year’s Body Collectors, as well as the birthplace of Jack the Clown. It’s been popping up in original scare zones for years.

“The uber fans, the maniacs, they do follow the storylines,” said Gray. “We don’t let that control us; we use it when we want to use it. We’re all geeks too, so we get very excited when we can put Easter eggs in there.”

While it’s the known franchises that bring the fans through that archway every autumn, more and more are starting to follow the ongoing horror saga being played out every year at Halloween Horror Night. Could that fanbase ever grow so large that we see the process work in reverse? Could we one day see Shadybrook Mental Hospital, Chance or Jack the Clown on the silver screen?

“Who knows what could happen?” said Gray. “You never know.”

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