Halloween Horror Nights: An 'RIP' Tour of All 9 Houses
All photos courtesy of Universal Orlando
The lights flicker in and out, giving you all-too-brief glimpses of your surroundings; just enough time to gasp at the charnel house terror of entrails splattered against cold industrial walls. The air itself carries a smell of the tomb, as well as muffled screams. Where these screams come from you’re not sure; for all you know they could be your own.
Shakily, you advance, despite every instinct in your body telling you to flee. You find yourself ducking through a door, the room beyond darkened and flooded by your imagination with terrors.
You suddenly realize you are not alone.
In fact, joining you on this tour through the most primal horrors known to man are several thousand fellow horror fans, sharing in the nerves-shattering dread of winding mazes that have brought guests back to Halloween Horror Nights again and again for 25 years.
For this special anniversary, Universal has unveiled a record nine haunted houses, each with its unique thematics and its own methods for scaring the tar out of you. Far from the community haunted houses that spring up across the country each year, these are cinematic-quality torture chambers. Hollywood-caliber sets draw you in completely, warping your sense of reality and immersing you into some of the biggest chills of your life, while all five sense are assaulted by wicked realism.
I was fortunate enough to go on a special “R.I.P” tour of all nine houses, so I can now give you just a taste of the sheer psychological trauma represented by each.
Asylum in Wonderland
In a presentation before the tour, Michael Aiello, Director of Creative Development for Universal Orlando’s Entertainment team, gave a brief introduction to each house. Of Asylum in Wonderland, he said, “We debuted this scarezone back in 2008, and it was extremely popular. This year, we decided let’s take those characters and thematic, throw it into a maze, and apply some of the 3D technology we’ve developed over the last 25 years. I can safely say this is the most layered intricate 3D maze we’ve ever done.”
It turns out, that 3D technology is a great way to give yourself serious psychological damage. Donning a pair of polarized glasses, we were sent almost immediately into “The Vortex,” a spinning hallway that served as senses-shattering intro to a funhouse mirror look at the classic tale of Alice, drenched in psychotic scenery and bathed in a psychedelic paintjob. Coupled with the glasses, it’s a disorienting fever dream that would have Lewis Carrol swearing off of hard drugs forever.
“Much like we’ve done in the past with franchises like' Evil Dead'… you’re going to get the highlights,” said Aiello, of the maze that encapsulates all three Insidious movies. “You’re going to get attacked by the lipstick demon. You’re going to see the bride in black.”
The real star of this attraction, however, is the entertainment team’s meticulous attention to detail. As you step into a maze that looks nothing less than an old 19th-century house. You smell the must and mildew of antiques, bringing you right into the movie. The team was that faithful to recreating sets from the films. “We couldn’t find the right wallpaper… it didn’t exist. We had to go build it in Photoshop,” said Aiello.
That sense of authenticity isn’t just for show, though. That impressive realism, bearing down on all five senses as it does, creates a complete illusion that does strange things to your brain. While the rational side of you screams in vain that this is all just a set, a tent in Orlando, the rest of your psyche just screams. The result is a deep-seated fear so chilling, I’m still a little rattled by the room with the church pews (pictured above).
Full disclosure, I’ve never actually seen "The Purge," so I was a blank slate going into it. Now that I’ve lived it, I can only hope the movie lives up to it.
“This was our most popular last year. We did it in New York and obliterated New York with it. We felt this year let’s make it a maze,” said Aiello. “Every step of the way we’re recreating moments and characters you’ll recognize from that brand. It’s intense. It’s a heavy metal hard rock kind of maze.”
Even if you haven’t seen "The Purge," you’ve probably heard the concept: in the not-so-distant future, the nation’s leaders have devised a plan to give citizens 24 hours to vent their sadistic tendencies without legal repercussions (so not unlike Black Friday at Wal-Mart). Having not seen the film, I have no idea why this results in gangs of roving psychopaths in alarmingly cheerful masks, but just know that seeing it in person is deeply terrifying.
The Walking Dead
I am a giant fan of "The Walking Dead," so this was one I was definitely primed for.
“We’ve been able to create a maze literally around the season that just ended. Last year we ended at Terminus, this year we’re picking up where we left off,” said Aiello.
He wasn’t joking, as even before you enter you pass through the tall-fenced courtyard of Terminus, shockingly speedy walkers milling about eliciting shocked screams. From there, you follow the whole story of one of the best seasons in the show’s run. You start out in the slaughterhouse of Terminus, gore and screams filling the space and setting the tone. From there, the crazy gets cranked to 11, taking you though familiar sights like the barn in which the group rode out a tornado and the loading dock where Aaron and Daryl encountered some nasty booby traps.
If anything, the only thing pumping the brakes on my own terror was the massive fanboy reaction to the maze. Sure, there’s a zombie jumping out at me, but he’s jumping out of the revolving door where that jerk Nicholas let Noah die!
Jack’s 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem
If you’re not fundamentally creeped out by clowns, there is something wrong with you. This is just one man’s opinion, but in a grander sense it’s empirical truth. And Jack, the psychotic ringmaster of this whole circus of fears, capitalizes on this truth. Making his return to Halloween Horror Nights, Jack the clown has been put front and center in a sprawling maze celebrating a quarter century of scares.
“We wanted to create one maze that encapsulates 25 years of Horror Nights History,” said Aiello. “It’s the longest maze because we had a lot to cram into it.”
He isn’t kidding, this maze is long. Just when you think you’re done, you go around another turn and another unspeakable horror presents itself. I wasn’t as familiar with some of the characters from previous Halloween Horror Nights iterations, but old standbys like The Phantom of The Opera (who I never found scary until he leaped at me from behind an organ) and whatever that thing is that pops up onto the screen for a split second in "The Exorcist" (which I always find scary – doubly so when he appeared out of nowhere from a painting) brought plenty of chills.
An American Werewolf in London
“We’ve never ever brought back a maze back identically the way we did it originally. We really felt if there was ever a year to do this, it’s 25. And the maze we chose is one that’s dear to our hearts, a maze we worked on for years,” said Aiello of American Werewolf in London’s triumphant return.
This year’s iteration is a completely identical run to the 2013 version, with one exception, undertaken at the request of the film’s director, John Landis.
“I went and saw it two years ago, and I was very happy but I said, ‘The wolves should be better. They’re good but they should be better,’” Landis said during a panel discussion at this year’s opening.
Not to mince words, Universal nailed it this time around. The werewolves are every bit as terrifying as they were when I glimpsed them from behind the couch when I was seven, quaking in fear at the movie some irresponsible adult had let me watch. Key scenes from the movie are rendered in pulse-pounding detail, from the transformation scene (which I still have trouble viewing) to the mutant Nazi werewolf dream sequence (the memory of which I had manage to suppress until one of them opened up on me with a machine gun).
Body Collectors: Recollections
One of the original creations at Halloween Horror Nights, Body Collectors are basically what happens when a creative group of people try to check every box on the “things that are terrifying” Bingo card.
In a storyline that would make for a pretty damn good scary movie in itself (hint hint Universal), the Body Collectors are a group of perpetually smiling suited figures that, spoiler alert, collect bodies. That you never figure out why only ratchets up the tension, especially when they’re collecting them in grotesquely gory fashion right in front of you. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone’s spine ripped out before, but… it isn’t pleasant.
“Something that was really important for our 25th year was that we pay respect and homage to the characters and environment that, frankly, the fans made popular,” said Aiello. “This year we wanted to present them in a new way – we wanted to blend some of the thematics that we haven’t done before.”
The environment only adds to the thrills. The storyline places The Body Collectors in Shadybrook, a 19th-century asylum caught in a blizzard. The walk into Shadybrook is a masterpiece of immersion, taking you through snowdrifts of tranquil beauty that only underscore the disturbingly gory sights that await within.
Freddy vs. Jason
This, my friends, was my Graceland.
As mentioned before, I was allowed to watch horror movies at a truly irresponsible age, and growing up, Freddy and Jason were the gold standard. I followed their exploits through the good ("Nightmare on Elm Street" 1, 3, 4 and 5; "Friday the 13th" Parts 1-4) the bad (Nightmare Part 2; "Jason Takes Manhattan") and the ugly ("Freddy’s Dead;" "Jason X"), approaching each new giddy anticipation. And when they finally met in "Freddy vs. Jason," I was in awe.
This maze captured that epic confrontation with the sort of reverence I felt for each franchise, faithfully recreating the eerie feeling of Camp Crystal Lake, the skin-crawling menace of 1428 Elm Street, and the biting terror of Freddy’s trademark industrial boiler room kill zone. Video trickery blends with live-action thrills to take you through the plot (yes, it had one) of Freddy vs. Jason, dropping you right into a battle between horror titans.
As someone who grew up on these films, walking through the environments that plagued my childhood nightmares, I entered this maze with high expectations. Freddy vs. Jason did not disappoint.
Run: Blood, Sweat and Fears
Another original creation, Run: Blood, Sweat and Fears actually serves as a fan-service mashup of two popular mazes from previous Halloween Horror Nights, Run and Hellgate Prison.
The premise borrows somewhat from the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic “The Running Man,” presenting a dystopian future wherein a televised game show pits contestants against murderous “reapers,” each of which has its own personalized killing floor.
“In developing Run, we thought let’s give it a really 1980s-type feel,” said Aiello. “It’s very John Carpenter-y, with Casio keyboard textures and things like that.”
The 80s nostalgia is excellent window dressing to the non-stop barrage of jump scares that plague each turn of this maze. The reapers come at you from the left, the right, and even from the ceiling as you make your way through. It’s a shame, really, because I wasn’t able to soak in the nostalgic atmosphere as much as I’d hoped, since THERE’S A GUY IN THE CEILING AAAAHHHH.
More by Barry Kaufman
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