What is the color of fear? Is it pitch-black? Arterial red? Clenched-knuckle white? In Orlando, the color of fear is green. Cold blind terror now equals cold hard cash. Scaring the bejesus out of tourists is big business, and while a mutated 800-pound gorilla (Universal Studios) rules the season, a newcomer is clawing for your dollars. Which haunted event will give you the most boo for your buck?
Sixteen years ago, Universal hosted their first "Fright Nights." A three-night event featuring a single haunted house, it was intended to draw locals during a slow season. Today, Halloween Horror Nights is a massive undertaking involving a year of planning, hundreds of artists and legions of attendees from near and far. This year marks an improvement after several less-compelling years at Islands of Adventure, as "Horror Comes Home" to the Studios, where it belongs. Much credit can go to J. Michael Roddy, the veteran writer who returns to Universal after several years spent creatively resurrecting Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's "Howl-O-Scream." Roddy says he returned because of "a great amount of admiration for the original Universal Classic Monsters … the park, and the brand." That love of legacy permeates the theme.
Universal has always been the most self-referential of theme parks, and this year they've taken that tendency to an almost onanistic extreme. Instead of drawing on people's universal fears, this year is purely Universal.
As you enter, fiends from years past obligingly pose for photos and point you toward the confounding "Arrival" show. Four advertising icons from past years have been resurrected to celebrate Halloween Horror Night's Sweet 16 and perform gory magic tricks. Those who have memorized killer clown Jack's bio and have the Director's snuff-film commercials saved on TiVo will be in gorehound heaven; those who don't know the Caretaker from the Cryptkeeper, or who don't see what's scary about a grandmother spouting evil Seuss, will be lost.
But clever back stories don't make or break the evening; haunted houses do. Each of this year's seven mazes draws inspiration from a previous house, reaching all the way back to 1991. Each features one room reconstructed from the original, but is otherwise "re-imagined" to incorporate this year's hosts. The houses feature all the movie- quality detail Universal is famous for, but are they scary?
Fear is personal, and years of working in and around haunted attractions have made my own fright response duller than a Golden Corral steak knife. But this year's houses are better than last, and are among the most creatively satisfying Universal has ever built. Here's a brief rundown, from best to least:
Screamhouse Resurrection: A masterpiece of pace and scale, the Caretaker's decaying mortuary includes a gory autopsy room and a pungent greenhouse.
Psychoscareapy: A mostly unseen Jack lets loose the inmates in an asylum featuring clever décor, creative performances and the most unappealing restroom this side of 7-Eleven.
All Nite Die-In Take 2: Overreliance on modern films keeps this house from besting its namesake, but an atmospheric encounter with the Cenobites delivers.
Run, Hostile Territory: Better named "shuffle," it abandons the innovative-but-impractical chaos of the original for a glorious overload of Saw-esque gore.
Psycho-Path: From the Bates Motel reproduction to the spinning tunnel of Janet Leighs, this rape/tribute to Hitchcock is the trippiest ride since Mr. Toad's.
Dungeon of Terror Retold: Southern Gothic and goofy blacklight mix badly with the lame Storyteller character; another Scary Tales would have been better.
People Under the Stairs: A repetitive slog past plastic sheeting while wearing a miner's helmet; even less fun than it sounds. Possibly the worst house in Halloween Horror Nights history.
Since 1992 "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure" show has been a fan favorite, and this year's show returns the series to its former glory. After several years of diminishing returns, this year's "B&T" returns to its roots, both literally (back in the former Wild West venue, a much better home than the charmless Toon Lagoon amphitheater) and figuratively (eschewing the insufferable song-and-dance numbers in favor of plot- and character-driven humor). This year's installment, featuring everyone from TomKat's demon spawn to Sam Jackson's dying career, is as merciless as any and stretches the "PG-13" rating to the breaking point.
The most popular attraction may be the numerous "blood bars." (As my friend Christian says, "The scariest thing at HHN is the beer line.") Once you're well-lubricated, check out the "scare zones," outdoor themed areas that sometimes outdo the formal mazes in fright potential. I particularly enjoyed "Deadtropolis," a pitch-perfect blend of lighting and sound effects that provides an ideal backdrop for Land of the Dead—style zombies to menace passersby. Stroll down Nazzarman's alley for some great scare-portunities). Unfortunately, the scare zones are not as plentiful as years past (the midway area was a ghost town), and the once-revered Chainsaw Drill Team is a pathetic shadow of its former self.
No matter which house you visit, you'll face the bane of Halloween Horror Nights: the conga line. In years past, guests were "pulsed" through houses in small groups. This sense of isolation, essential to evoking terror, is long gone, replaced by a continuous line of people from entrance to exit. The alternative is even longer lines, as the event has become a victim of its own success. While a busy summer day at the parks may top out at 35,000 guests, Universal allows nearly 50,000 through the gate on peak Halloween nights. When that happens, those who pay for Express Passes might wait an hour for a three-minute shuffle through a house; the Express-less face waits nearly three times as long. It's hard to imagine anyone finding such a wait worthwhile, no matter how many $9 cocktails you've downed.
Besides expanding the event, Universal could manage attendance by eliminating the soft drink discounts (they nearly killed Six Flags); they could restore non-peak nights to the schedule, and they could replace queuing with assigned entry times. Until that happens, the only reasonable option is the "RIP Tour"; $65 to $80 above the cost of admission, plus Express passes, may seem steep, but when you cruise past the agonizing lines you'll agree it's worth every penny. On a busy night the VIP tour is the only way to see it all, and the only thing lacking is free food and booze. (A private cash bar would be a good start).
For the serious fan I highly recommend the "Behind the Screams" tour, held daily during park hours. You'll get a backstage tour featuring candid trivia about the houses' painstaking details. The mazes are half as scary but twice as interesting with the lights on; the small museum at the end will delight longtime fans. If Universal would combine the two tours with food and drink at a discount, I'd be first in line.
Nights of Terror
Despite its best efforts, Universal has not managed to eliminate all competition. Over the years numerous year-round haunted attractions have come and gone: the much-missed Terror on Church Street; the vaguely remembered Mystery Fun House; the not-even-loved-by-its-mother Haunted Mansion on U.S. 192. Skull Kingdom continues to struggle along, though you might think it's closed by the looks of the facade. And there are always the no-budget community hayrides that spring up every year. (I was once bait-and-switched into visiting a church haunt that combined Jason and Freddy with a truly terrifying come-to-Jesus sermon.)
This year's Nights of Terror is the chief contender for Universal's scraps. It's an ambitious attempt at a more intimate Halloween experience occupying the mostly lifeless Mercado complex, 8445 International Drive.
The weekends-only Nights of Terror has an impressive pedigree: The houses have been built by some of the same artists who have designed for HHN, and theatrical veterans from the Laugh Out Loud comedy troupe produce the talent. The result is an event that emphasizes interaction and atmosphere over cheap shocks, but still needs to find its organizational legs.
On opening weekend, the houses seemed to be works-in-progress with potential. Take, for example, "Les Bloc des Bouchers," an haute-cuisine haunt. By inhabiting an actual restaurant, the attraction gains instant verisimilitude. Guests are welcomed by the hostess in small groups and allowed to explore the fetid kitchens with considerable freedom. The staging is impeccably awful.
In "Seven Deadly Sins," a detective guides you through vintage vignettes vaguely tied to a whodunit storyline. Though some gore gags were less-than-convincing, there were a few impressive shocks that tested the limits of taste, with gusto.
"St. Agatha's Torment" starts strong with a creepy, burned-out school, but devolves as the budget went toward balky animatronics that are about as scary as giant Muppets.
The final house is a fascinating and serious-minded ghost tour of the Titanic exhibit that feels tonally out-of-sync with rest of the event.
I was impressed by the actors' interactions with the guests and each other; they were more aggressive, complex and downright disturbing than I anticipated. These are the most committed "scareactors" I've seen in years. However, there is a definite "not ready for prime time" vibe to the entire production. Halloween events require strong actors and stronger security, but I watched drunken idiots repeatedly run roughshod over the show with impunity. The yellow-shirted staff was ubiquitous, cheerful and completely clueless; basic questions about operating hours and bathrooms were met with confusion. Unless they improve operations, even a modest crowd might lead to chaos. If Nights of Terror finds its legs and those crowds do materialize, their VIP package may be the best deal in town — $99 buys you admission, front-of-the-line privileges, valet parking, food, drinks and merchandise.
Competition is essential for progress, and I'm grateful that groups like Nights of Terror are around to keep Universal honest. If your wallet can stomach it, let Universal give you the blood-red carpet treatment; you won't live to regret it. But if you're saving pennies for eyeliner and embalming fluid, head over to the Mercado and see if Chef Henri has a table available. I've seen the meat locker and I promise it's firstname.lastname@example.org