You walk into a part of Universal Studios Orlando separated from the big shiny attractions by a series of giant posters. One may show a vintage styling of a werewolf howling, another hoards of zombies. Horror icons leer at you from above, pleased that you’ve chosen to enter.
You check your bag and step into a benign-looking area. There are souvenirs, snacks and shirts for sale. But why’s that woman on the bench catching her breath?
Twenty steps to the right and the answer become clear.
The lights have suddenly dimmed, and you’ve entered a misty pumpkin patch with evil scarecrows and monsters walking around like it’s totally normal. The theme park is lost behind you. It’s Halloween now.
The only way is forward. The crowd, mostly couples and groups no more than four each, shrieks with delight when a scare actor (a special seasonal employee trained in the art of scaring people) dressed as a fairy jumps out and yells, “Boo!” You laugh at how silly they look. But then a snake demon snarls in front of you and you almost pee yourself.
You’ve made it past the first Scare Zone. The real frights are waiting for you up ahead in mazes, erected as tributes to Leatherface, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and every other villain or monster that scared you senseless as a kid when you watched them on VHS. They’re all here, waiting.
You down a cocktail named blood and guts, then find yourself saying, “Let’s do this.”
Halloween Horror Nights (or HHN, as it is lovingly called by fans) is celebrating 26 years as a horror attraction in 2016. It began in 1991 as a temporary event called Fright Nights, with shows above its now signature horror mazes. It has since expanded to almost two months across four theme parks, each with a particular style. HHN Singapore is dark and grisly. HHN Japan is campy, with houses like Jason’s Bloody Diner. HHN Hollywood loves flashy horror (they’re the ones hosting a Scare Zone centered around The Purge: Election Year).
HHN Orlando is all of the above, but has a more fun overtone to it all. Yes, you’re coming to a special pocket of Universal Studios to get scared. But there are people laughing all around you as everyone from horror fanatics to friends looking for something different to do pull each other along to the next maze. It feels like Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Harmless, but creepy.
Charles Gray, show director of Halloween Horror Nights (and former scare actor), loves how much the event has grown over the years. “Because the event’s so big and expansive, it really is made for everyone.” For first time visitors, Gray recommends visiting the event’s website and plotting a route beforehand to make sure you hit up everything you want to see.
Intrigued by the idea but not sure you want to partake? “Just sit on a bench somewhere and watch people get scared,” Gray suggests. If everyone reacts the way we do, that’s guaranteed to be an entertaining activity.
The Scare Zones are designated spots within the park where once you cross in, you’re fair game for scarers. You’re just as likely to be scared by a sentient bush or a vampiric Little Red Riding Hood as you are a ghost. This year’s Scare Zones allude to 1950s greaser vampires and wailing banshees. Gray divulged to Paste that this year would also feature something new: bands of roving groups scaring visitors with chainsaws. Look out for the bloodthirsty geisha with a weapon.
There is no official imposed age limit for HHN, but in a Fox News article, a representative for Universal Studios recommended that only children 13 years and older visit the upcoming maze based on American Horror Story. The recommendation is echoed on the general website. The message comes across pretty clear: this is an event designed for adults who want to be scared. Really scared. Rather than tone down the mazes to be less scary, there are now (non-costumed) attendants at almost every juncture ready to bail you out of the maze if you can’t go any further.
Bottom line: This isn’t and never will be a “family friendly” Halloween event.
The golden rule of Halloween haunts still applies: Scare actors are trained to scare, but never touch.
Theme park rides from that section of Universal Studios will run into the night. Live horror shows, like the silly Bill and Ted’s Halloween Adventure, are great options for those looking for a break. And of course, the booze will be flowing. Because there’s nothing like being chased by La Llorona with a football-sized cocktail in your hand. Or in our case, three lunatics with babydoll masks a la The Purge.
Halloween Horror Nights runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 31 with locations in Orlando, Florida; Hollywood, California; Sentosa, Singapore; and Osaka, Japan (dates vary by location). Tickets can be purchased online as an add-on to a Universal Studios park ticket or as a standalone.