I went back to Universal Studios in Orlando to challenge my fear of fear and its famous Halloween Horror Nights. This piece was recently published in the Irish Daily Mail.
When was the last time a six-foot-seven-inch scarecrow stepped out of the foggy darkness to scare the bejesus out of you…and you respond by jumping back in mock terror and laughing like a maniac?
That’s just part of the fun of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studios’ all-scaring, all-screaming extravaganza that is America’s most elaborate Halloween event. The six-week menagerie of maniacs, monsters and murderers comes alive with the setting sun, when thousands of fans descend on the Orlando theme park to get their fear on.
Nine huge warehouses are transformed into haunted mazes and the streets of the theme park are divided into five ‘scare zones’ with their own distinctive horror theme. I turn a corner and find myself in the middle of The Purge, where I’m attacked by a lunatic with a loud chainsaw and then threatened by a huge, ghostly-looking guy with a bloodied axe.
Of course, I’m not really attacked. The chainsaw looks and – more importantly – sounds real enough, but it’s just a prop. And the ghostly guy is just one of thousands of ‘scare-actors’ who are under strict instructions not to come within an arm’s length of anyone, for as much as the event goes to enormous lengths to be as terrifyingly real as possible, it’s still a family-friendly experience open to all over the age of 13. Still, an arm’s length is close enough to keep me on constant edge.
Most frightening of all – even more than being caught in the middle of a loud ‘battle’ between aliens and soldiers in the Invasion! zone – is when a young girl with heavy kohl eyes and the pallour of death stops no more than two feet from me. She just looks at me and then hisses. I almost wet myself.
“It’s good training for the zombie apocalypse,” I hear someone say behind me. I look around and see a heavyset guy in his twenties wearing a Chucky t-shirt. I smile wanly but I don’t think he was joking.
Meanwhile, my heart is racing and I have that metallic taste in my mouth from an overload of adrenaline – and I haven’t even gone into my first horror house.
The horror houses - huge walk-through mazes that take up to five minutes’ each to walk through - are an elaborately conceived nightmare that take almost a full year to devise and build. Each one is a mini universe based on either a famous horror franchise – Saw, The Purge, American Horror Story, The Shining, Ash vs The Living Dead – or an original concept conceived by Universal’s art and design team, which has been honing its trick-or-treat arsenal for 27 consecutive years.
Although fright geeks are going gaga for The Shining, which makes its debut this year, there was huge online buzz for a couple of home-grown ideas - Scarecrow: The Reaping, set on a Depression-era Midwestern farmstead; and Dead Waters, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou. I’ve watched enough episodes of True Blood to know that those swamps are full of vampires and voodoo.
Last year, Universal scored a big hit with Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and it’s back again with a house based on three seasons of the popular TV show - Asylum, Coven and Roanoke. The little surprises along the way include a tortured witch howling in a cage and an attack by a family of cannibals. Most frightening of all – even more than being lunged at by a man wearing a severed pig’s head – was when I was confronted by Cordelia, played in the TV show by Sarah Paulson. Her calling card is waving a pair of scissors she has just used to gouge out her eyes. What’s not to like?
Universal is hoping that fans will respond as positively to The Shining house, set in the Overlook Hotel as well as the infamous maze. Unlike other houses, this one is brightly lit which makes the walkthrough that bit more unnerving. The film’s iconic features all make an appearance, including Jack bursting through a door to announce that he’s home to the blood-soaked elevator and haunted room 237. I even have a stare-down with the creepy hand-holding Grady twins. Taking on Kubrick’s horror masterpiece was always going to be a risky affair, as hardcore fans would treat any misstep as sacrilege, but the creative team has clearly done its research and turned out a winner.
If The Shining struggled with the weight of expectation, the contrast with Dead Waters couldn’t be starker. Nobody knew anything about this house, which is set aboard a full-sized riverboat half-buried in the Bayou swamp. I walk along the path by the alligator-infested waters and onto the ship, where the sloping floors add to the overall feeling of disorientation. Lightning flashes across the sky and inside the candles flicker in the half-light – it is in this eerie setting that I come across the Voodoo Queen and her village fiends, who execute a series of fabulous scares.
Most of the mayhem in the houses is generated by scareactors hidden behind nooks, drop windows and doorways, who pop out at strategic moments (what the designers call ‘boo-and-skidoo’) for maximum effect. But the sense of fear is heightened by a brilliantly effective bit of low-tech special effects called ‘SIF’ by the creative team.
SIF – or ‘stuff in face’ (the team call it something a bit ruder) is any bit of material that brushes your face as you walk by. So, when I walk through lengths of twine in Scarecrow: The Reaping, the result is terrifying, especially when added to other special effects, like the sound of crows squawking and rats scurrying by in the dark. And then there’s the smell, dank and rotting, like you’d expect from a place where scarecrow guardians have risen from the blood-soaked soil to wreak revenge on the humans who let the farm go to rack and ruin.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any scarier, I hear a thud, and then the sound of a chain being dragged slowly across the floor. Another thud, and then the chain again. Thud. Something is coming, but when and from where? At this stage, I’m walking so slowly that the people behind me have caught up. I put my hands out and try to feel my way forward. Then he appears. All six-foot-seven-inches of him. The appropriately named Biggun has a giant skull with roots growing of it, and his roar is amplified by a speaker hidden somewhere in the room.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and when I was out, I couldn’t wait to get back in.
Halloween Horror Nights runs on selected nights until November 4.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has direct flights to Orlando from €560 each way.
Seven nights at Universal Orlando with Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk). Includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Orlando, a Lagoon View room at the on-site Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, car hire and a Universal Orlando three park Explorer ticket with Halloween Horror Nights combo from £1780 (€1991) for two adults sharing. Price based on October 26th departure.