At long last it’s officially fall! That means turning leaves, sweater weather, and pumpkin everything but for the horror-hearted it also means movie marathons, haunted houses, and of course, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. I’ve spent plenty of October nights at HHN here in Hollywood, but this year I was lucky enough to check out how they do horror in Orlando, and it turns out they do it really well. When the gates parted on opening night I was there in the torrential Floridian downpour to get a first look at this year’s mazes and scare zones (they’re back!). But before heading into the park, my group ducked into the Pantages Theater to speak with some of the minds behind the night’s event about their creative process, inspirations, and goals. Hit the jump to see what they had to say and check out my picks for the five best mazes of the year at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2014.
Show Director Laura Wallace talked about the process of generating concepts for the mazes,
“We start with just an idea, and it can be an idea about anything. It can be a location, it can be a character, it can be a movie, it can be a story, it can be a book, it can be a word, anything. From that idea, the ideas that we throw up on the board and they stick, that we absolutely love, then we’ll develop those further.”
What do they look for in the ideas they adapt? According to Wallace it’s mostly instinct.
“Honestly it’s just things we like. We’re just like anybody else, if we like them then we know that there’s a large population out there that’s going to like them as well. We focus on the things that we know horrify us and that we love and want to share with everybody else.”
Michael Aiello, Creative Director for Universal Entertainment, spoke to the importance of honoring the history of horror,
“One of the items we always look at – some years it happens and some years it doesn’t – but when we can, we definitely want to put in an element that shows where horror started, that shows the history of horror. Last year American in Werewolf was a good example. In 2006 we did Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
He was also quick to point out the long Universal Studios’ long relationship with the genre,
“Universal Studios is the place that horror began – Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman – they started at Universal. Universal literally built the horror genre. That’s also really pressing on our brains when we’re creating this event, because it’s important to us that we pay homage to that fact that the only reason why this exists is because Universal was able to create these iconic characters.”
Do they ever worry about making the event too scary? Not according to Wallace,
“I think people have fun when they’re super scared. It’s a fun experience. I know some people may think that it’s a horrifying experience, but somewhere deep inside being scared is a kind of pleasure.”
However, Aiello mentioned that there’s one practical downfall to making the mazes too frightening – it can cause a serious traffic jam. He explained,
“Halloween is an example of throughout, getting people through the mazes effectively. There are two rooms that people literally will not go in. They literally stop and you see this kind of jam that occurs, they don’t want to go any further.”
Aiello also mentioned that Halloween is his favorite film, so is it his favorite maze of the year? Nope. It’s no easy choice, but that honor goes to Alien Vs. Predator.
“That’s like picking a kid, but AVP because there’s so much in that maze from video effects, to puppetry with the Aliens, to level of detail in the costumes and sets. Because we don’t do that aesthetic very often. The last sci-fi maze we did years ago was called Interstellar Terror…AVP is so vastly different from anything we’ve done before.”
Top 5 Mazes of 2014
Note: My tour group did not make it to Giggles & Gore, Inc. before closing time, so I can’t say how that one ranks among the rest.
1) Alien Vs. Predator
So yeah, turns out I completely agree with Aiello on this one. The AVP maze is hands down the winner of the year. I have to say up front that this is not a scary maze, but everything it lacks in the horror aspect, it more than makes up in atmosphere. The level of detail is amazing. Seriously, the walls are fucking slimy. Gross, but amazing. There are a number of scareactors lurking about in Predator suits, which look fantastic, but the real stand out is the puppeteering that brings the aliens to life. It’s also the first Horror Nights maze I’ve seen that demands you get in on the action a little bit. Honestly, if I lived in Orlando, I would be going to this maze constantly. As a huge fan of both the Alien and Predator franchises (and someone who enjoys the AVP films for what they are) it was pretty much a dream come true to walk through such an immersive, well-constructed environment.
This is the maze I was most looking forward to, the first maze I walked through, and I spent most of the night thinking it would be my favorite until AVP knocked it out of the park. Halloween is a great maze. The basic idea is that you walk through the film, from kill to kill, watching the iconic moments unfold in front of you while the occasional Michael Meyers scareactor slashes at your face. It’s effective on a thrill level and as a piece of fan-fulfillment. If I’m being completely honest, I haven’t been scared by a haunted house/maze attraction in a long time, but there is an effective sense of dread that permeates the whole experience, and I felt some genuine joy when the Dr. Loomis scareactor appeared – one small shred of hope in Michael Meyers’ tour of death. I also have to give major props to the casting and scareactors on this one, everyone looked the part, and unlike the majority of mazes which primarily require them to jump out at you and groan/scream/hiss, there were some fantastic performance moments this maze.
3) The Walking Dead
Follow in the footsteps of the show’s merry band of survivors as you trek from the prison, through a walker-packed supermarket, toward the gates of Terminus. I broke up with The Walking Dead series a while ago, so there are probably a lot of smaller references I missed, but even without that knowledge the maze was impressive. This is Universal Studios’ longest maze yet at more than 600 feet, and it’s packed with 60 or more walkers at any given time. The attention to detail in the design is impressive, particularly the supermarket area, and there are cleverly constructed scares throughout, including a great use of fences and disorienting lighting that makes it nearly impossible to tell where the walkers are coming from. This is one of those mazes I really wish I could walk through with the lights on to get a better look at the details.
4) Roanoke: Cannibal Colony
Maybe it’s the history buff in me, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. If you’re not familiar, Roanoke was an American colony that mysteriously disappeared without explanation in the late 16th century. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because Roanoke was featured on both Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow (though this maze is not connected to either). No one knows what happened to Roanoke Colony’s 117 inhabitants, the only clue being the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree, but the folks at Horror Nights surmise that they fell to rampant cannibalism. Thus, the walk through this maze is a fairly grotesque look at a day in the life of the cannibal colony, from mutilation to preparation to consumption. The cannibal stuff is gross, but the highlight element here is the atmospheric achievement of making you feel like you’re walking outside. It’s a nice change from the usual walk through a building of some sort, and the lack of defined walls makes it harder to tell where the scareactors are hiding.
5) From Dusk Till Dawn
Based on Robert Rodriguez’s TV adaptation of his 1996 film, this maze is extremely successful at combining the immersive, atmospheric element with the scare element. It’s not a creepy maze, this one’s more aimed at jump scares. You walk through The Twister (understandably, Universal can’t have the word “Titty” flashing around during the family-friendly day), a vampire-infested nightclub. As you walk through the club, there is a bounty of impressive sets, ongoing action (I’m talking shootouts, here), and sexy Santanico Pandemonium-esque dancers to distract you while the scareactors sneak in for the scare. It’s an effective strategy. I also have to give it up for the sound design on this maze. The vampire roars were loud, monstrous, and alarming. It’s a highly energized and action-packed experience that hits the right note between fun and thrilling.
Overall, Universal Orlando Studios Halloween Horror Nights 24 is a fun show with lots of scares, fan service, and well-constructed mazes, and they picked some really great properties to adapt this year. Not to mention the welcome reintroduction of the scare zones. All together it made for one of the best years I’ve seen at Horror Nights. It was a fantastic way to kick off my Halloween season, and I truly can’t wait to see how big they go for next year’s 25th anniversary.
Did you check out Halloween Horror Nights this year? What was your favorite maze?