Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Horror Is Real

Halloween Horror Nights just celebrated its 26th year at Universal Studios Orlando. For a month-and-a-half in September and October, the theme park closes every day in the late afternoon, is quickly converted over, and then reopens for the evening. Warehouses contain elaborate haunted houses, with many of the usual rides closed so their line areas can be used to manage the crowds. Around the park, multiple areas are designated as "scare zones," places where costumed people try to spook you as you walk through.

Our Orlando trip took us to Halloween Horror Nights on the actual night of Halloween itself, and it was a highlight of the trip. There was so much to take in, but I'll try to touch on it all (in roughly the order we did it).

Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield. This was our first haunted house of the night. The sun hadn't even set as we waited in line, and the house itself was just getting started. We watched as the staff -- dressed in large black robes to hide their costumes and makeup -- marched onto the scene to enter and take up their positions. This turned out to be one of the best of this year's nine haunted houses. You progressed through the plot of the original Halloween II, with some two dozen Michael Myers jumping out of nooks and crannies to menace you along the way. We came back around to this house again, closer to midnight, and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

Tomb of the Ancients. Not directly inspired by a film or TV franchise, this house was an excursion into a mostly Egyptian-themed burial site. There were plenty of great costumes and gimmicks in this house, making it far and away the best of the non-franchise houses.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This house recreated plot elements from the original 1974 film. It was the shortest of all the houses, which might have been disappointing had it not been so perfect in every other way. The outside facade was done up to look exactly like the house from the movie. Inside, the most iconic moments of the film were brought to life -- including the shocking first appearance of Leatherface (and his horrifying use of a sledgehammer). We also hit this house a second time at the end of our night.

Lunatics Playground 3D. Well, they can't all be winners. This house was themed around the mascot of this year's Halloween Horror Nights, the recurring HHN character Chance. An unhinged deranged clown type -- but, in a refreshing twist, female -- Chance herself was great. (More on her a bit later.) But this house was just a gawdy display, rainbow vomit inside a Hot Topic store. You wore 3D glasses while going through, to add dimension to various spiraling neon backdrops. Yet the house itself seemed neither scary nor clever. It was just vaguely nauseating.

Dead Man's Wharf. We'd started at the back of the park, breezing through four haunted houses in a very short stretch with most people starting near the front. So this was our first trip through one of the "scare zones," an area where dead pirates back from the grave prowled amid bedraggled ropes and crates. I quickly learned the appeal of these scare zones; it was great fun watching other people not spot where the next jump would come from.

Survive or Die Apocalypse. This scare zone was essentially Mad Max: Fury Road brought to life, complete with actual music from the film's soundtrack. As a post-apocalyptic dictator bellowed from a scaffold stage to distract passers-by, scavengers would dart up from behind and scare the crap out of them. Great fun.

The Walking Dead. Back to the haunted houses, this one based on the AMC show. Entertaining but not great, this house felt only tangentially connected to its source. The hordes of zombies inside mostly could have been in any haunted house, and the few nods to the show didn't seem all that thrilling. (Yup, that's Daryl's motorcycle. I guess.) This was the first time I was really glad we'd decided to purchase "fast passes" for the evening, getting to skip the line. It wouldn't have been worth a 60 minute wait, but was decent enough getting to stroll right in.

Ghost Town. Another non-franchise house, this one used an Old West setting. It felt like our timing through this house was just off. As you rounded most every corner, performers had just done their thing and we're getting reset, ultimately to do their schtick to the people behind us. That basically rendered most of the experience as "a walk through creepy, empty Western settings." Seeing as how you can walk through actual abandoned Western towns here in Colorado, I wasn't terribly impressed.

A Chance in Hell. This scare area differed from the others, in that it was mainly a stage from which the Halloween Horror Nights mascot, Chance, could regale (taunt and play with) the crowd. It sort of felt like the Halloween cousin of that Renaissance Festival staple where a quick-witted performer dares you to hit them with a tomato. One of my friends, having attended Halloween Horror Nights several times before (and being a particular fan of Chance) embraced the photo opportunity.

The Exorcist. This haunted house served up iconic moments from the 1973 horror film. There was no projectile vomiting, but you got spinning heads, levitating above the bed, a possessed priest, and more. It's probably heresy in some circles for me to say that I was never as big a fan of this movie as some, but I thought this homage was great fun.

American Horror Story. This house incorporated elements of three different seasons of FX's anthology show -- Murder House, Freak Show, and Hotel. Unlike the Walking Dead house, which was content just to imply connections to the series, the AHS house was filled with recreations of major characters. All had dead ringer costumes, and some even had convincing makeup and masks to make you believe for a moment (at least, in the dark lighting) that the real thing was there. One of the most solid houses of the evening.

Krampus. Inspired by the recent horror movie, there were lots of inspired touches in this haunted house. (As a murderous gingerbread man spun in the garbage disposal, the kitchen actually smelled like gingerbread!) If there hadn't been so many other exceptional houses at the park, this would have been pretty impressive. But the bar was set pretty high this night.

Vamp '55. This scare area had a 1950s high school prom vibe -- where the prom is attended entirely by the dead. Letter jackets, poodle skirts, doo-wop music... and gory makeup. A big departure from everything else in the park, and a lot of fun.

Academy of Villains: House of Fear. The dance troupe Academy of Villains performed live on stage for a charged crowd. I guess they've been on America's Got Talent, though I don't watch that show regularly enough to have seen them. Still, the group's acrobatics, high octane choreography, a neat shadow puppet segment, and other gags made for a great show.

Lair of the Banshee. This scare area (that we went through on our way back to doing the Halloween and Texas Chain Saw Massacre houses a second time) was the spookiest by far. Poorly lit and lined with lots of fake trees to hide the scarers, this section of the park was genuinely creepy.

...and though I don't believe it was labeled on the park map, there was one more scare area where performers chased people with "chain saws." This seemed to be the area that scared some people most of all. Guests were actually running at full speed to get through the area, being chased by a chain saw wielding "killer" every step of the way.

I won't lie -- Halloween Horror Nights is an expensive proposition if you don't live in Orlando. You have to travel there, pay to get in the park (so you can get to things first), pay for the special event itself, and potentially pay for the fast pass if you want to make sure you do it all. But the event really does try to give you your money's worth. We packed a lot of Halloween fun into a great night.

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