A beloved institution with an incredibly loyal fanbase, the Universal Orlando Resort version of Halloween Horror Nights has been going strong since 1991 – one Pandemic-caused pause in 2020 aside – and recently launched its 31st event.
Some years, you might find the majority of the houses throughout the event to be based on familiar horror films and TV shows from any number of studios, but this year leans more towards the original concept houses featuring characters and scenarios created by the HHN team. That being said, there are a couple of notable film-based houses (including The Horrors of Blumhouse, focused on Freaky and The Black Phone), plus the latest in what has become a number of houses through the years based around the songs and imagery of popular musicians, this time from The Weeknd.
HHN’s Lora Sauls (Senior Manager Creative Development and Show Direction) said something one might initially find curious when speaking to media at HHN 31’s opening night, which is that this year “Halloween Horror Nights celebrates Halloween.” But it makes sense if you look at the fact that while Halloween Horror Nights is always horror-based, there’s not always specific theming around the holiday itself.
For HHN 31, Sauls told Fandom that they took note that the number 31 correlates with October 31, “And, of course, Halloween is October 31. That’s what we wanted to lean into. Halloween Horror Nights is celebrating Halloween and we really wanted to lean into those tropes and traditions of the actual Halloween holiday, like witches and black cats and zombies and skeletons and scarecrows, and all of that together, but again putting our own little Halloween Horror Nights horrific twist to them.”
Some of that is explicit immediately, such as the Scarecrow: Cursed Soil scarezone or the use of the HHN original character the Pumpkin Lord as a focus, while other parts of the event use elements Sauls mentioned as part of the layering, such as the Spirits of the Coven house, which has a fun, prohibition-era setting for its story about a group of dancing girls who turn out to be witches.
Of course if you’re talking about Halloween itself and all it evokes at some point you’re going to think of, well, Halloween, as in the movie, and the boogeyman at its center, Michael Myers. And rest assured, he’s a big part of HHN 31 as well.
THE NIGHT HE CAME HOME… AGAIN
The classic John Carpenter film Halloween was first featured as a house at Halloween Horror Nights 24 in 2014, followed by houses based on Halloween II st 2016’s HHN 26 and then one based on Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in 2018 at HHN 28. On top of that, there have also been several Halloween franchise-based houses at the Universal Hollywood counterpart of Halloween Horror Nights – all of which makes it a challenge to do something new with the property and particularly with the original film, given how well known it is at this point as the basis for an HHN house.
With all that in mind, it was with some trepidation that I entered the HHN 31 Halloween house, but what I found inside had me very pleasantly surprised. While there are touchstone moments you have to include to do Halloween right – Michael Myers tilting his head as he looks at Bob after killing him, Michael wearing the sheet and glasses to kill Lynda, etc. – the HHN team found several ways to do this house in a different manner and add elements not previously included.
First among these was some additions to the section of the house devoted to the film’s prologue, when six-year-old Michael kills his sister, Judith, which includes Michael’s own childhood room, something not actually depicted in the film. Said Sauls, of adding “off-screen” moments like that, “We always like to try to do that and hearing in that space what’s happening on the other side of those walls [of the Myers house], connecting to what we did see in the film, which is him killing his sister. It’s fun to explore that movie in new ways and to try to bring new things for our guests.”
Another really excellent portion of the house is devoted to the creepy scene in Halloween when Dr. Loomis discovers the Smith’s Grove Sanitarium patients all wandering around on the night Michael escapes – something almost always either skipped over or given minimal time in previous Halloween houses. Here though, it’s a major set piece, complete with a bevy of Smith’s Grove’s patients there to provide scares. Along with Loomis, Nurse Marion from the Halloween films manages to be portrayed by a scareactor. And a full size car is included, which itself is a major part of the film, given it’s the car Michael steals and uses to get to Haddonfield, using it to stalk Laurie Strode and her friends.
Said Sauls, “We really examined that film and really thought, okay, that car is actually a character in that film. So we really wanted to see the car. We wanted to go to the asylum to see that initial scene. We wanted to kind of step you through that movie as if you were in the movie. We really tried to examine it and ask ‘What can we do that we’ve not done before?’”
Things also get notably evocative in a sequence where you walk through a tight corridor filled with hanging clothing and come to realize you are in fact inside a funhouse version of the closet where Laurie hides, as Michael smashes his way in – complete with a scareactor as Laurie on one side of you, looking to defend herself, and Michael attacking on the other side. It’s a highly creative and cool touch.
EVERYBODY’S SCARING FOR THE WEEKND
Halloween Horror Nights has collaborated with several popular musicians in the past for both houses and scarezones, including the likes of Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper. This year, there is a house made in collaboration with Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, called The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare.
Said Charles Gray (Senior Show Director for Creative Development), of these collaborations, “It really has a lot to do with tapping into what their influences are, because if you’re making it for an artist, they have their own taste, what they enjoy. And to tap into that, for instance, Abel’s very much into 12 Monkeys, Jacob’s Ladder, Clockwork Orange, all those things – you can see bits and pieces of his mind working.” Gray stressed the idea with After Hours Nightmares was to to take The Weeknd’s nightmares and “and then translate them into a haunted house experience.”
Gray noted he and John Murdy from Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood had conversations with The Weeknd, who was very receptive to their initial ideas based off of what he had first said he wanted to see. “He had a few suggestions here and there but I think the cool thing was we trust him with his music absolutely, his taste and that his nightmares are going to be horrific, and they were. But he had a lot of faith in us too. And that that was really cool, that he trusted us with his nightmares. He had some feedback and we went back and forth on things but in general, he was very, very receptive to a lot of ideas.”
As it typical for these musician-based HHN houses, we hear The Weeknd’s music throughout the house and while The Weeknd is a big horror fan, his music is far more upbeat than the likes of Alice Cooper or Rob Zombie and Gray admitted, “Being able to play music that you may dance to as you go through the house, we were worried about that. Is that gonna work? And it worked!” The house depicts plenty of dark and grisly events, including the Weeknd himself slicing someone’s throat and being decapitated, and as Gray put it, the approach was, “Imagine a sing along dark ride where you’re getting scared every two seconds. It was an interesting, very new way to do things. And I think it’s working and resonating with fans.”
There’s one really notable and trippy portion of the house set within a mirrored room that is very effective and disorienting, and Gray said he loved that a house like The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare, “Absolutely gives us the opportunity to experiment. And within experimentation, we will find things that we’ll use in later years.”
Both HHN Hollywood and HHN Orlando are doing the Universal Monsters: Legends Collide house this year, which involves an original conflict between a trio of iconic characters: The Mummy, Dracula, and The Wolfman. Regarding putting these three particular characters in the same story, Gray said they realized “Everybody has a curse. Dracula can’t walk around in the daytime. The Wolfman has his curse of lycanthropy and then the Mummy is cursed to guard this amulet forever. So that was the ideas colliding, these legends colliding all together, and what if it all is based around this amulet and the want to get that?”
One very novel approach Monsters Collide in Orlando takes is that it has alternate endings. Depending on the night you go, you might see any one of the trio standing triumphant when you reach the end of the house and in fact, I attended back to back nights at HHN 31 and managed to see both Dracula and the Mummy’s big win (both times out, poor Wolfman’s head was being held by the victor, while the remaining character was looking decayed to the side).
Gray said they thought about how “Everybody has their favorites. So we always play into that. Okay, who won? It depends on the night you get there.” He added, “It’s fun to start arguments with friends. Because they’re like, ‘No, no, the Wolfman won!’ And then ‘No, I went the other night and Dracula won!’ So it’s slightly mischievous on our part. But it also opens the door for someone’s favorite to either win or lose on a nightly basis.”
Gray also noted their particular Mummy was in fact Kharis, the character introduced in Universal’s first Mummy sequel, 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand, who was not the same Mummy from the first film, Imhotep, but did introduce many aspects that have now become associated with the overall perception of The Mummy in pop culture. Said Gray, “Using Kharis was fun because Kharis is such a big part of the Universal Monsters legacy and we don’t really lean into that as much. It’s always the original Mummy movie. But there’s other movies that followed and it was fun to traipse into those woods.”
LOST AT SEA WHILE EXPANDING THE MYTHOLOGY
One notable thing about Halloween Horror NIghts is it has its own continuing, ever-building mythology, with houses and scarezones that often function as de facto or direct sequels to elements from previous years, expanding upon characters and/or scenarios that came before. Casual fans or newcomers likely won’t even be aware of this, but the hardcore HHN fan is well aware of this mythology and loves how it continues to grow.
An example of that, and an example of a truly stellar and special HHN house in 2022, is Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake. This house is a major expansion of elements from a 2016 scarezone called Dead Man’s Wharf, which depicted undead sailors from the past. As Sauls noted, following that scarezone, “In 2020, one of our show directors wrote a short story for our blog post called Fisherman’s Sonata that expanded the Captain’s Widow story, and how her violin was bringing the ship back home to these horrific massacres. Really expanding that story was something we wanted to lean into for this year. Aesthetically, it all came together quite easily.”
The scope of Winters Wake is really impressive, making amazing use of the large soundstage it is built inside, taking you inside and out of ships, and including elements like a lighthouse and the aforementioned Captain’s Widow (played by a scareactor and seen mournfully playing a violin) that you see multiple times from different vantage points as you walk through the space. All while a suitably cold environment (appreciated on a hot Orlando night!), along with wind and rain effects, add to the “you are there” feeling.
As Sauls recalled, “The first time we saw just the walkthrough of the SketchUp, our jaws dropped. We knew from the beginning that it would just be this incredibly amazing, beautiful place. But it wasn’t until it all came together that we again had that aha moment of ‘This is something special. This scenery is something special.” The lighthouse didn’t work for a while and when that lighthouse started working again, it was another aha moment working with our technical partners and having this all come together, feeling the storm in your face when you’re walking towards that beautiful ship. It just was a really great collaboration of so many groups of people to make it that perfect storm, if you will.”
When it came to the original mythology of HHN, Sauls remarked, “It definitely is fun for the team to take content that we originally created for other haunted houses, other scarezones, and really to expand upon those stories and to tell more of the story for our fans. We love that.” She noted, “Currently, we are working on some original stories for 2023 and we’re hoping to build off of some other lore of stories that we’ve created.”
Some specific original characters have become particularly popular at HHN, such as Jack the Clown. This year’s focal point character, or “Icon,” is the Pumpkin Lord, who was first introduced at HHN 30’s The Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin house. When it came to realizing one of their original characters is popping in a particular way, Gray said, “I think sometimes we have an intuition for it but other times it can surprise us.”
That being said, Gray added, “I do think we knew the moment we put Pumpkin Lord in last year, ‘Oh, this guy’s awesome.’ And then when the fans react to it, you’re like ‘I knew it!’ And so we had to bring him back this year. He’s a great binding agent, if you will, for the whole event. We’re talking about Halloween and traditions. And what’s more traditional than pumpkins?” The Pumpkin Lord, he grows Halloween. Everything just kind of fell into place with what he is and what he does and it fit this year’s theme perfectly.”
Halloween Horror Nights is now open on select nights through October 31, 2022.
To read more about the houses and scarezones at the event, check out the HHN 31 page at Fandom’s Halloween Horror Nights wiki.