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Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights: terror and lust under a full moon

A decade ago, I was lucky enough to attend Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights 16 and have the bejeezus scared out of me. I still shudder delightedly remembering entering the Psycho house and having to walk through the narrow space between rows of the mother's dresses fragrant with a musty lilac-hued old lady (mummified old lady in this case) smell. It was the most subtle but terrifying things I have ever experienced. (Not that the clown asylum with the real smell of shit from the smears on the walls or the greeting at the entrance where another clown - I really should have a fear instead of an attraction - grabbed a theme park-goer from the crowd and pureed them in a giant blender, weren't scary, just more camp.)

I don't know if the Universal theme parks were the originators of the concept of horror nights around Halloween (my first knowledge of it was when Clive Barker partnered with them to create his version of a haunted house, "Freakz," in 1998. I wish I'd experienced it, I wonder if I could have handled it) but they are certainly one of the best. Canada's Wonderland's Halloween Haunt stepped up its game to its current high level with the importing of a former Universal employee a few years ago, and I have no doubts that Screemers and others keep a close eye on what the mothership competition is doing.

When offered the opportunity to attend Halloween Horror Nights 26, I instantly accepted: the weather is just starting to turn cold here so some Florida sunshine would be welcome, and there is no better way to celebrate the festive season than with thrill rides and a bit of running from zombies. There is nothing to compare with walking towards, and resisting the urge to turn around and flee, the massive gates that are the portal to Universal Studios. And when they are bedecked with posters touting the horrors to be found in the various houses, bathed in eerie green light and spooky music punctuated with screams . . . it is sheer dread-inducing bliss.

The big draw this year is The Walking Dead house. While in line - and even with a fast pass you will stand in line, Halloween Horror Nights have become insanely popular and the crowds are daunting - we chatted with a couple who had travelled all the way from England to attend. There are a lot of hardcore fans, Goths, and serious horror aficionados at Halloween Horror Nights, a quite different crowd from the park's usual guests. This was also the only place I saw gay couples holding hands while moving through the throngs, a reminder of the link between gay and horror. It was wonderful to see the pierced, tattooed and jet-black-haired lounging amongst the children at the resort pool. Even more wonderful to see their towels and bathing suits emblazoned with skulls.

There are rowdy teens out for a thrill and to drink in the dark (the event is licensed, with bars every few feet, which is extremely civilized) but the majority skewed older or younger, but definitely more fanatical. The couple had an in-depth knowledge of The Walking Dead and the discussion went way over my head (I've only seen parts of some episodes, mostly in search of Dave Davis as Gargulio's scenes). As did much of the maze. The entrance is spectacular as we are forced to wend our way through hanging black curtains while zombie noises grunt and mutter on the other side. With a gentle breeze making the curtains shift ominously, it was quite unnerving though not as distressing as the dresses in the aforementioned Psycho maze.

This is a case where the narrative was lost on me rendering the jump scares generic if still unsettling - a zombie catching one by surprise is still cause for screaming - but there is an artistic flair that renders the room of heads in fish tanks an extraordinarily beautiful/horrendous sight. But the blowoff, the final room before the exit, is a stunner that literally stopped me in my tracks with terror. The room, appearing huge (perhaps mirrors?) is filled with zombies under a gently strobing light. There is very little space between them and with the disorienting pulse of light, it is impossible to tell which are mannequins and which are actors. And which are zombies. For the first time ever, I ran flat-out for an exit instead of using an ego-saving slight increase in pace.

The Exorcist is a masterpiece of bringing a film to life. The pulsating walls are creepy and the individual scenes are hyper-realistic. The enveloping sound is lifted from the soundtrack and the flesh crawls with memories of the film's unique unsettling qualities. However the film is also camp in many ways and the tableaus with the revolving head and the priest intoning "The power of Christ compels you," are more intriguing than scary. And I sorely missed having one of the multitudes of possessed Regan's shouting "Your mother sucks cocks in hell" in my face.

The Krampus maze is stunning with sharp-teethed snowmen and gingerbread men. Christmas has always had a subtext of horror and it is exploited to the hilt. Krampus the public figure is a favourite of mine while Krampus the movie is still to be seen, so I can't vouch for accuracy but the scare factor was high and the artistic merit off the charts. Lunatics Playground 3D (You won't stand a Chance) is utterly disorienting as the paper 3D glasses slide off one's nose but the clown-inspired characters are delightful and the 3D effects very well done. This is the home of a Universal generated character Chance, a murderous pig-tailed girl in a short skirt and with her skimpy shirt tied under her breasts. She has a propensity for torture, dismemberment and S&m scenarios, so it is marvelous to have an introduction to her world.

We also wandered through Tomb of the Ancients which is a riff on the Mummy and various Egyptian curse movies. The reptiles and half man/half reptiles are scalily scary but the hunky mascaraed bare-chested priests who jumped out grow peevish when one wants an introduction instead of recoiling in fear. One particularly fine specimen, solid pecs and abs that are a special effect already, swishes his skirts and stomps back into his grotto when I drool instead of scream.

A similar problem occurs in the American Horror Story house. Scenes from the various seasons are recreated and the atmosphere is exceptionally claustrophobic and foreboding. However one wants to linger in the Freak Show section, the better to absorb and savour the details, and when one is surrounded by Rubber Man and Twisty in triplicate, running is the last thing on my mind: conversation, and hopefully more, are my first thought. The security guard had to hustle me along for holding up the crowds filing and fleeing through.

The houses/mazes aren't the only scares at Halloween Horror Nights. Universal Studios is full of winding pathways and streetscapes, most of which have been redecorated, re-vamped into horror themed alleyways - almost mazes in themselves. Here are the chainsaw wielders, the drowned sailors prowling the docks at "Dead Man's Wharf," the refugees from The Purge in "Survive or Die Apocalypse" and assorted creatures of the night lurking in the "Lair of the Banshee." The attention to detail is astonishing and never knowing whether the person behind you or beside you is a guest or a denizen, is completely unnerving. They are all also experts at the bait and switch maneuver so there is inevitably a scare in store.

I particularly admire the deep sea divers with holographic skulls behind their face masks and the jack o' lantern-headed mischief makers. The main street has totally been remade into "Vamp '55" which is the Buffy-esque vision of what happens when vampires take over a homecoming parade. Amidst billowing smoke stalk a fanged football team and the remaining cheerleaders. It is oddly erotic in a fraternity horror porn fashion and the floats, strewn with corpses and body parts, are hilarious. The vampires are all pros, flashing sharpened incisors and menacing but snapping into flawless flattering poses as soon as a camera is pointed in their direction.

We are lucky enough to be there the night of a full moon and it adds to the electricity. A theme park at night is already an enhanced experience, under the influence of what must be a small army of designers, carpenters and cast members, it is as close to overwhelming as one can imagine. Despite the crowds we linger, soaking up the atmosphere, sipping our drinks or knocking back test tube shooters, and coast on the adrenaline that comes from being scared and laughing in ecstasy because of it.

Universal Halloween Horror Nights 26 runs until Mon, Oct 31 at Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida. halloweenhorrornights.com


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