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Halloween Horror Nights is quite simply one of the largest annual Halloween events in the world. Hosted from the end of September to the end of October (occasionally extending to the first day or two of November), Halloween Horror Nights is hosted by Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood (including Singapore as of 2011) every year. While the Orlando event is the biggest, all three revolve are several key similarities: haunted houses (sometimes referred to as mazes, though they all have a predefined path), scarezones (sections of the park themed with props and effects and populated with actors), and shows (with Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure being a perennial favorite). The houses and scarezones are populated with "scareactors", dressed in costumes and makeup and positioned to scare the bejeezus out of passerby.
While only the diehard fans usually know this, Halloween Horror Nights actually began in 1986 at Universal Hollywood; after a grisly accident where a scareactor was run over by a tram, Hollywood canceled the event. Universal would not revive their Halloween events until Orlando introduced Fright Nights in 1991, an event that lasted for one weekend in October and included one house, The Dungeon of Terror, and a large number of shows, musical acts, and street performers. Fright Nights was massively popular, with the house achieving wait times of over 2 hours, and the name was changed to Halloween Horror Nights in 1992. '92 also saw the introduction of the Bill & Ted show, which has continued every year since.
The event has only grown since then: in 2011, for Halloween Horror Nights 21, there are 8 houses, 6 scarezones, and 2 shows. The event has gone from a few nights to 5 nights a week every week from September 24 to October 31. The biggest competitor at the moment is Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens.
As a Universal Studios event, houses and scarezones based on movies are quite common, to the point where 2009 included 6 movie houses out of 8 total. Universal Hollywood often has almost exclusively film-based events beginning in 2006, and House of 1000 Corpses even got its start as a Hollywood house.
One of the key points of the event is its use of icons: beginning with the Cryptkeeper in 1995, there's been a number of icons (as well as a great many unused concepts) that have been used to provide a face for the year.
Jack: Originally Jack Schmidt, Jack was a clown working for Dr. Oddfellow's Carnival of Thrills. Jack was a serial killer who had murdered 13 children, and as the police began to close in on Halloween night in 1920 he attempted to enlist Oddfellow's help in hiding the evidence. Rather than bring down the police on the carnival, Oddfellow killed Jack and hid his body with those of the children. When the carnival was sold off, a BBC crew doing a documentary on the great dark rides of America in 1980 uncovered the House of Horrors and accidentally discovered the corpses. The crew was later found dead, and the van carrying the corpses disappeared into a swamp.
Jack was the icon for 2000 and the first original icon of the event, his face based on former Art & Design member J. Michael Roddy. Due to scrapped plans regarding Edgar Sawyer (later changed to his brother, Eddie Schmidt, and finally scrapped completely), he would return in 2001 to host the event. In 2007, Jack returned once more, having killed Oddfellow and recruited Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface to open his new Carnival of Carnage. With appearances in houses and scarezones in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2010, Jack has the most appearances of any icon with 7.
The Caretaker: Dr. Albert Caine was once a respected surgeon who worked as the caretaker of the Shady Oaks Cemetery in Willamette Valley, Ohio. Converting his Victorian-style mansion into a funeral parlor and mortuary, Caine became obsessed with the concept of the soul, digging up bodies to experiment on. He began tricking homeless people into staying at his mansion so that he could perform live autopsies. He grew more and more insane, performing experiments on fear, pain, and the limits of the human mind. His family held grisly dinner parties with the corpses and his psychotic assistants stole body parts to make into dinner ingredients. One night, some teenagers walking through the graveyard saw the Caines dancing with bodies in their parlor, and they were placed under house arrest. An angry mob of local families burned down the house with the family in it, but the bodies were not recovered.
Initially the icon for 2002 was Cindy Bearer, daughter of the mortician Paul Bearer (who made extra money selling human flesh from butcher shops), and the event was based around her demented mind and playthings. A rash of child kidnappings in the area led to Cindy being scrapped (though she would reappear in 2006 as a corpse and later as a full character in 2010), and her father was given the reins to become Dr. Caine. He would appear again in 2003 with a sequel to his famous house, Screamhouse, and again in 2004, 2006, and 2010.
The Director: Paulo Ravinski was born in Eastern Europe, occupying his time shooting birds with a BB gun and recording their deaths on film. Inevitably, he became a snuff film director well known throughout the underground circles of Europe, but his first project, The Widow's Eye, was controversial enough to result in him being forced out of his country to flee to America. Paulo was hired in 2003 to direct Halloween Horror Nights, but he turned it into his dream project and began populating the park with real horrors.
The Director was the icon for 2003 and would later appear in 2004, 2006, and 2010. He was also chosen by Universal Studios Hollywood in 2006 as the icon for their new Halloween Horror Nights event, which had gone through two short runs in the 90s beforehand. Hollywood slightly changed the character: he was banned from ever setting foot in Universal Studios after executives saw his graphic films, but he took up residence on an abandoned backlot set and took over the park during October. His voice was also changed from a light American accent to a gravelly, indeterminately Eastern European one.
The Storyteller: Elsa Strict has the least backstory out of all of the icons, to the point where the actresses playing her in 2010 would threaten anyone who asked of her past. What is known is that she was the icon for 2005, with the park transformed into the world of Terra Cruentes from one of her storybooks; in the Lord of the Rings-meets-steampunk world, she appeared only in a house completely unrelated to the world.
The Storyteller would reappear in 2006 and 2010.
Bloody Mary: Originally Dr. Mary Agana, Mary was a phobia therapist denied funding for her extreme method of immersive therapy: exposing patients to the extreme of their fear to cure them of it. She continued on with her own money in a small office in or near New York City in 1958, but only succeeded in sending two patients to the hospital and causing one to commit suicide. As her own fear of death was subdued by seeing death, she began purposely killing her patients while becoming obsessed with her reflection and mirrors. A private investigator, Boris Shuster, began investigating the disappearing patients and made an appointment with her. On the night of the appointment, Mary was murdered by a patient and ex-con who escaped the electric chair he had been placed in; no body was recovered. Schuster founded the Legendary Truth paranormal research team to investigate various paranormal activity, especially the legend of Bloody Mary, and during an investigation into the destroyed office in 2008 the team disappeared.
Bloody Mary was the icon of 2008 and the first icon since the Cryptkeeper in 1995 to be based on an existing character. Due to legal issues regarding the usage of Bloody Mary in entertainment, she has not been seen since.
The Usher: Julian Browning was an usher at the Universal Palace Theater who was obsessed with film, becoming something of an expert; he was also very strict on following the rules of the theater. During a 1940 re-release of his favorite movie, The Phantom of the Opera, he engaged in a scuffle with a rude patron and his flashlight was thrown through the screen. Going backstage to retrieve it, he became tangled in ropes left over from the theater's stage days and was strangled to death. During the rest of the theater's run, Julian's spirit became the physical image of the theater and its methods of killing patrons who violated various rules.
Fear: The very embodiment of Fear itself, Fear is Adaru, the Sumerian God of Fear. All prior icons were his puppets: Chaos (Jack), Death (The Caretaker), Sacrifice (The Director), Legend (The Storyteller), and Vengeance (The Usher). Fear was unleashed in 2010 when 20 photographs detailing previous event years were found to have strange burn marks, and when combined accidentally (maybe) unleashed the demon into the world.
Fear was the icon for 2010, which was the twentieth anniversary of the event.
Lady Luck: In a twist on the usual version of the character, Lady Luck is merely the personification of bad luck. She appears whenever a choice is to be made and pushes the victims into making a poor choice, often resulting in their death or ruination. The backstory of every house is tied into luck or the victims making the wrong choice, and the website games to reveal the backstory were activated by picking the same choice that the victims made.
Lady Luck was the icon for 2011, played by Sallie Glaner in the promotional material.
The event contains examples of:
- Abandoned Hospital: The 2010 event featured Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook; the house was a 15-years-later finisher to the popular asylum house series, replacing the zany and loud antics of the inmates with somber, psychotic ghosts in an abandoned building.
- Abandoned Playground: The 2010 house The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes had an abandoned playground outside the burned-out orphanage, with the see-saw moving on its own.
- Alien Geometries: Some houses, like A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dreamwalkers in 2007, had the rooms tilted or flipped around. Nevermore: The Madness of Poe from 2011 has a room where every surface has the narrator from The Tell Tale Heart kneeling next to the hole in the floorboards. The one on the wall immediately next to the guests hides the resurrected victim.
- All Hallow's Eve: Along with being a Halloween event, The Hallow in 2008 was based around traditional Halloween: jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows, and witches with boiling cauldrons.
- Always Night: Subverted for scarezones and any house in the Jaws and Disaster queues (where some rooms allow daylight to flood in), as the event opens several hours before sunset.
- Anal Probing: Performed on Mulder in the 2008 Bill & Ted show by the Predator.
- Ancient Tomb: Played straight in 2010 with Catacombs: Black Death Rising (set in unearthed catacombs under a French town inhabited by undead plague doctors and plague victims), among other houses.
- ...And Show It to You: Performed by The Caretaker during the opening show in 2002 to a "non-believer".
- Another Mans Terror: The 2008 house Dead Exposure is set entirely in the photographs of a reporter in the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse.
- Apocalyptic Log: Several examples:
- The website for 2004 included various artifacts for each house to provide a preview of their content, and Disorientorium included a Blackberry with the emails of a man who had begun to become obsessed with the Disorientorium until he began to go mad and finally commit suicide.
- The plot for 2008 was given with a series of case files by the icon, Dr. Mary Agana, as she slipped into insanity during her work as a phobia therapist and eventually became Bloody Mary.
- Artifact of Doom: The lantern in 2010, which held Fear.
- Barrier-Busting Blow: One of the rooms in 2007's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre house included a scene where Leatherface revved his chainsaw and smashed his way through a broken wall toward the guests.
- Bat Out of Hell: Dracula in 2009 was seen in the end of the house half-transformed into a giant bat.
- Bedlam House: Shadybrook, the setting for most of the Psychoscarepy house series, which almost regularly has violent inmate breakouts.
- Beat Still My Heart: The 2011 house Nevermore: The Madness of Poe included a room based on The Tell Tale Heart, complete with the deep bass thud of the heartbeat echoing through the room.
- Bloody Handprint: Many houses and scarezones.
- Blood-Splattered Innocents: Many of the gory houses include hidden water sprayers to simulate blood splattering on the guests. The People Under the Stairs in 1992 actually splattered guests with thick, red fake blood.
- Body Horror: Was there any doubt?
- Buried Alive: Implied with some of the victims of The Caretaker.
- Camp Unsafe Isn't Safe Anymore: 2007 had Jason Voorhees as one of the poster boys, so of course one of the houses was set at Camp Crystal Lake, which had been renamed and reopened.
- Cannibal Clan: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has seen appearances in 2003 and 2007 so far.
- Cat Scare: The houses tend to rely on jump scares, so the same effect is often given through various sound effects without even an actor to perform them.
- Chainsaw Good
- Creepy Basement
- Creepy Cemetery: Most prominently 2011's Winter's Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery, which entirely takes place in the titular cemetery.
- Creepy Child: Cindy is the most famous example, but children (all portrayed by small adults) have appeared in houses and scarezones as well.
- Creepy Children Singing: The 2011 scarezone "7" featured the Scala and Kolancy Brothers cover of "Beautiful People", with the Manson original taking over roughly midway through the night as the ladies lost their masks and became more corrupted.
- Creepy Circus Music: Any appearance of the Midway of the Bizarre scarezone.
- Creepy Doll: The Dead Silence house in 2007, among others.
- Creepy Souvenir: The entire point behind the Body Collectors.
- Crusty Caretaker: Averted with The Caretaker, who is tall, wears a top hat, and is quite well-spoken and proper.
- Curiosity Killed the Cast: Following Willing Suspension of Disbelief, the guests themselves follow this trope by entering dangerous environments on a whim.
- Darkness Equals Death: Several houses have attempted (not always successfully) at making completely dark environments.
- Daylight Horror: The event starts at least an hour before nightfall, giving plenty of time for the sun to shine over the scarezones.
- Deadly Prank: Part of Bloody Mary's backstory involved her grandmother, a schoolteacher in Ohio, being killed in a Halloween prank orchestrated by the school handyman.
- Death by Materialism: Greed's transformation in "7" was receiving more and heavier jewelry that began to suffocate her, turning her face blue.
- Death by Mocking: A common story among scareactors is the tough guy who makes fun of them getting scared shitless around the next corner.
- Demonic Dummy: Used in the 2007 Dead Silence house.
- Dyeing for Your Art: Many scareactors and show actors have had to undergo physical changes for their characters, but the most extreme example may be 2010's Havoc: Dogs of War, where every actor (male and female) shaved their head bald to play psycho super soldiers.
- Easter Egg: Carey, Ohio is the hometown of a member of Art & Design, and has been used as a setting for MANY of the houses and scarezones.
- Electromagnetic Ghosts: The 2010 Legendary Truth house was based around a ghost hunt gone wrong, and the house was thus filled with various spirit-detecting equipment.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: In the 2011 house based on The Thing, not only is the Thing coming after the guests, but research team members driven mad with paranoia also attack from time to time.
- Eye Scream: A common trope for corpses and scareactors, one prominent recent example being a ghostly nurse from 2010's Psychoscarepy: Echos of Shadybrook, who had a pair of scissors stabbed through her eye.
- Facial Horror
- Fog of Doom: The 2009 scarezone Containment, which centered around a chemical weapon in the form of a mysterious green fog infecting the locals and driving them insane as they melted to death.
- Ghost Ship: The S.S. Frightanic in 1998 and Ship of Screams in 2003.
- Ghost Town: The 2004 house Ghost Town, of course.
- Giant Eye of Doom: The 2007 A Nightmare on Elm Street house at HHN Hollywood recreated the Roach Motel scene from the fourth movie, complete with a screen in the window to simulate giant Freddy looking in through the window.
- Good Name for A Rock Band: The 2011 scarezone Acid Assault.
- Half the Man He Used To Be: Quite common with the various mannequins of corpses, including one in 2008's Body Collectors: Collections of the Past. One of the deaths in the 2007 Carnival of Carnage show included a security guard on a rack being pulled in half.
- Haunted Headquarters: Universal Studios seems to regularly be beset by demons, zombies, ghosts, cannibals, and the God of Fear.
- Haunted House: Played straight in 2010 with Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate, which in turn was based on The Legend of Hell House. While the houses are often referred to as "haunted houses" by the media, LT is the only house to truly be a haunted house.
- Headless Horseman: Seen in 2008 in both The Hallow and the American Gothic scarezone.
- Hell Hotel: 1997's Hotel Hell.
- Homicide Machines: 2006's show for the returning icons, The Arrival, included Jack killing a man with a giant blender.
- Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: 2007's Psychoscarepy: Home for the Holidays had a van full of Shadybrook inmates crash into a house on Christmas Eve and begin terrorizing the neighborhood.
- Horror Struck: A common reaction by guests to scareactors. If they're not running screaming, that is.
- Human Resources: The 2010 steampunk scarezone Saws n' Steam was set in New Yorkshire after fissures in the earth dried up the oceans, forcing the steam-reliant citizens to turn to extracting water from corpses. Saws n' Steam is set after anarchy has set in the streets and people are being rounded up and slaughtered in alleys.
- I'm a Humanitarian: Seen in various houses and scarezones, with the Caretaker and his minions often cooking up pieces of his victims.
- Jump Scare: EVERYWHERE.
- Lost in the Maize: Attempted with the Field of Screams scarezone in 2004, but hurricanes wrecked the cornfield and forced a lot of artificial replacement. Played straight in the Wizard of Oz room in the 2008 house Scary Tales: Once Upon a Nightmare.
- Malevolent Masked Men: Common throughout the many years and events, but an especially prominent example is 2009's Leave it to Cleaver, set in a meat processing plant where vagabonds and criminals are made into Meatz Meats; all of the employees wear masks of a smiling boy's face.
- Medical Horror
- Mirror Monster: Bloody Mary is the most prominent example (being the 2008 icon), with a number of houses over the years also including fake mirrors and portraits holding scareactors.
- Monster Clown: Jack is the most prominent, but many houses and scarezones have had clown scareactors. Eddie Schmidt from 2001 was given some mild clown makeup as well before being scrapped.
- Monster Progenitor: Fear.
- Mundanger: Any event that includes serial killers alongside ghosts, zombies, and demons.
- Never Sleep Again: Both Hollywood and Orlando have included A Nightmare on Elm Street in various years, with Orlando's 2007 house, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dreamwalkers, had the premise of the guests being given a drug that puts them into a long Freddyless sleep......that doesn't work.
- Nightmare Face: Many of the costumes.
- Occult Detective: Boris Shuster, who founded the paranormal investigation agency Legendary Truth.
- Offscreen Teleportation: Often pulled by icons in their promotional videos, with The Caretaker in his 2006 reunion video teleporting all around his mansion to chase a victim.
- Ominous Fog: Many of the scarezones.
- Psycho Serum: The plot of Havoc: Dogs of War.
- Prop Recycling: Very common to the point of fans trying to identify what other houses and scarezones the props have been used in. Being Universal, they also get to use some movie props (such as a piece from Van Helsing).
- Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: Used in the queue video for 2010's Zombiegeddon, showing the haphazard ZAP team demonstrating how to kill zombies with various fruits.
- Room Full of Crazy: Used in the Psychoscarepy houses, as they're based out of asylums.
- Rule of Scary: So just why did the cast of a chainsaw massacre film start slicing up the crew and everyone who wandered by? Because it gave them an excuse to fill an entire street with chainsaws!
- Scare Chord: Used to augment many of the scares.
- Scary Jack in the Box: Jack's rotting corpse was discovered in a giant jack-in-the-box, and he is sometimes seen appearing from one or appearing when a smaller version of his box is activated.
- Scary Scarecrows: Various houses (2008's The Hallow) and scarezones (2004's Field of Screams).
- Scary Scorpions: The 2003 show Infestation featured The Director putting various creatures on people, including scorpions.
- Screamer Trailer: Used for some commercials and promotional videos, such as the pre-reveal promotion for 2011.
- Screaming Woman: Mostly among the guests.
- The Secret of Long Pork Pies: 2009's Leave it to Cleaver was about Meatz Meats, a meat company and deli based out of Carey, Ohio that used vagrants, outlaws, and people in the wrong place at the wrong time to make their famous meat.
- Security Cling: Common among guests, sometimes performed on whoever happens to be in front of them at the time.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: Fear was sealed in a lantern until Legendary Truth "accidentally" released him.
- Send in the Search Team: The premise for several houses, such as 2002's Screamhouse and 2008's Interstellar Terror (based on Event Horizon) is that you're part of an investigative team.
- Sensory Abuse: Used to disorient guests and make scares more intense; commonly seen in the form of a room where the only light is from rapidly flashing strobes.
- Shadow Discretion Shot: 2009's Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned opened up with a shadow on the wall of the Creature snapping a man's neck and throwing him with one hand.....immediately before he lunged out at you from an alcove.
- Sinister Scraping Sound: Sometimes performed by street scareactors with sharp implements, such as sickles.
- Skeleton Crew: 1998's S.S. Frightanic.
- Spooky Painting: Holograms are often used to provide changing images.
- Spooky Photographs: 2008's Dead Exposure used ultraviolet strobes and blacklight paint to give the impression of walking through photo negatives of a zombie apocalypse.
- Spring Loaded Corpse: Many houses have a scareactor pretending to be a mannequin before coming to life at the right time.
- Steampunk: The 2010 scarezone Saws n' Steam, set in a world where New Yorkshire is left deprived of water by the oceans drying out and is forced to turn to the human body to power their machines. The scarezone was so well received as to be turned into a house in 2011, allowing guests to enter the processing plant.
- Surprisingly-Sudden Death: Used sometimes with a "victim" scareactor to shock or distract the guests.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Carey, Ohio seems to attract every crazy in the universe, from murderous schoolteachers to cannibalistic meat processing plant owners and employees to psychopathic horror show hosts. How it remains standing is a question for the ages.
- Ultimate Evil: Fear.
- Vampires Own Nightclubs: Part of the setting for 2007's Vampyr: Blood Bath.
- Wax Museum Morgue: 2004's Horror In Wax.
- What Could Have Been: Many icons, houses, scarezones, and event concepts have been scrapped over the years; infamous examples include Eddie, the chainsaw-wielding horror movie addict who was changed into Jack's brother, then dumped completely due to the 9/11 attacks, Cindy being replaced by The Caretaker after a rash of child kidnappings, and an almost-finished extreme house, Extreme Fear, in 2003 that was scrapped due to fear of litigation just before the event.
- Zombie Apocalypse: A great many houses and scarezones over the years.
The following is a partial list of film and television properties that have been adapted over the years; being owned by Universal Studios, the park has had access to many properties to turn into houses and scarezones. Some of these may not seem like traditional properties, but they can be quite effective....
- 1991: Frankenstein 1931, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon
- 1992: The People Under the Stairs
- 1993: Psycho
- 1994: Psycho
- 1995: Tales from the Crypt
- 1996: Tales from the Crypt
- 1999: The Mummy Trilogy, Psycho
- 2001: The Mummy Trilogy
- 2002: Fear Factor, Marvel Comics, Jurassic Park
- 2003: Halloween, Friday the 13 th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- 2005: The Gentlemen (adapted into the Body Collectors)
- 2006: Scream, The Ring, Hellraiser, Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, The People Under the Stairs
- 2007: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13 th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, Dead Silence
- 2008: Doomsday, Event Horizon (in the form of a house heavily inspired by the property), The Wizard of Oz, The Gentlemen (adapted into the Body Collectors)
- 2009: Saw, Childs Play, The Wolfman (2010), Dracula, Frankenstein, The Thing, Army of Darkness, The Strangers, My Bloody Valentine, Shaun of the Dead, The Phantom of the Opera, Cirque Du Freak, Drag Me to Hell, Scarface (Zombie Tony Montana!)
- 2010: TheLegendOfHellHouse (in the form of a house heavily inspired by the property), Classical Mythology
- 2011: The Thing (2011), Edgar Allan Poe