It wouldn't have been shocking for Universal Orlando to turn its Halloween Horror Nights event into a "greatest hits" package this year. Like a hungry vampire lurking around a darkened corner, many fans expected a "best of" theme to swoop in and mark a milestone — the theme park's 20th edition.
Instead, the Horror Nights creative team opted for all-new programming — with a few nods to its heritage.
"It's not just this big Carol Burnett special of Halloween. … It's not a clip show," says Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment at Universal. "That would have been the easy thing to do — a let's-rest-on-our-laurels Halloween. There was no desire creatively to do that."
Yet two decades of chills could not be ignored totally.
"We want to make sure we touch on, in some sort of house form, some sort of street form, something that bases us in the 20 years of Horror Nights … But then that's it," says Mike Aiello, show director. "Everything else about the event, we want to make sure we are pushing this event forward, establishing a groundwork for the next 20 years."
The common thread of the previous 19 sets of Horror Nights, the creative team determined, has been fear itself.
From all that fear springs Fear, a character who has been the mastermind behind the big badness every year, according to Universal lore.
"Fear is going to show himself this year," Aiello says. "The one thing we've been growing and bringing to the guests every year is going to physically manifest itself this year and be that sort of puppet master or string puller. He's been the one entity that's been pushing this event year after year to create fear to feed him."
Previous icons of Halloween Horror Nights — Jack, the Storyteller, the Director and company — were integral in bringing Fear to life, the Universal team says.
"These icons were a piece to the puzzle that all had to exist physically in order to bring fear, to open that lantern and bring Fear into existence," Aiello says.
Take a peek at the 8 haunted houses
Terror will loom at the event but in new ways in the eight haunted houses, show director Patrick Braillard says. Each house presents an element that Universal hasn't attempted before, such as an open flame and a guest-triggered effect (watch for the red button), he says.
There's also a more subtle switch in tone: All "scare actors" in the houses portray aggressors. No one plays the victim, Braillard says.
"Every single person is out for blood," he says.
Fortunately, there were no scare actors around when Braillard guided me through a daylight tour of the houses. Here are some details Universal revealed about this year's mazes.
Ghost of a chance
First of all, another first. "We have never in our last two decades ever done an actual haunted house. We've never gone the ghost route," Braillard says.
Looking for those spirits is the story behind Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate. Inside, expect an alarming amount of wiring to be used for a broadcast from the estate — said to be one of the most haunted spots in the country.
Outside, expect an actual house.
"You walk into the soundstage and see that we built a house. It's not that we built a façade — we didn't build just one wall. You see a house, and you walk into this gigantic estate," Braillard says.