Monday, October 4, 2010

Universal scares up some real frights

No one -- not the chainsaw-wielding military man, not the heart-noshing zombie, not the ghoulish grandma -- says ``Boo!'' at Halloween Horror Nights XX: A New Age of Darkness, this year's version of the annual scream fest at Universal Studios in Orlando.

But they don't have to. The scare masters behind the theme park's 20th year of fear have more than enough tricks up their costume sleeves to earn your shrieks.

Fear himself -- tall, toothy and grotesque -- is the starring character this year, and even when he's in hiding (as he occasionally was on the stormy opening night), the park crawls with his underlings.

A silent film director moves in for a close-up as Fear's minions descend a little too far into your personal space. A corpse bride chases a yelping woman in circles. Fog obscures the chaotic vista, but only for a moment.

All this, and we've barely made it past the entrance.

With eight haunted houses, six separate ``scarezones'' and two live shows, there's a fright for every taste. Like your scares creepy and disturbing? Loud and in-your-face? Or just covered in carnage? Whatever the answer, you're in luck (unless you want to wear a costume, which is a no-no).

Most unnerving is The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes, a chilling tour through a burning children's home. A little girl with a singsong voice and a questionable grasp on the idea of playing nice wreaks havoc on her fellow orphans.

Kids in cages wearing animal masks beg for their freedom. Infants await doom in shrouded cribs. We should take this opportunity to say: The event is not recommended for anyone under 13.

For pure goofy -- and, yes, gory -- fun, Zombiegeddon is the dismembered hands-down winner. A good-old-boy private contractor has launched the Zombie Awareness Program (motto, slightly paraphrased for a family newspaper: We don't just kick zombie butt. We teach YOU to kick zombie butt).

Things seem safe enough at first with a zombie chained to the wall, but the site soon becomes dangerous for the living. Signs point to employee safety cages in the event of an attack. The zombies revolt, as zombies will, and unleash their own butt-kicking on the captors.

Just outside is the Zombie Gras scare zone, where a Mardi Gras float has crashed and sent its undead occupants into the street. Beg for beads at your own risk.

In Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook, a nurse with scissors stuck in her head waves hello as a welcome. Inmates, an electric chair and padded cells await inside.

A good house for techies (and fans of Ghost Busters) is Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate, where Spirit Seekers with a ghost magnet are broadcasting from the scene of a dinner party turned mass murder. Look out for what's underfoot. And in the walls. And under the sheets. And lurking in the garden.

Horror Nights: The Hallow'd Past offers a nod to the best of previous years, including a very twisted tea party and a prop shop to die for.

Other houses -- which can all draw waits of more than an hour -- feature dead plague victims, juiced-up super soldiers and residents of the underworld.

The only complaint is that some of the houses feel rushed, and bad timing as you walk can ruin the surprise spooks. If you know that something is about to jump out and roar at you, it's not that frightening anymore.

Marauding gangs armed with chainsaws, though, proved universally terrifying. The actual dangerous parts are removed, but the saws still growl and reek of gasoline when the operators run at you.

That was Hector Paredes' first fright on his first ever visit to Halloween Horror Nights. The screams kept coming until the 22-year-old's voice was almost gone by the night's end. ``I'm a scared guy, so I was scared by everything,'' he said.

As he and his group got ready to brave the crowds leaving on opening night, friend Danielle Leon contemplated another horror they were about to face: ``The parking lot.''

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