From a haunted wharf filled with undead fishermen to a post-apocalyptic subway teeming with hungry mutants, Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is amping up the terror this year like never before. But what should you do if you're afraid to attend Halloween events but are more scared of the FOMO you'll feel if you miss out?
It's understandable to be hesitant to attend an event designed purely to scare. Still, each year HHN proves to be thrillingly fun, even for the scaredy cats. As two theme park journalists who attend every year, we run at opposite ends of the spectrum — one here for the jump-scares, one hiding behind her husband through each attraction. But, at the end of a night spent at HHN, we both always seem to have had the same amount of fun … and to have lost our voices from screaming.
So what's a timid person to do if they're headed to HHN? Lora Sauls, senior manager of the creative development group and show direction at Universal Orlando Resort, and Matt Flood, a senior show director, are two of the masterminds behind this year's event.
"I have one good tip I gave my niece, who was a scaredy cat the first time she came to HHN," says Sauls. "Don't act like a scaredy cat. It's a good tip — you act [afraid] all night and you're a sure target. You've gotta act confident. Even if you don't feel it inside, you have to project it on the outside."
Flood reminds that HHN is supposed to be fun. "When you get scared and have that moment of screaming, the laugh comes soon after," Flood says. "That's the thing you always have to remember. You're going to feel [scared] but let yourself go. It becomes an adrenaline rush the whole night."
It's also helpful to get familiar with the content of each house before visiting: They address different types of fears — from bugs (which may be triggering for those with entomophobia) to straight-up-terrifying jump-scares.
"What I feel is the scariest might not be what you feel is the scariest," Sauls shares.
If all else fails, you can rely on your "scream squad," Universal's term for a group of HHN-goers who stick together in solidarity throughout the night. HHN creators say there's strength in numbers, adding they have their own scream squad, despite being the ones who created the thrills.
"We have the snacker, the skeptic, the couple ... I think our creative development group is pretty much a scream squad," Sauls tells Yahoo Life. She believes visiting HHN with a group of friends could be the best way to tackle any fears: After all, someone will be charged with leading the group into each house.
It's also good to understand the main components of the event. While you can't help spotting spooky characters in one of the many themed "scare zones" set up on the walkways throughout the park, you can avoid a house reported to be especially frightening. And, the scares aren't the only part of the event: there are Halloween-themed shows, delicious food and drinks and HHN-themed merchandise to be explored as well.
The haunted houses
The 10 haunted houses at HHN are a combination of collaborations with Hollywood films and original intellectual properties straight from the minds of Universal's creative teams.
Bringing the houses to life starts more than a year before the event with concepts and sketch-ups. HHN's design team includes costume, scenic, makeup and prosthetic designers and a show production team. The houses feel like you're stepping onto a movie set, and many are located in actual working sound stages for film and television.
"What's going to make for a diverse slate for our fans?" asks Sauls. "All 10 houses can't be slasher houses — we want to make sure everyone has something they like."
This year's houses range from the thematically beautiful, like the eerie Dead Man's Pier: Winter's Wake, to those that will downright frighten you, like Flood's favorite, Halloween.
"The experience of walking through the film feels like I'm actually in those scenes," Flood shares about this year's imagining of the 1978 John Carpenter film. "It feels extremely chronological so that you are the one being stalked by Michael Myers."
After several times through the Halloween house, we can concur. The jump-scares were intense, and it ranked as one of the scariest houses of the event. In The Horrors of Blumhouse, we screamed ourselves hoarse running from likenesses of the frightening Grabber from The Black Phone. Even as HHN pros, these two houses were not for the faint of heart.
Some houses rely on kitsch, like the ’50's-themed Bugs: Eaten Alive, or gore, like the blood-fueled, musically-driven The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare, a collaboration between Universal and the globally-recognized artist.
"This is an interactive, immersive experience where you actually feel people coming at you," says Flood of the houses. "It's nice and close."
The scare zones
For those looking to dip their toe into the world of HHN, the houses can be avoided by just enjoying the five scare zones spread throughout the park. Each is rich in backstory and while they're home to their own scare-actors (HHN's term for the actors who portray the spooky characters), it somehow feels less haunting than the constraints of a dimly-lit house.
The Horrors of Halloween invites guests to come face-to-face with an icon of the event, the Pumpkin Lord. And, one of the most impressive zones this year is Sweet Revenge, a frightening ’50s Halloween parade that goes terribly wrong.
HHN offers two shows that rely on all treats and no tricks — perfect for the scaredy cat. Ghoulish! A Halloween Tale takes over the Universal Studios Lagoon for a stunning combination of water and projection technology synchronized to music.
Halloween Nightmare Fuel Wildfire is a thrilling stage show that combines dance performances and acrobatics with upbeat rock and metal music.
The food and drinks
It's entirely possible to spend an evening at HHN just enjoying the culinary creations. Over 75 dishes and cocktails have been created just for the event, with many playing into the horror theme, like an adorably-delicious Pepperoni Pizza Skull.
Event classics have also returned, like Pizza Fries and Twisted Taters. And, of course, there are plenty of wickedly yummy cocktails to quench your thirst (and tame your fears,) like the fall-appropriate Pumpkin Gingersnap Punch.
The presence of snacks and alcohol further adds to the overall vibe. HHN is like attending the best, most-elaborate Halloween party ever — and many who attend even dress the part.
The tribute store
The tribute store has become a Universal Orlando event fixture. Part experiential exhibit, part store, it houses several distinctly-themed rooms. Highlights include hidden Easter eggs serving as homages to past events and a confectionary shop ... with even more themed treats.
All things considered, HHN is a multi-level theatrical event dedicated to celebrating all things that go bump in the night. Taking a step back to appreciate the artistry, acting and costume design that go into the night can make it way more palatable.
At the end of the evening, it's important to remember HHN is controlled chaos. By purchasing a ticket to this after-hours event, you're giving Universal Orlando permission to scare you in an environment you can trust is also extremely safe.
Unless, like one of us, you trip and fall over props in this year's The Black Phone-themed haunted house while running from Ethan Hawke's likeness. In our defense, that house was the scariest.
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