Scare Zones, by Jason Eaken

30 Oct

The epic 25th year of the nation’s best Halloween event, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, marks the biggest, longest and most intense event in history with nine haunted mazes, five unique scare zones and two thrilling shows. On select nights Sept. 18 through Nov. 1, guests can visit Universal Orlando’s theme parks by day and by night, become victims of their own horror film at Halloween Horror Nights 25.

Put yourself in a dark hallway. You can’t see much, you’re feeling your way through. You come around a corner and in this part of the hall, there are doors on both sides. You’re nervous something might come out of one of the doors, and for good reason, because suddenly Freddy Krueger jumps out from one door. His knife-hand swipes across the hall, barely missing you!

A hockey mask and machete lunge out from the other side. They belong to none other than Jason Voorhees, who towers over you. Things have gone from bad to worse, because these two maniacs are blocking the hallway, and in order to get past them, you have to turn sideways and slide between them, ducking under Freddy and Jason’s weapons, as they try to slice you to pieces.

That’s just one moment from the final act of the Freddy vs. Jason scare maze at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. If the above made you want to sleep with the lights on, you’ll be in for a long night.

There are seven different mazes this year, as well as the Terror Tram, and the outdoor Gauntlet of Fear. The mazes are flush with the biggest names in horror – from popular psycho-killers like Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Leatherface to franchises like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and The Purge; and don’t forget about The Exorcist. This is a horror fan’s dream team of screams.

It’s been four years since I attended a Halloween Horror Nights (hereafter, HHN), and this was my third time overall 1. But before I dive in to my thoughts on this year’s event, let me answer a very common question that people ask about going to haunted houses in general, and HHN in particular: WHY? Why go at all? Why put yourself through the ordeal of being scared over and over and over? What is the point?

If you like this sort of thing, that question can be an automatic eye-roll. After all, does anyone ask sports fans (I am one, btw) why they like the NFL or the NBA? Sure, the question is broad and a little thoughtless and sometimes a lot condescending, but! If we take a step back, it can be an interesting question to really consider. Why do we enjoy going to haunted houses?

Let’s start with the obvious/simple: getting scared is fun.  You feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck, your blood is pumping. Haunted houses are a thrill-seeker’s affair. Which makes them not all that different from things like sky-diving, bungee-jumping, or white-water-rafting. In all of them, you’re chasing the thrill.

Okay, fine, so then why are you chasing the thrill? That’s a much better question, for starters, and it gets us into the deep end of the pool. I think it has to do with our fear-of-death and, more specifically, finding some way to confront that fear-of-death. Think of how we talk about these thrill-seeking activities. We call incredible acts “death-defying.” We say we’re “facing our fears” and “staring death in the face.” We say, “I felt so alive!” It all revolves around death!

Here’s the typical arc for all of these activities: fear before hand, working up courage to go for it, a rush of energy in the midst of it, relief, joy, and elation afterwards. Whatever your particular brand of thrill-seeking or fear-facing, we are compelled to confront our mortality and assert our will to live.

Now obviously there’s a pretty big difference between sky-diving and haunted-housing, but it would be simplistic to say that anyone willing to sky-dive would be fine walking through a haunted house. These are two completely different types of thrill, for different types of thrill seekers, and a quick discussion of those differences will illuminate another reason why plenty of people prefer haunted houses.

I wouldn’t consider either activity passive, however, sky diving and the like are inherently Athletic, while haunted houses are Amusement (an archaic term for which would be “disport”). Athletic events require more focus and physical exertion from the participant as well as some level of formal or information training; whereas, frankly, you can have soda and cotton candy at amusements. And while the fear of death is present in both, there is some actual danger in the Athletic, compared to zero actual danger in Amusement.

In some ways Athletic events have it kind of easy. The thrill and danger are baked right in to the activity itself, all you have to do is…just do it. The haunted house, on the other hand, has to find a way to compensate for its total lack of actual danger. It has to work much harder to achieve its effect, and the way it does so takes it beyond amusement and into artistry.

A good haunted house (see discussions of several, below) is going to employ every artistic technique in its arsenal: production design, dynamic lighting (which, of course, includes use of darkness and shadow), sound design, makeup and costuming, practical effects (like a worm-creature-Freddy Krueger that was devouring a screaming victim in Freddy vs. Jason). The better ones add other senses, such as the smell of cooking flesh, or increased heat as you descend into hell.

Most of all, they tell stories, simple ones – good vs. evil – and they use larger-than-life characters, like the classic, un-killable slasher movie villains. Even if the character isn’t well known, clear story-telling can set the tone. This year’s Terror Tram has a short video as you’re driven away from the main park. The video introduces you to an evil clown. It’s creepy and effective (it was made by Eli Roth), and just as it ends, you reach the drop-off point, where that same evil clown is waiting for you.

By placing the audience in that story, with those characters, with those artistic elements, the haunted house does something even more impressive than its Athletic counterparts: it makes you suspend your disbelief. Even when there is no real danger, it convinces you that there could be; convinces you to accept the premise of danger because of the power of suggestion.

Another reason haunted houses work so well is that just about everyone has a split-second, gut reaction to being scared. Most commonly you hear about Fight or Flight 2, and I, for one, am FIGHT. Throughout the mazes, I’ll suddenly realize my arm is cocked back, fist tightly clenched, ready to punch someone 3. This year, I realized both arms were up, like in a boxer stance (protect the head with one arm, strike with the other).

Those gut-reactions (fight, flight, etc) are core-level defensive/coping strategies. They are your body trying to give you a sense of safety or comfort in the midst of danger. To ignore them is to leave completely exposed and vulnerable. So, as a challenge to myself, whenever I realized my fists were up, I forced myself to unclench them and put both hands down at my sides. Without fail, those were the scariest moments of the night, and also some of the most exhilarating.

The point of all of the above isn’t to put Athletic and Amusement against each other 4 (many people love both). My point is to explain the merits of the haunted house – it’s thrilling, safe 5, and artistic.

Now it’s time to dig into some specifics about this year’s HHN (you can find the entire lineup of mazes and attractions here).

There were 9 Total Attractions. I did all 9 once each, then doubled back and did 7 for a second time, for a total of 16 attractions. Invariably, the second time through was better. Of course, I ranked them from best to worst, based on three major metrics – Design, Scares, and Flow. With that in mind, here are my Top 3 Mazes from HHN 2016:

  1. The Walking Dead 6
  2. Freddy vs. Jason
  3. (TIE) Krampus and Halloween

All four mazes above boast some of the most impressive production design and atmosphere work of any maze I’ve ever walked through 7. TWD impresses from the moment you get in the line. It takes you through the abandoned hospital from the show’s pilot episode, complete with dried blood all over the place (complete with strands of hair and bits of flesh stuck to the walls), flickering lights, and a door that’s been chained up but won’t stay shut.

TWD also wins because it’s the most purely exciting. You get to run away from zombies while a Friendly lays down cover-fire from a second-story balcony. There is a moving truck full of limbless zombie torsos that flail and bite at you as pass by. But my favorite scene is the burning cabin in the woods, with a zombie wandering through the flames inside (but watch out, because while the fire distracts you, a zombie comes out of the woods behind you. Incredibly effective). Both times I did the maze, I lingered as long as possible in front of this strikingly cinematic image. It has a scope I don’t think anything else in HHN has 8.

I’ve already mentioned the most compelling moment in Freddy vs. Jason at the top of the article, but there are several other expertly crafted aspects of the maze. Sound design is key in this maze, particularly the thunder, rain, and wind during at Camp Crystal Lake. If memory serves, the only things that jump out at you are Freddy and Jason, themselves. It’s such a good choice, because it relies on the power of the two horror icons, instead of using cheap scares from random weirdos (Ms. Voorhees also has a cameo and threatens you with a shovel, but she’s in plain sight the whole time, standing at Jason’s grave).

Freddy vs. Jason and Halloween are the two best structured mazes. In the former, you begin in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” then you move into Camp Crystal Lake and “Friday the 13th,” and finally the two worlds are combined. The Halloween maze follows the story of the original film and its sequel, which begins at the very moment the first film ends. Similarly, the maze takes you through the climax of the first film and through the end of the second.

The most memorably grisly moment of the maze is when Michael Myers boils a woman’s face off in a hot tub 9, while he literally stares RIGHT AT YOU. There’s also an impressionistic touch where you walk through a giant glowing pumpkin. What set this maze apart, though, were its subtleties. 70s-era TVs are used throughout. Most chillingly, as you enter the hospital, you come upon a security desk where the guard has been gruesomely murdered (that’s not the subtle part). There is a collection of old black-and-white security monitors, and as you pass, you see Michael roaming the empty hospital hallway – the same one you’re about to enter.

Let me tell you about Krampus. It was the biggest surprise of the night. No doubt the best maze exterior – you are transported into a frightening winterscape, a gingerbread-ish looking house, with the monstrous Krampus on the rooftop. Snow swirling all around you. When you step inside, you’re in the abandoned, snow covered living room and kitchen of the home. There isn’t a single scare in these rooms, which is notable, because that’s 45-60 seconds of setup. Of mood. Of atmosphere. Oh and then the scares start and they don’t stop, and Krampus himself– with his cold, empty eye sockets, his horns and his evil-Santa-ness – is positively shocking. Impressively, the maze doesn’t abandon its commitment to design, even after the scares. When it takes you outside, the yard is covered in snow, and it gets noticeably colder…right before giant snow men attack you. It’s chilling in all the right ways.

The main thing all of the above have in common is that they’re iconic. Zombies are iconic, especially in this cultural moment. Obviously Freddy, Jason, and Michael are iconic enough to go by their first names. I didn’t expect Krampus to feel so iconic, but then I realized that the story makes every effort to distort classic Christmas imagery, which itself is iconic. They feel larger than life, because they are. They’re three huge franchises, a massive TV hit, and the biggest holiday of the year.

Some of the other mazes are also quite good, but there’s just not time or space to take you through every one of them 10. Instead, I want to spend some time with two mazes that didn’t quite work for me, for two very different reasons.

Going in to this year’s event the maze that had everyone talking was American Horror Story. I went through it twice, and while there are some scares here and there, I can’t really remember much about it. There was a person crawling out of the middle of a bed and some creepy carnies, that’s pretty much it. It lacked what the other mazes excelled at: iconography. Possibly, this is at least in part because I haven’t seen a single episode of the show yet. Undoubtedly, it would have been more resonant if I had. But even so, there are so many different types of characters doing the scaring, I had no idea who the threat was supposed to be in this world (except, I suppose, everyone?). There was no clear evil, and the environments weren’t dynamically enough rendered to be oppressive in their own right.

The other big issue was the structure. It’s comprised of three distinct sections, inspired by three different seasons of the show. That seems like a good idea, except that nothing is connected to anything else. There’s no real through-line to the maze other than our knowledge of the TV show. That’s not enough. The result was three isolated sections, with so-so production design and a random handful of scare actors with no singular focus to drive the terror home.

The opposite is true of The Exorcist, which was my personal most anticipated maze. But it was also a huge question-mark, because, all due deference to the other horror franchises represented, The Exorcist isn’t just some slasher movie. How would HHN treat a certified cinematic masterpiece? The answer is that HHN wasn’t quite sure what to do with it either. Here is a maze that isn’t maze-like at all 11. You enter into the foyer, and there on the staircase is the (in)famous spider-walk scene playing out (it’s also amusing to see the Regan animatronic waddle itself back up the stairs to reset). After that, the maze alternates between pitch-black halls and Regan’s room. The exorcism progresses each time you return to the room, so you see all the big moments – vomiting, head spinning, levitating, “The power of Christ compels you!” and so on.

Let’s play WHAT IF for a moment. What if this maze had been an affecting, unnerving mood piece? What if there were no jump scares, no gotcha-moments? What if, instead, you walk out with a deep sense of dread? Now that would be something very different for a HHN maze. It would be striking for those very reasons.

Instead, all of the mood established in the exorcism scenes is broken by repetitious jump scares in the hallways, as the demon, Pazuzu jumps out from within the black walls. It’s like Pazuzu is a high-school bully picking on you in the halls between classes. Sometimes he startles you, but he’s always more annoying than scary.

That aside, the exorcism moments never feel quite real enough. To do it right, they need longer scenes. 30-second loops, instead of ten seconds. Maybe a moment between the priests in a hallway. Something with the mother? Whatever effectiveness the current maze has is due to the interesting structure and the power of the imagery that we’ve seen onscreen for so many years. It’s imposing, which works in its favor, but it always feels just a hair too phony.

None of these concerns should dissuade you from going, of course. I’d much rather have these complaints than walk out of a maze shaking my head in confusion, like the Alice Cooper maze in 2012. There’s no contest, this years’ Halloween Horror Nights is the best I’ve been to. There are more mazes, and the quality of craftsmanship is exceptionally high, across the board.

To conclude, let me give you a brief auto-biography. One of my earliest memories is of being scared out of my mind at a theme park 12. The first R-rated movie I saw in theaters was I Know What You Did Last Summer on Halloween night 1997. As an early teenager, my friend Clint and I threw a yearly Halloween party, where we were more concerned with about the movie selection and pizza than making out with girls 13. The first screenplay I ever wrote was a horror movie about a killer-scarecrow. I’m currently writing a zombie movie.

All of which is to say: everything about the atmosphere and vibe and energy at Hollywood Horror Nights – from both the patrons and the employees – puts me in such a good mood. I feel connected to a community of creativity, even though I’m only there as a guest. All the creativity on display feels like I’ve stepped into an event created by kindred spirits, even if those spirits are also a little on the dark side. No other way to say it, it makes me fall in love a little bit.

1. My companion this year was Reed Lackey, host of The Fear of God podcast. He recorded several hours of material during the night, editing them into a pretty comprehensive 40-minute episode that can be found here.

2. NB – There are actually four or five major responses: fight, flight, freeze, submit, or cry for help (some call this attachment). This will come into play in FN #3 as well.

3. At my first two HHN’s, I went with a girl who loved horror movies. She was tiny, which made her the perfect target for scaring. She also scared pretty easily, which made it a lot of fun for the rest of us. When she got scared during the mazes, her default was submission. She would stop moving and lower her head, as if to accept her gruesome fate. Of course, to someone holding her hand, it just seemed like she kept stopping. So while she was complaining that I was jerking my right arm all over the place, I was complaining that she kept stopping in the middle of the maze. Finally, we realized what was going on. She switched sides, so that my fighting arm was free to react, and I would guide her forward when she stopped. Looking back, both of our reactions were psychologically relevant personal discoveries.

4. But if we’re going to compare them, I think the Amusement might win out in the long run. As a pretty big sports fan, I’ve been thinking recently about the fact that individual games have little to zero re-watchability, outside of super-fans like myself who will gladly sit down and re-watch Super Bowl XLIX. For the vast majority of people, once the game is over, there’s no point in returning to it, because the suspense is all about the question of winning vs. losing. Once the question is answered, what’s the point? If I record a game and then find out who won, it’s hard to invest the time to watch it. The moment you know who won, the game’s importance is immediately compressed into highlights – we want the three, maybe four big plays from the game, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. Those highlights get further compressed each season, so that you may have the Top 10 plays of that whole year – hundreds of games distilled into a minute of impressiveness. And the compression continues from there. Compare that to an artistic experience. Even in the current climate of binge-watching, we will return to movies and shows that mean something to us. And while the intrigue mostly instantly evaporates with sports, art has the ability to deepen with repeated viewings. This may be why sports statistics are consumed and dissected with insanity – they’re the details that can be scrutinized, debated, discussed.

5. As in, safe from danger. Detractors (and especially – unfortunately – those belonging to my shared faith) would argue that there is spiritual danger from repeated exposure to the horror genre, no matter what the medium. I didn’t really get into this argument in the main text, but this perspective may be what’s behind that question of “Why?” from above. When horror is at its worst, I think they have a point. Horror can be exploitative, degrading, debased, disgusting, and can be an excuse for depravity. But the exact same can be said for comedy at its worst. Or action movies. Or Oscar contenders. Horror at its best is one of the strongest of all genres, because of the way it acts as a skeleton, onto which the artist can hang story and character and themes, and the viewer can project their fears and anxieties to be worked through.

6. It’s almost unfair to have The Walking Dead at #1, since it’s a year-round attraction, which means its budget was much bigger than the other mazes. But it’s so good, I don’t care. Also, because of the tie for 3rd, you still see how things would’ve gone without TWD.

7. Top stop would still go to 2011’s The Thing maze, which also got the biggest scream I’ve ever seen, from Jenny Smith (MTOL host Tyler’s wife), thanks to the headlights of a snowplow. Classic.

8. Once again, see FN #6.

9. Should go without saying, but maybe not? In the tableau, the hot tub is real, Michael Meyers is real (he flicked water on me), but the face-boiled woman is not real. And thank goodness; there’s not some unfortunate actress having her actual face repeatedly shoved down into hot water all night long, which, aside from being potentially traumatic, probably wouldn’t be safe and would get old for her real fast.

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfectly good maze, though not quite as good as the 2012 iteration; the Terror Tram and Gauntlet of Fear have their moments, too, but they’re also much more spread out, which makes them less gripping, moment to moment.

11. Okay, so none of the mazes actually adhere to the definition we all think of, which is essentially a labyrinth of passageways, most of which eventually dead end, and only one of which leads you out. Pretty much only corn mazes follow that model. But HNN haunted houses are mazes in the sense that sometimes you feel lost, and you’re trying to find your way through twisting, turning hallways. The Exorcist is Bedroom/Hall/Bedroom/Hall…

12. The Enchanted Forest in Turner, Oregon. There was a witch in a mirror, I’m telling you.

13. This was much more due to the fact that very few girls were ever interested in coming to our parties to begin with and those who did were usually dragged there by their boyfriends. My friend handled promoting the party, which could have been another error in judgment. One year a kid brought cigars and we smoked them at 3 am. What rebels we were. But the movie selection was always good, if predictable.

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