If you are even vaguely familiar with Alice Cooper's stage presence and discography, it makes sense that there's a housewife dripping blood on a checkered linoleum floor in one of Universal Studios' haunted houses in Orlando, the one based on the shock-rocker's 1975 album Welcome to My Nightmare. To get there you have to pass by the Barney Theater and the oversized statue of the purple dinosaur, which has turned the teal color of gangrene. Usually, Barney's figure is overjoyed. His short arms are outstretched for a big hug; his mouth is open in a big smile. The dinosaur's right leg is kicked back, for he is running to greet you like a puppy. But during the seasonal run of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights—HHN—Barney just appears to be running from something. Maybe Alice Cooper.
In the past, the fiends and monsters whose job it is to terrorize guests at Universal Studios—the so-called "scarers"—were restricted to areas called scare zones. If you found yourself in a patch where scarers came at you left and right and from behind, you knew you'd drifted into one of the appointed territories. The upside of zonation (or the downside, depending on how much you like to be scared) was the promise of relief. Visitors could simply walk out of bounds, where they might collect themselves and decide to brave the horrors again at will. But on my visit to HHN 22, in 2012, the fences had been pulled up. Now the scarers have been loosed in what the event's director, Mike Aiello, described to a local paper as an "invasion of areas where they were never allowed before, like the stores and restaurants."
At Ben & Jerry's, I spoon Chocolate Therapy in relative peace while children order waffle cones rimmed with rainbow sprinkles. A man takes enough napkins to wipe up more than a sundae meltdown while a woman queries the server about the amount of sugar in a sorbet versus an ice cream. Next in line, an older man approaches the counter. "Help me out here," he entreats the young woman. "Didn't you have a flavor called Economic Crunch?" The girl bites down on her bottom lip. She doesn't know. If they did, it must have gone to the Flavor Graveyard.
The man's face screws up. "That's for Halloween Horror Nights?"
The girl giggles. "No, actually, that's where flavors go when corporate discontinues them."
Outside, it is humid even by Florida standards, made all the worse by machines pumping fog into the heavy air. Red emergency lights revolve in silence; floodlights splatter ruddy light on walls and puddle it on the ground. Speakers snarl or hum with elegiac music that is vaguely Gregorian. Sconces belch fire; the flames go up like a mimicry of startled park goers, in sudden gaps.
Even without zones there is still a sense that some areas are far more trafficked by ghouls—though the real screaming comes in waves whenever the roller coasters rush by overhead. I realize that HHN might be the only place where über-long theme park lines are a respite. Not that people want to relax here.
Small depots sell turkey legs, hotdogs, Foster's, Heineken, Coca-Cola, and salted pretzels to the lines of people awaiting entrance to haunted houses. Nurses, their old-fashioned uniforms smeared with vital fluids, hawk bags of alcoholic blood from IV drip stands. The Jell-O shots are available park-wide. Ahead of me, two girls step aside and order. A blonde nurse takes their cash, and frowns. "You don't have any singles, do you?" The bloodthirsty girls fish in their purses. "Sorry," the nurse says. "I hate to ask."
Over everyone's heads, an industrial crane hangs in the sky. The crane is at Universal Studios on official business, not as a prop. Like the big warehouses and the sea of asphalt and concrete around us, the crane lends itself to HHN's fearsome ambience of industrial abandon, a place where something bad could happen to you. The police who patrol the park double in much the same way. The officers are not actors: the Orange County police and Universal Orlando Resort security exist for the benefit of guests as well as team members.
Earlier in the night, a tall man took a pumpkin-headed actor by surprise, and his manager approached the would-be scarer. "First off," he said, visibly pissed off, "the actors are generally impossible to scare. I suggest you walk out of my scare zone now." The scarers, for their part, cannot physically touch guests. Not even in the haunted houses.
Backed against a telephone pole, I observe a man and a woman huddled in the light of a street lamp. They're wearing red THING 1 and THING 2 t-shirts from Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. Absorbed in a map of the park, they do not see him coming—a prison escapee with a bladeless chainsaw, revved wildly and beneath their noses. The couple springs back. They spin around. Excited, laughing, they watch the maniac skip down the street, cutting a part down the middle of the crowd. Farther on, one of his comrades swings her saw to and fro. "MOVE!" she yells. "Get out of my way!" THING 1 returns to her map. She lifts it overhead, despairing, "My nail put a hole in it! He scared me!" THING 2 puts an arm around THING 1's waist. "Yeah," he says. "That's what we paid for."
I was curious about the scarers' code of conduct, so I sent questions to Steven Calamusa, a publicity coordinator at Universal Studios Orlando, who told me that Halloween Horror Nights entertainment team members are officially referred to as "scareactors" and that their numbers in the park "vary throughout the night." Mostly, I wanted to know whether there was a "go easy on 'em" directive for how scarers should interact with children. (The event is not recommended for children under the age of 13, but when they do show up—with guardians—are they spooked just like everyone else?)
Calamusa's terse response: "All guests of Halloween Horror Nights are treated equally." That last fact is observable; I watch a grim reaper loom over a very little boy who yelps like a chihuahua and hysterically orbits his parents' legs.
There was, however, one time when Universal Studios Orlando purposefully softened its design to horrify: September 2001. In the twenty-two days after 9/11 and before the event's opening, the studio quickly and quietly scrubbed the gore from HHN 11. "Terror Land" became "Scary Tales." "The Festival of the Dead Parade" simmered to a more palatable "Nightmares on Parade." There was a shift from red to green décor-viridescent goop replaced blood, and the emergency-red bulbs became eerie green.
"She's a fucking idiot," says a girl in line. "Why would you wear high heels to a haunted house?" In line behind her, two men in their fifties stand with arms crossed. One says to the other, "Someone said this house was pretty neat."
"It's not worth it!" a boy screams from the house's exit.
Technically a haunted cathedral, the attraction called Gothic exemplifies Halloween Horror Nights' new, zoneless approach, going so far as to deny the ancient claim of "sanctuary." The cathedral is in a state of disrepair. Its bell sits on the floor. Scaffolding towers beneath a glowing rose window that might or might not be just a projection. The walls are expected to be cold, if not damp, but they feel plastic and light to touch. Busts of saints, candles, and crosses adorn the maze. Gargoyles lunge from dark archways and from behind tapestries, giant bats umbrella their wings and bark like pit bulls with stony faces. They are the only thing at HHN you could want to bring home and refine into a loving pet, and nobody seems terribly afraid of them. Fear is a funny thing.
Several people tonight have mentioned Jaws. The attraction is buttoned up across the park, across a lagoon from Barney's Theater. It opened with Universal Studios Orlando in 1990, but was shuttered "to make room for an exciting, NEW experience." The Great White has lost its terrific edge. The shark is a fear outgrown.
Walking through the fog at the end of the night, I hear a girl hyperventilating. One of the reapers hisses in a woman's ear: "No yawning!" At Men In Black Alien Attack, I enter a bay with a cluster of people. Doors seal behind us. "This is scary for me," a buff teenager admits. "I really don't like elevators." The floor vibrates, LED lights flash, and then, after a pause, the doors open to the other side. The kid laughs; he shakes his head. "It's a fake elevator," he says. Turns out we didn't go anywhere.