Movies and TV
Bringing Movie Horror to Life at the Universal's Haunted Amusement Park

Russ Pitts | 29 Oct 2014 10:00
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Halloween Horror Nights social

For 24 years, Halloween Horror Nights has turned one of the most popular theme parks into the scariest place on Earth.

The rain stopped a few minutes ago, and in the sultry evening heat, everything has started to ooze a creamy mist, like the surface of an alien planet, or a graveyard. That's when I round a bend and see the sign:

"Enjoy the Purge."

Fall in America is the time for turning leaves and pumpkin spice everything, and also building haunted houses. If you're Universal Studios, your haunted houses contain the horrors of your entire film and TV collection, which is what I'm in Orlando, FL to see.

Each year during the fall, Universal turns an entire half of its Universal Orlando theme park into one extended spookfest. After dark, the kid-friendly attractions go dark and the painted performers, scare machines and haunted houses come to life to give park goers a chance to get creeped.

This year, the attractions include a variety of film and TV treasures turned horrific: From Dusk 'til Dawn, Halloween, The Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator and the latest Dracula film, Dracula Untold. There are also a few original creations, including a macabre dollhouse factory, a re-creation of the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke and, hand to heart, a creepy clown house.

Setting the stage between these attractions are the street scenes, entire outdoor areas given over to one horror show or another. That's where I find The Purge.

Many of the performers that will make up this scare are taking a breather, due to the rain, but what's here is, I have to admit, awe-inspiring. The 2013 film starring Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones star Lena Headey told the story of a a future world where one night every year no laws apply. Theft, vandalism, rape, murder and every other thing generally forbidden by law can be committed without fear of persecution on just this one night. Hawke and his family lock themselves behind doors to wait out the terror, and much of the action occurs within their presumedly safe abode. This year's sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, took the action out into the night of The Purge, inspiring The Purge's street scene at Universal, where a school bus barrier directs the flow of passersby through a narrow passage filled with mask-wearing, weapon-wielding crazies. A large traffic sign surrounded by sandbags proclaims, "Blessed be our Founding Fathers."

As the crazies swirl around me, muttering fanatical phrases under their breath, I have to wonder -- not without some worry -- what it is, exactly, the founders were fathers of. And then I'm through the scene and on to the next attraction.

This is the magic of the haunted house, the knowing that it's not real, even as the creeps get under your skin. You're always moving, always proceeding to the exit and the next scare, whatever that may be. Unlike the experience of watching a horror film, at Horror Nights you always know the ending: You go home. The tensions last as long as you want them to. Immerse yourself and allow the fear to take you if you please, or else enjoy the spectacle but don't take it seriously. The choice is yours. It's drive-by terror tourism.

It's this variety of choices, this need to hit a number of notes in circumstances that can be continuously malleable that differentiates the art of creating these scares from the work of making the films on which they are based. Even something like The Purge, featuring real human characters, involves work that its creators wouldn't have to do for the film.

"You have to keep in mind it's a haunted house," says Universal's Laura Tyler. Tyler was the winner of Season 5 of SyFy's reality TV makeup effects show, Face-Off. "Seeing it on camera where it's well lit and prepared ... and then you go to a haunted house where people are sweating, it's interactive, it's right in your face, it's in dark lighting and all of the conditions are constantly changing. I think the makeup just has to endure and be ... more contrast, a little bit more amped up."

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