Chopz: It's the spooky season, which means we're in the mood for some scary shit. Though, I'm going to be honest, I watch most horror movies with my hands over my eyes [Frazier Edit: This is a lie, he doesn't watch horror movies at all], I do enjoy the thrill of a haunted house and that entire experience. So basically, Frazier and myself had the opportunity to travel down to Florida and visit the 'Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort' earlier this month and see how they do horror. And well, it's pretty freaking crazy. I was scared multiple times. Frazier was shook, too. Just look at this photo.
Frazier: Universal Studios has always been the GOAT theme park to me since childhood. So this visit was equal parts a nostalgia tsunmai—it's been at least 10-12 years since I've been to the Orlando site, which boasts Islands of Adventure as well—as well as an adrenaline rush because I've never been to a Halloween Horror Nights. Our visit was bifurcated: one night devoted solely to what the park staff endearingly abbreviates as HHN, another to a day running amok in the parks proper. So that's how we'll break it down.
Halloween Horror Nights 2019
Frazier: As you'll read in our interview with HHN Senior Show Director Charles Gray below, Universal Studios has won the Golden Ticket award for Halloween-themed endeavors something like 11 years in a row, and it's easy to see why. The daily, 8-hour (6PM-2AM) experiential event turns the park inside out like a cracked funhouse mirror with spooky accoutrement in every nook and cranny, but the real draw is the "horror houses," half of which are based off existing IP, with the other half borne out of Charles and his team's devious minds. The headliner is a Stranger Things-themed house that features impressively detailed recreations from seasons 2 and 3, with an Us-themed house that Jordan Peele himself gave notes on coming in second. ST is fun and Us is actually way creepier than it should be, but I have to say: the original houses are the most fun. Gray builds out whole backstories that may not even register, but the attention to detail shows in the overal immersion. What struck me, aside from how many times I genuinely jumped in say Yeti: Terror of the Yukon (my favorite house) or the Nightingales Blood Pit was how much narrative they contained. Hollywood executives, hire this man!
Chopz: No lie, I honestly didn't even fully realize that we were going to 10, yes 10 haunted houses when we got there. The Stranger Things house was legit unreal and was done perfectly in line with the show. I legit felt like I was on set. As I mentioned before, I'm not really a horror movie guy, so I've never even seen Us, and the house lived up to the billing of how scary people said it was. What really stood out to me was how much creativity went into the storylines for the original houses was legit wild. I was blown away. My favorite house was either Graveyard Games or Universal Monsters, where you get a taste of all the classic horror films from back in the day like Frankenstein and Dracula.
Aside from the spooky scenes at HHN, I did manage to trick Frazier into riding the Hulk rollercoaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure [This did happen and I'd rather not dwell on it. But I can also confirm Islands is still a magical place and the Spider-Man ride is still GOATED.] Legit, I thought he was going to fly out of his seat. Also, I almost lost him at Hogwarts. [Butterbeer is amazing and should be sold out-of-park, I can't stop thinking about it.]
Frazier: Overall, objectively speaking: Universal Studios still absolutely SLAPS. This trip came as a reprieve during what's been an especially busy quarter, and it re-confirmed all of my opinions about the park's superiority, while affording me a truly interesting look at the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into keeping it fresh. Special shoutout to Katie and Jamie, our respective HHN and Day-Parks tour guides/chaperones/line-cutters, who can engage a VIP experiential tour in their sleep. Can't wait to see what new attractions they have up their sleeves in the coming years.
As Frazier mentioned above, we had the opportunity to speak with HHN Senior Show Director Charles Gray about the themes of this year's haunted houses and how the entire park came together over the last year. Check out the Q&A below.
How long of a process is it to get Halloween Horror Nights into motion?
Yeah, actually, as the event opens, we're already in concept for the next year, and in fact, usually a couple months before the event opens, we're already in talks about, kind of the shape of the show and what, either the theme, or the IPs that we're going after and things like that, months even before this event opens for this year. It's about 15 months.
What's the process of chasing an IP? Obviously Stranger Things is such a big phenomenon right now.
Yeah, every IP that we are involved with is a completely different story. Sometimes it's just real quick, it just happens, sometimes we're chasing it for a while. With Netflix, who've been amazing, great group to work with, and we were blessed. I can even say that they let us read the script well beforehand for run season three. We got some assets beforehand. Some of the group got to go up and even walked through the Starcourt Mall while they were shooting.
It was really amazing. So yeah, it varies, depends on a lot of different things. But yeah, each one's a completely different thing and we get really excited and every year we have that, what we call white whalers at the park, The Exorcist, The Shining, all of these types of movies and now it's Ghostbusters, things I wanted to do for a long time, but just the stars didn't align or whatever. And so especially when a group comes to us and says, "Hey, what do you think?"
What was it working with like Jordan Peele? Sounds like he was pretty hands on with the Us house and everything.
It was great. In fact, he got to see all the different looks that we had. Costumes, making sure that they matched, even some of the movements that they are characters are making, he wanted to stick really close to them for the film. And it's fun when you find somebody who's that passionate about their project and then they find out that we're just as passionate. It's an exciting mix of creativity that happens, yeah.
You mentioned white whales. What are some future white whales that you haven't been able to do yet?
Yeah, I don't want to project. There's reasons for that, but at the same time, we've check a lot of those boxes. We're always looking. If there's any horror movie that we haven't done yet, it's probably on the list on a whiteboard somewhere. But some of my absolute favorite film of all times is John Carpenter's The Thing. We've done iterations of that before. So maybe PR will smack me in the back of the head and say, "Be quiet," but I would love... Personally, I would do that every year if I could away with it. I want to walk through that movie all the time. It's such a good film.
How many horror films are you watching a year? Are you making sure you check off everything so nothing gets by you?
Yes, I as much as I can. We're pretty busy, but it is quite the monster when we, pun intended, it is quite the monster when you do a series. That's a lot of content to sift through. But it's also fun too. But you've got this notebook and you're just making notes like crazy.
What's that process like in terms of the original content when it comes to houses? You're almost like screenwriters too in a regard.
Yeah. We see it from the seed of conception. We come up with the idea and then we get to see it all the way through, which is rare I think in this industry, to have an individual be able to do that. So we're very excited that we get to do that from the very beginning, all the way to walking out the middle of it and giving directions to characters. So it's a great process. But, back to what you said with the original content. We get so excited about that. And once we have the IP slate out there, then our job then is to have a million ideas but that really helps us frame it to, "What are the missing pieces?" So if we're doing, and I'm just going to give an example, an IP that are zombies, a witch and a this and a that. Then we go, "Oh, we don't have any vampires." Is there a vampire story we want to tell? Maybe there isn't, but we want to make sure that we have something for everybody. If all our IPs are super gory, serial serial killers then we'll make sure that the original content that doesn't have that, has something like that for everybody. So we really try to get this big umbrella of entertainment.