Working for Universal as long as I have, I’ve seen my share of Halloween Horror Nights. I worked the very first one, then called Fright Night, spending the evening as an insane dentist up inside a facade within the King Kong ride, more concerned with torturing my patient than with the giant rampaging gorilla outside my window. We had just one haunted house, the original Dungeon of Terror, a sprawling maze that saw its wait time push the five-hour mark, but which drew raves nonetheless. The whole thing had a “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” atmosphere that matched much of the attitude of the park back in its early days, something that inevitably faded as both the park and the event became bigger and more popular. While I never worked as a scareactor again, I was all over the operational side of things the first nine years HHN took place.
And it sort of numbed me to the whole thing. I’d seen so many haunted houses — both in operation and with the lights safely turned on — that I knew all the tricks. There’s someone in the space behind that bookshelf. There’s someone behind that couch. You’re supposed to be looking at that zombie so you don’t see the werewolf behind you. I always appreciated the design of the houses and the enthusiasm of the scareactors, but I just didn’t get scared anymore. I’d walk through the houses and look for the funny little details they’d sneak into the scenery while everyone else was screaming their heads off. Which was also part of the fun for me. I’d find the sweet spots around the park where the scares were particularly good and just watch people run away. I still enjoyed the whole experience, but in a sort of detached way. And eventually that detachment led to me skipping the event altogether. I’d seen it all.
Last I night I went to my first HHN in probably ten years. And it really hasn’t changed all that much. There are plenty of actors in the streets shambling through artificial fog, still the roar of chain saws everywhere, still the chorus of delighted screams, And still long lines. This was a preview for employees and their guests, and it felt as busy as any regular night I’ve been to. The whole thing is still this marvelous engine of crowd control that I could never imagine attending without the perks of working there. I admire the fortitude of anyone who braves this thing on a weekend. The houses were all at the very worst decent, but I still had my old instincts and knew where most of the scares were coming from. But the techniques have evolved somewhat; some places seemed to almost count on you knowing what they were up to, with the misdirection being the actual scare, catching you off guard while you’re trying to find the someone behind the couch. And since it was the first night real live guests had been in these houses, there was an energy that I’m sure is going to be hard to summon come the end of October, when this has become a way of life for some of these scareactors.
But I still loved the atmosphere of it. I still loved that, 23 years later, Universal is still pulling this thing off with aplomb. And most of all, I loved that I didn’t have to pay to get into it.