Unmasking the horror: Behind the scenes at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights
The first scene you'll see in the American Horror Story maze is season one's Dr. Montgomery attempting to bring his batpig to life.
At night during Halloween Horror Nights, Montgomery's lab is dimmer, and there's a scare actor hacking away at his mutant creations.
During one of the attraction's behind the scenes tours earlier in the day, the house is bright and eerily quiet.
The Burning Man's children sit stoically with their tea set and table, all bolted into the sound stage's floor and walls. Rubber Man's red room is stifling, filled with mannequins dressed in black latex suits staring down at you.
Around the corner in season four Freak Show's scenes, there are so many realistic Twisty the Clowns that my fight or flight immediately kicked in (flight, obviously). In season five Hotel's scenes, you might catch a glimpse of the Countess's vampiric children before the Addiction Demon finds you.
No matter how many times our tour guide, Mallory Lance, assured us nothing would jump out at us, I was convinced that one Twisty at the end was staring back at me.
Every year Halloween Horror Nights offers behind the scenes tours of its houses, where guests are taken through three houses at a time with all the lights on and sans actors so they can get up close and personal with the horrific scenes.
Lance, who's a huge fan of American Horror Story, also guided us through the intricacies of The Exorcist and The Walking Dead houses.
Lance said the American Horror Story house is an "uber house," with 14 scenes instead of the usual 10. There is terror literally around every corner.
And that terror doesn't always come from a living, breathing actor spooking you. Sometimes, Lance said, houses utilize long stretches of scenes without actors just to build the tension and unease.
"That's how we get you," she said.
What really blew us away was the level of detail that goes into every inch of Universal's haunted houses.
In the house based on the hit FX series created by Ryan Murphy:
A children's book checked out to Tate Langdon. The details of the vault door leading to the Ten Commandments Killer's trophy case. The art deco of the Hotel Cortez. The bloody hair stuck to the end of Twisty's bat.
And in the house based on one of the scariest movies of all time:
The repetition of the setup of Reagan's room in The Exorcist. Audio and video clips from the movie make you feel like you're walking into the film poster. "Help me" carved into dummy Reagan's stomach. The puking noises in the pea soup scene is a recording of actual people actually throwing up.
You don't realize just how many vomit-covered mattresses you have to walk through in The Exorcist maze until you see it in the light.
Last, but certainly not least: The Walking Dead.
Dale and Irma's name on the RV. Blood and hair-covered tools on a windowsill in Terminus. A recreation of the sewer scene in season six, right down to the debris and smell. Daryl Dixon's bike, crossbow and vest. And if you don't run out too fast, Negan's barbed wire-covered baseball bat, Lucille.
We weren't able to take pictures inside the "horror properties" houses because of licensing agreements with studio owners, but were able to snag a few shots inside one of Universal's original creations.
The park uses the same level of care and creativity when making their original houses, including Ghost Town. All of the mannequin bodies you see coincide with the ghosts you'll meet inside. The pictures on the "Wanted" posters are members of the art and design team. On a cobweb-covered desk, there's a nod to American Horror Story, with a listing of the serial killers who attended the Devil's Night dinner in season five.
There's period-style art, which the team went antique shopping for, and nods to previous Halloween Horror Night's characters, like a picture of Storyteller Elsa Strict and the Undertaker's hearse.
Universal knows you probably won't have time — or will be too scared — to notice all these details, but it's still dedicated to having the most authentic experience as possible.
"Everything is carefully selected even down to books and plants," Lance said. "(The team) works with costumes and props to make it look as close to the show or movie as possible."
See if you can spot these other hidden gems in the Halloween Horror Nights houses.
- The title of the book the murdered nurse was reading in the American Horror Story house.
- The scenes inside the snow globes in the Krampus house will look familiar to avid HHN fans.
- The Ten Commandments Killer's trophy case inside Hotel scenes — something is missing.
- See if you can count how many references to Pazuzu there are in The Exorcist house.
- There are four essential pieces of furniture that repeat in all seven recreations of Reagan's room. See if you can keep track.
- Take a guess as to what season the barn scene is in The Walking Dead house. (Hint: it's whatever season you want it to be.)
- Did you notice how clean the fake bodies were in Terminus? That's because they had to eat them.
- Did you know: None of the characters from The Walking Dead are recreated in the maze. It's all walkers.
- Good luck determining which walkers are real and which aren't in the last scene before the exit.
Unmasking the Horror tours start at $74.99 per person for a morning or afternoon tour of three houses. A combined morning and afternoon tour starts at $119.99 per person. For more information and to make reservations, visit halloweenhorrornights.com.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @chelseatatham.