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The FRIGHT stuff

Rickie the Roach Boy plucked a plump, 2-inch roach from the squirming pile on the little table in his cubicle.

Wild-eyed, tousle-haired, but with a nice smile, Rickie looked fondly at the creature, then brought it to his ear, held it there, as if listening to a whispered message.

Rickie must have liked whatever his little pal told him, for, smiling happily, he rubbed the roach softly over his cheek. Then he noticed me watching through the glass partition and gestured me into his cubicle to meet the roaches.

Regretfully I declined, for I had a prior engagement: to go strolling down Psycho Path with Norman Bates' mother.

This was opening weekend of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios _ the first of three weekends when the Orlando theme park redecorates for its favorite holiday.

There are several new exhibits this year. Among them:

Hell's Kitchen, the deserted warehouse off a dark New York Alley where Rickie the Roach Boy sits in agreeable squalor. There is also a butcher shop on the premises, specializing in "human" body parts.

The Boneyard, a 19th-century insane asylum, presided over by a demented doctor with a freezer full of severed limbs. Also notable are numbers of piteous, though athletic, patients of both sexes, trying to climb the walls to escape.

Dungeon of Terror, a dilapidated cable barn in San Francisco with a weird, winding maze of haunted hallways and bizarre inhabitants, including Rat Lady, Snake Master and any number of people who look like the Igor who used to steal diseased brains for Dr. Frankenstein.

Memories of Dungeon, Boneyard and Kitchen tend to merge in the mind. Your basic torturers, fiends and crazed victims were in plentiful supply all over. One particularly striking exhibit featured a man seemingly being sawed in half and keeping up a steady stream of peevish complaints.

Once a sweet old lady darted under a cobweb to whisper in my ear: "Run, sir, save yourself while you can. It's too late for me." And she fell back helplessly into the maze.

I passed an alcove where a dentist in a bloody smock appeared to be pulling out not simply a patient's tooth, but his entire head and neck from his shoulders. I hesitated for a clearer look, but the press of the crowd made this impossible.

"They are careful not to make the exhibits too detailed," a former employee said. "They don't want people stopping for a long look. Get 'em through and get 'em out." Nevertheless the lines before the separate exhibits and rides are formidable.

Year-round Universal Studios attractions that fit into a Horror Night format, such as the Jaws Ride and the Bates Motel, are open. Also, "The Price is Fright," emceed by the movie character Beetlejuice, and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure," with newsworthy look-alikes, including O.J. Simpson and the famous Bronco. In fact, the only tedious characters in the show are Bill and Ted.

Some 200 ghouls stroll the streets of the park and sneak up and say boo. The ghouls run to a preppy look under the cowls of their cloaks. There are also musical groups and a chain saw drill team.

My date with Norman Bates' mom was pleasant, though the lady has a low threshold of boredom. She kept running after passersby, waving a bloody knife.

I went to Halloween Nights with three adults and Susannah Jones, who is 5 and showed more sense than any of us. Susannah looked over the park, noted the ghouls on the streets, listened to the eerie music and screams coming over the loudspeaker system. She decided she was not old enough for any of the haunted house exhibits. She was right.

But the rest of us, the so-called adults, went around looking as happy as if we, too, had good sense. There is something very nice about being in a place where things scare but never hurt you.

AT A GLANCE

Halloween Horror Nights will be open today and Saturday and Oct. 28-31. From 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Regular admission $36 adults, $29 children (3 to 9); Florida residents advance $26 adults and children (3 to 9).

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