Frightfully Safe

A Park and Its Mission

When it comes to big business, the question is not just ‘Who’s the competition?’ but also ‘What’s the competition?’ Between hurricanes, horror movies and similar events such as Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights XIV struggles to remain a popular attraction. When you add factors like the drive to Orlando and the admission price of $54.75, the question for the prospective customer remains, is it worthwhile?

“The real competition comes from the guest,” said T.J. Mannarino, director of art and design for Universal Orlando, the brain behind this year’s Halloween event at the park.

“Our job is to get scares and show (customers) a good time.”

The demographic litmus test by which Universal judges by is the 18-25-year-old college crowd. They figure that if they are effective with young adults, then they can reach everyone.

“There’s always one of these guys that says he’s not scared of anything … It’s not easy (to scare him),” Mannarino said.

A Commentary on the Experience

It’s not a good idea to keep asking ‘Is it worthwhile?’ after you’ve bought the ticket and are preparing to take the ride.

Events such as Halloween Horror Nights maintain that ironic element to having ‘a good time’ if your aim is relaxation. These types of events inherently test your patience.

HHN begins at 6:30 p.m. and runs until 2 a.m.; most of that time is spent trudging through obnoxious, sugar-crazed youngsters and alcohol-jaded adults. Then you’ll reach the lines.

This year, HHN decided to bring back parades. The Festival of the Dead, as they are called, features six themed floats not worth discussion. Worth mentioning are the beads, however. For some reason, people still think they’re a great novelty.

In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, beads may have captured a sense of community. Not anymore. Perhaps the “scariest” aspect of HHN is the people who go nuts for beads while navigation around the parade itself is difficult.

Yet it was fun …

There are two neat aspects to the event: the haunted houses and the new Scare Zones. These zones maintain continuity between the seven houses. In the Field of Screams, Universal grew corn stalks and hired heavy men with chainsaws to create a Jeepers Creepers meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre effect.

Scare zones also work to compliment themes from the haunted houses. Field of Screams, for example, is next to Ghost Town, which includes a western theme, including dead cattle hanging from barn support beams and a distinctive dung smell.

Indeed, the details are why Mannario calls his job “almost an art form.” His job is effective through HHN’s multi-sensory attack, one of them including the most immediate sense: smell. Universal Orlando contracted obscure companies to produce vivid odors, including burning electrical wires, formaldehyde and freshly dug dirt.

Other details are also undeniably fun. In Hellgate Prison someone gets electrocuted, and it looks quite real. Castle Vampyr features a white tiled room with a red strobe while actors push dangling corpses at you. If you forget yourself, HHN can feature eerie moments.

After a few houses, however, the scenario becomes formulaic in spite of the different themes.

In a news release, Universal quotes psychologist Dr.Fischoff, as saying: “Danger gets blood flowing … safely coming out of such an experience provides a sense of accomplishment and a reason to celebrate.” The problem with this catharsis is the presupposition of fear. If one knows HHN is a safe experience, then how can one sincerely feel fear?

Most people aren’t afraid when they see horror films, yet most still have a good time. The same logic can be applied to HHN. It may never be scary, but the more they try, the more kitsch for the rest of us to enjoy.