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Haunted houses lack thrills and chills: Horror Nights horrifically disappointing

Universal Studios opened its gates for the 18th annual Halloween Horror Nights on Friday. After all these years, one would think they’d have gotten it right by now.

Universal Studios is a fine park, so Horror Nights is even more of a disappointment, especially when compared to the over-hyped exclamations of its staff.

“Halloween Horror Nights is the biggest, baddest, scariest Halloween event in all of the country!” said Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment at Universal Studios Orlando.

Biggest? Sure. Baddest? Not an actual word. Scariest? Not a chance in hell. Only park-goers with weak constitutions stand a chance of being mildly frightened.

At the press meeting before the event’s first night, there was a video on loop of past years’ Halloween Horror Nights. People were seen running through the streets screaming, getting what appeared to be the cardio workout of their lives. Sadly, this reel that was thrown together had to be the only 10 minutes of terror ever recorded in the extravaganza’s 17-year history. But night vision, extreme close-ups and MTV2 “shaky cam” style cinematography did a great job of getting some pumped up before the impending letdown.

At the briefing, creative coordinators and “gore gurus” Michael Roddy and Michael Aiello painted a vivid picture of what to expect from the park. They went into detail about several of the park’s attractions, including an area depicting what the Land of Oz would have become if the Wicked Witch had won, where the flying monkeys are in full force and a deranged tin man continues his search for a heart — this time equipped with a rusty axe. Aiello even described this year’s event as “the most elaborate and gorgeous (Universal Studios) has ever done.”

The demented Oz they described was actually a 50-foot strip of land with 10 or so actors (or “scarectors,” as they prefer to be called) in costumes.

The scarectors are the event’s strong suit. The characters and costume design are nothing but genius. The park’s Hollywood roots shine through in the creation of such high-quality, intensely realistic outfits.

But Roddy said that they weren’t going to rely wholly on this part of the experience.

“We come first from a theatrical background,” he said. “Some other places that put on Halloween events think the costumes and makeup can do all the work. They can’t.”

Roddy is right. One can’t expect a park to sell itself based solely on its flashy character design, but that’s all Halloween Horror Nights has going for it. They may claim a focus on drama, but there is a reason you don’t see these scarectors working on Broadway.

Many of the street actors can be heard repeating the same cheesy catchphrases to passers-by throughout the course of the evening, and some don’t even put any effort into speaking. The Wicked Witch of the West told me to “wipe that smile off my face” three times in a two-hour period.

Universal can boast all it wants about the fact that it hired more than 1,000 actors for this year’s event, but the experience would have been much more pleasant if they had been more selective in choosing their new hires. In the various houses and scare zones, actors just gave up trying to be scary if visitors saw them.

What Halloween Horror Nights lacks is a quality scare. Of eight haunted houses, the only frightening one is “Dead Exposure,” which chronicles the last hours of a photographer documenting a zombie outbreak. The entire house is pitch black, lit only by intermittent bulb flashes exposing zombies as they pop out of the darkness and a darkroom with bodies hanging from the ceiling, some of which actually belong to hiding scarectors. This house had it all: gore, darkness, surprise — and an uneasy feeling in my stomach.  Result: one effective house.

But that is one house in eight. The rest of the houses were unconvincing, poorly made, and in some cases laughable. Even the park’s featured haunted house — “Reflections of Fear,” based on the Bloody Mary urban legend — didn’t meet adequate scare standards.

This year’s Halloween Horror Nights takes away from Universal’s appeal. Rather than waiting an hour in line for rides that are worth it, visitors get to wait in line to walk through three minutes of a bad horror movie-quality experience. So this year, save the $70 for something more fun on Halloween, like a kiddie pool full of candy corn.

Horror Nights starts Thursday and is open every night until Oct. 5. After that, it’s open during the following nights in October: 9-12, 17-19, 22-26, 29-31. Its final night is Nov. 1.