25 years of terror at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights


By Sarah Sekula, Published in USA TODAY // photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

ORLANDO — Inside a sprawling soundstage at Universal Studios a young woman with orange-tinted bangs sits at a table. She carefully puts the finishing touches on a “Bride of Chucky” mask, sewing in the wig. Fur balls float across the floor, thanks to werewolf puppets in various stages of doneness. People roam in and out, working around the clock to make sure Halloween Horror Nights 25 goes off without a hitch.

It’s a visual feast for any horror fanatic, especially one like Creative Director Mike Aiello, who has been to every Halloween Horror Nights event for the past 25 years.

“My dad’s a huge classic monsters fan,” he says. “I was brought up on it. From ’91 until this year I’ve somehow been involved in Halloween Horror Nights as a guest, or as a scareactor in the maze and now as the creative director for the whole event.”

Enthusiastically, he explains that this year (Sept. 18 – Nov. 1) there will be nine haunted mazes, the most they’ve ever had in the history of the event. Plus, there will be five scare zones that have more roaming hordes of criminally insane inmates and wicked steampunk characters than ever before. There’s also a new dining experience where annual pass holders are treated to a buffet “to die for” along with scareactor photo ops.

Between the set builders, costume designers and makeup artists “it is literally an army of people who comes together every single year to make this happen,” Aiello says. “We’ve already started planning for next year; it’s this nonstop process.”

After learning more behind-the-scenes info, it’s that much more impressive. The mazes, for example, begin as blue line sketches on drafting paper, Dungeons & Dragons style. Then, the creative team writes the maze from beginning to end in a first-person narrative to show what that guest is seeing, hearing and smelling.

“We devote an entire day to smells,” Aiello says. “We bring in our vendor, we call her the smell lady. When she comes, she has a suitcase, and there is an inner suitcase made out of metal that has the most horrific things you’ve ever smelled in your entire life.”

For example, the team once requested a decaying smell. The smell lady, who has documented the various stages of decay during her career, busted out a smell called roasted chicken. The team then pumped that smell into a set that looked like a decrepit meatpacking plant.

“It has the aesthetics of rotting meat, but we’re pumping in a roasted chicken smell,” he explains. “But people think it’s decaying meat because of what they are seeing not what it actually is.”

More screams and scares
This year, Jack the Clown and his motley crew of cohorts will make a comeback along with other icon characters like The Caretaker, The Storyteller, The Director and The Usher. And the nine haunted houses each feature elaborate storylines. One house, for example, is a recreation of the Insidious films while another features nightmarish scenes from 25 years of Halloween Horror Nights.

Inside the Jack Presents: 25 years of Monsters and Mayhem maze, Aiello stops inside what looks like an adorable cottage that smells of cinnamon. This room tells the story of a steampunk version of red riding hood. She’ll have the wolf’s head on a staff and poor Goldilocks will be mauled by a costumed bear character.

Another room is built at an angle so guest have to walk as if they are on the hull of a ship. Waterlogged sailors trapped within the hull are certainly unhappy and ready to scare the daylights out of guests.

“Overall the houses are very well done and you can tell how much time and effort they put into transforming these empty buildings into the terrifying environments,” says Cami Banach, senior at Boone High School in Orlando. “If you took all the people out and added some cameras it could easily pass as a movie set.”

With all the effort that goes into creating this event, it’s no surprise that its popularity continues to soar. Brian Glenn, who has been to the event for the past 14 years, says he’s seen the evolution firsthand from a somewhat smaller event grow into a massive juggernaut.

“There was a time when five houses were suitable for the crowds, but it’s hard to imagine anything less than eight these days,” says Glenn, editor of the orlandounited.com blog.

This all begs the question: What makes people willingly sign up to be terrified in the first place?

“I think people love being scared because it really is both ends of the spectrum,” says Aiello. “It really is an adrenaline rush. The same way people love to laugh. But a laugh and scare couldn’t be more polar opposites. You get scared, but what immediately follows? A laugh.”