Though the fright-filled experiences found at Halloween Horror Nights each year lead theme park guests into terrifying fictional worlds, Universal Orlando’s storytellers often base their made-up haunted houses on real-life fact. At the Orange County Regional History center in downtown Orlando, this mashup of fiction and fact has become apparent as Horror Nights history is brought to the forefront of attention with an elaborate new exhibit.
Four members of Universal’s art and design team were on hand to help open to the addition to the History Center’s year-long Backstage to Onstage exhibit, altered every season to keep up with the theme park’s rotating entertainment. Having already showcased Mardi Gras and summertime fun, attention is now fixed on the fall with an impressive assortment of Halloween Horror Nights props, costumes, and even a walkthrough experience.
A Haunting Look at History
To mark the opening the new exhibit area, a special dinner presentation was given by Halloween Horror Nights designers David Hughes, TJ Mannarino, Kim Grommell, and Rick Spencer, taking a closer look at a few history-based haunted houses from past years of the event: The Forsaken, Gothic, Hellgate Prison, Nightingales, and the Universal Palace Theater, among others.
This more intimate evening than the similar one held in 2011 gave attendees a chance to hear the stories behind some of their favorite Halloween Horror Nights experiences. TJ Mannarino introduced the presentation as a storytelling opportunity in which the small group of designers shared their passion for creating stories that “touch everybody,” making sure to reach the full diversity of event attendees.
The full hour-long presentation is available to watch in the video below, offering a glimpse at that diversity of historical topics reached over the years.
Video: Full Halloween Horror Nights 2013 presentation at the Orlando History Center from Universal Orlando
To ensure everyone leaves Halloween Horror Nights entertained, Rick Spencer noted Universal has to appeal to hundreds of thousands of fans with an extreme attention to detail, as not everyone is afraid of the same thing. And to keep guests coming back year after year, they “throw it away” after the run ends, affording them an opportunity to bring in new stories each year.
Mannarino explained that Halloween Horror Nights haunted houses often emphasize real places, as designers want to bring guests into a familiar environment and then “take you over threshold” into a twisted version of that reality. He compared it to a “roller coaster on the ground.” But he did admit that the more bizarre mazes featuring unfamiliar places generally receive the highest ratings due to bigger scares created by visitors not at all knowing what to expect around each turn.
But Horror Nights houses are frequently rooted in history to give some familiarity to the themes and stories behind them, before they are amended with freaky new facts that further the fiction. For 2011’s “The Forsaken” maze, Kim Grommell explained it was an intern’s trip to Puerto Rico that began the idea to set a maze inside a Spanish fort. From there they decided to “turn history on its ear” by adding Christopher Columbus’ fourth ship to the mix “struck from history books” due to mysterious circumstances surrounding an undead cast of creepy characters. It was one of many examples of opportunities for Universal’s design team to take what guests know and give it an extra kick for Halloween.
Video: Inside “The Forsaken” haunted house lights-on tour at Halloween Horror Nights 2011
Likewise, David Hughes explained 2011’s “Nightingales” haunted house as the culmination of wanting to create an experience based on war, but not being able to figure out the villain. The team didn’t want to simply make Nazis the enemy, needing something more creative. While watching “WWII in HD” on History Channel, Hughes came up with the idea of turning the war’s necessary nurses into twisted variations of themselves, evil demons that do anything but help – another spin on the past. Using authentic design in architecture, they evoked the feeling of being in war trenches, complete with a Mark V English tank, but adding their own fiendish flair to it all. And it may not be the last time Horror Nights visitors see the Nightingales, with Hughes noting that “hopefully int he future” they will return.
Rick Spencer added details of his vacation to San Francisco, with a visit to Alcatraz to spawn the idea for 2004’s “Hellgate Prison” maze. This prison was to be a much more secretive sister to Alcatraz, hidden from society and centered around the hot topic of the death penalty. With an smoking electric chair prop at its center surrounded by a riot of prison inmates, it was surely an intense experience.
For 2009’s Halloween Horror Nights web site, the design team created the Universal Palace Theater to tie that year’s haunted houses together. They looked to history and discovered that decades ago movie studios would also built movie houses, distributing their own films there. And digging deeper, they found actual haunted theaters owned by Universal Studios, bending this fact into their own fictional story of a variety of tragedies that happened at the Universal Palace Theater.
And in a bizarre twist of fate, the model of the theater was depicted on the web site as part of a museum exhibit – and now that model is actually in a real museum, along with many other interesting and exciting elements from Halloween Horror Nights past.
Backstage to Onstage exhibit
The biggest update to the Orange County Regional History Center’s exhibit focusing on Universal Orlando’s past and impact on Central Florida now features an elaborate display of Halloween Horror Nights entertainment, reaching across years of the event’s evolution.
After passing by rows of classic Horror Nights posters and a few character maquettes, visitors walk through the majority of the year-long exhibit before encountering the beginning of the Halloween Horror Nights section. Back when it opened in January, TJ Mannarino offered a tour of the Backstage to Onstage exhibit that stretches back to the opening of Universal Studios Florida.
But as Halloween season approaches, the History Center became inspired by Universal’s own creative team and ambitiously created their own small walkthrough maze to better show their visitors what Universal’s guests encounter when visiting Horror Nights. From there, models, more maquettes, props, costumes, and artwork from the annual event are on display showcasing the variety of disciplines Universal utilizes.
Museum curator Michael Perkins and Universal’s Kim Grommell this time offered a guided tour through the new exhibit additions, in the video below.
Video: Halloween Horror Nights exhibit tour at the Orlando History Center
The haunted hallway that the History Center created employed many of the same techniques Universal uses to create its haunted houses, from distressed wood and fabric to the use of “Boo Doors” and “Boo Holes” to surprise guests.
A one-way mirror offers visitors a chance to give a fun little scare to others inside.
A few familiar character icon costumes from Halloween Horror Nights past are on display, including the Usher, Jack the clown, Chance, and Fear.
Fear was the main icon of the 20th year of Halloween Horror Nights, used an opportunity to bring back many fan favorite characters from two decades of Halloween history.
Video: Halloween Horror Nights 2010 opening night – HHN: 20 Years of Fear scare zone
The exhibit gives visitors a chance to take a much closer look at the details of these costumes as well.
A portion of the impressive Universal Palace Theater model is on display, created for 2009’s unique Halloween Horror Nights web site experience that allowed online visitors to tour through this fictional location.
Earlier in the exhibit, a design book has been updated to feature the event’s classic S.S. Frightanic haunted house, previously displaying a Psycho-based maze.
Video: S.S. Frightanic haunted house design artwork for Halloween Horror Nights VIII
With even more to look at, this updated exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center should not be missed by any Halloween Horror Nights fans. And those who are curious about the haunted happenings at that event but are too timid to attend can get a good glimpse at what it’s all about in the exhibit while also learning about Universal’s own impact on Central Florida.
The Halloween Horror Nights portion of the Backstage to Onstage exhibit will be on display through early November, after which it will switch to the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. More information can be found on the History Center’s web site.
More photos from the Halloween Horror Nights exhibit and presentation at Orlando’s History Center: