It's a horror day's night at Universal

TravelBy Lynda McCarthy
Scare-actor Chance leaves visitors shaken and stirred
Scare-actor Chance leaves visitors shaken and stirred
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando
Scare actors roam the streets at Halloween Horror Nights
Scare actors roam the streets at Halloween Horror Nights

No matter what month it is, there will always be someone on your Facebook timeline bleating on about how many weeks or sleeps it is to Christmas. And depending on your disposition, you might find this absolutely charming, or eye-bleedingly infantile.

Of course Christmas is lovely - the presents and the kindness, the trees and the partridges who reside in them. But if you need me, I’ll be over here, counting down to the most wonderful time of the year – Halloween.

My obsession with with the spookiest holiday started early; every art project was an opportunity to mould some misshapen monster out of clay. I had a stash of cheesy Point Horror novels that Stephen King himself would find daunting. These days, my fixation is confined to a Pinterest board (OK, several of them) dedicated to all things creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky. And I have created some pretty impressive Halloween costumes too, if I do say so myself.

Of course I’m not the only one who enjoys being scared witless – TV series like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and Penny Dreadful are hot, scary stuff, and there are seasonal haunted houses popping up all over Ireland (The Nightmare Realm in Cork is a personal favourite).

So the biggest mystery is how Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), a whole event dedicated to the celebration of Halloween and all things terrifying, escaped my radar for so long. For the uninitiated, HHN is an annual event at Universal Orlando where, each night for more than a month, the park is turned into a fright-fest of epic proportions. 

By day, the famous theme park might be full of giddy kids and family-friendly rollercoasters – but at night the streets are filled with ‘scare-actors’ lurking around every corner, and a neighbourhood of haunted houses, designed to frighten the bejaysus out of visitors.

This year marks the event’s 26th anniversary, and the delightfully twisted minds behind HHN are really pulling out all the stops to make sure that it’s a year to remember – with new haunted houses based on the world’s most famous horror film, The Exorcist, and one dedicated to American Horror Story’s sinister characters.

And what should you expect from a trip to Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights? Absolute mayhem is the answer. Imagine the kind of stress dreams you have after being on the lash for three days and you have an idea of the crazy, carnival-like atmosphere at the park. Talk about The Fear...

My own introduction to HHN was a baptism of fire, with a chainsaw-wielding maniac chasing me down the street, followed by knife-wielding clowns, murderous zombies and dismembered puppets.

The beauty of HHN is that it caters for every type of fear – the brains behind it know that the loudest, most blood-soaked character isn’t necessarily the most terrifying. Case in point: one of the scare-actors is dressed as a little girl in a nightdress who simply walks around clutching her teddy bear, sobbing.

Between the smoke machines, the sound of air-raid sirens and the screams of fellow visitors, it’s fair to say that the creative heads of HHN really have the art of scaring down to a T.

And that’s before you even get to the main event. The haunted houses are so detailed and intricate that it’s almost like setting foot onto individual movie sets. The mazes vary in length (the longest is around eight minutes) so you’re never quite sure when you’ll be able to make your escape. Each one is packed with enough frights to make your hair turn white. 

Fans of zombie series The Walking Dead will get a kick out of the maze based on the series where Walkers try to scratch and claw at you through and electric fence as you queue. 

Inside is even better (or worse, depending on your perspective) as the Walkers get a lot more up close and personal, screaming and grabbing at you from dark corners and their hiding places in the roof and even under the floor. 

The Body Collectors is another fan favourite, with Slender Man-style characters lurking in the shadows, slitting throats, extracting spines (with some bone-crunching sound effects) and grinning manically the entire time.  

There are nine mazes in total and your heart rate will just about have returned to normal by the time you get into the next one (queue lengths can vary so prioritise your favourite houses before you get there). You can also catch some live shows with this year’s HHN icon, Chance, a troubled young girl with a penchant for torture and a missing empathy chip.

If all this sounds a bit too hair-raising, it’s because it is – but after 26 years of practice, HHN knows how to skate the scary line. None of the characters are ever allowed to actually touch guests, and teens won’t be too traumatised by any of the mazes (they recommend the event for ages 13 and up).

It’s enough to get the adrenaline pumping, but it won’t have you sleeping with the lights on for the following year. Maybe just a week or two. 

GETTING THERE: The Universal Two-Park Bonus with Halloween Horror Night Combo Ticket is priced from €292 per person. A Frequent Fear Plus Pass is available, priced from €107 per person. To book, call free on 1800 927 467  or visit www.attractionticketsdirect.ie. For more info, log onto www.halloweenhorrornights.com.
Aer Lingus fly direct to Orlando three times weekly (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). Fares start from €259 each way (inclusive of taxes and charges).  Check out www.aerlingus.com