Sep. 24, 2012 at 12:47 PM ET
The entire theme park looks like a haunted house during Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. All the lights are turned out, or at least way down, smoke machines dot the streets, and high-powered blue and red spotlights provide mood lighting throughout the park.
Mel’s Drive-In has its lights adjusted to become “Mel’s D i e-In.” In some areas of the park visibility is down to a few feet in front of you, and actors made up as different monsters stalk the guests. You can tell the they’re coming by the trail of high-pitched screams in their wake. Women dressed as dead nurses stand by the lines to the attractions and hawk jello shots sold in what look to be bags of blood.
Concession stands are turned into bars, and there is a warning against bringing children under the age of 13. It’s not an environment for the young ones.
The company seems pretty comfortable throwing an event aimed at an older audience, with a price tag to match: Halloween Horror Nights requires a separate ticket to attend, a single night ticket will run you $89. [Disclosure: Penny Arcade paid for flight to and from Orlando and the hotel room, but admission was provided by Universal Studios during the media event.]
This is the 22nd annual Halloween event at Universal Studios, and the haunted houses and mazes stretch across a surprisingly varied amount of properties. There is an Alice Cooper house, while Penn and Teller helped create a haunted house based on a nuclear Las Vegas.
Penn and Teller were on hand during the press event, and they heaped praise on Universal for keeping the tradition of American haunted houses alive. Penn spoke of learning how hanging cobwebs causes attendees to wipe at their own faces, which makes you vulnerable for a surprise attack. “We didn’t have much to teach them about misdirection,” he said.
While we toured the seven haunted houses and saw both shows, we’re here to talk about Silent Hill. This is the first time an attraction of this type was created based on a video game in the United States, and I had to find out how well it was executed.
Silent Hill is a video game property first, and a movie second
“I grew up playing the 'Silent Hill' video games, so it was like a dream to get to play in that world,” Patrick Braillard, production show director for Universal Orlando, told the Penny Arcade Report.
The second "Silent Hill" movie is on the way, and the team behind the haunted house had a chance to see an early version of the film; one of the sections in the attraction is inspired by a scene in the upcoming film. You can think of it almost as a preview. But the team also went through the games in the series to draw inspiration and characters, and our tour guide during the event claimed the haunted house was based “on the video game series "Silent Hill."
The actors who wear the makeup and provide the scares in the haunted house are important to the attraction’s effectiveness, and Universal began casting in July to hire a significant number of staff to fill out the houses and the park itself.
There are 1,000 cast members, called “scareactors” (rhymes with “characters”), that are hired and trained to scare people for the event. It’s a small army of people who work in each attraction or prowl the streets to freak out guests. Silent Hill provided its own challenges, as each actor required either elaborate makeup or, in some cases, extensive prostheses to create each character.
A haunted house isn’t like any other form of storytelling; there is very little time to tell a story or set the mood. I asked Braillard about the challenge of separating Silent Hill from generic haunted houses.
“That’s the trick, isn’t it? Everything has to have its own personality. And they do, that’s what we pride ourselves on,” he explained. “You cling to certain things inside each environment … for Silent Hill it’s all about the iconic characters. You’re going to see Gray Children, you’re going to see the red nurse, you’re going to see Pyramid Head and the brethren. The bogeyman from 'Silent Hill Downpour,' we’re really excited about him. He has a cinder block sledgehammer.”
The attraction is impressive, and production team rarely took the easy way out. Grotesque monsters are made with cunning special effects, brought to life by real people invested in moving in disturbing ways. The makeup and set design is well above average for a haunted house. Braillard also stated that his work is never finished; they’re constantly adjusting the smallest details to provide the maximum number of scares.
“The maze is never done. You walk through and are constantly refining,” he said. The lighting may be changed to show off parts of the set, and the timing and volume of the piped-in music and screams may be adjusted. The designers tweak where and when the actors menace the guests. The set is designed so that your eye is drawn to look at certain things, leaving you open for a quick scare from an actor in full makeup.
“It really is visceral theater, and you have to treat it like that. Instead of one set with nine actors for six weeks, I get to play on 90 individual sets with hundreds of actors for five weeks. It takes regular traditional theater and trumps it a little bit,” Braillard said, with a touch of pride.
One of the women on the design and production team started off as a dancer in the park, another as a skipper on the Jaws ride. Universal seems happy to promote from within, and you can tell the people involved understand how these attractions work; they’ve seen them from the bottom up.
“I started as an actor and transitioned into a show director. You have to have a good sense of humor and a respect for horror as a genre,” he said. Our tour guide had either seen or been involved with every haunted house and attraction in the event’s 22 year history, and shared numerous stories and highlights from each haunted house. These are people who love horror.
Konami was also enthusiastic about the project, sharing renders of characters and settings throughout the video game series.
The interview over, it was time for the fun part: Walking through the haunted house itself.
Welcome to Silent Hill
I had wanted to get my own pictures of the park and haunted house, but the downpour and slippery streets, combined with challenging lighting conditions, made shooting a usable image impossible. I will say the walk to Silent Hill is almost as unnerving as the haunted house itself; the dark streets in the park and evocative music go a long way to set the mood.
The tone is set immediately as you enter and pass the “Welcome to Silent Hill” sign, complete with a Gray Child breathing smoke. A shambling figure walks towards you as you stumble down what seems to be a country road, and a police officer steps out from the shadows to shoot it, saving everyone. This is what passes for a calm moment before the insanity begins.
Unlike some of the seven haunted houses sprinkled throughout the park, Silent Hill relied on good acting and practical effects above clever gimmicks to deliver the scares. You’ll walk through the school, and pass through the bathrooms. “I double dare you,” a note written in blood says inside one of the stalls, pointing down into the toilet. You’ll meet Colin the Janitor soon after, his back broken and his feet held over his head.
This isn’t a dummy, it’s a real actor with impressive prosthetics and makeup that give the illusion of a mangled body. The Gray Children are exactly that as well; either children themselves or incredibly small actors behind the makeup. It’s unclear how well these effects would stand up under regular light, but with the strobes and lighting effects inside the attraction it all looked surprisingly real.
I’m a fan of haunted houses in general, but Universal clearly has an impressive budget to play with, and the production values here are well above what you’re used to seeing in similar attractions.
In some sections barbed wire hangs from the ceiling, made of plastic, but painted to look like rusted metal. The Pyramid Head character walks convincingly on what has to be stilts, creating more ambiance than scares. The nurses on the other hand…
Universal prides itself on the casting of the people inside the parks, and the nurses were well-realized inside the haunted house. The makeup was effective, and they have the eerie, unnatural movements down perfectly.
In some cases a real actor will be kept in a painful looking pose, surrounded by dummies in nurse makeup. The second you turn your back, the actor comes to life and charges you. As a fan of the games I was constantly looking around for Easter eggs and details, as each setting was dense with small touches, which only made me a more attractive target for the actors. I was told later that people passing through the attraction are tracked, and targets are selected if they veer off course or look distracted. Everyone seemed to know the perfect moment to strike.
The haunted house was clearly "Silent Hill;" this wasn’t just a coat of paint laid over an existing attraction to benefit from the branding. Other friends popped up as well, and I had fun trying to pick out where each character or setting came from, whether it be the film series or games. To answer the most important question, yes, it was scary.
Many fans are going to be familiar with "Silent Hill" through the first, and soon second, film, but it’s amazing to think that a horror property that began in video games became such an important part of pop culture to be this heavily advertised during a big budget Halloween promotion.
My wife had fun recognizing characters from the film, and I enjoyed explaining the references to the game; the line was also significantly longer than what we saw in front of the other haunted houses (save for perhaps The Walking Dead), proving that "Silent Hill" has the power to attract crowds. The design team took the property seriously, and created something both scary and enjoyable.
Next year, if I may make a suggestion and they’re allowed to explore outside properties? "Fatal Frame."
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