Entertainment & Arts

Halloween scares up big business in the US

Warning: This story contains horror themed images, including clowns.

Halloween Horror Nights Jason Image copyright Universal/Roberto Gonzalez
Image caption Universal Studios has been running its Halloween Horror Nights for 25 years

Halloween may be considered more for children in the UK with the ubiquitous trick or treaters, but in the US it is big business.

According to the National Retail Federation, American consumers will spend $6.9bn (£4.5bn) on Halloween costumes, decorations and related items this year - so it's unsurprising many attractions are cashing in on the event.

Not content with just one night to dress up for spooky fun and frolics, it has been drawn out to a whole season at many attractions.

In Florida alone - the second most-visited US state after New York for British tourists - some 80 Halloween events are being held this year, including at its most popular theme parks Disneyworld, Busch Gardens and Universal Studios.

Their popularity has helped give the state a tourism boost in recent years, with 23.7 million people visiting during the Halloween quarter in 2014 - an 8.5% increase on the same period in 2013.

Universal Studios has been running its Halloween Horror Nights Orlando attraction for 25 years, transforming the park after hours into a mix of haunted house mazes and "scare zones".

Image copyright Universal/Kevin Kolczynski
Image caption Characters from the 2013 horror film The Purge were the focus of one of the scare zones last year

What started out as a three-night event with one maze and one scare zone has turned into a six-week run with nine mazes and five zones, attracting thousands of visitors a night - many of them British. And with general admission tickets at around $100 (£65) for a single night's entry, it's easy to see how the money adds up.

The premise of the haunted house is simple - visitors file into each 360 degree immersive maze, where they are pounced upon and scared witless at every turn, with each experience lasting around five minutes.

So why would they want to do that to themselves?

"A lot of people really enjoy it," says Mike Aiello, who heads up Universal's entertainment creative development team.

"I've always perceived someone being scared or wanting that adrenalin rush as the same as someone who wants to laugh or find something funny. They're two ends of a really dramatic, emotional spectrum - the laugh and the scare - there's a rush either way. And for those few moments when you're experiencing that you're not thinking about anything else at all."

But although visitors willingly put themselves into the horrific scenarios, their reactions sometimes can't be anticipated.

"I've seen people soil themselves," Aiello says. "It's not often and certainly not something we want to occur, but in some cases it is a by-product of the content of what we do.

"I've seen people run out of mazes or crawl out on their hands and knees. Part of me is a little bit sorry, but part of me thinks it's a job well done."

Image copyright Universal/James Kilby
Image caption Jack the Clown is a fictional character created by Universal Studios which has featured at the event since its 10th year

Putting on the event is not as simple as hanging up a few skeleton decorations and dotting some pumpkins around - it takes around 13 months to design and build the mazes in the giant studio sound stages around the theme park.

With the event already in full swing, ideas for next year's event have already started. In the coming months, treatments will be written to detail the visitor experience and room sketches drawn up in December. Construction will then begin in April, with each house taking four to six weeks to make.

With houses this year based on popular franchises including The Walking Dead, Insidious and Freddy v Jason, millions of dollars are spent on creating the mazes to movie quality standard by Hollywood set builders and special effects experts.

"There's a great amount of detail that goes into each maze," Ailleo says. "In Insidious, the interior of the home used in the movie had a distinct wallpaper that didn't exist and was made for the film, so we recreated the wallpaper ourselves.

"We want people to feel like they've been transported into those films or TV shows. We'll go to great lengths to make sure it looks and feels as authentic as it can be.

"Universal created the horror genre with the classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein - we want to make sure we're honouring that horror legacy it has."

Around 700 "scare actors' are also brought in and transformed each night with masks, make-up and prosthetics to terrify unsuspecting visitors in the mazes and scare zones.

My scare actor experience

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Media captionHalloween Horror Nights scare actor makeover

I was given the rare chance to join the scare actor ranks for a night to frighten the beejeezus out of visitors.

Made over by make-up designer Michael Burnett - who has worked on films including Evil Dead, Aliens and Universal Soldier - my face was bruised and "cut" up, while conditioner was put in my hair to make it look greasy.

Stage manager Billy Mick gave me my scenario: I'm a criminally insane patient from a fictional asylum who has escaped. I was given a foam - but very real looking - monkey wrench and free rein to do what I wanted, but I had to follow three rules: Don't touch anyone, don't swear and have fun.

Out in the park, it was fascinating to see people move away from me as I shuffled towards them with my most menacing glare. Michael gave me the tip of stamping my foot close to my victims while screaming at them. It worked a treat.

I couldn't help but laugh after the first couple of scares (after all, it's funny to make grown men and women jump and scream) but I managed to compose myself while terrorising and chasing the masses.

Scaring seemed to come remarkably naturally to me - perhaps I might audition for a part next year.

Image copyright Universal Studios/Roberto Gonzalez
Image caption The Walking Dead has featured at the event for the past four years

The job is not without its hazards though - scare actors have been accidentally punched after being surprised.

"Everybody reacts differently when they get scared, just like everyone's laugh is different," says Ailleo. "But our actors are trained to realise who can be scared safely and effectively, and who should be avoided."

Part of the success of Universal's event is its relationship with already popular franchises to attract new visitors to the park. Past houses have seen tie-ins with Saw, Alien v Predator, Halloween, Evil Dead, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Thing.

"We work with our marketing team to find out what brands really identify with the public and then we figure out how we can translate it to be really good for the business of the event," Ailleo says.

"The Walking Dead has brought a lot of new fans to our event who love the show, but have never been to Halloween Horror Nights before - and now they do because they love the programme."

Ailleo has worked on Halloween Horror Nights since 1997, when he first worked as a scare actor and jumped out of a washing machine for six hours every night.

From there he has worked every job possible from both a performing and creative standpoint, but he hopes people will look back fondly on his legacy in the top job.

"Yes, we do haunted mazes and scare zones, but I want people to still have that sense of Halloween tradition," he says.

"It's still trick or treating for adults, but it still feels like a really great Halloween party."

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