Twisted Trials of Terror: Universal Studios Ups the Halloween Horror Ante with ‘AVP: Alien vs. Predator’ Maze
Candy will forever be the first thing that comes to mind for young and old alike when they think of Halloween. The reasons are obvious to anyone with taste buds (see: peanut butter and chocolate mixed together, or a sugary black-and-orange concoction known as “candy corn”). In a close second comes the “fear” factor of the holiday: trick-or-treating in frightening costumes, parties where attendees are dressed in a riot of styles — from ghouls and goblins to witches, werewolves, vampires and more — and, of course, haunted houses and hay rides.
When it comes to the latter, these Halloween staples (which date back to the early 1900s) fall into two distinct categories: the local, low-budget variety usually found in such places as an unused suburban department store or a farmer’s cornfield, and the massive, commercially produced type that utilizes expensive props, elaborate sets, and employs a bevy of professional (or semi-professional) actors to lure a steady stream of visitors from near and far. Operating budgets for such highfalutin dwellings of dark dread can run well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) — and the revenues are usually even higher. Not too shabby for an attraction that’s only open for a few weeks a year.
There’s big business in haunted house attractions. Haunted houses raked in about $300 million in profits in 2013, according to the Haunted Attraction Association, a trade group that operates throughout the United States. The group adds that about 36 percent of Americans are expected to visit haunted houses in 2014. Basing that percentage on an estimated U.S. population of 318,912,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Clock on October 15), that means around 114,808,320 people may visit haunted houses around the country. The implication being that there could be a lot of different attractions for people to choose from.
But Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios tops them all. A staple at Universal Studios’ Florida location since 1991 and Hollywood since 1997, the annual scare-fest is about the most terrifying thing a human mind can conceive. A sick, sinister, and stomach-churning experience awaits visitors, with both real actors in costume and animatronics on par with the slickest of Hollywood film themes uniting together to almost literally scare park-goers’ pants off. There’s a number of attractions on offer, including mazes based on the hit TV series The Walking Dead, the Michael Myers Halloween movies, an alternative history-themed maze supposing cannibalism was the reason the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina was abandoned in the late 16th century (the real reason remains unknown to historians), a “scare zone” based on the 2013 film The Purge, and a maze that’s a take on the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn. The attractions are all a non-stop nightmare of special effects wizardry that makes things so real they seem, well, real. Yet the budget is even higher, and the experience even scarier, with the AVP: Alien vs. Predator maze.
Celebrating 35 years since the debut of the spine-chilling sci-fi flick Alien and 10 years since the release of the gore-fest known as Alien vs. Predator, the maze opened Sept. 19 at the Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood theme parks. It goes without saying that, due to its tie-in with the wildly successful horror film franchises, it has already proven to be a hit.
“The introduction of AVP into the immensely popular Halloween Horror Nights is further proof of the indelible mark this incredibly powerful franchise has left on fans and the horror genre itself,” said Greg Lombardo, vice president of Global Live and Location-Based Entertainment at Twentieth Century Fox Consumer Products, in a press release. “We’re thrilled to be working with Universal Studios to create mazes in Orlando and Hollywood that will bring fans face-to-face with the horrifying and iconic characters of AVP. The technology being leveraged will surely be a new benchmark and provide a uniquely terrifying and visceral encounter that puts guests right in the middle of an epic extraterrestrial battle for survival.”
In the maze, visitors are thrust into an imaginary — but feeling all too real — scenario in which they’re caught in the crossfire of a visceral conflict between blood-drenched Alien chest-bursters and parasitic face-huggers against the merciless, vaguely humanoid extraterrestrial Predators. Navigating through the maze really feels like being in the R-rated films, with all the clammy uneasiness and heart-pounding terror that comes with it. There’s no Winona Ryder, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Charlize Theron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adrien Brody or other famous actors and actresses seen in the Alien and Predator franchises, but instead a cast of nameless characters who for emotional purposes are probably better without names; they all “die” as visitors progress through the terrifyingly high-tech maze.
There are also a number of unsettling “effect” pieces to add to the ominous mood, including destroyed androids and dead marines. Then, of course, there’s the “scare actors” (as Universal calls them) that make the maze haunted. The Aliens are controlled through puppetry and animatronics due to the technical challenges of their otherworldly shape, but the Predators are all guys in suits and several pounds of makeup. What’s partially so frightening is the sheer size of some of the Predators — no single Predator actor who jumps out to menace visitors is shorter than 6-foot-6 and the tallest is about 7 feet. Now we know what NBA players do to make financial ends meet in the offseason.
But the maze’s most horrifying moment of all is a trope commonly seen in the Alien films, and one that looks exponentially more grotesque when not on a two-dimensional screen: a human giving birth to an alien. It’s the kind of nightmare — with proverbial buckets of blood flying about in all directions — that stays with visitors long after they’ve left the maze and Halloween has ended.
“When attempting to bring two of the most iconic creatures ever put on film to Halloween Horror Nights, you need to rely on everything you’ve learned up to this point,” Michael Aiello, director of entertainment-creative development for Universal Orlando Resort, also said in a press release. “We’re employing our full arsenal of tricks and techniques in translating the AVP: Alien vs. Predator brand into an authentic and horrific maze experience. Puppetry, elaborate costumes and unique environments have all been created in close collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox. Our guests are going to be thrown head first into this epic battle where only the strong will survive. This is truly going to be an out-of-this-world maze experience that the fans have been waiting for.”
While the experience for visitors may be far too life-like for comfort, those behind the maze’s bloodcurdling corridors and hair-raising rooms say bringing it all together was quite the technical challenge.
“AVP: Alien vs. Predator is by far the most technically complicated and ambitious maze we’ve ever created for Halloween Horror Nights,” says creative director for Universal Studios Hollywood and executive producer of Halloween Horror Nights John Murdy in a press release. “It’s a monumental undertaking to recreate these massive, iconic characters for a live event. Fortunately, we have the expert assistance of Academy Award-winning make-up artists, Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis from Amalgamated Dynamic Inc. (ADI), the special effects geniuses behind the original creatures for the AVP film franchise. Tom and Alec and the ADI team are excited about our maze and have graciously allowed us to cast from their original molds so that our maze will be absolutely authentic to the movies.”
As the maze’s main tagline says: “Whoever wins…we lose.” Judging by the frightening lengths which Universal has gone to bring the AVP franchise to life, there is little doubt the biggest losers of all are the unfortunate souls unlucky (or foolish) enough to subject themselves to the macabre maze’s madness.
Video courtesy of Halloween Horror Nights.
More information about the “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” Maze and “Halloween Horror Nights” can be found at halloweenhorrornights.com.