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Scares in Store

The man responsible for Orlando’s biggest Halloween event gives us a peek behind the blood-spattered curtain.

Each year around October, Universal Orlando transforms into something sinister and decidedly frightful, complete with horrifying haunted houses and ghoulish scare actors popping up when you least expect it. But it’s all in the spirit of scary-fun for the park’s Halloween Horror Nights, one of the most highly anticipated reoccurring events in Central Florida.

This year the frights will begin earlier than ever before starting on Sept. 6 and continuing through Nov. 3. So far, Universal has confirmed that there will be a haunted house dedicated to the original Ghostbusters and one for the classic Universal Monsters, i.e., Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.

Meanwhile, the announced original content houses include Nightingales: Blood Pit, which will transport you to ancient Rome for a bloody gladiator showdown; Yeti: Terror of the Yukon, where you’ll face the folklore foraged creature in the remote tundra of Canada; and Depths of Fear, an exploration of what lies deep below the water.

To learn more about how this event is conjured up every year, we spoke to Michael Aiello, senior director of creative development for Universal. Aiello leads a team of many, including artists, writers and directors, who work tirelessly for months to figure out new ways to terrify us. And by the look of things, come fall, they will have succeeded once again in scaring the bejesus out of us.

Were you interested in horror movies and such when you were young?
Obsessed! My father was a massive Classic Monster fan, and we loved going to horror films and reading horror stories. As a kid, I surrounded myself in movies and comics relating to all things horror and sci-fi.

Tell me a bit about your background. How did you end up in this role at Universal?
I’ve been with Universal Orlando Resort for over 23 years and have worn many hats; from the operation of ride attractions at 17 to performing in live shows in my 20s. Over time working within the resort, I grew into a love of writing and directing shows and experiences. I want to create adventures that I would want to see as a guest. … It’s truly a dream gig.

Can you give me a little bit about the history of Halloween Horror Nights? How did it begin and how has it changed over the years?
Halloween Horror Nights began 28 years ago in 1991 as a three-night event called Fright Nights. It contained one haunted house and groups of monsters roaming the streets of the Universal Studios Florida lot. Since that humble beginning, it has grown to become a worldwide brand combining original nightmares that our team creates and adapting well-known film and television properties into haunted houses, massive outdoor scare zones and compelling Halloween-themed shows. In recent years, we’ve created experiences based on The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, The Shining and American Horror Story.

What can people expect from this year’s Halloween Horror Nights?
On the heels of last year’s immensely popular event, the’80s will return with a vengeance to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights—bringing new experiences based off that era. We’re excited to have a haunted house based on season two and three of Netflix’s Stranger Things—expanding upon the season one haunted house from last year and once again bringing guests back to Hawkins, Indiana, where they will delve even further into the Upside Down. All I have to say is: The. Mind. Flayer. We also get to terrify guests in a maze based on Universal Pictures’ legendary Universal Monsters, shining a light on some of Universal’s original cinematic monsters, which are some of my favorite. From Frankenstein to Dracula, guests are going to be live within the stories that gave them nightmares growing up and I can’t wait to see the reaction.

What was behind the idea to bring the ’80s back in a big way this year?
The ’80s have invaded much of popular culture as of late. As a child of that decade, the team and I have embraced it wholeheartedly. With so much great content to work with, our love of this era combined with our affection for all things that go bump in the night has been a no-brainer, and honestly allowing us to not only relive our childhood but present it in a fun way to a new audience.

How much manpower does it take to pull off this event every year?
It’s literally an army. Hundreds and hundreds of passionate and dedicated creative artists, technicians, production staff and scare actors to pull off this one-of-a-kind event.

Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us how you and the team ultimately decide what house themes and scare zones you want to do each year?
We absorb the world of pop culture. I would say we have a degree in all things geeky and cool. The brands that are chosen run the gamut of intentions. Our experiences are selected based on recent popularity; Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, and others are brands that we’ve always wanted to create within and fit the Halloween Horror Nights identity completely. Lately, these have been films our team has grown up with such as An American Werewolf in London and Poltergeist. Our original mazes are created to allow for a variety of content and provide stories and characters the brands do not necessarily possess. It ensures a healthy horror-filled slate of varying experiences.

From your experience of doing this event over so many years, what do you think makes people want to subject themselves to being scared?
It’s the adrenaline rush. No different than riding a rollercoaster. It’s the experience of being surrounded within the element of danger and mayhem under the most controlled and carefully constructed circumstances. And it’s just super fun to watch your friends and family get the daylights scared out of them.

What scares you?
Vampires! I had a huge fear of them as a kid—particularly children as vampires. That fear came from an episode of Ray Bradbury Presents I saw as a child where William Shatner is chased into a darkened playground by what seem to be vampire children. It terrified me but exhilarated me at the same time.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s September 2019 issue.