In the weeks leading up to Halloween, the family-friendly characters that normally populate Universal Studios are replaced with killer clowns and chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Halloween Horror Nights (or HHN) set a new standard for haunted houses when it debuted in the early 1990s. Today horror fans travel from around the world to experience the theme parks’ Hollywood-quality storytelling, set design, and special effects. Whether you have tickets to this year’s Halloween Horror Nights or you’re content to watch a walk-through from the safety of home, here’s everything you should know about the spooky spectacle.
1. Halloween Horror Nights started with one haunted house in the broken Jaws ride.
Before Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studios organized a production called Fright Nights at its Orlando park in October 1991. This early iteration operated at a much smaller scale. It ran for only three nights, and featured one house called “The Dungeon of Terror” located in the temporarily-shuttered Jaws ride. There was little media coverage around the event, but despite the lack of publicity, it was well received. Universal Studios brought it back in 1992, this time under the name Halloween Horror Nights. HHN became bigger, scarier, and more elaborate with each passing year. In 2023, the Orlando event runs from early September through early November, and it features 10 haunted houses and five scare zones connecting guests to larger attractions. The terror that started in Orlando has since spread to other Universal theme parks.
2. The icons are the real stars of the show.
The turn of the new millennium was a pivotal time for Halloween Horror Nights. In 2000, Universal Studios introduced Jack—the first original “icon” to serve as mascot for the event. The creepy clown came with a detailed backstory. A carnival performer who preyed on spectators, Jack “The Ringmaster” Schmidt was murdered and his body ended up in a house of horrors. Universal Studios purchased the box containing his remains to use as Halloween decor, but after it was opened he didn’t stay dead for long.
Universal has continued the tradition of building HHN themes around original icons. Fan favorites from years past include: The Caretaker, a doctor who performs twisted operations on the dead and on the living; The Director, a sadistic filmmaker; and Bloody Mary, the horrifying personification of the urban legend. Some icons are brought back for multiple seasons, with Jack remaining the most iconic and beloved.
3. Halloween Horror Nights has become an international event.
By 2006, Halloween Horror Nights had become an annual fixture at Universal Studios Hollywood as well as Orlando. Though Halloween is primarily celebrated in the West, the seasonal tradition has since spread to Universal theme park locations around the world. In 2011, the event launched in Universal Studios Japan, and it arrived at Universal Studios Singapore the following year.
4. Universal Studios collaborates with the biggest properties in horror.
Halloween Horror Nights’ most popular attractions in any given season are themed around intellectual properties. In 2023, Chucky, Stranger Things, and The Last of Us have each been turned into a terrifying walk-through experience. Multiple major horror franchises have been featured in the event’s 30-year history. Some cult and mainstream classics that have gotten the HHN treatment over the years include Ghostbusters (1984), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Shining (1984), and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).
5. The original haunted houses are just as terrifying.
The non-IP houses at Halloween Horror Nights are where designers can really get creative. When they’re not beholden to approval from licensing partners, these attractions can go to some strange places, so these houses feature original horror scenarios with potential for big scares. Some of the weirdest original houses from years past include “H.R. Bloodengutz Presents: Holidays of Horror,” featuring murderous cupids and evil Christmas elves, and “Revenge of the Tooth Fairy,” a demented take on the childhood fairytale.
6. Preparation starts far in advance.
Pulling off an event of this magnitude requires serious planning. According to John Murdy, creative director for HHN Hollywood, work for Halloween 2023 started in March of 2022. He said in an interview for Discover Universal’s blog that preparations begin with a meeting between him and Mike Ailleo, entertainment director for the Orlando park. Their marketing and licensing partners are also involved in the early discussions. “By this point, we have a good idea of what we want for the following year. There might be changes along the way, of course, but that’s the plan,” Murdy said.
7. Halloween Horror Nights has its own lingo.
Make enough trips to Halloween Horror Nights and you’ll pick up on the event’s special vocabulary. The most widely-known term is Scareactor, the title given to the live performers who terrify visitors to the park throughout September and October. More obscure lingo include boo holes—the nooks scareactors hide in between jumping out at guests—and SIF—an acronym for “stuff in face,” or the material that hangs from the ceilings of haunted houses to give visitors a more tactile and disorienting experience.
8. Hollywood-level special effects bring scenes to life.
Since opening its first location in 1990, Universal Studios has lived up to its tagline “Ride the Movies”—and the theme park takes this approach to Halloween Horror Nights as well. Universal relies on Hollywood methods to make its scares feel real, including professional makeup, custom-built costumes, detailed sets, and life-sized animatronics. Some effects are pulled straight from the movies the houses are based on. In this season’s “Universal Monsters: Unmasked” set, the Invisible Man disappears with the help of a black light. A similar trick was used in the original movie from 1933.
9. The music is part of the attraction.
Another cue Halloween Horror Nights takes from Hollywood is scoring many of its attractions to original music. The duo Midnight Syndicate—which specializes in ambient “haunted house music”—has been writing soundtracks for the event for years. In 2020, Universal partnered with the band to release an album titled Music of Halloween Horror Nights on limited-edition vinyl. The theme park has also collaborated with rock royalty. In 2018, Universal Studios debuted a classic monsters maze with an original score by Slash of Guns N’ Roses.
10. Being visibly scared makes you an easy target.
Scareactors don’t take pity on guests who cower behind their friends as they move through a house. This behavior—as well as excessive screaming—is more likely to attract their attention. Former HHN performer Ashley Young told Insider, “That’s the people who get targeted because you’re like, ‘Oh, this person’s going to be such a satisfying scare.’” So if you’re ever dragged into a haunted house against your will, put on a brave face and hope the scareactors pick on the person next to you instead.