When Scareactors Are No Longer Actors

There has been a growing trend in the mazes of Halloween Horror Nights at the Universal Orlando Resort over the last several years, and it is one that has me somewhat concerned. For new readers at RexandtheBeast.com, let me preface these comments by bringing up our 14-year string of HHN visits. Rex and I have been visiting Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, FL since HHN 13 and we certainly do not keep coming back because we simply want to blog about it. We love the houses, love the scares, and believe it is the best theme park haunted event in the nation. But, as with most things that are beloved, there is the accompanying nitpicking because, hey, we care so much.

So with that said, back to my concern. Who can argue that one of the great strengths of an HHN maze is the set design and attention to detail? After all, the event is hosted at Universal Studios! When walking into the houses that are located inside the soundstages, I sometimes want to jump out of line and just gawk at the exterior of the haunt. So incredibly beautiful. Nevertheless, a beautifully designed set still does not make an exceptional house. That piece of the puzzle belongs to the actors and the combined efforts of any given acting crew working the maze. Sometimes a certain crew will make a maze delightful while the same maze with a different crew falls flat. It is the actors who make the story come alive and help the guests understand the flow of the chaos that is unfolding before our eyes.

Because of that, I believe scareactors need freedom to act.

Here’s what I mean. For many folks who love to work inside a haunted maze, it is an art form to them, i.e., it truly is acting. Based on the skill of the actor, they will utilize timing, feel, anticipation, observation, and various movements to make the story both come alive and, hopefully, provide a few scares. It is unquestionably true that some scareactors possess these skills better than others. I love watching and at times being scared by an actor who completely throws themselves in their work. It is a special thing.

But in today’s mazes at HHN, it seems those acting freedoms are becoming rarer. The reason? Timed audio cues.

HHN mazes seem to be moving in the direction of trying to capture a consistent guest experience that is accentuated by the presence of audio cues usually on a 5-15 second loop. These cues, especially in the IP houses, have the scareators actually talking, using dialogue from the films. The ability to “feel out” a guest or wait for the appropriate time to strike is replaced with a steady, consistent, ongoing audio cue. Now, to be fair, it appears some of the scareactors are still able to decide when to hit the audio, but it is clear that they are instructed to keep it on a consistent, even course so that every guest sees the same thing.

While speaking with theme park guru Seth Kubersky a few weeks ago, I let him know the gist of this article. He made the helpful observation that HHN mazes are becoming more like a dark ride experience than a typical, flexible haunted house where no two experiences are the same. In this way, the HHN mazes are attempting to do what the omnimovers did for The Haunted Mansion – everyone sees the same thing.

Now, this isn’t all bad, of course. There is something to be said for making sure every guest is viewing the same story in the mazes, and it is definitely neat to hear dialogue from the films. But it is also a risk vs reward type of situation. What if by providing a more consistent experience for the guests the overall quality level of the mazes drops? So, you have a haunted house that everyone experiences in basically the same way, but everyone is experiencing a lessened version of what would be possible if the scareactors were free to be free.

There are also practical issues to address. Unlike a local haunt where guests pulse through in groups, giving the actors more time to rest to avoid wearing themselves and their vocal chords out so quickly, HHN mazes incorporate the famous “conga lines” where scareactors have no break until the new shift comes in. Different ideas have come and gone, such as the “shaker cans” that were designed to shock you as the scareactor jumped out, but for now they have landed on more timed audio tracks.

For my taste, these audio scares have become too much, too often. I think they can be effective and should be utilized, but not to the extent they currently are. I want to see the scareactors in full creative mode, not hampered by the limitation of an audio track.

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