A behind-the-scenes visit to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights

Monstrous eyes upon me, I can almost feel the fixed gazes of Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man and possessed plaything Chucky staring right through me.

They serve as the appropriate audience as Michael Burnett, makeup designer with Universal Orlando Resort’s entertainment art and design team, transforms me into a creature of the night for Halloween Horror Nights, the destination’s annual creeptastic celebration.

As I’m perched in a director’s chair inside a theater that houses Universal Studios Florida’s Horror Make-up Show attraction, those menacing movie props surrounding me, I sit patiently while Burnett works his magic. In a matter of a few minutes, Burnett morphs this journalist into an escaped lunatic.

“Make sure and take advantage of the bald head,” I tell him.

He follows suit using a cream-based theatrical makeup for color and a thickened corn syrup blood paste for cuts and scratches. A patchwork of bruises and dirt litters my face, a stream of blood trickles out of my left ear and a nasty gouge slices across my follicly challenged pate.

I’m just one of nearly 700 mask and makeup looks Burnett and his team create in a single night for Halloween Horror Nights. An exhaustive roster of actors — “scareactors” in Universal park speak — inhabit Universal Studios Florida, one of the resort’s two theme parks, for 30 select nights from late September through Nov. 1.

“The lifeblood of the event are the scareactors,” says Mike Aiello, Universal’s director of creative development for its entertainment art and design team.

And this night, I’m one of them.

Immersing myself in the middle of Halloween Horror Nights, I witness the park pulling out all of the sinister stops for the event’s 25th anniversary. From concept to completion, it takes more than a year to create, and Universal’s think tank has a lot to live up to.

Like a live embodiment of a cult horror film, Halloween Horror Nights has its own zombie horde of dedicated fans. Many return year after year, some donning their old Halloween Horror Nights T-shirts like badges of honor, to see how the park conjures up new scares.

The 2015 edition proves to be Universal’s largest yet. A total of nine haunted houses, five outdoor scare zones and a pair of stage shows creep into view as the sun goes down, bringing to life an event intent on tingling the spines of those 13 and older.

Among this year’s more popular houses is one based on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the hit Georgia-filmed zombie TV series. Before becoming slathered in monster makeup, I take a walk through the attraction with Greg Nicotero, the show’s special effects makeup wiz, executive producer and sometime director. Sixteen-year-old Woodstock native Chandler Riggs, who portrays Carl Grimes on the show, managed to catch a quick flight from Atlanta in between shoots, and joins us for the journey.

In the dark, it’s hard to tell if the zombie inhabitants rattle Nicotero and Riggs. But when stumbling out of the house, the smile across Nicotero’s face appears to be that of a satisfied customer.

“We’re in everybody’s living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens when they watch the show,” Nicotero says. “So people already feel a connection to the characters and the environment. Having them being able to walk through (the scenes) takes it to that extra level. To me, the most exciting thing about Halloween Horror Nights is you get to experience it live.”

Riggs echoes the eerie sentiment. It’s one thing to see zombies on set and bump into them at craft services. “The Walking Dead” house at Halloween Horror Nights is another.

“To live the scene, and get to come back and live it again is a pretty cool experience,” Riggs says. “It was great to see the walkers there scaring me.”

I step into my assigned scare zone and see throngs of others appreciating the thrill of the fright. The park’s faux New York streets have been overtaken by a group of criminally insane patients, which I’m a part of. After getting some scare tips from Billy Mick, an assistant show director with Universal Orlando’s entertainment art and design team, I’m ready for action.

Wielding a plastic hammer, I wave it in the air insanely, attempting to spook a group of guests. My maniac yelps, however, simply cause them to run away at a breakneck pace.

The irony of visitors rushing through a place they’ve paid to visit isn’t lost on me. Director John Landis, whose 1981 horror flick “An American Werewolf in London” becomes immortalized yet again as a Halloween Horror Nights haunted maze, says he feels the same.

“What makes me crazy is people wait for like two hours to get into the maze,” he says. “They walk in and after the first scare, they run. And I’m thinking, ‘Slow down!’”

The fiery explosion nearby ups the intensity of my scare zone, not to mention the amount of perspiration soaking into my patient scrubs. After hunting for the perfect victim, I spot a small group of young ladies, who have yet to see me.

Popping over her left shoulder, I shock a woman with my bloodcurdling shriek, shaking the hammer in her face. She leans back against the guard rail and screams continuously as I lay it on thick. It doesn’t take long to realize I’ve done my job.

“What I like most about Halloween Horror Nights is the fact that it’s live theater,” Landis explains. “And it’s not just ‘boo.’ They’re doing song and dance, creating ambience … and building sets. … It’s really something.”

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