What It Is: Halloween Horror Nights, the annual screamfest at Universal Orlando (and in Hollywood) that runs on select nights through November 4. This year’s event features nine haunted houses, including one based on the 1980 horror classic The Shining.
Who Tried It: Michelle Tauber, PEOPLE Senior Editor
Level of Difficulty: 10/10. I loathe scary movies and won’t even buy spooky Halloween decorations. I could barely watch the trailer for this madness. The prospect of professional monsters jumping in my face — JUMPING! IN MY FACE! — is my worst nightmare.
The last time I went to Halloween Horror Nights, I was in high school and rocking a Blossom hat. The night ended with my best friend and I hiding in Mel’s Drive-In in a desperate bid to escape the “scare-actors” whose sole job is to terrorize theme park guests. Some people find this fun. We found it utterly traumatizing and swore to never return.
Flash forward a few decades, and now I am the mom of a teenager. (That’s scary enough on its own.) Could I, the Cowardly Lion of Halloween Horror Nights, find my courage? In a fit of blustery over-confidence, I agreed to face my fears — and then promptly regretted the decision and spent the next, oh, 2,000 hours moping and whining about my profound regret in the countdown to the big night. My 14-year-old son, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to go. I solicited advice from my sister, an HHN veteran, who told me to anticipate the scares when the lights started flashing or the music changed. That stressed me out more. I Googled “How to survive Halloween Horror Nights when you’re scared” and scoffed that “remember these are just actors” was not going to override my fight-or-flight response when a deranged doctor with a bloody knife started swinging at me. I watched a video of Ariana Grande doing this very thing on The Ellen Show and saw her tumble to the ground in abject terror. This was not looking good.
After much hand-wringing (and some liquid courage), it was finally time to take a flying leap into the deep end of the fear pool. Our first house was inspired by American Horror Story, which is a show I will watch under exactly zero circumstances. But hey, walk through it in real life? The new, brave Michelle says sure! Before plunging in, the kindly Universal rep warned, “this is a long one,” but there was no time to clarify exactly how long is long and then OH NO IT’S HAPPENING WE’RE INSIDE AND IS THAT GUY’S HEAD ACTUALLY AHHHHHHHHHHHHH —
What followed were untold sweaty minutes of monstrous unholy beings leaping and screeching and shocking us at every turn. I’m pretty sure there was a shirtless pig-man. And a convulsing girl in a bed. But mostly, I screamed and laughed and realized my teenager was holding my hand for dear life. (This is the same kid who has twice attempted to get out of a moving car upon suspecting he would be seen with his mom.)
Next came The Shining house, which is based on one of the few horror movies I have actually watched, and by now we were getting into a groove. Lookalike Shelley Duvall gave us a jolt, and “Johnny” pops up with his ax in no fewer than 67 places, but because the gore-level was subdued, I was able to really appreciate the cinematic quality. (The hotel bar room scene is especially stunning in its level of detail.) I would have enjoyed it even more had I been walking through, say, The Crown house, but maybe next year.
Our last house of the night was Dead Waters, an original concept from Universal creative that features a voodoo bayou theme and crazy-camouflaged swamp creatures who literally walk out of the walls. At this point, my teen was resorting to the same maneuver I had pulled at that age: head down, eyes closed. If you can’t see them, they can’t scare you, right?
By the time we exited/survived Dead Waters, we were feeling triumphant. It was over! Sure, the roaming scare-actors were still in the park, but we’d faced the worst — in a confined space, no less — and we had worked up a serious appetite along the way. So we headed over to Moe’s Tavern for a couple of Krusty Burgers when OH NO THERE IS A BAND OF DEMENTED CLOWNS CARRYING CHAIN SAWS BOLTING RIGHT TOWARD US AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH —
The Verdict: After dreading it for weeks — and with the memory of my teenage visit haunting me for decades — I was close to backing out of this assignment. But I’m glad I didn’t, because the whole thing proved to be a much-needed catharsis. In a world that feels scarier than ever, Halloween Horror Nights is a perfect opportunity to scream your head off. And leaving the park that night, I realized: I needed that.