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A scaredy-cat’s guide to Halloween Horror Nights — and other haunted house events

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

There comes a time in all of our lives when we must decide the kind of person we’re going to be — a courageous horror movie fan, or the scaredy-cat who refuses to watch them.

For most of my life, I’ve identified as the latter. I was the teen who would sit with my back to the TV during a sleepover to avoid jump scares in “Paranormal Activity.” I’d stay awake all night after watching “Insidious,” unable to forget its red-faced demon. While my friends went on about decapitation in “Hereditary” or the Bent-Neck Lady from “The Haunting of Hill House,” I preferred to pore over the Wikipedia plot summaries so I could talk about these scenes without having to witness the terror myself.

And yet, earlier this month, I found myself at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort, one of the most popular Halloween events in the US among hardcore horror buffs. These are no slipshod, homemade houses: Halloween Horror Nights “mazes” are movie-quality, with elaborate sets, dozens of “scare actors” whose sole job is to make you jump and squirm and dozens more severed limbs and bloody guts strewn about the set.

What was a chicken like me doing at an event designed for horror fans with iron stomachs? I wanted to conquer my fears, for one, but I also wanted to share whatever tips I picked up from my nightmarish journey with my fellow scaredy-cats. (Note: I attended HHN as part of a media preview. A single-night ticket starts at around $73 before tax.)

After surviving 10 hellish haunted houses, I emerged a tad bit braver than I was when I started. This is what I learned from my harrowing, and, yes, extremely entertaining trip to one of the scariest Halloween events of the season.

Wear the right shoes

It doesn’t matter what haunted house event you attend — assume there will be chainsaws. If there are, you’ll most certainly have to run from the people revving them up, so select shoes in which you can speedily leave the scene.

This year, the chainsaw gang at Halloween Horror Nights dressed like scarecrows who would come to life and picked up whatever tools they could find in their farmer’s barn to wreak havoc. They will lunge at you or run up behind you to spook you with their saws, and I nearly ran into a concession booth trying to evade them at one point. Luckily, I was sporting well-worn sneakers; I wouldn’t run a marathon in them, but they got me out of there quickly.

Bring a buddy

Okay, true, I watch scary movies from behind my hands if I’m forced to watch them at all, but I’ve seen enough to know that you do not embark upon perilous journeys by yourself. “Never go alone” is even the tagline at Horror Nights this year.

I took that advice to heart and brought my partner, who functioned as a breathing barricade between me and the monsters. I held his arms so tightly that my nails left notches in his skin. It worked out for us both, though, because he shouted out potential scares for me as he saw them and also giggled with glee throughout every house (he’s a horror fan). Not bad for a first-time human shield.

Play it cool

If you’re the kind of haunted house-goer who falls to the ground, wailing, when a fake mummy emerges from their tomb to terrorize you, then the rest of the mummies will quickly realize they can get a good scare out of you. It’s a good feeling, I assume, for these monsters to see the fear they cause. Maybe they work on commission?

But don’t let them see you scream, if you can. I wore a mask in every house for Covid-19 prevention purposes and also so the scare actors wouldn’t see my pained, petrified expression. I also wore all black so that maybe I’d blend in with the dimly lit sets. This was only semi-successful because there’s really nowhere to hide in those haunted mazes.

You can take solace, though, in the fact that at Halloween Horror Nights and many other haunted house events, the monsters can’t touch you. They’ll get close, certainly, and the lighting and sound effects certainly make it seem like they’re mere inches away from your nose, but they’ll never get close enough for contact. Just try not to lash out at them — there are people underneath those masks!

Know where to look

Regard dark corners with caution and approach every wall or curtain with the assumption that there’s a terrifying monster just behind it. Evil lurks everywhere, but those are its favorite spots in a haunted house.

In my very first house of the night, the vibe of which can only be described as “cannibalistic nuclear apocalypse survivors living in the New York City subway system,” we were made to tiptoe through a long-abandoned subway car. There were the familiar orange seats, now caked with grime and the blood of dismembered passengers. I approached a false wall — subways don’t have those! — and knew I was in for a scare. I braced myself, I even looked away — and yet, a moss-covered woman with black paint around her eyes got me anyway, launching at me with glee. I shrieked, and she looked proud of herself for frightening me so. I swear we almost shared a laugh together.

Stare monsters in the face

You know they’re there. They know they’ll scare you. Why not just look your monstrous attacker in the eye to show your dominance?

This was my strategy in a kitschy, 1950s-set maze where gigantic, evil bugs had taken over a mid-century home. When I came face-to-antennae with a person in a giant cockroach costume, I looked them right in their buggy “eyes.” It was then I realized how silly they really looked, and that, if I’d seen them walking down the street dressed as a roach, I’d sooner laugh than scream. Then again, bugs aren’t among my biggest fears — some of my companions were so terrified they swore they felt spiders crawling on them as they made their way through.

Find the humor where you can

Enjoy the laughs when you find them — or better yet, when you feel a scream coming on, try to laugh instead. Fake it ’til you make it!

At one point, we walked through a “scare zone” — that is, a themed section of the park in which scare actors roam the crowd to scare you when you’re between houses — that took place in a corn field. These were the living scarecrows again, only this time, they leered at you from fake outhouses or atop bales of hay.

There was one creature, though, that, instead of finding hedge clippers or a chainsaw, hilariously threatened passers-by with an ear of corn, and not even a particularly pointy one. He was thrusting it at us like his corn cob was just as dangerous a weapon as his neighbor’s pitchfork. Clearly, even murderous scarecrows are on TikTok, and this one wanted to capitalize on the corn trend — and provide some welcome comic relief.

Try to enjoy it

I entered the park prepared to chicken out, as I’m wont to do at haunted house events. But here, I found myself laughing after every scare … and loving it! Was I actually enjoying myself, even as Michael Myers came at me with a knife and undead sailors tried to spirit me away to their undersea lair?

In one of the final houses, I got within literal spitting distance of a chupacabra puppet so horrifying — think Jim Henson meets “An American Werewolf in London” — that it made me giddy. A smile spread across my masked face, even though it also made me leap into the air and scuttle away.

Another house was themed to and soundtracked by The Weeknd’s disturbing “After Hours” album. It was kind of nice to dance next to victims of plastic surgery gone very wrong and a demonic Abel Tesfaye while “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears” boomed overhead. I very cautiously danced my way through it, which made it feel less like a horror show and more like a sleazy club with good music that just happened to have some bloodthirsty patrons.

When the night was over, and the various monsters clocked out after a hard day’s torment, I wanted to do it all over again. I’m not ready to see whatever demon child or freaky exorcism film comes out next, but maybe I’d brave a haunted house inspired by them. Emphasis on maybe.

Halloween Horror Nights are taking place on select nights at the Universal Orlando Resort now through October 31.

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