How much make-believe darkness is fun?
It’s a question that ran through my mind at Halloween Horror Nights, the annual two-month event at Universal Orlando where visitors embrace the spine-chilling side of the season. (Apple cider donuts and hay rides this is not.)
The event — the most popular Halloween-themed attraction in the country — celebrates the bloody, the gory, the grotesque. Guests pay to be terrified to tears. As a once-reluctant participant, there was a time when I could not imagine wanting to be scared. But in recent years, I have found an unlikely outlet in Horror Nights. It is scream-your-heart-out, let-it-go catharsis. It is self-care if self-care weren’t polite. It is also full of ’80s awesomeness.
This year, I had an opportunity to do some scaring myself in the role of a “harvest victim” who has been pillaged for parts by plastic surgery-obsessed maniacs at the “Vanity Ball,” one of five elaborately themed zones. Accepting this challenge involved embracing a level of public flamboyance that shoved me out of my introvert comfort zone. (But let’s be honest: There is no stronger lure out of one’s comfort zone than Instagram appeal.)
At “Boo Camp” at Universal Orlando, show director Blake Braswell and assistant director Kelly Malik walked a group of journalists through a brief tutorial for “scare-actors” (rhymes with characters).
The basic rules: Keep guests off-kilter by changing your position (from low to high or high to low); use other guests or fellow scare-actors as a cover to distract your mark; no touching, screaming or hands in anyone’s face.
Then it was off to wardrobe, where our group changed into bloodied hospital gowns. Next came our time with makeup and prosthetic designer Emily Serpico, the artist behind the fiendishly distorted faces of the “harvest victims.” My look involved a giant prosthetic lip, blackened eyes and lots of blood — the latter sprayed on in a “blood tent” as the finishing touch before heading out into the crowd.
At this point, in my mind, I am looking like a glamorous ghoul with a corpse hair, don’t care vibe. At worst, I’m imagining a Zombie Real Housewife. In fact, when I see myself, I look like someone put my face in the garbage disposal and then glued it back on. My prosthetic lip is the real terror, a pulpy mass protruding into the warm Florida night air.
It’s not until I see guests recoil from the sight of me that I realize just how disturbing I look. And yet, as the irony of the “ball” suggests, mingling in public looking like a human scrap heap quickly eliminates all vanity. With my putrid face and limp gown, there was no chance of charming anyone, so — for maybe the first time in my life? — I didn’t need to try.
But could I scare them? At first, it seemed rude. I did not want to cause distress, after all. But in the zone, with the fog and the thumping music and the flashing lights, expectant guests immediately looked my way, wondering what I would do. I realized that it would be rude to disappoint. My harvest victim, I decided, would blow kisses from her mangled lip, oblivious to her vile appearance.
And then, with freakishly little prodding, I was strutting on the ball’s catwalk, imagining myself at a couture show, Kendall Jenner on the Chanel runway: I was fierce. I was fabulous. I was . . . wearing an open-backed hospital gown and a melted face.
Still I twirled, posed and pretended I was having my very own America’s Next Top Model moment. It was freeing, the way facing your fears can be. And that, I think, is a little bit beautiful.
Halloween Horror Nights runs through November 2 on select nights at Universal Studios Florida. For tickets and more information visit orlando.halloweenhorrornights.com.