Our Night at Scare Academy

Trana Pittam

Us: "We're going to Scare Academy at Universal. It's the class they give for participants in their annual Halloween nights."

'Fraidy-Cat Friend: "So, like. You're taught how to peel grapes for eyeballs? Make spaghetti for brains?"

Nope. No peeled grapes or cold pasta here. While we adore traditional backyard haunts (which have come far beyond peeled-grapery, we'll note), Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights have become famous throughout the fright industry for creating movie-quality, "am I really living this?," keep-a-change-of-pants-back-in-the-car scares.

The effect-laden, beautifully rendered mazes and gore'd-out props have much to do with that. But so do the actors, or as Universal refers to them, ScareActors (pronounce it "characters" with an "s" at the beginning). The theme park hires nearly four hundred additional employees every fall to work on the 16 Halloween Horror Nights nights, and they all get well schooled well ahead of time.

Schooled in scares (the "startle scare" vs. the "hit-and-run") and how to conserve energy over a long night and how to handle props in a menacing but safe fashion. Imagine you're in a mask and you have to jump out at scream-y, giggling guests, oh, dozens and dozens of times over a single shift. You've got to hit your mark every time, give the screamers a jump, and not ruin your voice. Challenging.

The recent Academy we attended -- Universal actually splits the Academy up into two nights, given the number of ScareActors -- was fascinating, in a willies-giving kind of way; this was not the sweet schooldays of our youth. Horror Nights impresario (and chief creative honcho) John Murdy gave a rousing, high-five-laden, hour-plus pep talk on the intricacies of chilling and thrilling, while Character Manager Jason Romero addressed safety. (Good tip: Even monsters must stay well hydrated.)

Mr. Murdy believes that even if you work in the "Saw" maze, you've got to know what's happening over in the "Halloween" house. So his step-by-step go-through helped everyone see the big, bloodcurdling picture. He even threw some costume drawings up on the large screen, to better illustrate various elements. Teeth chattered (well, ours) over chainsaws, zombies, the artfully placed shovel.

Then, small groups of ScareActors rotated to different stations, where they learned about being aware of their environment, distraction scares, how to respect the mazes and props, and HR matters and direct deposit.

We love living in a town where zombies -- even temporary zombies -- need direct deposit. And we support an academy devoted to scares. And even though we know the ABCs of various types of scares now, bet we'll scream next time Michael Myers or Chucky crosses our path. Nothin' wrong with 'fraidy-catting-it-up from time to time.

Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights opens on Friday, October 2nd; eye full date and ticket information.

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