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©Universal Orlando Resort

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando celebrates 20 years

By Stephen Wheeler

In late September and throughout October, characters you know and loathe converge at Universal Orlando with one common goal: the ultimate horrifying experience. As one of the largest Halloween events in the nation, Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights' 20th birthday will again have heads turning (and turning and turning around).

One of the leaders of Universal Orlando's ghoulish transformation is T.J. Mannarino. As director of art and design for Universal Orlando's entertainment group, Mannarino and his team have amassed some impressive bodies of work. Their character creations include the forlornly unforgettable Eelmouth, The White Rabbit, The Director, Jack and The Usher, among many others. And while Halloween Horror Nights will certainly pay tribute to 20 years of these fearful felons, the real challenge of this year's production is to create an experience that is both good for guests coming for the first time, as well as those fans who have been coming all along.

What many don't realize is that the production effort required to "re- animate" Halloween Horror Nights year after year can be intense. Starting no later than the second week of May, construction of sets, houses and scare zones begins, with concurrent casting (of more than 1,000 performers), rehearsals and technical effects testing. The entire process lasts through the end of September—nearly 20 weeks in all. It culminates, Mannarino says, "in one final big rehearsal with everything going at once to make sure the final effect is show-ready."

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And if the thought of navigating any of the soon-to-be-completed eight haunted houses isn't suspenseful enough, the ultimate theme of this 20th year of fear has yet to be announced. "I really wish I could tell you," Mannarino says, revealing only that it will definitely "satisfy the expectations of our audience."

In fact, the anticipation of the event has become an event itself. With more than 43,000 fans on Facebook, discussion of early media teasers (including an eerie flickering lantern and the phrase "unbridled terror is on the rise") has led to pages and pages of speculation. On YouTube, more than 650 video entries surface with the search terms "Halloween Horror Nights 2010." Remove the "2010" and that number leaps to over 4,300. It's as if the fans, impatiently waiting, have opted for their own suspenseful creations.

But then, creating suspense has always been a Universal hallmark. With 75 years in the film horror business, Mannarino concludes, Universal is the company that created horror. Who knows better how to bring it to life?

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