The first haunted house announcement for Halloween Horror Nights 2018 was a doozy: Stranger Things, that massively popular Netflix original series, will be arriving, automatically becoming the de facto headlining experience of this year’s event.
The news was met with widespread excitement, but beneath the unbridled joy was a decided undercurrent of discontent and, moreover, concern from certain corners of the theming community. How can a series that is predicated more on suspense than outright horror make the transition to a haunt, and how can a full-fledged experience be fashioned out of a mere eight episodes? (Universal has opted to only cover the first season, most likely to ensure that subsequent years can be included in subsequent Horror Nights.)
Those are certainly valid questions, but it turns out that Universal, Netflix, and the Duffer brothers (the creators-showrunners of the television series) may have little to no trouble in overcoming these obstacles. Here’s how.
(Warning: SPOILER ALERT for all of Stranger Things‘s first season!)
Stranger Things – atmosphere
Halloween Horror Nights’s mazes are renowned, of course, for being scary, for providing more than their fair share of frights and jumps. But they’ve also become nationally legendary thanks to the sheer amount of money that Universal is able to devote to each one, fashioning sets that exude detail and beauty along with menace and horror; just using last year’s event as an example, Dead Waters’s opening scene – a massive, immaculately-recreated riverboat that had listed in the New Orleans swamps – was a jaw-dropper and a scene-stealer, while Hive’s vampire scare actors brandished special contacts that made their eyes glow in an otherworldly and sinister way in the blacklit house.
Of course, such deft touches don’t (completely) compensate for a scare experience that can’t deliver actual scares, but, on the other hand, their effect on the overarching maze can’t be downplayed, either – a house that exudes atmosphere, that bustles with the apprehension of danger lurking around the corner, can be just as potent as a nonstop scare-a-thon, even if it’s more psychological than physiological. And, it turns out, Stranger Things as a property can deliver on this premise significantly more than nearly any other franchise that HHN has seen in the past several years, if not longer.
Let’s just look at the environments that will be included. The imposing trans-dimensional entranceway to the Upside Down, located in the bowels of the Hawkins National Laboratory, could easily be the rival of that dilapidated paddleboat; the alternate reality itself, meanwhile, will ooze “a shower of floating orb-like spores,” which can be all sorts of creepy all by itself. And those are just the scenes that have already been confirmed to be in the maze – what if Universal’s Art and Design team also tackled Will Byers’s tree fort (especially the parallel-dimension version, with the Demogorgon endlessly prowling around outside it?), or the surreal astral-plane-esque mindscape that Eleven inhabits when attempting to locate other individuals? (Seriously – a room of endless black with a floor made of “water” has all sorts of potential for all sorts of good stuff.)
Confirmed #StrangerThings house scenes:
💀Hawkins National Laboratory
The house is to be based on season one of the @netflix hit. #HHN28
— Orlando Informer (@OrlandoInformer) April 3, 2018
And then there’s the Byers house, where mom Joyce jury-rigs her Christmas-light communication method with her spatially-displaced son. Yes, Universal has already announced that both the set and the “erratic” display of lights will be featured, but what about the normal house lights dimming – and the bulbs occasionally exploding – with Will’s radio suddenly snapping on next to guests as they snake their way through the environment?
If done properly, these atmospherics would accentuate the scares, no matter how many (or how few) there are, helping create an extremely-solid level of pacing and their own sense of psychological dread, to boot.
Stranger Things – scares
It came as something of a surprise that only Stranger Things’s first season got selected to be the basis of the Horror Nights house – not only does the second season more than double the amount of the source material, it also dramatically expands its variety.
That’s not to say, however, that these first eight episodes are lacking in the scares department. In its press release, Universal went out of its way to emphasize the “chittering, predatory” Demogorgon, and for good reason – this parallel-reality creature will undoubtedly be the main provider of jump scares, starting with its hunting of Will Byers in the woods and moving all the way on to the kids’ dramatic confrontation with it in the town’s middle school (more on which in just a moment). And while, initially, it might seem a bit much to have just one character be this main conduit of frights, there’s actually a variety of ways in which the Demogorgon’s jump-scares can be realized: it can distort both reality and the haunt’s set by stretching through the walls to snatch at guests (as it did in the Byers house), lunge at passersby from the ceiling (remember the first episode’s very first scene?), and do full-out sprints down corridors (as in Hawkins Middle School). A combination of puppets and scare actors in costume could easily realize all of these, resulting in something of a disorienting effect for attendees – from which direction will that pesky monster appear next?
But that’s by no means the full extent of scare-actor-fueled frights – the merciless Department of Energy employees that incessantly chase after Eleven throughout the season would be prime fodder, especially the ones brandishing hazmat suits and flamethrowers, as would the school bullies, Troy and James, that seem just as hell-bent on tormenting the four main kids. (Hey – if Universal can make American Horror Story: Coven’s buffoonish Myrtle Snow into a vehicle for a scare, eighth-graders should be no problem at all.)
Finally, we have to take into consideration the little fact that Universal will have full access to the show’s cast of characters, something which isn’t always the case with the IP haunts (particularly the bigger, more popular ones). This opens the door to specific scenes from the show being recreated right in front of guests’ eyes, and this, in turn, opens the door to more scares enveloping them: Joyce Byers hacking away at the Demogorgon in the wall with her axe; Eleven attacking the Department of Energy employees telekinetically, including snapping their necks; the creature dragging a dead deer off into a dimensional rift located in a tree trunk; Eleven facing off against the beast in the school, putting it down once and for all; and, if we want to get really crazy, the government employees’ vans being psychokinetically flipped over as the group of kids make their getaway.
Might all these elements still prevent Stranger Things from taking the scare crown at Halloween Horror Nights? Yes, probably. But the question may very well be who would ever notice – or care – after exiting a beautiful, disorienting, pitch-perfect haunted house.
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