Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) has cemented itself as a top-tier Halloween event and tens of thousands of horror enthusiasts from around the globe make their yearly pilgrimage to Orlando to get their annual fill of spooky thrills.
Though most are drawn to the park year after year to experience the newest offerings from the ghoulish think tank of Universal’s Creative Development Entertainment teams, many legacy fans are also motivated by a desire to re-experience the characters and universes they’ve come to love in years past. (And of course plenty of newcomers coming to check out the haunts and see for themselves what all the spooky fuss is about.) Scare zones evolve into houses, the sequels within horror franchises become worthy of houses of their own, original creations evolve into spin-offs, and perhaps most notably, the Icons of HHN return to once again lay claim to Universal Studios. These climatic reunions of the HHN Icons allow both new and returning guests to bear witness to other dimensions of their joyful wickedness.
Just about every year of HHN since the beginning has been unified through a single encompassing theme and — most often — that theme has been personified, literally, with an “Icon” (a tangible representation of that year’s twist). Though Jack-the-Clown has become the figurehead of the HHN Icons (we dedicated an entire blog on his backstory; see here!), we cannot forget the fiendish delight with which Lady Luck gambles with her victims on a torturous Roulette wheel, the deranged laughter of Jack’s protégé Chance, or the hellish amalgamation of features that has characterized the Icon of Fear (more on him later). Throughout the last several decades, these unique creations have become the centerpiece of HHN storytelling, and guests feverishly await the announcement of a new Icon or the ceremonious return of a fan favorite.
There’s so much lore here to research, so to help my cause, I enlisted the help of Universal Entertainment’s Senior Show Director and HHN aficionado Charles Gray, who gave me insight into the machinations of the event’s designers.
In 30 plus years of HHN design, the team has introduced and reintroduced the Icons to explore their backstories and their sinister motivations. This year, in a celebration of “thirty years, thirty fears”, these visionaries put all of the fan-favorite Icons into a single house for the first time in event history. But, as Charles explains with ominous subtext, “there was something behind the scenes pulling the strings”. You can thank Fear for his reluctance to take credit; HHN legend says that the Icon Fear is responsible for trapping our favorite hosts inside his Lantern. And it’s this Lantern that is the backdrop of HHN30’s HHN Icons: Captured house.
For those who have not had the chance to experience Icons: Captured for yourself (or did so through parted fingers), let’s quickly recap the sights, sounds, and smells you are treated to inside Soundstage 24.
Immediately upon entering, you find yourself staring at a red and black gate, above which three X’s are etched, representing three decades of haunts. Welcome to Fear’s Lantern, a prison that is the source of all of the evil ravished upon the unlucky guests of Universal Orlando every year. Surrounding these gates are seven totems, each one representing the most well-known Icons of HHN history: Lady Luck, The Director, Chance, Jack, The Caretaker, The Usher, and The Storyteller. Once you’ve decided to join the prisoners of this alluring Lantern, there’s no going back. Before you’ve had a chance to second-guess your decision, you are face-to-face with The Caretaker and his infamous shears. Fellow inmate Chance attacks you around the corner as you are distracted by the looming visage of Fear himself. As you scramble for safety, you are rewarded with the (mis)fortune of gambling with your life at Lady Luck’s Casino. If you manage to discover the exit, you’ll find yourself in the dreary domain of The Director. Its around this point that you’ll probably begin to understand the demented design of this Lantern.
Prisoners as they may be, these Icons have laid total claim to each of their chambers, and they revel in the opportunity to decorate these rooms to fit their personalities. The captured Icons are clearly experienced interior decorators, and each have taken full advantage of making their chambers feel completely like their own. Each of their scenes are so meticulously crafted, and richly decorated with their Icon-specific devices of torment. Charles’ eyes light up as he recounts the process of reaching into their dusty bag of tricks, seeing what props and backdrops they could salvage in their warehouse to deliver a blast from the past for returning guests, like Lady Luck’s roulette wheel and the fan strapped in (proudly adorning an HHN21 shirt).
But any attempt to piece together the layout of this labyrinth is frivolous as you stumble out of The Director’s realm and into The Usher’s cursed theater. The scent of popcorn is thick in the air as you go toe-to-toe with the reanimated Icon brandishing his trusty flashlight while you weave through several schlocky movie posters. (Look familiar? Yup – those are from HHN 28’s Slaughter Sinema.)
The eerie funeral home of The Caretaker is next, where you’ll need to survive another swipe from his notorious shears before taking refuge in the unsettling living room of The Storyteller. Avoid the grisly fate of the corpses strewn about this abode as The Storyteller (Elsa) sheds her innocent façade and metamorphosizes into a demon siren, her true form revealed for the first time in event history. This transformation adds a layer to this impalpable elder, whose preferred mode of attack “is like a spider waiting in the web, drawing you in before she attacks”, as Charles describes it. The penultimate experience is the manic realm hosting Jack and Chance, their frenzied howls of glee echoing throughout their vibrantly illuminated cell, reminiscent of circuses past.
Those who’ve made it this far will find themselves at the grand finale, face-to-face with an Icon proudly seated on Fear’s throne. This single element, according to Charles, demonstrates “a shared power between all of the different Icons”. Since Icons have historically had sole claim over Universal, they are not used to sharing the spotlight. Yet this year all of our favorite stewards of evil find themselves front and center seated on the throne — except for Fear, who Charles has branded “the landlord of this hellish landscape… just collecting rent!” I wonder how many superfans are among the elite who have seen all seven outcomes?
I’ve come to realize that the greatest joy of Icons: Captured is that it is far from homogenous. You’ll find it atop many a fan’s rankings list because of its quilt-like quality; it boasts a combination of many unique settings and atmospheres, almost like a slideshow of memories, or an album of HHN’s greatest hits. The broad appeal of Icons: Captured lies in its ability to transport you through the scare zones and houses which the titular Icons used to call home.
The intent of this house was for the guests “to get a taste of each Icon” – and the team accomplished this by canvassing “the theming and aspects of each character in the collective years they were available to the public, and putting that all together in one scene”. Yet the transitions between their realms aren’t jarring at all, thanks again to the foresight of the talented staff who deliberately blurred the lines between Icons.
“We tried to find ways to blend these scenes together,” he explains. From Lady Luck’s realm, the spinning reels of a slot machine display three cameras, portending your teleportation into The Director’s scene. From there, eagle-eyed guests will catch the hanging corpse of Julian Browning (AKA “The Usher”), hopelessly tangled in coils of ropes and sandbags, all while The Director’s snuff film plays overhead.
When I asked Charles how the team was able to walk the creative tightrope between appealing to newcomers of the event and seasoned fans, he laid out the house’s design philosophy.
“[We didn’t] want to go in and just repeat everything everybody had seen before,” he says. “But if there’s something that’s so far back in the past, you may want to bring it back: to remind people of who they are, and also re-educate or initiate the new fans. Take The Director. We leaned into some of his old commercials. But if you weren’t from that time, you might just know there is this guy called ‘The Director’. But even then, some people don’t even know who ‘The Director’ is, so it’s kind of pulling apart that timeline and figuring out which fan knows what.”
This process of compartmentalizing the HHN fanbase also introduces a third category of fan, the semi-initiated attendee who has educated themselves through word of mouth, viral marketing, or internet hearsay — a cult of fans who contributes to theories and rumors. Charles describes this balancing act as “satisfying the questions” of the latter group, “initiating the group that doesn’t know anything” about Icon lore, and “checking the boxes for the die-hard fans”.
And so what did the team do for all three types of fans? “We looked at The Storyteller, or some of the other characters, and wanted to expand their story or give the fans new nuggets of information, or new pieces of history. Something everyone could appreciate.”
As for the future of our favorite Icons? On this topic, Charles is intentionally tight-lipped. “You never know,” he says with a grin. “The Lantern is closing. And who knows if it will ever be opened again”.
Now there’s a call to action if I’ve ever heard one! Don’t wait for the Lantern to seal for good. Now it’s time for you to roll the dice and see which Icon comes out victorious.