Thirty years ago Universal Orlando Resort (known as just Universal Studios Florida at the time) joined the horror universe. With that first Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) event (originally called Fright Nights), there was no way to predict the event would grow to what it is today, or that a community of die-hard fans would be born from its depths. As part of #HHNForever, we’re looking back at everything amazing, and terrifying, that’s happened in the world of HHN throughout the years — and we’re not doing it alone.
We decided to turn to the ones who probably know more about the event than most people who work it, the fans, to share their memories and the impact HHN has had on their lives. The first story we told was an HHN romance featuring a couple who found Love in the Fog. In this piece, I took a different route and took the questions and age-old debates (pizza fries or twisted taters!?) that we (HHN fans) always find ourselves wondering and asked a devoted fan who first attended the event back in 1996.
Brian Sage, better known as Dr. Strengoit online, is a passionate fan of the event with an impressive collection of memorabilia, extensive knowledge of the event’s history, and active presence in the HHN community. For him, the passion is a family matter as well, as it’s become a yearly tradition for him and his wife and he even got to introduce his daughter to it for the first time back in 2018. Here’s what he had to say.
When did you first become a fan of horror?
Brian: My journey to become a horror fan is likely the opposite of most. An interest in horror did not lead me to attend HHN, but rather, attending HHN led me to an interest in the horror genre. Before HHN, I wasn’t interested in horror movies, TV shows, etc. My only foray into the horror genre was my love of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. My love of HHN spilled over to a love of Universal Orlando Resort, and I have been a Passholder for years.
What year did you first attend HHN and what is it about that first time that made you become a fan?
Brian: My first year attending Halloween Horror Nights was 1996. At the time, I was an undergrad at the University of Florida, and I attended with my best friend, Chris. He and I still attend HHN together to this day. You could call it our “bromance” time of the year. I then attended again in 2010 and every year since. 2010 was the first year my wife, Crystal, attended the event, and it has become our annual tradition and most cherished way to spend time together.
What happened to those 13 lost years between 1996 and 2010, you ask? Well, we don’t talk about those dark days without HHN. Being a poor graduate student and postdoctoral fellow across the country prevented my attending. Was it worth missing HHN for higher education? Debatable. What made me become a fan of HHN? Simple, nobody does Halloween the way that Universal does Halloween. There is no comparison.
What do you think makes HHN the best Halloween event?
Brian: Can I say, everything? There is so much to list here; an entire article could be written on just this question. There are the obvious things like the sets, costumes, make-up, scares, atmosphere, etc. However, if we actually go deeper, then I would summarize it in two categories. First, all of the amazingly talented and creative individuals who envision and bring to life this event that we love. Second, the HHN fan community. This community is passionate about the event and compassionate toward each other.
From your perspective, how has the event evolved throughout the years?
Brian: I would describe the evolution in different eras: Spreading wings, icon, and IP (intellectual property). The event spent some years spreading its wings, finding a voice of its own, and growing both in size and appeal. Then, we entered the icon era where the draw of the icons and an overarching theme defined the event years. Today, HHN is in the IP era. Nobody can bring the big-name intellectual properties to life the way Universal can. It’s like you are stepping on the set of your favorite movies and TV series. What comes next? I have no doubt that Universal will continue to astonish us with their creativity and ability to improve year after year.
What does Halloween Horror Nights mean to you?
Brian: It means love, family, and passion. This is some of the best quality time I spend with my wife, daughter, and best friend. The HHN community is one of the most passionate and supportive fandoms I have ever seen. The vast majority of HHN fans, fan sites, podcasts, and YouTube channels are there to support each other and, more impressively, positively support and contribute to society as a whole. We eagerly await this event year after year. From the anticipation, rumors, and build up, to announcement season, to the two months attending. We are left in awe year after year of how Universal can continue to outshine and astonish. To the fans, HHN is Halloween.
For someone who’s never been to the event, maybe even a little nervous about going, what would you tell them about HHN? Any tips or tricks?
Brian: First, get there early. Either be there when the gates open, or even better, do Stay and Scream. Why? Because we tend to have a lot less fear in the daylight than in the dark. Second, spend the first hour or two wandering through the scare zones. Being in the open and in the daylight can ease you into the scares. Third, ask an HHN fan which haunted house is the least intense that year for the scare factor. (We’re everywhere, we’re very welcoming, and we want to help those new to the event.)
Here is a unique one you might not have heard before. At the beginning of the event, it’s still bright outside. Your eyes might have difficulty adjusting from the Florida sun to the dim lighting in the houses. For the best experience, wear sunglasses until you get to the house entrance then take them off. This gives you a better chance of letting your eyes adjust to the dark and being able to see inside the house.
Let’s finish with a round of favorites and why!
Favorite haunted house?
Brian: Graveyard Games from 2019. An interactive chat backstory, a graveyard/gothic aesthetic, memorable characters in Sid and Nancy, amazing sets, costumes, and makeup, excellent use of peppers ghost and other special effects, creepy kids, the sensory deprivation/ sound tunnel, the floor zombie, the grinners… I could go on forever about this house!
Favorite scare zone?
Brian: I absolutely adore the traditional Halloween aesthetic and Twisted Tradition from 2018 executed it perfectly. It doesn’t hurt that the meandering tree-lined path through the fog in the Central Park area is the perfect setting for a scare zone. On top of that, seeing the jack o’ lanterns in the trees along Central Park lets me know that I’m back at HHN… that I’ve returned home.
Favorite year of HHN?
Brian: Can I say every year? No? That’s cheating? OK, well then, I would say my favorite year has to be HHN23 (2013). Why? Because of the extensive interactive component with Legendary Truth: the backstories, the online games, the in-park RFID readers, the online and in-park riddles to solve, the interaction with the art and design team, the competition among the legions… My god it truly brought HHN up to another level for the hardcore fans.
Brian: Wow, that question is just not OK! One favorite?!?! OK, I’m going to cheat and list three.
- Jack. Because more than any other icon he symbolizes the event.
- The Usher. Because of his intense vibe.
- The Caretaker. Because of his creepy vibe. The Caretaker’s desire to understand death appeals to me, too. Why? Because the reason I got a PhD in molecular biology and genetics (the Dr. in Dr. Strengoit isn’t just symbolic) was to research aging. Don’t worry, I won’t be removing any hearts anytime soon, though!
Brian: An amazing memory was taking my daughter to her first HHN in 2018. She really wanted to attend and convinced me that she was ready. Experiencing my daughter’s first HHN and seeing the event through her eyes was wonderful. I was really impressed by how well she handled the event, and I was ecstatic she ended up really enjoying it. HHN has another fan, as she definitely wants to return every year.
Favorite collectible piece you have?
Brian: My HHN collection is quite extensive. I have a shadow box for each year I attended. I have some rare items, such as Cloisonné coins that were given to HHN management, playing cards used by Lady Luck, and buttons that Team Members wore in the past to advertise the event.
However, my favorite pieces are ones that represent a personal connection. For example, I had the privilege to meet and chat with the artist who was responsible for the Jack the Clown art design. I was able to have him sign the box for my Jack vinyl figurine. If I could have one HHN wish, it would be to get the opportunity to meet the other creative minds behind the event, chat with them, and get them to sign the same piece.
The age-old debate: Pizza Fries or Twisted Tater?
Brian: Between those two, Pizza Fries, hands down. However, I’m going to issue a throwback: hotdog stuffed-crust pizza. It hasn’t been at the event for a few years and when it was at the event it was only sold in one stand by the tent haunted house exits. Because of its location, it was hard to find and therefore underrated. If more people knew about it, and tried it, then I think it would give both Pizza Fries and Twisted Taters a run for their money.
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