October 28, 2016

An actor at Halloween Horror Nights.

While I’ve lived here in Florida for a few years, and been an annual passholder at Disney since before I came to Orlando, I haven’t spent as much time at Universal Studios. Every year I’m impressed by the advertising campaign that accompanies the arrival of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights (“hosted” by Chance, pictured above), but this is the first year I’ve actually been lured in to attending. I was delighted to find it to be a great place to see principles of environmental storytelling (see Henry Jenkins for a great description on display, although I was also surprised by how little digital media has impacted their design so far.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the house from my perspective as a newcomer were those based on American Horror Story and The Walking Dead—two series shows that are now fairly long-lived, with a range of narrative arcs between them. Their haunted house iterations were extremely fragmented, moving rapidly from season to season with changes in theme and relying on passageways of darkness or flashing lights to provide a sense of transition. Even the term haunted house is a bit misleading, as ultimately exploration is limited by the constant pressure to move forward on a set, sometimes frantic, linear path.

Universal Studios divides their haunted houses between adaptations (associated with TV shows or movies) and “original” houses. Of course, even the “original” houses aren’t particularly original: instead, they vaguely evoke connections to images from across several franchises. The “scare zones” are likewise send-ups of popular movies and themes, with the expected post-apocalypse zone with roving gangs recalling Mad Max while “Dead Man’s Wharf” channels the Davy Jones moments from Pirates of the Caribbean. While all theme parks rely endlessly on our investment in the referenced texts to fill in the gaps in the environmental narrative shorthand, the rapid-fire pace of haunted houses makes them even more reliant on our understanding that we “should” be scared.

The Halloween Horror Nights “scare zones” and the very concept of the haunted house are based on a type of passive interactivity—the viewer enters the space, co-exists, and might even engage in dialogue with the performers, but the interactions never take a next step. This makes the new virtual reality haunted house “The Reposistory” (an experimental, additional ticket multiplayer haunt) particularly interesting as a step towards even further integration of game and theme park. The experience combines live action set-up with a virtual reality setting and an escape room puzzle. There are a lot of cool experiments in this direction that you can easily check out in Orlando: Disney’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure both combine screens and story to let players take a role in chasing down bad guys through multiple sections of the park, while more traditional installations like those at Innoventions and DisneyQuest simply bring gaming hardware on-site.

If the next generation of gamers is going to be brought up on virtual reality headsets and catching Pokemon in the wild, it’s likely that theme park design is going to have to take even more lessons from games to develop transmedia experiences that give us something new besides the physical recreation of a familiar property’s settings. With Halloween almost upon us, I highly recommend making the trip to Universal to consider what that next generation of design might look like—particularly when it comes to getting a scare.