- Lora Sauls and Charles Gray are two of the people behind Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights.
- The annual 42-night event takes place around Halloween and includes 10 haunted houses.
- For Sauls, Gray, and the team, Halloween never ends. They’re already working on next year’s event.
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Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights – HHN for short – began as a three-night event with only one haunted house in 1991. It has since ballooned into a 42-night event with 10 haunted houses, five outdoor scare zones, live shows, themed foods, and souvenirs that transform Universal Studios Florida park into a twisted, terrifying, and downright disgusting good time.
Halloween Horror Nights’ milestone 30th anniversary season kicked off on September 3 to sold-out crowds, thanks in large part to Lora Sauls, the senior manager of creative development and show direction, and Charles Gray, the senior show director of creative development. In short, Sauls and Gray lead Universal Orlando’s entertainment creative development team in bringing the park’s marquee events like Halloween Horror Nights to life from concept to completion.
When Insider asked how he spends his evenings during the event, Gray joked – at least, we think he was joking: “We just kind of hide out in the bushes and see what’s happening. We like seeing people experience the thing we’ve worked on for so long.”
Sauls shared a similar sentiment, adding: “I love to stand at the exits to the haunted houses and hear what people are saying when they leave. Whether they’re running, screaming, crying, or laughing, it gives us immediate feedback of what they feel about the house.”
Those reactions often aren’t a measure of a job well done, but when your job is scaring people for a living, they’re exactly what you’re hoping for. Sauls and Gray, along with the rest of the Creative Development team, are involved in every aspect of HHN, from mining the darkest recesses of their brains for haunted-house ideas to casting and training the scare actors whose job it is to terrify you.
Scaring people for a living is a year-round job
This year’s HHN isn’t even close to over, but Sauls said the Creative Development team is already hard at work dreaming up nightmares for next year’s event.
“We say we work on Halloween year-round, and we do,” Sauls said. “We really dive into next year’s conceptual design during the current year’s event.”
Before next year’s houses can be populated with scare actors and gory props, the Creative Development team works together to determine the theme of each house. In recent years, that includes a mix of houses inspired by popular names in movies and television like “Beetlejuice” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” as well as original concepts like this year’s Puppet Theatre: Captive Audience. Let’s just say, you don’t want to know what happens when a maniacal puppet troupe begins transforming guests into (gulp) life-size marionettes.
After years of honing his craft, Gray knows the best houses are a collaborative effort.
“I really love teamwork and collaboration, because I don’t think any singular design stands up as well as something that has the strength of three people behind it,” he told Insider. “There are four show directors and three or four scenic designers. We all get in a room at the beginning of the process and talk about our dream and lovingly argue through it.”
Take this year’s Case Files Unearthed: Legendary Truth house, for example.
“I really wanted a film noir detective story, someone else wanted a monster hunter feel, and somebody else wanted to tell our historic Legendary Truth stories [a paranormal research team who has shown up in various ways throughout Halloween Horror Nights history], so we found a way to combine them all,” Gray said. “Guests who have never been to HHN can come in and say, ‘Oh, this is a really cool 1948 New York vibe,’ but fans who have come to the event multiple times will recognize props and characters because there’s a lot of history with this house.”
Once the designs are complete, the walls of next year’s houses will begin to go up.
“I specifically remember our whole team going out on Valentine’s Day one year and taking a photo of the first walls going up in a haunted house,” Sauls said. “That’s something we love to do. Not your typical way to spend Valentine’s Day, but it’s pretty obvious nothing about this job is typical.”
By late spring, casting auditions begin for the ghosts and monsters who will inhabit the houses and scare zones.
“We cast such a wide range of characters, which is part of the fun,” Gray said. “The training process differs from house to house because some houses, like this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre only, have a few characters, but there’s a multitude of them throughout the house.
“Others, like Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin, have one scene with goblins, one with a witch, and one with a big grim reaper, so it takes a little more time to get the intricacies of their characters. It’s really fun to watch them embody those characters, especially once they have their masks and costumes on.”
Then, as Beetlejuice would say, it’s showtime!
They want to scare you, but they also want you to have fun
Gray and Sauls know that what scares one person might not scare another, and they’re experts at ensuring everyone’s worst fears are somewhere within the park. This year’s Beetlejuice house has some great jump scares, but it’s also fun and offbeat like the film.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are original houses like Revenge of the Tooth Fairy, which is over-the-top gory and, sorry to say, will do absolutely nothing for your fear of the dentist.
Not to mention, being scared is part of the fun.
“If you see somebody get scared and they’re with a group, everyone is kind of laughing afterward, like ‘Ah! You got scared,'” Gray joked. The social aspect and the endorphins you get from being scared and making it through the houses safely make the event just as fun as it is scary.
The Creative Development team also knows that not everybody enjoys being scared. During the event, there are live shows that are more entertaining than scary, and a few of the park’s most popular attractions stay open for late-night rides.
Or, as Gray suggested: “You can also just sit on the sidelines with an adult beverage and watch other people get scared.”
For Gray and Sauls, their favorite part of HHN is just that: the people, whether it be those he works with or those at the park ready to be scared.
“It’s awesome to see the guests enjoy it so very much,” Sauls said. “To me, the most special compliment that we can get is the fact that the guests love what we get to do.”