While I was away on vacation in August, a press release from Universal Orlando arrived via e-mail, proudly predicting this year's "in-your-face" Halloween Horror Nights billboards would push the "outdoor advertising … art form to new levels" and "stay with you long after you drive past them." No surprise, then, to read upon returning a poorly sourced report in the Sentinel (quietly followed by a retraction) along with a sanctimonious editorial tsk-tsking Universal for the ads. Moralists in this town have short memories: The design under debate (a white-eyed face in a fractured mirror) is arresting, but much less graphic than, say, 1997's eyelid-peeling goblins.

I queried Michael Lewellen, Universal's VP of PR, on the fauxtroversy between swigs of "Scary Mary" spiked energy drinks and bites of lobster pot pie at Universal's annual Halloween media orgy. He diplomatically declined to diss any self-appointed guardians of momhood (or their media enablers), but did note that the relative silence greeting Busch Garden's gorier Howl-O-Scream signage speaks to Universal's visibility as the nation's "top amusement park Halloween event" (so says HauntWorld magazine).

The 17th edition of HHN featured licensed slasher-film villains, but for the 18th they've created an original supernatural icon. The "Bloody Mary" of urban legend has been reimagined with an elaborate backstory as Dr. Mary Agana, a psycho psychotherapist turned vengeful spirit. I wondered if today's generation knows the "chant three times in a mirror" tale, but creative director J. Michael Roddy says his school-age daughter recently learned of the slumber-party dare from friends. Mary merges well with the pantheon of memorable monsters created by Universal, but her presence wasn't overly obvious throughout the event — excepting her enormous video visage over the entrance.

Following the free booze and dim sum, our expert "RIP" tour guide, Michelle Cannon, took us on a whirlwind tour of theme-park terror. At the risk of being a corporate shill, RIP is the only sane way to roll. While crowds looked manageable on opening night, even imminent economic ruin probably won't prevent asphyxiating overattendance on peak nights. Waiting in line for up to four hours isn't unheard of, and expensive Express passes don't grant front-of-the-line privileges. If you're investing that much money, you might as well kick in for the blood-red carpet treatment. Those of more moderate means should go early on a school night, and bring a coupon and plenty of patience.

Roddy and his team have some new tricks to offset the overcrowding. Guests can play "choose your adventure" text-messaging games while they queue, providing an innovative distraction. Better yet, the outdoor scare zones are back. While none surpass 2006's "Deadtropolis," the six new areas feature fresh themes and clever scare-actor casts that go beyond basic boos. Flying monkeys and a bondage-gear Cowardly Lion inhabit the "Path of the Wicked," and fabulous flickering jack-o'-lanterns and classic-creepy costumes abound around "The Skoolhouse." It may be hyperbolic for Roddy to claim you can get your money's worth from street scares alone, but not by much.

Other alternatives to haunted houses are the three live shows, including the returning Rocky Horror Picture Show Tribute and Brian Brushwood's carnival-freak magic. Maybe it was because I was sitting in front of writer-director Michael Aiello, but I found this year's Bill and Ted pop-cult spoof a refreshing return to form after several weak seasons. The sharpest slams come in the political preshow; the main event stars a geriatric Indy Jones (smoking a Crystal Skull bong), a lip-sync-less Speed Racer and my personal fave, Hellboy. I don't mind that the plot is paper-thin (as Aiello cheerfully acknowledges), I just wish they'd downsize the increasingly dominant sub—Shane Sparks dance sequences.

Of course, all you really want to know is, "How are the houses?" Scares are subjective, so your fright-mileage may vary:

Body Collectors: The fan-favorite grinning fiends (borrowed from the Buffy episode "Hush") return to stalk the streets of Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel. With stunning scale and a striking spinal surgery scene, Aiello and Roddy (look for their names above the Sweeney Todd—esque barber shop) both pick this maze as their favorite, and I heartily agree.

Scary Tales: Great use of space and atmosphere, with an icky amputee Cinderella, a mutilated mad tea party and other corrupted children's characters. Beware the big bear!

Interstellar Terror: An Event Horizon homage with sets suitable for a mid-budget sci-fi flick, and some entertaining extra-vehicular effects, but a slight shortage of scares.

Creatures!: EC Comics creepy-crawlies versus rednecks in a white-trash wonderland. Good details, but not as gory or goofy as last year's Xmas Massacre.

Doomsday: Based on the blink-and-you missed it "blockbuster" film. I appreciated the urban environments and punk-rock finale, but some of the cast seemed subdued for cannibalistic crazies.

The Hallow: Hook-nosed witches, goat-headed guys and other sentries of Samhain inhabit ancient ruins, but the musty funk makes the biggest impression.

Dead Exposure: A zombie apocalypse through the eyes of a photojournalist, with black-light strobes, reflective paint and stylized sets; a little too high-concept for its own good.

Reflections of Fear: The hospital home of headliner Dr. Mary resembles Psychoscareapy without the shit smell. Disappointingly short, though I liked the claustrophobic inflatable tunnels.


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