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Halloween Horror Nights show director talks bringing fresh scares, cult horror to Universal Orlando

Charles Gray is the man behind the screams at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights.

He's been one of the show directors for the annual event for about five years and this year he oversaw the storytelling and development of the nine haunted houses coming to the theme park starting Friday night.

So when you come face-to-face with Bloody Face in the American Horror Story house or flee in terror from an axe-wielding Jack in The Shining maze, thank Gray for the nightmares.

Gray recently called the Times to chat about what goes into bringing the best scares to the 27th year of Halloween Horror Nights.

As a show director for Halloween Horror Nights, what do you have your hands in?

Well, we have four show directors, and I'm in charge of the houses, what we call mazes. It's a very large task; very in depth. But I get to see it from inception to birth. I know the ins and outs of every house. I learn something new every year. There are always new challenges and new things to try. We always aim to build off the event's history.

How does Universal decide what intellectual properties (IPs) to showcase at Halloween Horror Nights? I'm sure it's a pretty complicated process.

Oh yes, it's a complex process. A lot of things have to line up. But speaking from the entertainment point of view, we always have that wish list that's hanging on our wall. We try to check different boxes. We know there are a lot of different people visiting the event, so we want a variety. We want a little bit of everything.

For instance, (we're bringing a house based on) The Shining. It's multigenerational.

Every year we try to have houses that represent a classic, but also have cult classics like this year's Ash vs. Evil Dead.

We aim to bring in the horror community but also the casual horror fans.

And what about your original houses? I'm sure those are completely different monsters.

It's all about figuring out what stories we can fill the gaps with, but can also stretch our storytelling muscles.

This year we have Hive, which takes all the romantic and beautiful notions out of vampires. It has these Nosferatu-type characters. A lot of the scare actors agreed to shave their heads. There's a lot of bestial creature makeup. It's very disturbing.

But we get to have a lot of fun with the original houses. As a show director and writer that's one of my joys -- coming up with those backstories. We really are tasked with telling a whole story visually with music and decor and taking you from room to room, scene by scene.

What's the first step to bringing an IP-themed house to life? Binging the movie or TV show it's inspired by?

The first step and hardest step is to not watch (the movie or TV show) as a show director. I try to watch it the first time as a fan to really earmark those moments that are must-haves. For The Shining, we have to have the old lady in the bathroom. We have to have the blood elevator.

The first time around, it's not about finding what we can or can't do, it's about what we want to see and what the fans want to see. Then we'll watch the content again with a more critical eye and take notes for creative development.

What are some things everyone can look forward to this year, even if they aren't huge horror buffs?

I say this every year: There really is something for everybody. I know some people might not be big horror fans or like getting scared, but it's just as entertaining to get a beverage, sit on a bench and watch other people get scared.

What's new this year that's a must-see?

I don't want to spoil anything, but we are doing some things we haven't tried before. I think the American Horror Story house is going to be huge. We're really excited to bring the next seasons (Asylum, Coven and Roanoke) to life.

We also have a lot of content that's unreleased. In the Horrors of Blumhouse maze, there are three scenes from the new Insidious movie, which doesn't come out until January. And there's a scene from Jigsaw in the Saw house.

You're basically walking through living trailers.

Was there ever a house that truly scared you even though you helped create it?

Interestingly enough, it was an original house -- Dollhouse of the Damned (from Halloween Horror Nights 24). It was just creepy and a lot of the things were purposely put there to not make sense. I was questioning everything. There were quite a few nights I was in business mode inspecting the house and a scare actor comes out and scares me. That house tended to get me quite a bit.

And this year I'm excited to see how the fans respond to everything. In my head I think they'll like certain things. I'm especially excited to see fans' reactions to The Fallen house. I don't want to spoil anything but I think minds will be blown.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatahtam.

If you go

Halloween Horror Nights

Tickets start at $59.99.

Sept. 15 through Nov. 4 at Universal Orlando Resort

6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando.


MORE Halloween Horror Nights

Eli Roth: Director teases Halloween Horror Nights houses in special commercial

The Games of Jigsaw: Saw house comes back for HHN 27

Last year: Go behind the scenes and unmask the horror of Halloween Horror Nights houses


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