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Horror Nights a real scream

Inside the World War I hospital, nurses hunker down in barracks and bunkers tending to wounded soldiers. Tanks and machine gun fire echo down dark corridors as you realize these nurses are no Florence Nightingales — they've transformed into savage, toothy creatures that devour the flesh of the dead and the living. And their blood-soaked fangs are ready to rip into their next meal — you! Sound like fun? Like zig zagging past nurse zombies in a hellish hospital? Then you'll be glad to know "Nightingales: Blood Prey" is just one of eight haunted houses awaiting scare junkies at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 21. The annual event has been voted best Halloween theme park event for the past four years by Amusement Today, an industry trade publication.
From the scenery and the makeup to the costumes and the special effects, this is where bloodthirsty hordes flock for their fright-night fix. "We're always doing it differently and bigger and taking it to the next level," says Jim Timon, Universal's senior vice president of entertainment. "We have the resources to do it like no one can do." That includes an impressive new scare zone, "Acid Rain,"which uses digital image mapping to make it look like acid rain is falling from the sky and buildings are literally crumbling to the ground in front of you, piece by piece. And while you're wondering, "How'd they do that?" wandering creatures with peeling skin and exposed skulls take advantage of your distraction to pounce. "A lot of people have used (this technology) for other purposes," Timon adds. "I don't think anyone has used it solely for the purpose of scaring you." Lady Luck is the force behind this year's Horror Nights, one twisted sister who lures unsuspecting victims to take a chance. But this luck is no lady; she's a raven-haired temptress from afar who reveals her true gruesome form when the house wins. And the house always wins. Lady Luck is only the second female icon to headline the event. She has a scare zone, where she reveals her dual-personalities, but not a haunted house — yet. The stories of those who took a chance on Lady Luck and lost are told in each of the haunted houses and 6 scare zones. Among the highlights, without giving away too many spoilers: "Winter's Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery" is a visually stunning house with impressive rooms and architecture built around a massive graveyard. As the name implies, it's very cold inside, kept at a brisk 30 degrees (I think I even saw snow) which adds to its eerie mystique. Glowing blue lights guide you through the maze of the undead, where there are lots of places for them to hide. Stay close to the blue lights if you want to survive. After a few years' hiatus, the theme park brought back a three-dimensional haunted house called "The In-Between," where visitors don 3-D glasses and enter a portal with bright neon colors, mirrored floors and tricky special effects that make you feel like your hung over and keep you guessing just how close the ghouls really are. While walking into this one, someone was stumbling out saying they felt like they were going to be sick. It was probably from the spinning vortex at the entrance of the house. Word of advice: Don't eat — or drink — before you go into this one. The insanity of Edgar Allen Poe is hauntingly captured in "Nevermore: The Madness of Poe." The house allows visitors to witness Poe's decent into madness through scenes from his works of mystery and the macabre, including "The Raven, "The Black Cat" and "The Pit and the Pendulum," in terrifying detail. Watch out for the birds. "H.R. Bloodengutz presents: Holidays of Horror" is mind-blowing. A chatty, demented H.R. Bloodengutz welcomes visitors into his home for the holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines Day and Fourth of July celebrations. But it quickly becomes a house of horrors. You may want to visit this one twice so you can really appreciate all the details and nuances. Among my favorite scenes: keep an eye out for the main dish for Thanksgiving dinner (you'll never look at white meat and dark meat the same way again). And what the over-worked elves do to Santa Claus just isn't right. That's all I'm sayin'. "The Thing" is a house based on the upcoming prequel to John Carpenter's original 1982 film about body snatching aliens in Antarctica. The alien-centric maze has some of the most elaborate special effects of any of the houses. Loud gun blasts, flashing lights and hunters in parkas put you in the middle of the hunt for alien creatures, which surprise you from every corner. The life-size alien dropping from the ceiling startled the living you-know-what out of me and prompted one visitor to sum it up, "That's so awesome! I can't wait to see the movie." "Saws N' Steam: Into the Machine" features human boilers, blades, grinders, dismembered bodies and a gruesome scene that features deranged workers extracting bodily fluids (watch out for squirting.)



Event preview

Where: Universal Studios, Orlando

When: Sept. 29-30; Oct. 1-2, 6-9, 13-16, 19-23 and 26-31.

Cost: Tickets start at $82; halloweenhorrornights.com/Orlando  

or (888) 467-7677.

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