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Q&A: Blumfest 2022 at Halloween Horror Nights

by Seth Kubersky

The partnership between Universal Studios and Blumhouse Productions has helped lead a recent renaissance for horror films, and on Oct. 14, 2022 that frightful friendship was celebrated at Universal Orlando CityWalk during the first-ever in-person Blumfest. In addition to screening the Blumhouse horror hits “The Black Phone” and “Halloween Ends,” Blumfest 2022 attendees enjoyed question and answer sessions with Maddie McGraw and Mason Thames, the young stars of “The Black Phone,” as well as members of the Halloween Horror Nights creative team.

Blumfest 2022 on movie screen at Universal Orlando Cinemark theater
Hear what Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights designers had to say about collaborating with Blumhouse Productions during Blumfest 2022 at Universal Orlando CityWalk.
Photos/video by Seth Kubersky

Here are some highlights from the Halloween Horror Nights Q&A session, featuring Universal Orlando Scenic Designer Dylan Kollath, Show Director Charles Gray, and Creative Director Michael Aiello:

Universal creative members on stage
From left are Universal Orlando’s Scenic Designer Dylan Kollath, Show Girector Charles Gray, and Creative Director Michael Aiello.

What’s the relationship between Halloween Horror Nights and Blumhouse like?

Aiello: It’s been it’s been amazing. The collaboration between parks and Universal Pictures and Blumhouse is always a great thing. Really, it’s about providing us the tools to be able to adapt the films that are coming out. […] The really unique thing about the Blumhouse relationship is that a lot of the time when we’re doing and developing these haunted house experiences, they’re sometimes in the year for the year. Often we’ll be designing content while the film is actually still in production, so we’re gaining materials almost in real time with how the production is, is falling together. Black Phone is a really good example of something like that, where we only had a script to start with. [… ] And really that’s working with Blumhouse kind of analyzing the script, and really getting a sense of what we think can work and how we think visually. Because we’re very much “theater of the mind” at that point when we’re reading.

How did you adapt The Black Phone into a Halloween Horror Nights house?

Gray: Black Phone was a page turner. […] Because it is a haunted house experience, you don’t want it to be too voyeuristic. You could go through the script and see the important plot points, but they might not elicit a scare. [… ] We decided early on, of how we were going to follow the journey, because there’s a lot of different ways you can create the house; you can do chronologically, you can do it kind of as fever dream sometimes.

Kollath: We very much followed the story of Black Phone for that person in the house chronologically, because when you first walk in, you get The Grabber abduction scene, and seeing the black Abracadabra van. I felt really that was something you had to see when we started the house, because that was his journey. […] Then you ended up at that last battle, and I think that was important for us to show that last, final moment.

The Grabber
The Grabber made an appearance at Blumfest 2022.

How far in advance do you plan and design Halloween Horror Nights?

Aiello: The evolution of the event has grown so much that it’s a 15-16 month process now. Between getting IPs lined up, getting a sense of how the event wants to shift and change, it’s more than a year.

How does Virtual Reality help you design Halloween Horror Nights?

Kollath: I got really excited about VR technology about a couple of years ago. I found some really great applications that actually allow us to physically walk the houses before anything is even designed; we can just walk through a SketchUp model.

It’s just so exciting to be able to do it, and there’s really great advances in technology where you’re not limited by a cord, so we can actually take it into an empty soundstage and physically walk the entire house, which is an amazing thing to be able to do.

That is one thing that I think has been a huge help, because you can actually, instead of just seeing on the computer screen, you can be in space, and you can see exactly how it’s gonna be in real life.

What was working with The Weeknd on his “After Hours Nightmare” house like?

Gray: It was really cool because we got a sense that he (The Weeknd) is a fan, and we, as fans, were talking to another fan. That makes things much easier in the process, because it’s it’s a language that we both understand. […] We talked about our favorite movies, his favorite movies, what he was influenced by, what you could see in his music videos that he was inspired by. Putting those things together, [he was] very gracious in letting us expand upon his story, and so – in collaboration with him – really finding the best scares. It was a great relationship and it was a lot of fun.

Rarely do we have every single scene tied to music. For example, when you go into the bathrooms, even the overhead lights are programmed to the bass pulse of the music. Manuel Cordero designed that house; he gets so surreal, so he’s the perfect person to design that house.

Creative Director Michael Aiello
Universal Orlando Creative Director Michael Aiello.

How are Intellectual Properties selected for Halloween Horror Nights?

Aiello: There isn’t one clean answer to that because a lot of different different entities involved. […]

It’s really looking at the vastness of the genre, and deciding what are the things out there right now that people are really responding to. That’s step one. Step two is, is it adaptable? Can it become a live experience? We’ll work with our marketing partners and really define a large slate of brands that will bring to the table each and every year. […] It is a very strategic process between us, marketing, our license holders, and it’s long.

It’s a little bit of gut instinct [and] a little bit of science, because there’s smarter people than us that have data that shows “27% of people like this scene from this film.” […] We make sure of those five or six IPs that we’re presenting, we’re getting something for everyone.

How do you become a haunted house designer?

Kollath: I actually did start out as a really big fan of the event. My first year was 2006 Sweet 16, and then I started at Universal as a scare actor in 2012. The next year after, I was an intern with art design in 2013, and then it just kind of grew from there. If you want to get into the design side, just having a passion for all things architecture, sets, [and] theater. What we do is very theater based, so having a good knowledge of that realm [and] just being very passionate about it.

My advice would be, if you want to design, just keep doing that, and keep doing what makes you happy. One day you could have stuff to show people.

Was the traditional theme always part of the concept for Halloween Horror Nights 31?

Aiello: Yes, literally, when 29 or 30 ended, I built a deck really fast that just had a really bad graphic version of the 31 with a pumpkin. It’s the 31st year; why not lean into Halloween as a holiday? It was serendipitous. […] We’ve been doing this 31 years, and it happens to be the date of the of the holiday that this event celebrates, so why not? Let’s figure out how to do it really well, dive into some some more traditional textures that we haven’t really done in a while. […] Our anniversary being kind of a cleansing agent, going into 31 felt like, let’s start this new decade with celebrating the holiday that makes the reason why we’re all here.

Could Blumhouse’s upcoming “Five Nights at Freddy’s” film become a Halloween Horror Nights attraction?

Aiello: I can’t answer that, but here’s what I will say. I’m not gonna say yes; I’m not gonna say no. What I’m gonna say is we have a relationship with Blumhouse.

I will say I’m a fan of “Five Nights at Freddy’s;” my son, who’s 17, he’s an encyclopedia of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” literally knows all the backstories [so] it’s exciting that it’s gonna get adapted in that [film] medium.

Costumes from The Black Phone and Halloween Kills on display at Blumfest.
Costumes from The Black Phone and Halloween Kills on display at Blumfest.

How do you collaborate with Universal Hollywood on bicoastal Halloween Horror Nights houses?

Aiello: It is a constant back and forth with John [Murdy] and his team just as much as it is with our team […] it’s really deciding which [IPs] we want to collaborate on. Which ones fit that nationwide marketing idea that’s going to draw people in and make people go, “Hey, I want to go to Halloween Horror Nights.”

Gray: Even if we agree upon or collaborate together on almost the exact same room-for-room experience, or beats, it’s still gonna be different. […] You’ll get a different experience, no matter even if on paper it looks very similar, because we’re building in different spaces [so] the pacing is even going to be different.

[The Legends Collide houses are] a cyclical story; the way we told it you can start on the West Coast and end here, or start here and end there. So it’s like this cyclical storytelling and sometimes it is the same story; sometimes we branch off at a certain point.

Kollath: I thought it was really cool how for the Classic Monsters maze, the stories kind of split into two parts on both coasts. I thought that was the coolest thing, where we kind of start the story, and Hollywood gets to end it.

For more from Blumfest 2022, watch the Q&A with The Black Phone stars in this video:


'The Black Phone' Q&A with Maddie McGraw and Mason Thames
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