By Mike X. Nichols
There’s a feeling that washes over Halloween fans and gore hounds once the autumnal equinox arrives. Many know it as a “fall feeling;” the air feels crisper, everything has a distinct autumnal hue and you can’t shake the feeling that something ominous is just outside of your periphery. With fall comes “haunt season.” Whether it be for a small neighborhood haunted house or a large-scale haunt event in a theme park, Hallowe’en is the time of year all haunt fans come out of hibernation and feed.
One of the perennial fixtures of each haunt season is Halloween Horror Nights, an annual — and now international — haunt event held in Universal’s Orlando, Hollywood, Singapore, and Osaka theme parks. Each event features haunted houses, sinuous structures created to disorient and frighten guests, and “Scare Zones,” themed areas with set pieces punctuated by costumed performers.
The earliest incarnation of Halloween Horror Nights was the “Terror Tram” tour at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1986, but the event in the form we know it today debuted in 1991 at Universal Studios Florida as “Fright Nights.” It was three nights that consisted of a variety of shows with performers from Universal Entertainment, costumed Universal Team Members roaming the streets of the park, and “scareactors” — the word Universal coined for its Halloween performers — in one haunted maze located inside the extended Jaws ride queue (now Diagon Alley): “The Dungeon of Terror.” The following year, the event returned but with a new moniker, “Halloween Horror Nights.” The name’s stuck ever since. Much like the the film genre it’s derived from, Halloween Horror Nights has evolved while still maintaining the craft and staples established in its nascence.
David Campbell, better known under his online pseudonym Dr. Freak (stylized as “dR. fReAK”), would harness his passion for Halloween, horror films, and haunt events and create an unprecedented community in the process. Campbell had an insatiable appetite for horror that he discovered during his childhood car rides that took him by “Terror on Church Street,” a popular year-round haunt attraction that opened its doors on Nov. 8, 1991 in Downtown Orlando. Described as “Orlando’s most FATAL Attraction” and “Beyond the Limits of Fear” by its creators, Terror on Church Street was located inside the historic Woolworth building on South Orange Avenue. At night, the venue’s blood red neon fixtures illuminated its seemingly endless line of guests that stretched past the property’s boundaries. Shrill, anxiety-inducing music could be heard from down the road, alarming passersby of the attraction’s ghastly inhabitants. If you lived in Downtown Orlando, you knew this chilling sound well.
Terror on Church Street is credited as one of Orlando’s first premiere horror attractions, and is believed to have served as inspiration for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Many of Horror Night’s staples could be found in the structure and methodology of Terror on Church Street, including its stark marketing image of a pale phantom visage with red eyes, crimson dripping from its mouth, complete with a ghoulish font. Church Street employed showmanship in every facet of the attraction, including its exterior. “The actors would be outside interacting with guests in line at night,” Campbell shared during our chat, “I’d make sure my window was rolled up and the door was locked.” Campbell had asked his parents to go, but they never caved. “They were worried I’d chicken out.”
Campbell’s upbringing was during a perfect storm of Orlando theme park attractions and pop culture. “My childhood was going on in tandem with the opening of [Disney] MGM Studios and my family spent a lot of time there because it was new, we’d also visit Universal Studios regularly because I had a huge obsession with Ghostbusters and Nickelodeon.” Campbell’s interest metamorphosed into the nitty-gritty design part of the rides. “I fell in love with the concept of theme park attractions, both the end product and also what it took to design them and bring them to life.” Campbell channeled this passion into a pitch for a ride concept to Disney Imagineering that was returned with a gentle rejection. “I was 8 years old when I sent the ‘blueprints’ of a ride I created to Michael Eisner. It was scribbles and nonsense, but lo and behold I got a reply in the mail a few months later – to this day it’s the nicest rejection I’ve received. They sent back my blueprints, but loaded up the package with all sorts of goodies and legitimate advice on how to become an Imagineer. It played a huge part in keeping me hooked to the world of immersive entertainment, and it was just deeper into the rabbit hole from there.”
The first proper haunt attraction Campbell visited was “Scream House” at Halloween Horror Nights 2002: Islands of Fear, and it proved to be revelatory. As he recounted, “I couldn’t think of a better house to define the event. I realized right there that these haunted attractions were just that – attractions. They weren’t garages and yards decked out for trick-or-treaters, they were fully fledged immersive environments – entirely brand new experiences with incredible quality and detail.” This was during what many would describe as the “golden age” of Horror Nights. The catalyst for this era was the debut of Jack the Clown in 2000, an original icon from Universal’s Art & Design team who is once again the host for the event’s quarter-of-a-century milestone: HHN 25.
Halloween Horror Nights made an impact on Campbell, impelling him to learn as much as he could about the event, however, he discovered that official information was scarce. Universal’s web presence was minimal at the time, a standard practice by most of entertainment, who were trying to understand the full potential of the Internet. This was before Facebook, Twitter, and the proliferation of smart phones. The only method for fans of something to communicate with each other outside of clubs and conventions were with message boards or “bulletin boards.” Social media websites have curtailed their presence, but at one time, practically everyone on the Internet had a message board they’d frequent from broad subjects to fringe interests.
In the early 2000s, the two widely used haunt fan websites were the horror-centric community HauntFreaks and the Yahoo social group Chainsaw Wolf, and Campbell frequented both. Haunted Realms was another community that would later transform into HHNHQ, a website operated by Josh Coppens, a theme park fan Campbell would befriend and partner with for his own community. During this period, Campbell would work at Universal Orlando to make ends meet, and hone his craft of web development and multimedia design in his spare time.
Campbell didn’t let the paltry information on Halloween Horror Nights stop him. Out of curiosity, he reached out to a friend. “My friend Matt Gambill had been a fan of Horror Nights ages longer than I, and had a collection of the event maps all the way back to Fright Nights in 1991,” Campbell revealed. ”I asked him to make high resolution scans of them for me, and that was that. I had 13 park maps from 13 years of the event, and for the first time, the names of every haunted house and scare zone featured at the event in front of me.” An epiphany hit Campbell upon looking at this collection that represented the event’s history, “It struck me that putting all of that information online in a sort of ‘Horror Nights Encyclopedia’ would be pretty special. Nothing like that existed at the time, and I saw an opportunity.” This was before Wiki pages were commonplace.
Campbell found his muse for the website’s design in a section of Universal Studios Florida that often goes unnoticed by park patrons: “Sting Alley.” This narrow path between the Nazarman’s faux storefront and what is now a Baskin-Robbins/Starbucks in the New York section of Universal Studios was modeled after a scene from “The Sting,” a 1973 Oscar winning Universal film. Walking through Sting Alley invokes an atmosphere synonymous with Halloween Horror Nights — the music employed throughout the park doesn’t quite reach; the alley has a weathered and decrepit feel; there’s an eerie feeling that you’re being watched from the murky windows that surround you. Universal has used the location for horror movies such as “The Final Destination” (2009), as well as for an assortment of scare zones and haunted mazes at Halloween Horror Nights.
Coupling the alley with Campbell’s Horror Nights encyclopedia concept gave the website a unique spin. The financial motif of Nazarman’s organically led Campbell to a vault door. “The vault door was something I whipped up in Photoshop while keeping the rusty metal and brick feel of Nazarman’s in mind.” Campbell went on to describe the story he constructed for the concept, “The vault existed somewhere in there, and its eerie rusted door would appear to you in the fog if you happened to get lost passing through. Once inside the vault, you found that all of the twisted terrors of Horror Nights never really left the parks – they called this place home.” In Summer 2004, Campbell launched the teaser page for his website, a bloodied vault door with the phrase, “Creeping Open Soon.” He had found a name for his concept: HHNVault.
As Campbell molded the clay that was HHNVault, he knew there was an obstacle he couldn’t avoid. The original incarnation of the now defunct universal-excitement.com posted a leaked animatic from Revenge of the Mummy in 2003, approximately a year before the attraction opened. This led to a cease and desist from Universal’s legal team and action was taken to punish those responsible for leaking the file. This tarnished Universal Orlando’s view of fan sites, which left Campbell in a precarious place, considering Universal was his employer. Campbell called for a meeting with a member of Universal’s Legal Department to prevent recourse and repair relations between the company and its fan community. Campbell spoke at length with Universal about his Horror Nights project. The meeting fared well and Campbell was handed a legal disclaimer to place on his website that made it clear Universal and HHNVault were not affiliated. “I’ve seen the legal disclaimer copied verbatim elsewhere, which is funny because it was specifically written for HHNVault,” he mused with a laugh. Universal’s only proviso: Campbell couldn’t share content from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, a reasonable request due to the show’s satirical use of unlicensed pop culture being a potential target for litigation.
HHNVault launched on Sept. 30, 2004, one day before Halloween Horror Nights XIV began at Universal Orlando. The popular fan website IOACentral was passed from its founder, Kevin Boles, to David Campbell in 2004. IOACentral is credited as one of the first successful theme park fan sites. Campbell would run both IOACentral and HHNVAULT in tandem for the majority of the latter’s lifespan, but his focus was on his brainchild. Campbell issued an open call for content for HHNVault, and was inundated with a barrage of photographs, videos, and memories from fans.
Campbell partnered with Coppens, the webmaster of a Horror Nights fan community HHNHQ, and directed visitors to register on its forums. “The goal was to have HHNHQ be the place for speculation and discussion of Halloween Horror Nights, while HHNVault would collect its past.” IOACentral inspired a wave of forums and fan sites, and Campbell had reservations about creating yet another message board. So the two coexisted until the paradigm shifted in 2005, and Campbell and Coppens felt a merger was necessary.
HHNVault excelled as a website, boasting an assortment of fan content and archived information while HHNHQ’s forum user base increased. Logically, combining the two concepts as one was seen as fortifying, as the two lacked each other’s primary components. In 2005, HHNHQ closed and relaunched as the HHNVault message board. The forum inherited most of its previous incarnation’s users. Coppens helped oversee the community as an administrator while working on a new project: HHNJournals, an online blog for talent and staff of Halloween Horror Nights. The goal was to allow readers a peek behind the curtain into the lives of the event’s scareactors, “We invited any scareactor who had a passion for their job to join and write about their time spent scaring people for a living. It’s not every day you can read about Mother from Psycho making a grown man cry or the Gimp from The People Under the Stairs shot-gunning a bunch of victims before dinner break,” and Campbell is correct in his description. I lost hours perusing through the archives of HHNJournals. This project was short-lived as Universal Orlando issued a company missive, barring team members from posting internal company happenings and proprietary information on social media. Campbell and Coppens were left with a difficult choice, “We had users stay on board for a while, but ultimately posting on the site wasn’t worth the imminent risk of losing a job they loved. We ended HHNJournals voluntarily [in 2007] out of respect for its members.”
Horror Nights’s 15th year, Tales of Terror (2005), took place in Islands of Adventure and was hosted by Elsa Strict, The Storyteller, who told the story of Terra Cruentas, a dark fantasy land ruled by the Terra Queen. Universal employed a scavenger hunt, sending the fanbase scrambling for a platform to confer with each other. The timing was impeccable. HHNVault’s user base increased dramatically, and the special scavenger hunt ended with a meet-and-greet with Universal’s Art & Design, the talented cabal of artists who design and construct every scare zone and haunted maze at Halloween Horror Nights. Campbell recounted seeing special props from the event’s website, flipping through concept art from the haunted mazes and scare zones, speaking with members of Universal’s Art & Design team, and participating in a special ceremony to “sacrifice” the Terra Queen on the final night of Tales of Terror.
The year 2006 would prove to be pivotal for HHNVault and Halloween Horror Nights. Universal Art & Design chose to bring the event back to the park it debuted in: Universal Studios Florida. The Sweet 16 theme allowed Universal to reflect on its 15-year legacy and bring back “remixed” renditions of its most popular mazes, as well as its original cast of icons. The Halloween Horror Nights website introduced an archive page, aptly modeled after a decrepit archive room. This filled a similar niche that HHNVault previously held, which at the time concerned Campbell. “If anyone could have put HHNVault out of business, it would have been Universal; they keep an assortment of archived pictures, videos, and what not from every year.” Despite the similarity, the vault door remained open.
We live a world where it seems as if everyone has a graphic T-shirt available, from approved vendors licensing corporate properties to Internet personalities to an assortment of publications (Attractions Magazine included) to a potpourri of fan sites. Having merchandise allows one to stand out and goes back to our innate desire to be around like-minded people. Campbell found inspiration in past fan communities, “I had been around the Florida Coaster Club in the early 2000s and one of the identifiers of a fellow member was their bright gold shirt, easy to spot from afar and you knew what it was.”
Campbell’s first attempt at designing and producing a shirt was impromptu, and the end result was soiled by unforeseen circumstances. “Unfortunately, the shirts I ordered were being stored at a friend’s home, which was flooded with water,” rued Campbell, “We had to throw out most of the stock and I’d be surprised if anyone still has one today.” 2006’s shirt would fare better. Much like Horror Nights constructs and tears down its attractions, offering a limited window for guests, Campbell chose to make the shirt available for a limited time to the fan community. Each year, the shirt would go on sale from July to August. Once the deadline passed, orders would close. Campbell would then commission the garments to be printed and each one would be shipped out for fans to don in time for the event’s opening night in September. This required Campbell to learn an assortment of new skills, such as creating shirt designs, coordinating with multiple vendors and constructing spreadsheets, all while still working a day job.
After each year’s window of opportunity to purchase a shirt, the design would be retired permanently, giving each one an inherent collectible value. Campbell designed every shirt the page sold and each year saw a substantial increase in sales. Every package came with a letter from Dr. Freak, the persona Campbell he employed on HHNVault. “In 2006, I hand-signed every letter, and that was the last year I did that” he said with a laugh, “I later bought a custom stamp with red ink and used it for future shirt orders.” Another pitfall he ran into was packing, storing and shipping the shirts. “After packaging all the shirts orders for 2007, I was stuck with a seven-foot-tall maze of boxes in my dining room. Things got interesting when it came time to ship them, I arranged for a pickup by the post office and the postman was absolutely floored walking in.”
An unintended consequence resulted in Campbell incorporating glow-in-the-dark ink into every HHNVault shirt design. The event’s scareactors caught on to the fan community and targeted these fans with “special treatment,” which became a noticeable trend. “The glow-in-the-dark aspect was merely to be able to spot others at night – the scareactors hamming up their performances for those in a HHNVault shirt was a lucky consequence.” The shirts boasted an appeal even to park-goers who either casually frequented the message boards or didn’t participate in the discussion at all. Campbell revealed that despite owning every shirt he designed, he never wore one to test out this effect at Halloween Horror Nights, choosing to instead observe from afar.
Leading up to Halloween 2007, Campbell was left with a dilemma: HHNVault needed a visual overhaul. With the assistance of HHNVault moderator “EyEGOre” Campbell had created a new layout that reinvigorated the look of the page, but it only included the index of HHNVault and the Fright Nights archive page. Sixteen more years needed to be added. Campbell didn’t have the time to complete the overhaul, so he came up with an alternative solution. He’d break the redesign up into digestible chunks and stretch it over the course of several months. Viral marketing had become prominent thanks to several successful campaigns designed, and the concept seemed like an ambitious but viable opportunity for HHNVault. Campbell chose the enigmatic title “17W2H,” an acronym for “17 Weeks to Horror” for the campaign. Campbell whipped up a special website with clues, including hand-written letters, and a short film he and a small crew assembled. Campbell took HHNVault down and launched the 17W2H page in its place. The campaign led to a contest giving away an Unmasking the Horror Tour to one lucky fan and a guest.
The Unmasking the Horror Tour holds a special place in the collective consciousness of the Horror Nights fan community. As Campbell reflected in our chat, “I don’t think the Unmasking the Horror Tour (UTH) would exist if it wasn’t for demand from the fan community.” The tour ultimately found an audience in both diehard fans fascinated with the haunted mazes and guests too afraid of seeing the haunted houses at night with the effects and scareactors. Universal opted not to bring the tour back in 2008 and was inundated with letters from the fan community, spurred on by HHNVault. The company brought The Unmasking the Horror Tour back and it has since remained on the RIP Tour roster.
The viral campaign drew more attention than Campbell had anticipated and proved to keep HHNVault in the community’s consciousness while he plugged away at the redesign. Popular theme park rumor and news website Screamscape.com picked up on the story, including the appearance of a mysterious poster of the 1942 Universal Pictures release “The Ghost of Frankenstein” inside Sting Alley. This led to a barrage of questions, including how the one-sheet got in the park.
Campbell affirmed that he had surreptitiously affixed the poster inside Sting Alley to reflect the one seen on the front page of HHNVault. “We probably shouldn’t have. I figured someone from the parks would take it down, but no one did.” The one-sheet’s presence elicited an explosive response from fans and proved to be confusing. Conjecture amongst the community suggested that HHNVault was somehow officially tied to 2007’s event. No one from Universal seemed to notice the poster, if they did, they didn’t remove it, which forced Campbell to return to the park. “After a couple of days, I went over to Sting Alley and tore the poster down,” Campbell confessed. HHNVault was asked to be transparent about being a separate entity from Universal Orlando Resort. It’s the stipulation many fan sites have to assent to in order to avoid legal action from copyright holders.
Despite not being affiliated with the event, HHNVault and Halloween Horror Nights had a symbiotic relationship. The forum harbored an ardent fanbase and gave a platform for people to share their thoughts, speculation, and potential ideas for future events. Some of Universal Orlando’s Entertainment and Art & Design department team members did frequent HHNVault, as did the event’s many scare actors. The former never openly participated in any of the forum’s threads while the latter were frequently seen. Art & Design’s first nod toward the online community was with the 2004 scare zone “Fright Yard.” Usernames from HHNHQ/HHNVault, HauntFreaks and Chainsaw Wolf were spray-painted on set pieces around the zone. Art & Design acquires feedback through online and in-park surveys, theme park blogs, social media and special events typically held at the end of each year.
As the fanbase of HHNVault grew, so did the website’s responsibilities. Campbell was inundated with work between his day job, IOACentral, and HHNVault, and this didn’t include his personal time to actually visit the parks. Campbell inherited IOACentral after playing a pivotal role in its community, and he felt an obligation to hand the reins of it over to someone else before it became moribund. “I tried my best to find a successor to run IOACentral but the individuals on my shortlist were busy launching sites of their own – Orlando United and Behind the Thrills — which are two of the best theme park resources online today. There was a time when running both sites was great, but between work and the sites, I was always at Universal or on my computer designing or moderating a forum. The stress hit an all-time high shortly before giving IOACentral to my successor in 2008,” Campbell gritted. IOACentral suffered from a protracted death before ultimately disappearing some time later. Its Twitter page remains online as of the date this story was published, but its last entry was on March 17, 2011.
HHNVault became Campbell’s central focus and he overhauled its infrastructure under the hood in 2008 to make it easier for the website to be updated. The design stayed relatively the same with only minor alterations. 2008 and 2009 were the peak of HHNVault’s success, seeing a major influx in traffic, more shirts sold than the preceding years, and the need to recruit more staff members to manage the community. Until its final day of operation, HHNVault’s dedicated team of moderators and administrators were as follows: dR.fReAK, EyEGOre, Josh, eddiejr., keeper, Matticus, NickC, Original Scareactor, phamtom, Shadowlurker, Slacking, Jewels, Hush, and MistressOfBurden. It’s important to note that Campbell didn’t act alone and HHNVault wouldn’t have existed without the aid of all of these committed people.
As HHNVault reached its final haunt season in 2009, Campbell’s online presence as Dr. Freak waned. Thanks to the community’s devoted staff, the machine kept churning until 2010. It was when we got to the topic of the end of HHNVault that Campbell confessed, “This is the first time I’m speaking to anyone about the site closing.” Campbell and the website’s staff had remained tight-lipped about what happened behind-the-scenes until now.
Many of HHNVault’s key members found themselves busy with other personal and professional commitments. The paradigm of the Internet shifted with the proliferation of Android and iOS smartphones. In Campbell’s own words, “Twitter and Facebook had popped up, and Flash was being phased out for HTML 5, and every website suddenly needed a watered down mobile version to reach its maximum potential audience. HHNVault was a completely customized and clunky website that utilized dying forms of multimedia.” Indeed, screenshots of the HHNVault reveal the MySpace logo adorned at the bottom of the website’s design. It was a product of its time and it needed to be iterated upon in order to stay relevant.
In a prescient move, Campbell presented himself with an ultimatum: either redesign HHNVault or close it down. He elaborated, “I was in a place where I either had to do another ‘17W2H’ campaign or let the website go.” Campbell looked at the protracted death of IOACentral and that impelled him to make the tough choice to close HHNVault. In 2010, the index of HHNVault was replaced with a black page and the song “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music”, and its lyrics served as a tacit goodbye. HHNVault’s closure wasn’t because of waning popularity. The site had become synonymous with Halloween Horror Nights, and its absence left a void.
Social media and other fan communities picked up the torch in HHNVault’s absence, and have continued to carry it. Attractions Magazine, the platform for this piece, is one of many. Others include Orlando United, Behind the Thrills, HHNRumors and Horror Night Nightmares. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t an outcry when the page vanished. Fans implored the website’s staff for clarification before turning to other communities for an explanation. They weren’t alone in their discomfort. Campbell shared that the website’s closure was surreal, “It was never my intent to leave the site down, it just ended up working out that way. For me it was like ending a 7-year relationship. I constantly found myself habitually opening the forum, which was like creeping on your ex only to find that she deleted herself from your existence. There was a bit of both emptiness and relief in that.”
After HHNVault closed in early 2010, Campbell cloistered himself away from Halloween Horror Nights. He refused to visit the website, abstained from the marketing campaign, and actively avoided speculation about the event. The result was unpleasant, as Campbell put it, “I walked into Halloween Horror Nights that year without knowing the name of a single house, scare zone or show. It was a really strange experience, and what was most surprising was that for the first time, I didn’t really enjoy my time spent there. I tried to place a reason behind my feelings but couldn’t.” Campbell flew out to the west coast and visited Knott’s Scary Farm, and found the experience therapeutic. “I was able to find my Halloween spirit in California. I realized what was missing from my visits to Horror Nights was a connection to it.” Campbell has since reconciled the website’s demise and its impact on his life.
As far as what advice he’d provide to someone who aspires to create their own fan community, Campbell had this to say, “Do it for no reason other than passion. Make something unique with your own signature on it, set out to meet new people along the way, and above all, have fun doing it.”
HHNVault.com was recently revamped with a new page plastered with a hodgepodge of cryptic imagery and sound bites all tangentially related to Halloween Horror Nights. The site’s official Twitter feed, which was dormant for years, has posted new status updates just as cryptic as the current website. This has spurred conjecture – from Universal Orlando purchasing the domain name to the door of HHNVault re-opening. I can confirm that the original owner of HHNVault.com still has the domain in their possession. When asked if one could derive any meaning from this recent activity, Campbell offered, “I’ve heard whispers coming from Sting Alley, but I haven’t stumbled across that old rusted door in quite some time. I suppose it’s good that the vault is rooted deep in horror mythology — a place where the dead don’t stay that way and ‘The End’ is usually followed by a question mark … ” A fitting end for our chat.
While fan communities may sound insignificant upon first glance, many web communities have had a lasting impact. CHUD.com’s boards housed humorous and insightful commentary on pop culture, and several members went on to work as filmmakers and critics in the industry. Warren Ellis, the author of the seminal dystopian comic “Transmetropolitan,” hosted a web forum for a number of years, and a few of its members later broke into the comics industry. Fanaticism can be a wonderful thing that fosters creativity and camaraderie, the examples of gross and venomous misconduct notwithstanding.
Things invariably change and nothing can sustain itself forever by remaining static. HHNVault, if it were to remerge, wouldn’t be the thing we knew before its demise. It’d have to take on a new form to survive, just as many of the fan communities have done to persist on the web today. No matter its permutation, fanaticism is ultimately where many creative minds begin. It’s the fervor that they channel into their work that compels them to keep plugging away. Sometimes, it results in ugly, banal things. Other times, it blooms into something impactful. HHNVault.com was the latter.
Editor’s Note: David Campbell and his friend Matt Gambill are now co-owners of Campbell/Gambill Designs, who developed and update the Attractions Magazine iOS app.