It would be interesting to hear how Michael Roddy answers his daughters' dinner-table questions when they ask him how work was that day. Roddy, 40, is manager of show development at Universal Orlando and creative director of its annual Halloween Horror Nights. The soft-spoken maestro of the macabre sat down to talk about the art of scaring the snot out of people.
Unlike most park's Halloween events, which present a collection of unrelated haunted mazes, Universal builds its Halloween Horror Nights around an elaborate unifying theme. For example, past Halloween Horror Nights have featured fully developed characters such as The Director, a demented auteur hell bent on making all too real horror movies.
The Mirror Image of Bloody MaryFor the 2008 version of Universal's horror-thon, Roddy says he and his team wanted to explore disturbing urban legends, myths, and folklore. One of the most enduring, and perhaps most disturbing myths is Bloody Mary. According to legend, believers go to a mirror, turn out the lights, say her name three times, and--cue the crescendo--Bloody Mary appears in the mirror. (Clive Barker loosely co-opted the myth for his 1992 film, "Candyman.")
The appeal of Bloody Mary, says Roddy, is that her story is simple and deeply personal. "It's a test of will," he notes. "It's something you do by yourself." While the legend of Bloody Mary is widely known, her character was a blank slate.
Universal's horror mavens created a back-story in which a slightly unhinged doctor named Mary treated patients consumed by phobias with immersion therapy. If facing their fears became too much, the safe word to end the treatments was to call out her name three times. The therapist would watch the sessions from behind a one-way mirror.
The doctor, it seems, had her own fear of death. To face her fear, a progressively more unhinged Mary ended up ignoring her patients' pleas to end their treatments so that she could--cue the crescendo--watch them die. One day, however, a patient broke free and killed the doctor by pulling her through the mirror. "She's now trapped in the mirror," explains Roddy, with a mischievous grin. At this year's Halloween Horror Nights, "She's bringing you through her mirror into her world."
I Have a Feeling We're not in Disney AnymoreOne of the event's eight haunted mazes will focus on Bloody Mary, but her presence will be felt throughout Halloween Horror Nights. The other mazes will explore phobias as well as other myths and folklore. "Mary's the one bringing it all together," says Roddy. But, unlike past characters such as The Director, there won't be a Bloody Mary character walking around. That may have something to do with her otherworldly predicament. "Every time she is summoned, it hurts" Roddy says. "When she bursts through the mirror, shards of glass give her gashes. It's a painful birthing for her." Yup, this guy is definitely not your typical dad.
In addition to the mazes, Halloween Horror Nights is known for its detailed scare zones. Roddy says that this year's event will feature the most street experiences, including Asylum in Wonderland, a manic spin on Alice's Adventures (the looking glass connection seems apropos for Bloody Mary), and "The Path of the Wicked," which explores what might have happened if the Wicked Witch emerged victorious in the Land of Oz. Both scare zones, and Halloween Horror Nights itself, for that matter, embody Universal's I-have-a-feeling-we're-not-in-Disney-anymore ethos. While the Magic Kingdom has Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Universal is perfectly happy, driven even, to scare the hell out of you.
Last year, Universal tapped movie franchises such as "Friday the 13th" for its icons. What's particularly impressive about this year's event is that it features all original content. And that a core team of four, including Roddy, creates all of the content. It's a year-round process, and the team is already working on the 2009 and 2010 events. How do they come up with themes such as Bloody Mary? It's quite simple, actually. "We ask ourselves whether it would scare us," says Roddy with a laugh. "If it bothers us, we're pretty sure it's going to bother the general public." And, he says the decidedly PG-13 event walks right up to and dances around the boundary between a good scare and good taste.
By the time the haunted mazes open their creaky doors to bother the general public each fall, the crew swells to some 1500 people. "It's like a military campaign," Roddy says, referring to the incredible logistics that go into transforming the daytime Universal Studios Florida into Halloween Horror Nights. "An army goes out with body parts and crates of ghoulish accessories."
Roddy's been one of Halloween Horror Nights' military commanders for 13 years. But it's a job he's been training for most of his life. His earliest memories include being petrified by the creature features on Saturday television--and loving being petrified by them. In the first grade, he staged his own production of "Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein." (Hmm. Might that be the theme for an upcoming Halloween Horror Nights?) "I guess I have my dream job," Roddy says with an impish smile.
His daughters, who are around the age when Roddy first found his odd passion, recently snuggled with their father to watch their first horror film, Universal's classic "Frankenstein." He says that his kids sometimes brag about his Halloween Horror Nights work, and that when their friends come over to play they are relieved to find Roddy to be a typical suburban dad instead of the axe-wielding zombie psychopath they've conjured in their mind. While he seems completely harmless however, the friends may want to think twice before going by themselves into one of the Roddy's darkened rooms with a mirror.