Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights is a delightfully scary symphony of things that go bump in the night.
The crash of the attic door slamming shut, the clatter of a shutter banging against the house, the scrape of a tree branch against the window - has been orchestrated by a creative and technical team that works year-round preparing to throw a fiendish shroud over the 444-acre theme park.
The doors will creak open at 6:30 tonight and clank shut at midnight - with Horror Nights continuing from 6:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday, next Friday, Oct. 23, 29, 30 and 31.
"It's an incredible, park-wide experience," said Michael Thyne, Universal's technical director for entertainment.
The transformation from warm and fuzzy theme park to Halloweenland means that parking-lot attendants will be costumed, ghoulish characters will stroll the boulevards, vampires will lurk around every corner - even the street lamps will cast an eerie glow with special orange bulbs.
Halloween-themed entertainment is scheduled on several stages, including Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure stunt show. The Midway of the Bizarre will be populated with freakish sideshow acts - sword swallowers, contortionists, fire-eaters.
Expect the unexpected, say the creative forces behind Horror Nights.
"People always walk through the back lots and rattle the doors on the facades to see if they open," said creative director Julie Zimmerman. "Normally, they don't. Well, during Halloween, they do."
But the main draw for most visitors will be the three haunted houses - Psycho Path Maze, Slaughterhouse and People Under the Stairs.
Universal's Halloween creative team has designed dozens of terror-filled vignettes for the houses, each lasting no longer than five seconds, and strung them together so tightly that 2,000 people an hour will view them.
Each frightening scene must be engineered so it propels the guests immediately into the next one, like a pinball machine from hell.
"Designing a haunted house turns into math, eventually," said John Paul Geurtz, Horror Nights' artistic director. "You have to calculate each step people will take and engineer their every move. There's nothing random about this."
Behind all the engineering, though, is the simple desire to scare people. And Universal's Halloween Horror Nights aims to tap into the familiar fears of childhood rather than the violence that is so often associated with horror movies today.
"We're not into the gore factor as much as we're into taking people on a psychological trip," Zimmerman said. "We really talked a lot about our childhood fears."
Psycho Path Maze is based on the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie - with visitors checking into the Bates Motel.
"We take you into a black-and-white movie through the mind of Norman Bates," Thyne said.
Although the gore factor has been toned down this year, some pretty grisly inhabitants call the walk-in coolers of Slaughterhouse home. Unsuspecting guests take a trip through the meatpacking district of New York as mutants grab at them around every corner.
And that ain't just beef on those meat hooks.
"We do have bodies that hang or dunk or drape or spew," Geurtz said, "but we also use a lot of humor and a lot of subtle scares."
People Under the Stairs is truly a haunted house, each room familiar yet spooky - a bare light bulb illuminates the ghostly attic, creatures lurk underneath the stairs and roaches scurry through the kitchen.
"We like to tap into subtle, familiar fears," said Jerry Abercrombie, Universal's props manager. "The attics, the basements, the closets . . . the things you know you shouldn't be afraid of, but you are."
Universal's team recognizes the need for relaxation to balance the adrenaline rush that accompanies a tour through the haunted houses, so the evening is interspersed with healthy doses of comic relief, like the Chain Saw Drill Team, a crew of five chain-saw-toting monsters who twirl their motorized saws like crack Marines. The Dead High School Cheerleading Squad, killed in a car crash on their way to the big game, wander the streets, singed pom-pons in hand. And traveling salesmen Burn and Bu ry will be busy selling cemetery plots and cremation services.
Additionally, Universal's regular attractions, such as Jaws, Back to the Future and Kongfrontation, will be operating.
The third annual Halloween Horror Nights has been expanded in size and scope from last year's two weekends to this year's three, much to the delight of the Halloween mavens at Universal.
"The point between screaming and laughing is like this," Zimmerman said, gesturing a minuscule distance with her thumb and forefinger. "People love to be scared as much as they love to laugh. We all need to get that out, to scream and yell and do all the things we can't normally do."