Now it’s no secret Universal was struggling in it’s early years. Ride malfunctions plagued the studios, and Jaws was turning into a money pit with all the repairs and it’s eventual rebuild. Disney on the other had was doing well and thriving on the east coast. Disney pretty much owned the holiday season, and Universal needed to find its niche to bring guests through the gates. And so they did, focusing on their legacy of horror Universal announced that on October 25, 26 and 31 they would be throwing a Halloween event for those wanting to party on Halloween, and unlike the event we know now, the first year was called Fright Nights
The park was packed with guests and sideshow artists. Snake handlers, fire eaters, clowns and magicians filled the streets. While guests were banned for wearing costumes, pre-selected schools were asked for their kids and families to come dressed for “The Monster Mardi Gras Costume Contest”. Copywrited costumes were discouraged, but kids came dressed in the most ghoulish and maniacal costumes they could come up with, and were judged by their friends and guests.
The Dungeon of Terror
A far reach, but amazing to see how far it’s come, the first Fright Nights only had one house named “The Dungeon of Terror”, and was located in the Jaws additional queue building. Taking 10 weeks to design and 6 to build, Universal put everything that had into the house. Marketing described it as “a murderous assortment of mazes, along with monsters and nightmarish images”.
Passing through the stone dungeon façade, the layout was a series of prison cells where scare actors in costume would “torture” other actors dressed as tourists. In a way only Universal Creative can, they blended horror and humor in an ingenious manor to have guests wanting to experience it over and over. This was also the birth of a Horror Nights ledged. At the end of the house, incased in glass, screaming and covered in rats, she was a hit with attendees. And thus the famous Rat Lady was born.
While Beetlejuice was a hit in the daytime, with his show alongside the Ghostbusters, he returned for two nightly shows during Fright Nights. The first of which was held at the Psycho house. The show- and I’m not joking here, included Beetlejuice, The Blues Brothers and Norman Bates as they did song and dance numbers outside the Bates Motel.
The second show was called Beetlejuice: LIVE, which was a bigger version of the Beetlejuice/Ghostbusters daytime show, this one with more adult humor and less kid-friendly gags. This was once again a musical act, as the ghost-host came out and sang his own rendition of “My favorite things” from the Sound of Music, before ECTO-1 drives up. Both shows proved to be big crowd pleasers, and would cement Beetlejuice as a character at Universal.
Another show, this one much more grotesque played out for audiences outside of Finnegan’s. The ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ as it was so aptly named, really was a massacre, as maniacs pulled “guests” from the audience and proceeded to lop off limbs and toss them into the crowd along with spraying them with blood (water). This would later turn into the Chainsaw Drill team, which still roams the streets of Horror Nights.
Finally, the last show that took place was in the American Tail Theatre. “Doctor Frankenstein’s Theatre” featuring Mistress of the Night, a horror-comedy show with Doctor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s Monster. This would later be brought to the daylight and retuned to become Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Review. The last show, if you could believe it was Paul Revere and the Raiders who preformed outside of Mel’s ‘Die’ In nightly.
Various other acts both big and small like The Gravediggers (a band from the 80’s/90’s), a Universal Stage Band, and a Magic act called The Pendragons preformed nightly.
Alongside of all that entertainment, Universal also kept open their rides, including The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show, BTTF The Ride, Murder She Wrote, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Horror Make-up Show.
This event truly was a turning point for Universal, and while I wish I could have been there for what truly sounds like one epic party, the newspapers and guests all agreed on one thing. Universal had a hit on it’s hands, and was starting to put up a fight against Disney.