What Would Happen If You Removed Emotion From ‘The Walking Dead’?
Universal\'s Halloween Horror Nights is an experiment in fear.
What happens when you remove all emotional context from “The Walking Dead?” You’re left with plot and gross zombies, of course — but you also don’t have something that could maintain a television show. And that’s exactly the challenge facing Universal Halloween Horror Nights newest attraction, “The Walking Dead: The Living And The Dead,” which opened tonight (September 18) in Orlando.
Let’s take a step back, though. With the theme park’s 25th year of seasonal horrors set to open to the public in a few short hours, MTV was one of half a dozen invited guests — super-fans, if you will — to check out the “Walking Dead” house early.
Weaving your way through the back-lot of Universal Studios, which is what we did to get to the horror maze — haunted house to the uninitiated — is always a fascinating prospect. Ostensibly we did that so we wouldn’t have to deal with the massive crowds killing time until they could have their socks scared off. But in practice, you get to see decommissioned cartoon vehicles, make-up artists with boxes labeled “wounds” getting ready for Horror Nights… And of course, massive amounts of walkers.
In fact, as we waited outside the “Walking Dead” maze, which is skinned to look like the front of season five’s Terminus, we saw a group of 40-50 walkers in full makeup shambling up the road, and right into the house itself. One of them — a heavily burned walker who IRL looked a bit like Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) in black-face — parked himself out front, and would slowly make his way around the yard, jumping up to scare anyone in the group who dared look away.
That’s when our special guests arrived. The “tour” of the house would be accompanied by none other than Greg Nicotero, the special effects genius who also produces “Walking Dead,” and directed over a dozen of the episodes. And, double surprise, we were also accompanied by Carl himself, Chandler Riggs, who took a break from filming to check out his first Halloween Horror Nights.
“You guys go first,” Nicotero joked after a brief welcome, and we went inside the house.
The maze itself is a summary of season five. You start in the cannibal slaughterhouse Terminus, complete with a dummy cameo by “Gotham” star Robin Lord Taylor; then move on to Beth’s (Emily Kinney) final resting place in Grady Memorial Hospital; then over to the horrific death of Noah (Tyler James Williams) in a revolving door, easily the highlight of the house; followed by scenes from Father Gabriel’s (Seth Gilliam) church, the barn during the tornado, and finally the final scene of season five, as heavy metal music blares, driving the Wolves’ pet walkers insane with rage.
Sadly, they neglected to depict the most horrific part of season five, Carol’s Cookies. MISSED OPPORTUNITY, GUYS.
Anyway, the part I found most interesting is that beyond being a greatest hits version of season five, aside from remembering what it was like to watch the episode that contained each vignette, it was devoid of any emotional context. You have walkers jumping out to bite you, gross out tableaus, and terrifying music and darkness at your disposal.
But you don’t have the characters in danger, the emotional fall-out… All the things we watch “Walking Dead” for. Sure you want to see Nicotero’s gross-out zombie of the week, or how Daryl (Norman Reedus) creatively kills the undead. But more than anything, it’s the emotional cost to the characters that keeps us coming back.
Noah is a great example of this… His death was arguably the grossest moment of season five, including that time they ate Bob’s (Lawrenc Gilliard, Jr.) leg. But if we didn’t follow Noah’s journey with Beth, or saw how much Glenn (Steven Yeun) cared about him, a walker biting his cheek off wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much.
And after we exited the house, you could see that reflected somewhat in Riggs’ answers to questions, in particular. He noted being impressed by the house, but didn’t specifically say he was scared. Later — to be fair — he noted that on the show they’re not scared, because the zombies are just people, fellow actors, they’re hanging out with; while he
frightened by the house because of the zombies jumping out at him.
That said, his first reaction was awe, rather than terror. And it’s pretty clear why, particularly on a second viewing of the house. The attention to detail throughout for fans of the show is phenomenal, from markings on crates, to the look of walkers eating a horse in the woods. Later in the night, too, as crowds get packed the horror houses tend to feel more like museums than scare-a-thons, as fans shuffle through, ushered on by bored attendants tasked with keeping the crowds moving.
Here’s the thing: that’s okay, though. As interesting as it would be to see a haunted horror house that somehow channels the tension of watching characters grow, change and end up in peril over the course of five seasons of television, their job is to provide a rush. That Halloween Horror Nights is able to provide that rush for Riggs and Nicotero — who copped to also being scared once he saw all the pieces of the house in place — as well as for guests on first pass is great. And that the experience continues to be terrifying, but only becomes richer with repeat viewings is a testament to their eye for detail.
And also to their credit, it couldn’t work the other way. The TV show
to have their scares, but if it was all zombies jumping out and scenes of grossness, we’d eventually become numb to the affair and tune out. Instead, we have our zombie attack scenes and character deaths spaced out.
It’s with this point that the revelation becomes clear: removing the emotion from the horror maze doesn’t make it weaker, it’s just the function of working in a different medium. And the horror maze isn’t trying to evoke any emotion other than fear. So, job well done for both the show and the house.
It doesn’t last forever, though… “Walking Dead” may be ongoing, but at some point in the night, Universal Studios needs to close down. As I walked up to the “Walking Dead” house the second time, the heavily burned Abraham-esque walker was still there, but his makeup had mostly peeled and melted away. He was still stalking, still scaring those on line… But at the end of the night, the facade, literally and figuratively, was almost gone.
And with more than one take on a TV show, that’s at least one advantage “The Walking Dead” has over its haunted house progeny.
Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.