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Cover Story

Welcome to Halloweentown

Taking a closer look at Orlando's obsession with everyone's favorite pagan holiday

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Two decades later, that entertainment engineering has been effective enough to lure thousands of international visitors to the region each Halloween, earning Orlando a place on Reuters' 2010 list of Top 10 places worldwide for "encounters with ghosts, ghouls or vampires."

But what is it about Orlandoans that draws us to Halloween? Much as Christmas encroaches on Thanksgiving, Halloween has grown to gobble up all of October; it's even starting to nibble on late summer. As soon as the back-to-school specials cease, Halloween merchandise slides onto the seasonal shelves of every Orlando drugstore and discount club, swiftly followed before August's end by billboards along I-4.

Before September was over this year, you could have already survived Audubon Park's Zombietoberfest and the undead art show at Thornton Park's Falcon Bar. And by the ides of October, nearly every bar, gallery and theater in town had a fiendish infestation; there was even Vampire Yoga in College Park. Clearly, the masked mayhem fostered by the parks has infected our city with an insatiable thirst for foam-rubber entrails and blood-bag Jell-O shots.

Perhaps Halloween's popularity among Orlando's local population can be explained in psychological terms. As a city built on perpetual childhood, our environment attracts and encourages residents with a propensity toward the adolescent exhilaration of darkness, a ritualized rehearsal of our own deaths disguised as bloody burlesque. And as a largely transient, fragmented population, many of us identify with Halloween's outsiders and oddities.

"There's something about the Orlando area that [attracts] the grim and grisly," theme park industry insider Jim Hill says. "I don't know if it's a reaction to the sweetness of Disney, but it's like when something really horrible happens in Orlando [the media] is on it in a heartbeat, they just go tooth and nail. It's just the notion of, how family-friendly can one place be? This is the reaction; you bury the needle in the other direction. That may be one reason why Orlando is so enthusiastic about the horror events. For one brief period during the year, you don't have to be family-friendly [and] tout 'bring the kids down here.' You can go the other way and say, 'We're going to a building that has severed heads, come on!'"

It's impossible to address Orlando's Halloween industry without acknowledging the zombified elephant in the room: Halloween Horror Nights. Though Universal Orlando didn't invent the haunted theme-park event – Knott's Berry Farm in California is currently celebrating the 40th annual edition of its famous Halloween Haunt – it has certainly elevated it. What began at Universal Studios Florida as Fright Nights on a single weekend in 1991 (with a ticket price of $15.95) has now grown to dominate the genre. It has earned trade newspaper Amusement Today's prestigious Golden Ticket Award for Best Halloween Event for the past five years, along with a raft of other industry accolades.

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