Halloween Horror Nights stinks. And that's how Universal Orlando likes it.
Whiffs of decay, sewage, bodily fluids and other scents with a high ick factor join shocking visuals — such as fake blood and menacing zombies — at the intense scare fest, which kicks off its 23rd edition Friday night at Universal Studios.
The scent selections begin not in a graveyard or a creaky mansion but in a rarely used office backstage at Universal. That's where potential odors pass the creative team's sniff test.
"It's a day we look forward to and dread at the same time," creative director Michael Aiello said.
Universal's smell seller arrives with a metal case that looks like Special Ops government issue, the kind you see handcuffed to an agent's wrist, Aiello said. Inside are "the most heinous things you could possibly smell," he said.
Although there are vials containing pumpkin scent and one marked "autumn," Aiello said, that kind of aroma doesn't fit the Horror Night mold. For competitive reasons, Universal would not identify the scent vendor.
"She's actually researched what a day-old body smells like versus a month-old body," Aiello said. "She goes to great pains to research how things smell."
This year, guests will catch the stench of decay in the area representing post-zombie apocalypse Atlanta in a scare zone devoted to "The Walking Dead" television show. In the haunted house themed to the movie "Evil Dead," there's a sour smell as folks enter the forest.
Disney parks also use distinctive smells to amp up attractions.
Epcot visitors get a whiff of orange blossoms in Soarin', the charred scent of Rome burning in Spaceship Earth and skunk action in Journey to Imagination. Disney fans point to a 1980s patent for a "scent-emitting system," now commonly referred to as a "Smellitzer."
Lou Mongello, an author and host on WDWRadio.com, once did a show on the Top 10 smells at Walt Disney World. With a bakery and a confectionery, the Magic Kingdom's Main Street is a Smellitzer hot spot, he said.
"You're walking past the ice-cream store, and it's 10 o'clock in the morning and you're like, 'I need a waffle cone,'" Mongello said.
Scent is a touchstone for theme-park folks, he said.
"It's come to be so familiar and such a strong memory that they will try to re-create them at home," he said. Disney has played off the power of its aromas, selling car air fresheners that emit the scents of a turkey leg, a Mickey's Premium ice-cream bar and others.
Not all of Universal's scents are from the stinky side of the spectrum.
At Christmastime, Universal has used peppermint scent during its Grinchmas celebration, and the aromas of Thanksgiving dinner and gingerbread waft inside a holidays-themed haunted house.
The scents are distributed by a machine featuring a heating element and a fan. It's more like a PlugIns warmer than a can of Glade.
Horror Nights guests will smell the special scents, "but it's not something they're going to feel like a mist," Aiello said. "It's like a typical air freshener, only with something you'd never want to aerate your house with."
The apparatus is carefully positioned, because scents "have a mind of their own," Aiello said. "They'll go wherever they want based on airflow."
They're also a logistical challenge outdoors. A bad smell is a deterrent to food-cart sales. And Universal doesn't want to use too much scent or ones deemed too stomach-turning.
"We still want people to enjoy it," Aiello said. "We want to immerse them. We don't want to drive them away."
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