This article was originally written in February 2021 and was updated in September 2022.
Universal Studios Florida: A place where guests could ride the movies and watch movie history take place, at least in the park's infancy. Standing sets from movie and TV history were tucked away in Universal’s Hollywood East.
The most chilling and notorious set on property was the familiar yet foreboding house and motel that used to stand in Universal Studios Florida. Its chilling presence overlooked the theme park, and, with the help of the house’s residents, Norman Bates and Mother, also served as the perfect venue for short-lived haunt attractions.
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A Frightening Franchise is Born
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the world with his low-budget masterpiece: Psycho. The legendary horror movie, which was filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, inspired three sequels.
The post-Hitchcock follow-up movies didn’t reach the box office and critical success the original earned, but they did share a commonality with the black-and-white slasher: setting. The Bates Motel and the Psycho house have legacies as renowned as any other horror location, right up there with the Overlook Hotel and Camp Crystal Lake.
For the Psycho franchise’s fourth movie, production moved east to the soon-to-open Universal Studios Florida.
Production Heads East
Universal Studios Florida, with heavy ties to Hollywood, was designed to double as a working film studio. Universal Studios Florida was slated to open to guests in summer 1990, and the park’s studio portion was available as soon as mid-1988 for filming.
Psycho IV: The Beginning would be the first full-length production shot at Universal Studio Florida, and its filming was scheduled to start in late November or early December of 1988.
Universal, wanting to capitalize on the moviemaking aspect of its new Florida park, pushed back the Psycho prequel’s production by about two years to align with Universal Studios Florida’s grand opening in summer 1990.
Filming Starts at Universal Studios Florida
Filming for Psycho IV began in May 1990, which was just a few weeks before the park opened.
The tight production schedule of four six-day weeks kicked off by shooting the movie’s indoor scenes in Soundstage 21, which was one of the park’s many on-site production locations. This soundstage featured original set dressings from the 1960 Hitchcock movie, including Mother’s screen-used bed.
Other on-site filming locations included Universal Studios’ broadcast center and the Swamp Thing set in the back of the park.
The film’s major outdoor scenes, which were shot toward the end of production purposefully after the theme park had opened in early June 1990, took place at the recreated Bates Motel and Psycho house. This set was constructed using the original blueprints from the 1960 version.
With the Bates Motel underneath, the mansion loomed atop a hill in the park’s Expo Center area. At the time of the park’s opening, this section was home to E.T. Adventure; Animal Actors Stage; and Back to the Future: The Ride, which would open a year later.
With the movie’s adjusted production schedule, the new theme park opened with a hot set for guests to enjoy. During Psycho IV’s outdoor filming times, park visitors gathered around the set.
“We were as much a theme park attraction as we were a movie production,” said director Mick Garris.
(Quote source: The Post Mortem Podcast)
Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed at night after the park closed to guests, so nearby spectators were present for only a few filming sessions. Guests watched production take place, and the movie generated a buzz in the park with stars like Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates, E.T. lead Henry Thomas as a young Norman Bates, alongside Romeo and Juliet actress Olivia Hussey playing Mother.
Briefly during filming for the movie’s flashback sequences of a teenage Norman and young Norma Bates, the house was given a fresh yellow coat of paint, and the motel was spruced up to be lively and inviting. For the majority of production, the house and motel were heavily distressed as scenes took place about 30 years after the events in the original Psycho movie.
The yellow paint on the back and a portion of the side of the house were not covered up because they weren’t visible on camera. This was also the case on the motel with off-camera portions of the building staying yellow.
The newly constructed motel and mansion structures, like many movie sets, were nothing more than facades with bare, unfinished interiors. Essentially, the buildings had nothing inside—only being used for exterior shots.
For the movie’s finale, the house was set on fire. This pyrotechnic effect was controlled and left visual marks on the facade.
After a 25-day session, Psycho IV: The Beginning wrapped up production on Monday, July 9, 1990, which was about a month after the park opened. The $4 million made-for-television movie premiered Nov. 10, 1990, on Showtime.
The Set Looms After Filming
Universal kept the house and motel set intact after production finished. The facades, still with aged and yellow paint, stood as relics of the park’s cinematic history. This standing set was essentially a photo op off the beaten path near the former Hard Rock Café.
Since the structures had no interior, guests could not actually enter these attractions or come close to them. The standing set was on a relatively large plot of land with no guest pathway leading directly to the structures.
The facades, while still exciting for horror fans, didn’t offer much to theme park guests.
Time Goes On
Through the early ‘90s, the set remained relatively unchanged. During this time, Universal used the set for its annual Halloween Horror Nights event. It first served as the backdrop for a show in the first-ever Fright Nights and then for Psycho-themed haunted houses as featured in the third and fourth years of Halloween Horror Nights.
The Bates Property Gets Slashed
In the park’s early years, a Universal publicist stated that the standing sets would be relocated to another area in the park, but this never happened. In 1992, the Psycho set gained a new neighbor: Fievel's Playland.
With the park expanding, the house and motel were now on borrowed time. In 1995, the Bates Motel façade checked out. It got the ax to make room for a new children’s attraction, A Day in the Park with Barney. The Psycho house, now unaccompanied by its infamous motel, remained standing.
Approaching the late ‘90s, Universal Studios became increasingly popular and was expanding into a multi-park resort. The set was still used on occasion for various small filming productions such as local commercials; regardless, the park had limited space, and the Psycho house didn’t provide much in return.
The Bates mansion and its large hill took up a large, valuable plot of land in the park.
Thus, in 1998, the Psycho house—this time the victim—was slain in favor of a new kids’ play area, Curious George Goes to Town.
Hitchcock's Presence in the Park
One of Universal Studios Florida’s opening day attractions, called Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, featured a smaller indoor recreation of the motel and house. The attraction also included a portion of the original movie’s famed shower scene.
While these weren’t screen-used sets, Hitchcock fans would be disappointed when this attraction closed in early 2003 to make way for Shrek 4-D. After the closure of The Art of Making Movies, all of the park’s Psycho sets and attractions were now defunct.
In the park, a production plaque as a tribute to Psycho IV: The Beginning used to be located outside of the park’s soundstages but has since been removed.