At this year’s Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, the event’s creative team has wrangled some of the best IPs in the horror industry to make haunted houses from. Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Krampus, and the monsters from American Horror Story are all represented in their own haunted houses, just waiting to scare park guests. With this many iconic characters and franchises to pull from, you would think they’d be hard-pressed to come up short. Does Halloween Horror Nights live up to its potential or does it come up wanting?
We started off our night at Halloween Horror Nights experience on the red carpet that Universal Studios rolled out for its celebrity guests. The red carpet is always a fun pre-show to experiencing the Horror Nights attractions, and this year was no exception. Celebrities ranged from Kerris Dorsey (Ray Donovan) and Michael Dougherty (Trick R Treat, Krampus) to Michael Rosenbaum (Impastor) and the Soska sisters (Hellevator). Unlike some past years, the park did not host the Eyegore Awards so celebrity guests were ushered into a VIP reception. At about 7:15pm, the carpet began to thin and we entered into the park looking for scary fun.
The first thing we did was head down to the park’s lower lot where a mass of haunted houses are setup. The first on our kill list for the night: The Exorcist. Using the press passes issued to us, we were able to access the “Gate A” front of the line option and I highly recommend you purchase front of the line passes if you visit. They are a lot more expensive than the general admission but, with 1 to 2 hours per haunted house, getting in within 20 minutes (sometimes A LOT less) it is well worth the $150 dollar price – I digress. The Exorcist exterior featured a recreation of the iconic moment in the film where Father Merrin approaches the MacNeil house in which the young girl Regan, possessed by the demon Pazuzu, is waiting. This maze was awesome in how it portrayed various plot points from the exorcism portion of the film, culminating in a meeting with Pazuzu itself. Some of critiqued the maze by claiming there is a lot of “dead space” and I can see how some would think that. However, that “dead space” is just extraneous pathing to get you back into the main story rooms of the maze.
After that, we walked our happy selves over to the trio of haunted houses in the back lot. One of my biggest disappointments of the night came on this walk. I should preface this with the knowledge bomb that The Purge is the only theme for scare zones around the park. Horror Nights Orlando does this one theme for scare zones bit a lot and, especially with The Walking Dead, to great effect. Unfortunately, Horror Nights Hollywood does not pull this off as well – but more on that later. There is a long, concrete transportation tunnel that guests have to walk through to get to the back lot this year. This tunnel is all decked out in what the park considers The Purge theming: Blinking red and blue lights, metal music, and what appear to be stoners (the monsters kind of just ambled about). It is a loud, cacophonous walk that will leave you with a headache and not scared in the least. The area is also a choke point where a nice walkway gets squished into two three foot wide paths demarcated by stanchions with legs that can be easily tripped on – especially when the lights start pulsating. This whole tunnel was simply ill-conceived and should be removed ASAP. Turn the lights up a bit so people are not tripping, widen the paths so people can be more comfortable, and get people to the back lot which is where they wanted to go initially – before the 0.37 Miles walk each way (wear good shoes).
Once we arrived to the New York Street back lot area, we began the journey through the haunted houses in the area: Krampus, Freddy vs Jason, and American Horror Story. Without question, Krampus was the best haunted house in the entire park and my personal favorite. Krampus puts you inside a house being visited by the titular demonic anti-clause as they attack the family that lives there. Often times, maze designers at Horror Nights will rely on awful smell effects for sheer shock value – even when it might not be appropriate or do anything to actually help scare guests. With Krampus, you enter the home in disarray and you smell a sour pine scent which echoes a Christmas gone horrible wrong. The maze is beautifully-crafted and the home feels like a real house. Also, the creature design is incredible, and all the monsters look like they jumped right off the silver screen and into your personal space. I won’t spoil any particular gimmick in the maze for you – suffice it to say that Krampus was awesome and should not be missed.
Maybe it’s just the age of the characters at the point, but Freddy vs Jason didn’t really do much for me. It was a decent enough maze, set inside the fictional “Craven Industries” (RIP Wes) building, and you do see a lot of the titular characters in various stages of kicking the other one’s hide. It just sort of paled in comparison to Krampus. With the exception of one really awesome creature, it was an alright experience which was enjoyable with the front of the line pass. Had I waited in line for 2 hours for it without the front of the line pass, I would be irritated – especially after the previously mentioned The Purge tunnel of terribleness.
The American Horror Story haunted house takes the “Murder House”, “Freakshow”, and “Hotel” seasons of the show and gives guests an abbreviated look at each one. Overall, this was a great maze and the designers gave each season just enough space for guests to see highlighted monsters and characters represented. It moved quickly and I loved the use of the scent effects in this maze – especially the Hotel area, where the scent of used linen (not soiled, just worn) permeated the air. I have covered enough events and stayed in enough “historic” hotels for this site that I am all too familiar with that smell. Set decorators did a terrific job of placing props where they should be and there was a great sense of immersion in each of the maze’s areas.
The Purge scare zones, as I previously wrote about, are fine save for the tunnel. The Purge characters are all working hard to get scares and the guests seem to be having a good time. There are not as many “sliders” (monsters that run and slide towards guests on pads) as in other parks, but what Horror Nights misses in sliding, it makes up for almost ad nauseam in chainsaw wielders. I love the chainsaw as a scare prop, but it was a bit too much this year. Between all the characters on the street wielding them as well as all the clown characters on the Terror Tram. Ease up on the chainsaws gang. They are more effective when used like hot pepper – a spice rather than a main ingredient.
Speaking of the Terror Tram, this year’s experience sees the tram occupied by disgruntled circus clowns. On the way to the Terror Tram walking paths, we were shown a cool video about how once good “Koodles the Clown” went bad and became a serial killer known as “Hollywood Harry”. He was last seen in the back lot somewhere…. And it was up to us to find him! The Terror Tram is often a spectacle and I thought this year’s theme, which was brought together with the help of Eli Roth and Crypt TV, should have been the opposite. I wanted to feel stalked by Hollywood Harry and his minions. I wanted to have space to look for Harry in the rubble, feel him getting closer as he zeroed in to attack. They basically just threw a bunch of clowns in the area previously occupied by zombies and all their past monsters. They did pour concrete in the previously dirt path up to the Psycho house, which was really nice but, aside from that, the Terror Tram was generic and disappointing. Given the theme and the viral video they put out to set it up, it should have been amazing and scary as hell. There is also a traffic problem in that experience now as there is a “maze within a maze” where people are jammed into a queue line and made to wait. It was annoying to say the least and I was glad to get back on the tram and head to the theme park proper.
Thankfully, my annoyance turned back to glee when we went through Universal Studios The Walking Dead walk-through attraction. The park has added more zombies inside for the Halloween event and this added oomph was awesome. The attraction features some meticulous set design where every object strewn about has its own story – right down to a capsized bio-hazard-only waste basket. It is also nicely air conditioned in the building which takes out the humidity and makes it a very comfortable scare experience. The effects are great, zombies are scary with great costumes and makeup, and the place looks incredible. What more could you possibly want from a maze based on The Walking Dead?!
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Blood Brothers is a take on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, where guests visit a BBQ joint that serves the most dangerous game and is ran by a very special family which includes Leatherface! The maze hits all the right marks for a cannibal barbeque maze and, overall, is a fun trip. There is some great set design here, with the prop makers clearly getting inspiration from the film and its time frame. Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield is, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 inspired maze, a solid trip. Based on Halloween 2, the maze features a lot of sets and recreations from that film, starting right where the movie starts (and the original leaves off). There are a lot of Horror Nights jump scares here with lighting and music cues and they work. Some find them repetitious but I had no issue with them in this maze. Maybe the subject matter lends itself to those kinds of jump out scares surrounded by eerie quiet. I put these two mazes into the same paragraph as they are a kind of mid-tier position for the park’s line up of haunted houses. Not the best of the bunch yet not the worst, simply solid performers that help bolster the event as a whole.
Overall the 2016 incarnation of Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights is, despite a couple duds, a terrific haunted attraction with plenty of scares to go around. I would only recommend you go to the park if you get front of the line passes. If you stick to general admission, you will be lucky to get into 3 mazes in the whole night. So just shell out your dough already and get walking! Krampus, American Horror Story, and The Exorcist are incredible and not to be missed.