September 19, 2018
Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2018: The Good, the Bad, and What Could Be Improved
Halloween Horror Nights was the first haunted house event I ever attended and I’ve gone every year since I moved to Los Angeles. I’m admittedly not a hardcore horror film guy – I enjoy the occasional horror film or slasher movie, but I skip more of the big horror releases than I see. But I am a huge theme park guy who loves being immersed in the worlds and stories we watch on the big and small screens, and that is probably why I’ve fallen hard for these events.
My excitement for Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights has waned a bit over the years as the novelty has worn off, the crowds have gotten much much larger, and the production value and originality has fallen into decline. So how does Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2018 compare to previous years? Let’s take an in-depth look.
(Note: our review of Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights, which shares many similarities and many differences, can be found right here.)
Let’s talk briefly about the mazes they had at this year’s Horror Nights, listed in order from my favorite to least favorite.
Stranger Things: It might not have been the scariest maze at this year’s event, but it was my favorite. It was just so much fun walking through the great recreations from the Netflix series’ first season. This house has great production design and has been constructed on a soundstage instead of the usual makeshift tent, which allows them to make things bigger and more epic. After watching videos of Universal Studios Florida’s Stranger Things maze, I am disappointed that ours didn’t feature as many character actors as theirs did, and their Upside Down had real ash falling from the sky where ours had merely projection mapping on the walls. In any case, this was a huge hit, and I’m sure they’ll probably do a Stranger Things season 2 next year.
Poltergeist: This maze was a whole lot of fun. Some great scares and cool recreations of scenes from the film that makes me want to revisit it. My girlfriend has never seen Poltergeist, and this was her favorite house of the night, which is very telling.
Halloween 4: This is another franchise that has been a mainstay at these events. I understand Universal owns the rights to Halloween, but I’d love if they change it up more. The one cool thing is that they have a ton of fun Michael Myers scares, maybe because the costume is so cheap and they just have a lot of them from the many mazes over the years.
Terror Tram: One of my favorite things to do at Horror Nights every year is the Terror Tram, which is basically a bunch of scare zones constructed on the Universal Studios lot tour. I probably enjoy this more than I should because you get to walk through parts of the backlot tour that you would typically not be able to, like the airplane crash from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the Bates Motel. This year, the theme was “Hollywood Harry’s Deadtime Stories,” the sole “original” concept of the event. Where Universal Studios Orlando does impressive things with their original mazes, the one in Hollywood just felt like a Frankenstein of mostly reused bits of props and costumes from previous years. Also, the Universal Creatives working on this event are obsessed with putting the letter Z at the end of names like it’s still the 1990s. Holidayz, Scarecrowz… It just feels dated.
Trick R Treat: I am a huge fan of this movie, and was very excited to experience this maze, but found the whole thing to be underwhelming and short. While it was fun to walk through the short segments from the now-classic movie, this is one of those houses that I think suffered from not being able to stray far from the story to provide a great haunted house experience.
The First Purge: We’ve had Purge mazes and scare zones at this event for as long as that franchise has been going on, and frankly, I’m getting a little sick of it. Thankfully, The First Purge storyline feels a bit different than the past versions of The Purge experiences at the event, but I really hope I never see another Purge maze at Horror Nights. But we will. After all, Universal owns the rights to this series.
Universal Monsters: This was a house featuring the classic universal monsters, trying to show them off in a new modern way, featuring…music by Slash? Yeah, it didn’t quite work for me. First of all, the Universal monsters characters aren’t terrifying, and the music just didn’t fit, but somehow the Universal creatives were able to create some fun jump scares.
The Horrors of Blumhouse: It makes brilliant sense strategically for Universal to have a maze based on the smaller Blumhouse movies, but it’s just not a great experience. For example, walking through the bedrooms of the characters in Unfriended, a film that takes place entirely on a computer screen, was silly. Truth or Dare was even less appealing. This year, they even used the house to promote upcoming movies. Snore. I will say I am thankful they are doing this montage of a haunted house where each film gets two or three rooms rather than promoting these films with their own mazes.
Overall, the mazes were a lot of fun this year, but I’m seeing a lot of the same thing done over and over. The scares are virtually the same, and there doesn’t seem to be much innovation in that respect. I like the expanded use of puppets and would love to see some of the multilevel stuff being done at Universal Orlando or more of the storytelling interactive ideas being explored at Knotts Scary Farm.
The Scare Zones
When I first attended Halloween Horror Nights, I found some of the scare zones to be as much fun as the haunted mazes. For those of you who have never been to an event like this, some of the areas between rides and houses are designated as “Scare Zones,” dressed up, themed, and lit for the event and featuring scare actors jumping out and chasing park guests. When done right, the smoke, the lights, the props, displays and scare actors make it feel like you’re walking through a colossal horror scene in a horror movie on the backlot.
I remember the first year at Horror Nights, walking down a street that was lined with smoke and lights with girls dancing on stages to Rob Zombie-sounding music. At the end of the strip were these large shipping containers and a ringleader at a podium yelling at the crowd from a microphone. Large explosions burst into the air in the background as maniacs with chainsaws ran after unsuspecting victims. It was awesome.
The quality of these scare zones has decreased at the Hollywood event. What used to be these big epic scenes have now become a bunch of small displays on wheels that are brought out for the event. The work on the displays is fine, but it feels piecemeal and it’s not transformative.
The Trick r Treat scare zone has Sam and the kids on a school bus, a fun photo op for sure, but the rest of the production design was mostly made up of a bunch of signs. It was rather sad. I’m not sure if it’s that the budget for these scare zones has decreased or if they have been scaled down to handle the more massive crowds, but they feel more like an afterthought than a fully fleshed out creation.
And quite honestly, if you look at any of the videos from the scare zones at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando, they blow ours away. I know part of that is that they have more room to play with, but even the set construction and atmosphere is better, the theatrical storytelling superior. This is shocking to me because Hollywood is the land where the movies are made – shouldn’t the set, lighting, atmosphere, and entertainment be better than Orlando?
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