As I stepped into the gates of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017, a feeling of childhood nostalgia overcame my soul. It reminded me of a hyper nine-year-old child walking through a border delineating the end of reality; holding onto his father’s hand, shivering in pure panic, sweating profusely at the thought of what was to come. This was home then and this is home now.
It brings joy to my heart in saying that John Murdy and Chris Williams have once again outdone themselves. The event remains a tribute to the many horror fans out there as well as a fantastic time for any person yearning for an adrenaline rush. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without the remarkable scare actors that Universal employs in order to create a memorable experience.
This year’s event consists of six mazes (excluding the year-round The Walking Dead attraction), three scare zones, and the terror tram.
HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS MAZES
Titans of Terror
Titans of Terror is a slasher horror movie fan’s dream. Playing on childhood nostalgia for horror cinema, guests are bombarded by slasher movie props and memorabilia. But this fan adores and worships slasher movie icons, to the point where his dreams manifest themselves into reality. What follows is the ability to walk into this boy’s dream and experience three realms lead by the masterminds of horror. The maze brings guests into Freddy Krueger’s boiler room, Jason Voorhees’ Camp Crystal Lake, and Leatherface’s human butchery. Some highlights throughout include Leatherface skinning someone alive by ripping their face off and an animatronic figure of Freddy devouring a child in his infamous snake form. There are some effective scares throughout, especially when faced with the scare actors portraying Jason considering how tall and intimidating they come off.
The Horrors of Blumhouse
Guests are transported into three terrifying films produced by Blumhouse: The Purge, Happy Death Day, and Sinister. In order to divide each movie, Murdy created physical versions of each iconic poster. The creepiest being that of Sinister, where a young girl smears a stark white wall with blood. Once inside, baby face doll killers attack from every side. The set design and the scare actors remain the same for about three rooms, depicting a normal college bedroom. Although some may find this to be repetitive if they don’t know the premise of Happy Death Day, the repetition of this scene is meant to convey the feeling of being helpless when attempting to stop death. The scariest section of this maze is Sinister. Every single Bughuul scare actor manages to frighten. These massive (literally) people have extremely clever hiding places such as popping from behind a projection screen. Furthermore, watching children murder their parents in gruesome fashion delivers chills down the spine.
Throughout this maze, memorable moments from the movie are recreated. Guests can expect to see things ranging from the Gold Room to the interior of Room 237. Anybody who has seen The Shining will be in awe at how faithful this representation of the hotel’s interior is. The most haunting images from the film are presented through state of the art practical effects. The famous Grady twins’ scene is fabricated through the use of Pepper’s Ghost, enabling an easy transition between seeing them alive and watching their hacked bodies lying across the carpet. Also, the blood gushing elevator sequence is rendered in the abstract. Designers effortlessly blend a screen into the physical sets of the hotel. The projection changes between an image of the Grady twins and a video of the elevator gushing blood. There are some interesting creative choices made throughout which add to the whole experience. The main one is the way the creative team decided to tackle “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — having guests trapped in a room filled with torn paper sheets, creating a sense of claustrophobia and madness. This maze is a faithful adaption of Kubrick’s film and manages to take guests down the spiral of insanity conjured by The Overlook Hotel.
Insidious: Beyond the Further
Unlike other Insidious mazes in the past, the third iteration takes place for a majority in The Further. Different types of the signature red door are used to seamlessly transition between each film of the franchise. These vary from the regular red door seen in the first film, the entrance to the Red Faced Demon’s lair, to the elevator red door seen in the third film, where the Wheezing Demon lurks. Having said that, the aggressiveness of the actors is the reason this maze stands as one of the best in recent years. During their journey, guests come face to face with iconic characters such as the Red Faced Demon and the new Key Demon. By blending special effects such as shadow projections with low lighting, guests are able to feel as if they have been sent down the depths of The Further. The only negative aspect is the overwhelming amount of black walls without any scare actors. However, they do work to the maze’s favor when a red door is placed at the end of a dark hallway, creating a sense of dread and anticipation at what is to emerge.
American Horror Story: Roanoke
For fans of American Horror Story’s 6th season, Roanoke, this maze excels in terms of set design, scare actors, and coherent storytelling. Murdy and Williams manage to accurately recreate the outside of the house during the blood moon period as the inner façade. Considering that this maze is built inside a tent, this accomplishment is one which deserves praise. Everything, from the dining room to the forbidden woods outside the house, is identical to how it was portrayed in the series. Guests walk inside the house and bear witness to being thrown inside a Roanoke nightmare filled with guts and gore. Throughout the maze, guests encounter scenes ranging from Cricket being disemboweled by the Butcher to watching the murderous nurses slash away at their victims. Any fan of the series will instantly recognize the iconic moments inside this maze. The only negative here is that the scare actors feel rather repetitive throughout. The Pig Man and The Butcher make endless appearances throughout and this can sometimes hinder the scare factor. On a final note, the finale is stunning and makes use of static figure misdirection for an unforgettable scare. I won’t spoil the surprise.
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw
This maze is more of a walkthrough highlighting the most gruesome and disturbing traps from the Saw franchise. In other words, scaring guests isn’t the main priority. Therefore, it’s the ultimate contender for conga lines because guests constantly stop to observe the traps and act as innocent bystanders to the torment before them. Guests can expect to see things ranging from Amanda digging into a man’s intestines in a desperate attempt to remove the reverse bear trap from her face to the infamous rack trap, where a machine twists a man’s ligaments until his bones break. While the makeup and special effects are impressive, the scares mainly come from actors wearing pig masks. This instance of repetitiveness sometimes hinders the scare factor. One of the most compelling and stomach churning scenes is the bathroom one, which fans will instantly recognize from the first movie. Murdy is notorious for using scent in order to provoke a reaction and he does so brilliantly through using the smell of feces. This makes for a thought provoking iteration of the Saw franchise as guests finds themselves unable to interfere while watching innocent people being brutally tortured.
Ash vs Evil Dead
Guests enter the whimsical world of Ash vs. Evil Dead through his trailer in Mossy Haven Trailer Park and make their way towards the Williams Family Home. Many of the iconic Deadites in this series make an appearance such as Ash William’s mother and Henrietta. The most visually impressive moment in this maze is the use of puppetry through which Henrietta is brought to life. Puppeteers make her neck lunge at guests as they make their way past her. There are a variety of instances where Ash is seen with his chainsaw arm battling the Deadites and although the dialogue is corny, it remains faithful to the dark comedy dispersed throughout the TV show. One feature of this maze which deserves praise is that there are two facades inside. The first is Ash William’s childhood house and the second is the famous Evil Dead cabin. The fact that the design team was able to build two structures inside a tent says a lot about their tremendous amount of skill and dedication. Fans of the television series are guaranteed to have loads of fun when braving the world of the Evil Dead.
TITANS OF TERROR TRAM: HOSTED BY CHUCKY
The Terror Tram this year is hosted by Chucky and has some visually interesting moments scattered throughout. Although Leatherface is overused, especially because a large portion of the terror tram is devoted to him, the Jason and Freddy scare actors were great. Jason takes over the Bates Motel area and guests can look upon some of the iconic kills from the Friday the 13th franchise. These range from grinding somebody’s head while a water gag sprays guests to breaking a man’s body in half by closing a bed frame. The War of the Worlds set places Freddy in a metropolitan environment, thereby allowing him to assume multiple forms such as a policeman or firefighter. Overall, this makes for a welcoming addition to the event and provides guests with the exclusive opportunity of being able to walk through iconic movie sets such as the Bates Motel.
This zone is located in the back lot and makes great use of space. Hell has taken over the streets of Los Angeles and guests must now confront the many demons spawned by Satan himself. Guests can expect to encounter demons with skull faces and an altar of disturbing devil babies. The soundtrack is ominous as demons deliver a chant to summon otherworldly powers and immediately places everyone inside this nefarious world filled with lost souls.
The spirit of Halloween is alive as stilt walkers such as werewolves and skeletons pounce throughout and the sound of a rattling chainsaw echoes, reminding guests there is nowhere to hide. The character design stands above the rest because of how unique each monster is. Located near the entrance of the park, this scare zone impresses because of how energetic each scare actor is. The actors wearing stilts deserve special praise because of how swiftly they are able to move through hoards of people while managing to deliver some of the night’s best scares.
This is by far the best use of the tunnel leading to the back lot mazes in recent years. The scare actors are aggressive and their designs are appealing. The use of neon is used to great effect here and elevates the aesthetics. With a narrative involving a toxic gas broke out while people were working inside a tunnel, the scare zone is filled with zombies and neon Hazmat-suited workers.The addition of these glowing Hazmat suits provides an interesting and effective juxtaposition against the darkness surrounding the tunnel. Scare actors here make great use of space by constantly banging their weapons against the walls and rails. In doing so, they manage to use noise as a primary tactic when frightening guests.
Halloween Horror Nights has once again proven that through the power of imagination, it becomes possible to live inside a horror movie. Through a blend of state of the art practical effects, intense scare actors, and immaculate set design, this still stands as one of the best haunts in the country.