Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights 2016: Scare Zones

Universal Studios Hollywood

We come upon the last pictorial update of the week from Halloween Horror Nights.  On the heels of our partial maze coverage and our Terror Tram report, we take a look at the scare zones at this year's Horror Nights event. 

For 2016, Universal has taken an interesting and unprecedented approach by folding the entire park under one scare zone theme: The Purge.  There are four areas where this is in action: 

On the Upper Lot, the main entrance avenue leading up to New York Street contains a large portion of the content.  Nearby, The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear is a second, one-way-only scare zone and sort of mini-maze starting within the courtyard of Universal Plaza and branching past Mel's Diner into the Parisian Courtyard before spilling out onto Moulin Rouge, back in the direction of Springfield.  Interestingly, Baker Street is not used as a scare zone at all this year, instead serving as overflow for The Walking Dead Attraction queue.

Speaking of "not a scare zone," for the second year in a row, the Lower Lot is not used as any scare zone.  Springfield is also a safe zone, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not open during Halloween Horror Nights at all.

Beyond that, downstairs, a small "scare zone" (that's stretching it, really) occurs as guests navigate the tunnel that leads to the backstage Metro Lots area (which features the American Horror Story, Freddy vs Jason, and Krampus mazes).  The fourth and final Purge scare zone is the actual entrance into the Metro Lot area, requiring guests to brave their way through a field of deranged Purgers.

Now that we're clear, lets get to the pictures from Dan and myself.  And if you haven't gotten the message by now, spoilers of the visual type lie ahead.

The Purge: Entry

Because of the traffic and all guests having to pass through this area, the entrance of the park is usually where the best action occurs, and this year was no exception.  Chainsaw guys, knife wielders, stilt walkers, and bizarre creatures masqueraded in their Purging best beneath the now prerequisite fire towers, picking out the more timid or nervous to target. 

The energy here was pretty fantastic and made for a great break from the stagnant maze lines.  The theming--skeletal Founding Fathers--carried a nice tongue-in-cheek tone, and the constant movement created a great kinetic environment in which the street scareactors operated splendidly. 

Fans of the annual go-go dancers were delighted to find that there were double the number of spots--two at the front fountain and two under the fire towers.  They added that now-customary sizzle of sex appeal to the event.

The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear

Left of the main entrance area, Universal switched things up a little bit.  Instead of two different scare zones--one on Baker Street and one over by the Moulin Rouge area--the park had a single scare zone laid out across a different footprint than past years.  Guests entered from one section and exited another, and the scarezone itself was a bit of a battlefield of fright.

It seems that this scare zone was hit or miss depending on timing going through, though.  When Dan and I filtered through, we were not that impressed.  In addition to the talent being sparse (which could have just been luck of the draw with timing), the scares were relatively straightforward and not too impactful.  Of course, that's a typical experience for me, so that's not really criticism as much as a statement that the area didn't do much to stand out in my eyes. 

More of a quibble was the overall design and presentation of the Gauntlet of Fear.  As opposed to the cohesiveness of the mazes and other scare zones, this section looked as though someone had taken all the leftover props and theming and thrown them together in a semi-connected fashion because it was the week before opening, and something had to be done.  Of course, I'm sure some thought went into this, but this didn't seem reflected in the presentation.  If this was supposed to be a "Purge" scare zone, there wasn't really anything particularly unique, other than some generic urban wasteland vehicles, props, and theming at the first portion.  And mostly, the experience was a cavalcade of "remember this prop from that maze?"

The Purge: Take the Tunnel

The trip to the Metro Lot scarezone backstage has alternated over the years between a long walk or a tram ride.  This year, it was a walk again, so in the middle of that trek, the Horror Nights team decided to stick a scare zone in there.  I should say "scare zone" again, in quotes, because it was basically just some metal railing barriers separating the inbound and outbound pedestrian lanes and random Purgers lurking and trying to look menacing, waving weapons and clanging the rails.  There's not much they could have done, though.  There was literally no theming, other than dramatic lighting.  Even fogging out the tunnel would have been cool, but that wasn't really viable due to emergency egress code reasons.  As it stood, by calling this a scare zone, Universal created literally their weakest scare zone in event history--yes, even worse than those "___z" zones on the Lower Lot around The Mummy and Jurassic Park from past years.

The Purge: Metro Lot

Fortunately, the Metro Lot entry made up for the lackluster tunnel showing.  It featured the now-familiar formula of funneling guests through a setup of cargo containers and urban set, whereupon chainsaw and knife wielding fiends would descend upon them.  Although the mood wasn't quite there during the daytime when we first entered early in the evening (for obvious reasons), by nightfall, the area was humming along nicely, with plenty of frenzied activity, scareactors popping out of the containers for ambush startle scares, chainsaw guys whirring with bad intention, and guests lurching out of the way of a medley of Purge madness.  The concentrated space allowed for an intense guest entry sequence that kicked up the adrenaline, and even those who were not targeted could at least enjoy the psychological carnage around them.

So even though The Purge theme has gotten a little played out with its repeated use at Halloween Horror Nights, the scare zones overall were a positive part of the event, providing entertainment and energy that might have been sapped away by the gruelingly long maze lines.  The psychological chaos of The Purge works well, since the psychotic nature of the Purgers enhanced the threatening nature of the scareactors, who could roam and be aggressive and make some guests question just how much was playing to character vs a bit of unhinged status.

The overall reduction of scare zones was unfortunate, but the shifts in how the scare zones operated provided some nice change of pace to the previous annual repetitive performances.  My only wish here is that the maze lines could have been shorter, so that we could have enjoyed hte scare zones more.  As it is, we didn't even get to witness the Chainsaw Chase Out--the nightly gathering of all the chainsaw-wielding scareactors from the Terror Tram, Metro Lot, and Upper Lot in a gauntlet of gas-powered shredding cacophony that all guests are forced to navigate as they exit the park through the main pedestrian boulevard from the entry gates. 

Such is reality of Horror Nights these days--a lot of great content and entertainment to be featured, but so popular that guests are denied the ability to experience all of it--unless they splurge for Front of Line or have connections to obtain a V.I.P. status.  It's a great event for those who've never gone or visit rarely, because Horror Nights' offerings will still be novel.  But for those who return regularly and without the benefit of expedited access, the event has become a bit of a chore.  It's a victim of its own success in the most blunt way, and tomorrow, I'll examine some of the issues in greater detail and offer my take on possible improvements that might be made.

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.