Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Hey, would ya look at that... back to back updates from Universal Studios! While yesterday was a look back, today's update is a look forward--one week forward precisely, in fact, when Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights kicks off the formal haunting season in Southern California!
Horror Nights has always been the first haunt out, firing off on that second or middle Friday of September, and this year is no different. Today, we're going to take a little preview at what this year's Horror Nights has in store for fans (hint: it's more IP's!).
First Look at the Stranger Things Maze
On Wednesday, Universal released several images of this year's most anticipated maze, the Netflix-partnered Stranger Things experience that transports guests to Hawkins, Indiana, and all the supernatural and inter-dimensional oddities that comes with it. For the first time, three Horror Nights parks--Orlando, Hollywood, and Singapore, will feature a common maze.
Each park will feature its very own [Stranger Things] maze that will give guests the chance to brave the Upside Down and encounter iconic scenes, characters and environments from season one of the critically-acclaimed series.
The images showcase some of the eerily-authentic environments guests will encounter at “Halloween Horror Nights” 2018 – including the Byers’ living room adorned with an erratic display of flashing Christmas lights, Hawkins National Laboratory in the Upside Down, Will’s makeshift fort called Castle Byers and more.
Although the images below are from the dressed sets in Orlando, Hollywood's maze will be pretty similar, and the photographic opportunities have me eagerly excited in anticipation. The Netflix series itself is full of so many iconic and photogenic moments. I can't wait to see how they're brought to life at Horror Nights!
Honestly, those are pretty breath-taking images. And if that doesn't make a Stranger Things fan excited, how about this teaser?
Horror Nights Hollywood brings seven other mazes this year. At this point, longtime readers of Westcoaster and/or veterans of Horror Nights know what to expect from the event. Famous franchises are recreated to minute detail and brought to life for the eager public. Horror Night's biggest excel comes in transporting guests into those horror movies. Although there have been complaints of more plain, black walls in transition spaces over recent years compared to prior (when there were less mazes), the theming and ambiance at HHN mazes generally remains top notch. As you can see from the Stranger Things photos, the scenic artistry is really quite impressive to behold. And those who take the time to look closer at the detail will notice easter eggs and little tributes built into every maze.
From a scare perspective, however, the expect the same repeated formula:
- Beautiful scene unfolding
- Distracting visual element
- Sudden loud cacophony and strobes
- Scareactor lunges out of hidden compartment
- Possible water effects and/or unpleasant scents present
And repeat. For first-time visitors or those easily prone to jump scares, this will prove to be a very intense event. But for haunt veterans or those who just don't react much to startles--especially formulaic ones--the value of Horror Nights will come in the appreciation of the scenes and sets.
About the remaining mazes:
Trick 'r Treat
The cult classic finally comes to Horror Nights after many years of negotiation. I continue to find it funny that this was a home haunt in Thousand Oaks last year, done in the style of a Horror Nights maze, and now the pros are taking it over (not literally; Universal is just doing their take in maze form). But Trick 'r Treat promises to provide a bevvy of iconic scenes from the movie, and of course, little Sam, here to be stabby stabby.
The First Purge
This past year saw another Purge movie documenting the rise of the event that sees laws suspended for 24 hours and all crime--including murder--made legal. At this point, similar to how The Walking Dead had a run of mazes and scare zones for several years, a Purge maze is all but inevitable. This on will likely feature similar sets and conditions to the previous Purge mazes, with a few unique nods to the movie released this past July.
Sort of overshadowed by the hype surrounding the Stranger Things maze is another long-developing get for John Murdy and Chris Williams and the Horror Nights theme. For many, Poltergeist remains one of the most legendarily terrifying films, and it will be fun to see how this maze is brought to life... from that dimension beyond the living...
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
We've had a Halloween maze and a Halloween 2 maze, but this year we skip to 4? Ohhhhh, right... that third one did that whole witchcraft thing and completely ignored Michael Myers. Hence the tagline of the fourth movie. Welp, everyone's favorite non-comedian M. Myers is back to terrify in this maze based on the fourth movie. The maze based on the second remains one of the strongest mazes in Horror Nights history, and while this one isn't getting much fanfare this year (due to the higher profile of other mazes and its latter sequel inspiration), it might be a surprise hit?
The Horrors of Blumhouse: Chapter 2
I didn't really have any high expectations for The Horrors of Blumhouse last year, but it ended up being one of my favorite mazes on account of its solid scareactor performances and timing of the scares. This maze sequel features the Blumhouse movies Truth or Dare and Unfriended. And hopefully, it can be another solid maze.
Last of the unique mazes this year is a new iteration featuring Universal's classic horror monsters, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. Universal Monsters feels like the House of Horrors, or perhaps its kind of wacky but honestly fun Monsters Remixed version, which brought in a dubstep soundtrack that might have seemed terrible on paper but actually kind of worked in injecting a different type of energy.
This year's maze will also feature music by Slash, so at least we know it will literally rock!
The Walking Dead
In its third year now, this would be the maze to skip if you had to omit one due to lack of time (from long lines). Being a permanent attraction, this will be identical to its normal iteration during the year. One hopes that there will be more talent like 2016's Halloween season. Last year seemed to have a decline in overall scareactors.
For entertainment, the Jabbawockeez return with another high energy dance show in the Special Effects Show theater. And the Terror Tram is back with an old original story pal: Hollywood Harry. And he's bringing some "Dreadtime Storiez" this year!
Brace yourself for the unspeakable horrors depicted in this demented rendition of Harry’s 1950s television show. As you journey through five spine-tingling bedtime stories, attempt to survive the chainsaw wielding monsters, bloodthirsty cannibals, rotten corpse scarecrows, homicidal clowns, and a merciless torture factory. You better get some sleep while you can because after you experience Hollywood Harry’s Dreadtime Storiez, you’ll never sleep again…
Rounding out the Horror Nights line-up are five scare zones--a sharp spike in scare zone quantity after HHN bottomed out at three the past couple of years:
TRICK ‘R TREAT
Not only is it a maze, it's also a scare zone! Of course, it also began as a scare zone last year in Horror Nights Orlando, so there's a bit of a loop there.
The frightening characters from writer/director Michael Dougherty’s anthology horror film Trick 'R Treat have descended on the small Midwestern town of Warren Ohio during their annual Halloween celebrations. Lurking in the fog are vampires, werewolves, zombie school children and Sam, the vengeful spirit of Halloween who will stop at nothing to ensure his rules for the season are being upheld.
This will be in the French area to the left side of the upper lot and seems to pair off with the Universal Monsters maze.
Step into the fog-enshrouded streets of old Paris and enter “The Danse of the Dead,” a macabre monster masquerade ball inspired by the original Universal Classic Monster movies The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Either this or Trick 'r Treat will be the entrance area scare zone. And if it's the first, then Hell's Harvest will be located on Baker Street.
Enter a pagan harvest festival where the dark spirit of Halloween was born! The streets are filled with strange bewitched dolls, brought to life through dark magic. This army of evil dolls are looking for the next victim for their human sacrifice…will it be you?
Literally the walkway between the Revenge of the Mummy / Transformers rides and the Metro Lot where the three backlot mazes are located. With pretty much the same theme as last year!
There’s been a terrible industrial accident deep inside an underground utility tunnel. The noxious vapors that were released have transformed the emergency workers into radioactive monsters, filled with an uncontrollable rage and hell-bent on our destruction!
HOLIDAYZ IN HELL
Dark Christmas is my all-time favorite Horror Nights scare zone, and this seems to be aiming for the same twisted vibe. So I'm curiously excited about this scare zone, because it could be pretty awesome.
Every day is Halloween in this irreverent send up of the Holidays of the year. Encounter creepy Cupids, lecherous Leprechauns and evil Easter bunnies as you take a terrifying trip through these psychotic seasonal celebrations…screaming all the way!
Tips and Recs
We'll close with a few notes on basic strategies and things I keep in mind when attending Horror Nights. As anyone who's visited before knows, this event can be VERY crowded, and lines will often range into the 2-3 hours range on peak evenings. It can be kind of stressful to try to do everything, but there are some recommendations that make things a little easier:
- If you can go on off-peak days like Thursdays or Sundays, then choose those days. This is kind of obvious, but Fridays and Saturdays are pretty much packed throughout the season.
- The last weekend of Horror Nights, in November, is also typically less crowded, though in recent years, the waits on the final day have grown as fans treat it as a good-bye to the Halloween season. A couple of years, ago, though, HHN in November was absolutely dead.
- Take advantage of early entry to extend the number of hours you have to experience the event. The past couple of years, any guest who gets there early enough has been allowed to enter as early as 5:00pm, two hours before the official park opening. The downside is that mazes are less ambient during the daytime due to the light leak, but you will have shorter maze waits for the limited mazes that are open, and they'll help you get your count sooner.
- Start from the back and work your way to the front. This is another common tip that John Murdy even tweets himself. But most guests will pack the upper lot mazes first, then the lower lot mazes. The Metro Lot mazes will have minimal lines the first hour before they fill up. But likewise, they also tend to have short lines by the very end of the night too.
- The lines are shortest at the upper lot maze typically during the middle third of the night.
- If you want a special treat, keep an eye on the @HorrorNights twitter account. Most nights, Murdy will tweet a secret password that you can give to a character actor at a specific maze and receive a special souvenir in return. In past years, this has ranged from stylized business cards from Specs and Tucker at the Insidious mazes to Krampus cards at the Krampus maze a couple of years back. The goodie is not typically anything big, but it's a cool Easter egg.
- Keep in mind that the Terror Tram closes earlier than the rest of the park, so if you want to do it, head over to the backlot tram loading before 11:45pm on Fridays and Saturdays and before 11:15pm the rest of the days.
- A great tradition is the Chainsaw Chase-Out at the end of the night. Typically around half an hour before park closing, all the chainsaw monsters march to the front of the park and form a gauntlet of scareactors who stand still as guests filter through on their way out of the park. At the signal, however, chainsaws rev, and all hell breaks loose. This has been a little less dramatic on opening night, when mostly fans who are used to this come out, but in the past, it's been priceless to watch guests get chased around in circles or trapped against a storefront in terror.
Oh, and if you're in the mood for high rolling, you can really enjoy Horror Nights in style via the returning R.I.P. Tour, which will definitely make your night at Universal swanky. Each R.I.P. Tour accommodates groups of 12. Highlights include:
- Exclusive “Stranger Things” experience featuring themed photo ops, props from the popular Netflix series and scare-actor make-up demonstrations
- Unlimited line privileges via Universal Express access to all mazes, Terror Tram and available rides
- Private VIP trolley transportation to backlot mazes and Terror Tram
- Reserved VIP seating at the Jabbawockeez live show
- Gourmet buffet dinner, featuring specially-themed “Stranger Things” foods, including appropriately named Upside Down Sliders at exclusive VIP Dining Room
- Two complimentary drinks
- Access to the two Lounges, including the “Stranger Things” themed lounge and lounge on the theme park’s lower lot
- Commemorative R.I.P. Tour credentials
- Complimentary valet parking
That does it for this longer-than-planned Horror Nights preview! But hopefully, it's useful. I still generally enjoy the event each year that I go, and I've gone every year since its second year of relaunch over a decade ago. These days, I appreciate the photographic and scenic opportunities more than the scares, and love watching the street talent interact with guests.
Horror Nights will be terrifying to some and perhaps complacent to others. But there's no denying that it's still one of the top-notch quality haunted attractions in Southern California! The event starts next Friday, September 14th, and runs this year through Saturday, November 3rd.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.