Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
So apparently, earlier this week, a local radio station was doing a “Christmas in July” thing. So I thought, you know what? We’re going to do a Flashback Frightday and celebrate Halloween in July. Because Midsummer Scream is right around the corner… and also, technically, we never completed our Halloween season coverage last year. We started with a look at half of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, ran through dozens of professional and home haunts, and never quite came back to HHN.
So today, a little over a week before Midsummer Scream kicks off the 2019 haunt season, we close out 2018 with our recap of the mazes that were featured at last year’s Horror Nights event. It’s good timing, because just yesterday, Universal announced yet another maze—this one featuring the cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space, bringing their tally up to five new mazes plus the year-round Walking Dead maze out of the ten total mazes planned for this year.
The screams and boo boxes will be greater than ever this year, but lets shriek through memory lane at last autumn’s event.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Several years ago, in 2015, Horror Night’s Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home maze turned out to be one of the best rated and critically acclaimed maze in event history, bringing great cast chemistry, a variety of scares, and a relentless intensity that few HHN mazes have match. The following year brought Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield, a solid follow-up that didn’t match the prior year’s highlights, but was still one of the better mazes overall. After a year off, Michael Myers was back at Horror Nights, this time with a maze patterned after the franchise’s fourth movie.
Unfortunately, this maze could not really match the shock and awe of its predecessors. While it wasn’t terrible, Halloween 4 was relatively formulaic, featuring the same predictable “boo box” scares that veteran Halloween Horror Nights guests have come to expect, and showcasing relatively little innovation. Some of the best moments involved scenes already recreated in previous Halloween mazes, such Sam Loomis shooting a threatening Michael Myers. However, we also noticed scenes featuring static dummies that could have otherwise featured scareactors meting some grisly demise. There were plenty Michaels popping out of hidden compartments, intimately threatening to slash guests, including a triple play at the end of the maze. But overall, this maze ended up being middling by the night’s standards.
Arguably last year’s most popular maze was also perhaps the most unexpected hit of the season at Universal. Universal Monsters, a tribute to the classic horror movie icons of Universal’s golden age paired with screeching electronic dub step guitar rock licks composed by famed Guns N Roses guitarist, Slash, turned out to be one of the best mazes of the night. Not only did it feature appearances from a variety of Universal horror cinema legends, from Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolfman to the Phantom of the Opera, Mummy, and Invisible Man, it was also one of the few mazes to feature a variety of different types of scares. Most were, of course, the classic “boo box” distraction type scares, but there were also false statue scares, scareactors in the open and simply stalking guests, and even a few who delayed their startles until guests had been lulled into a false sense of security as they passed.
Universal Monsters was also one of the lengthier mazes, weaving through a short enclosed crypt section initially before emerging outdoors into an angry Frankenstein villagers scene, then back inside for the rest of the maze. The talent seemed to really enjoy their work, and their passion showed in the slightly more improvisational way that many approached their roles. Of course, at Horror Nights, the scareactor motions are rooted in repetition, but many of the monsters seemed to put a bit of their own touches, so that the experience was a little bit unique each time through. This brought a freshness that many Horror Nights mazes have lacked.
Trick ‘R Treat
This was one of the most intriguing mazes for me last year, primarily because I wanted to see how Universal tackled an IP maze a year after a local home haunt pulled off an amazing Horror Night’s style tribute to the same movie and did an amazing job with it. And I have to say… the pros did a pretty good job too.
Visually, Trick ‘R Treat was gorgeous, faithfully recreating many of the cult movie’s iconic scenes, from Charlie vomiting on the porch of Principal Wilkins to Laurie and friends’ werewolf attacks to, of course, Sam’s numerous appearances. The scares here stuck to the more formulaic pop-out type, and here too, there were static mannequins used in places where something dynamic would have been more spectacular, but the maze was enjoyable, especially with its routinely shorter lines compared to most other mazes throughout the evening.
The most anticipated maze of last year, Stranger Things routinely had lengthy waits throughout the night, with many guests heading straight to its location just behind the Transformers ride in the lower lot upon entering the park. Based off season 1 of the hit Netflix show, this maze unfortunately proved to be too formulaic and was not actually one of our favorites of the evening.
There were many iconic scenes from the show faithfully recreated, although the Hollywood version lacked some of the more spectacular sets that were featured in Orlando. However, the biggest issue with this maze was its repetitive reliance on Demogorgon pop-out scares out of pretty much any available hiding place. Rather than build the scares from television series, the maze simply used the sets to so, taking away some of the immersion. Even the climactic ending, with Eleven destroying the Demogorgon, suffers from having a live Demogorgon actor but a mannequin for Eleven. The pervasive use of static elements for dynamic scenes was a bit of a confusing trend we observed in many mazes and seemed to pull back from some of the quality of past Horror nights.
Horrors of Blumhouse: Chapter 2
2017 Horror Nights featured a surprise when it presented a “greatest hits” maze based on some of the films of Jason Blum tied together in a series of scenes. The energy and interaction of the cast in that maze was beyond the HHN norm and made for a very enjoyable experience.
Although its sequel last year featured some unforgettable scenes from Blumhouse movies like Truth or Dare and Unfriended, the second Horrors of Blumhouse maze could not quite replicate that magic of the original. The sequences seems to be feature more formulaic actions “going through the paces,” and there wasn’t an extra sense of horror intimacy this time around. The final movie also seemed to be a bit of a mystery, as a title plaque identified it as The Girl, but there’s no record of any such Blumhouse project.
The First Purge
Universal has been harvesting The Purge for a series of mazes over the past several years, now, similar to their Walking Dead run before they finally built a permanent attraction. Last year was no different, as Horror Nights brought to life The First Purge, retelling how The Purge originally started. Though we had relatively low expectations for yet another Purge maze, this one actually wasn’t too bad when we went through. Sure, the dystopian setting seemed rather familiar, and there were quite a good amount of boo box scares here too, but the cast seemed to have great energy here, maintaining a lot of activity despite their repetitive acts.
Our final new maze of 2018 was also the other top maze of the night, in addition to Universal Monsters. When Horror Nights first announced that they would be doing a maze based off the riveting horror classic, many were thrilled. Here was a movie who had terrified many childhoods, and its abundance of suspense and drama were sure to translate well into a maze format.
Well, that did prove to be true, as Poltergeist brought out the best of Halloween Horror Nights. Detailed sets, multiple iconic scenes, a variety of scare tactics (always welcome), imposing puppets, and some great special effects all added up to a terrific experience—one that we were fortunate enough to do twice. The maze featured a plethora of memorable moments from the movie, from Carol Anne communicating through the television static to the attacking backyard tree to the possessed clown doll and appearance of The Beast and even erupting coffins. The fact that all of these provided for different types of scares was great, since we’ve long bemoaned Horror Night’s reliance on the same type of scare in the vast majority of their mazes.
There were a few small details that could have been improved. Here too, the use of mannequins in some scenes detracted from the immersion, while even Poltergeist suffered from the same black hallways that the other mazes had. But overall, this was a pretty incredible maze that was my personal favorite.
Overall, the mazes added up to an above average year for Horror Nights. One of our biggest criticisms remains the formulaic and easily expected nature of the scares throughout most mazes. The “boo box” method of having some visual distraction, then a jarring sound effect, strobes, and a scareactor rushing out of some unseen opening to ambush guests is great for simple startles but loses its effectiveness when done over and over and over again. Last year even took the cake by having all seven new mazes have the exact same ending: a boo box corridor consisting of a boo box, a 90° turn into another boo box, then another 90° turn the opposite way past another scareactor popping out of a black box frame. This was the ending for literally each maze, and by the time I got through the last one, I was laughing because John Murdy and company literally went 7 for 7 in the redundant endings.
That said, this is what to expect for Halloween Horror Nights at this point. Unlike the more diverse and free-flowing nature of Knott’s Scary Farm and the "anything goes” feel of Dark Harbor, Horror Nights is predicated on recreating memorable horror movies. So by design, this involves scareactors performing repetitive motions and the startles cycling the same way over and over again. It’s much like a formal actor’s role—doing the same thing repeatedly for each “showing” that lasts a dozen seconds or so.
2019 will bring a big jump from eight total mazes to ten—with every one being new other than The Walking Dead. That will increase capacity and hopefully cut down on the still often excruciatingly lengthy queues that plague the event on weekend dates. Horror Nights is still a great haunt to visit to appreciate the artistry, set direction, and sophistication of theatrics. The event knows its goal and applies it heavily. Its continued popularity shows that the formula works, even if it is, by nature, formulaic. Universal has also been providing more deals to HHN, including various tiers of season passes and greater discounts for select slower nights.
It’s a competitive world in the Southern California haunt market. But we’re still fortunate to have so many high quality attractions like Halloween Horror Nights available at our disposal!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.