Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! Er… the end… of Friday the 13th… Today marks the official opening night of Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights over in Hollywood, and it is most fitting that it falls on this spooky week date occasion. To kick off our haunt coverage, we’re doing our customary look at this year’s Horror Nights line-up, starting with our general thoughts.
You see, after several years of absence, we were finally invited back to Horror Nights as a fancy schmancy media member, and with that came the much-appreciated opportunity to [much less stressfully] experience all ten of this year’s Horror Nights mazes (a record nine new ones) and the scare zones the park has brewed up this year.
This year marked the most significant change in format since the event’s reboot back in 2006, as the Terror Tram was eschewed in favor of two mazes located off the Backlot Tram Tour loading area. In addition, Horror Nights brought an added emphasis to more original content, with two and a half original mazes (The Curse of Pandora’s Box and Holidayz in Hell, plus the Universal Monsters maze in a sense) to go with Universal’s usual IP (intellectual property) franchise-palooza. How did that all translate? Well, read on the find out!
In our various previews of the event and maze announcements this year, a common observation has been the diversity in maze themes and tones for the huge assortment of mazes being offered. There was definitely a common ‘80s motif, with Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Ghostbusters, Creepshow, and Stranger Things imparting that vibe. The first three also demonstrated a departure from only serious and intense IP’s—something that Horror Nights has almost exclusively set as the feel to its event. Ghostbusters and Killer Klowns were especially high on the sheer fun factor, providing very high entertainment even for guests who weren’t necessarily scared. That’s one aspect I’ve always valued from haunts—not everyone will be scared, but make a guest laugh or enjoy themself nonetheless, and the mission has still been completed.
The willingness to try new themes and have more original storytelling was laudable. Pandora’s Box might have featured elements that are seen in almost any haunted house attraction, but it wove them together in a cohesive and clear story executed through its maze progression and cloaked the whole thing in beautiful lighting and elaborate set pieces full of photogenic detail. Holidayz in Hell might have lost the novelty factor it would have had were it not for last year’s scare zone, but it still retained a sardonic and darkly twisted sense of humor in the macabre and violent scenes executed for the various holidays it portrayed. Leading the maze out into the Christmas in Hell Scare Zone effectively extended the maze outside, bringing back a taste of one of Horror Night’s most popular scare zones of all time—Dark Christmas—the scare zone that basically started this current haunted holiday trend.
Even mazes rooted in IP’s did show some departure from the usual Horror Nights Boo Box Palooza formula. Jordan Peele’s Us made for a jarringly creepy maze that made use of mirrors, committed actors, and less predictable scare elements to deliver arguably the most refreshing maze experience of the night. Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman had large shoes to fill from last year’s Universal Monsters hit, and though it didn’t quite reach that extremely high bar, the maze still presented a chilling and curdling story with a combination of meticulous sets and solid use of the two movie monster icons in combination scares. The maze’s more classical vibe was extremely different from the tone of last year’s maze, but it felt well crafted and almost elegant.
Even House of 1000 Corpses, which was closer to the bottom of our maze rankings, wasn’t a bad maze by any stretch. Although we loved the 2009-10 3D version a lot more, this grittier iteration still brought out all the things that Universal Studios does well—bringing the environments of horror movies to life and depositing guests into pivotal and memorable scenes with iconic characters.
The event wasn’t perfect, of course. For one thing, there was the Stranger Things maze, which felt disappointing, predictable, and uninspiring. It might have to do with the focus almost exclusively on Season 2, which many fans feel was not as strong as Seasons 1 or 3, but the maze as a whole seemed disjointed, with a minimal live actors and an over-reliance on puppeteered boo box scares.
Besides that, there were some general issues that fall under the same categories that we’ve noted in numerous reviews from years past. The overall repetition of the primary mode of scaring was once again on display, with Horror Nights making copious use of its boo boxes for the overwhelming majority of its scares. Although the mazes didn’t end the exact same way this year (last year infamously presented triple-scare boo box corridors in all seven new mazes), they still felt very predictable in terms of where the next scare would come from.
Many mazes also suffered from a noticeable abundance of undressed, black hallways between major scenes. This varied depending on the maze, and some mazes were strong enough to supplant the presence of blank walls. But the haunted halls of nothingness could be very obvious in other mazes. Call it lazy design or intentional gestures meant to convey the “fade to black” of one scene to the next or just simply running out of time or budget… the black halls have been a staple of Horror nights since it’s recent expansion to a greater number of mazes to offset the huge crowds that flood the event.
One observed enhancement this year seemed to be the use of what I call “Scary String” in those corridors—basically hanging thread to graze people’s faces with an unexpected tactile startle. Except even those were used so redundantly that they lost their impact.
Another negative in our eyes was the return to more water gags in half of the mazes. Last year, we observed only one water effect in the entire event—the spray from The Beast in Poltergeist. This year, they seemed to return with a vengeance! Stranger Things and Killer Klowns from Outer Space were especially egregious with the water, dousing guests with an almost Super Soaker intensity in numerous scenes. Holidayz in Hell also featured water squirts that seemed to generate annoyance more often than it did scares. Ghostbusters and House of 1000 Corpses also had their share of liquid.
On the positive side, the scents were kept to a minimum! Only one scene in Creepshow featured a foul odor. We appreciated this temperance compared to years ago, when the smells were the overuse effect d’année.
And to give Universal credit, this year probably featured the largest number of non-Boo Box scares that we’ve seen in all our years of attending Horror Nights. Multiple mazes made use of statue scares, misdirection scares, and even scares from scareactors in plain sight. We’d love to see these mixed in much more in the future, in order to keep the mazes more interesting for returning fans and less repetitive, but we at least appreciated the step in the right direction.
On the scare zone department, however, this year seemed to be more of a down year—mostly because the scare zones weren’t all truly scare zones. Spirits & Demons of the East shined as the headline scare zone in the Streets of New York, as all scare zones in that area have done every year, but the entry scare zone, Fallen Angelz, felt less cohesive (and honestly just a part of Spirits & Demons). The Metro Lot scare zone, All Hallow’s Evil, also saw a format change by acting more like a mini maze experience than a free-roaming scare zone. Guests had to line up for it this year, rather than forced through the gauntlet, and this seemed to infuse less energy into the area when we went through. Christmas in Hell functioned more like a maze extension than scare zone, and Toxxxic Tunnel was Toxic Tunnel—just in year three with a rock-a-hellbilly taste. There’s not much to be done with this transition zone between the Lower Lot and the Metro Lot backstage.
On the bright side, the Chainsaw Chase Out continued the tradition of ending Horror Nights with cacophony and chaos. This cavalcade of the Chainsaw Brigade doesn’t elicit the reactions it used to on opening/preview night, given that most attendees are the big fans instead of general guests who may not know better. But it’s still a delight to watch when the monsters do find the guests who do shriek in terror in response to the roaring machines.
All in all, thought, we consider this year’s Halloween Horror Nights a success, with a solid and comfortably above average line-up of mazes that generally do what Horror Nights does best. It definitely helped that we were able to experience the event with a front-of-line pass, which allowed us to comfortably do every maze at least once, and several two times. Even on the reduced ticket sales of preview nights, those with general admission were not necessarily able to hit every maze at the event, which is still a shame, given the cost of tickets and the crowds at the event. But overall, the event has presented a great line-up of mazes with a good amount of variety, some welcome infusion of fun factor in addition to the usual terrors and frights, and improved variety in the scare tactics used in the mazes! We definitely recommend going to the 2019 edition Horror Nights Hollywood!
If you are going to Horror Nights this year, we’ll repeat our recurring strategies to make the most of your trip:
Get a front-of-line pass if you’re able to. It is an admitted significant price dent in your wallet, but it makes the night so much more comfortable to just enjoy without worrying about being able to get through all mazes.
If you can’t afford the Universal Express pass, go on a Sunday or Thursday, when crowds are notably less packed than a Friday or Saturday.
Take advantage of early entry to gain extra time. Tickets purchased from Universal Studios online allow guests to come in at 5:00pm at no extra charge and go through select mazes that open early.
Get a multi-night pass to come back multiple days for the cost of an Express pass.
If you’re only going one night, the Metro Lot mazes (Ghostbusters, Frankenstein Meets Wolfman, and Creepshow) first, saving the Upper Lot mazes (House of 1000 Corpses, Holidayz in Hell, The Walking Dead) for the middle of the night... around 9-10pm, when their waits plummet to half an hour or less, because most people have gone downstairs.
This year brings the added strategy of the two mazes in the Backlot Tour tram loading area (Us and The Curse of Pandora’s Box). Just keep an eye on the wait times and try heading over when they dip down.
The Lower Lot mazes (Stranger Things and Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and Metro Lot mazes will have lower waits at the end of the nights and the waits will most likely be less than what is advertised on signage.
If you need to get food, eat it in line. In the middle of the night during peak hours, you’ll have time anyway!
If media night patterns hold, this year’s most popular mazes will be Stranger Things, Ghostbusters, and Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Us and Creepshow were pretty popular as well but didn’t have the same peak times as the others. Killer Klowns from Outer Space and The Curse of Pandora’s Box had surprisingly low wait times for longer into the evening than the others. Holidayz in Hell and House of 1000 Corpses fluctuated but didn’t seem as popular overall.
And that, folks, is this year’s first look at Horror Nights Hollywood! As usual, we’ll do a deep dive into the mazes and the scare zones next week. So check back for more photo eye candy, and go out and enjoy some spookiness!
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood runs select nights now through Sunday, November 3rd. The best deals can be found online at the official web site.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.