Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
After a quick stop at Six Flags Magic Mountain yesterday, we’re back at Universal Studios Hollywood for the first of our deep dives into this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. This slight format change in how we’re covering our big haunts will be consistent for this season, as we’ll do overviews of the major haunts we cover (click here for Halloween Horror Night’s overview for this year) to kick off the first half of the haunt time before providing overviews that will function as our photo galleries that celebrate the artistry and scenic prowess of each haunted attraction, and include assorted thoughts from our experiences.
First off are the mazes of Halloween Horror Nights. There were ten of them this year—nine of them new—and though the usual complaints of repetitive boo box scares, black and undressed hallways between scenes, and over-reliance on water gags still persisted to various degrees depending on which maze, there were also a lot of strong performing mazes with some amazing sets and details where attention was focused.
The diversity and overall quality of most of this year’s mazes mean that on any night, a person’s top, favorite mazes might alternate among up any number of mazes, with the ultimate rankings falling on luck of the draw of the timing of scares and quantity of monsters during a particular walk-through. Thusfar, through the first weekend, a top six seems to have emerged among the most popular. Many have raved about Us… and Ghostbuster… and Killer Klowns from Outer Space… and Creepshow… and Holidayz in Hell… and even The Curse of Pandora’s Box. Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of 1000 Corpses have been solid too. Only Stranger Things seems to have been consistently rated as underwhelming. And of course, The Walking Dead maze ranks in simply due to participation, but as a permanent and returning maze, it falls at the bottom of our rankings.
What did each maze do well or not as well? Read on four our thoughts! Obviously spoilers will occur below, both in text and in photos. There are also images of simulated gore and violence that should entertain discretion if you are reading this somewhere outside of home.
House of 1000 Corpses
Bringing back a maze tailored after Rob Zombie’s now-cult classic gore fest would always invite comparisons to the classic 2009-10 version of the maze that featured Universal’s first try at their version of using blacklight paint paired with Chromadepth glasses. That maze had a twisted and sadistically fun take on how to formulate a haunted house attraction and proved to be visually stunning and innovative.
This year’s iteration didn’t quite meet the bar of its predecessor, but House of 1000 Corpses still provided a solid production that utilized a more traditional HHN maze approach of dramatically lit sets recreating pivotal scenes and featuring iconic characters from the movie. From Captain Spaulding to Dr. Satan to Ed Gein, there were plenty of vicious psychopaths featured. And though there wasn’t any particular part of this maze that stood out to us, there wasn’t really anything negative either. Plus, waiting five minutes in the middle of the evening for this maze because everyone else was in the lower lots certainly didn’t hurt. We recommend hitting this maze, located over by Water World on the Upper Lot, around the 9-10pm hour.
The Walking Dead
We have to include The Walking Dead attraction here, if only because it’s included in the HHN line-up. This maze is exactly the same as during the regular year, and it didn’t really seem to have extra staffing. At this point, all novelty has worn off, and it’s absolutely a skippable maze for anyone who has gone through it before. Those who haven’t may be apt to have the maze all to themselves, especially during those mid-evening hours when the Upper Lot is less crowded!
Holidayz in Hell
We loved last year’s identically named Metro Lot gauntlet-style scare zone that featured a sick and dark display of what are traditionally happy and celebratory holidays. The popularity of last year’s scare zone helped prompt an original maze in the Upper Lot this year, located near Mel’s Diner and accessed from Universal Plaza.
This year’s maze carried much of the same warped humor and [severed] tongue-in-cheek visual gags as its scare zone inspiration, focusing on New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, 4th of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving as subjects. Guests were then dumped straight out into hell—Christmas in Hell—a one-way scare zone on French Street that led guests back to the main park thoroughfare.
The artistry of the holiday posters and some of the props and mock products and prop creatures was quite impressive in this maze. John Murdy went through some of the creative endeavors during his Midsummer Scream presentation last month, and it was actually pretty enjoyable to see all the little touches through the maze. The creepy nursery of the dead for New Year’s was chilling, while St. Patrick’s Day featured a surprisingly detailed little Irish village terrorized by a killer leprechaun. The fake fireworks products in the Independence Day segment were delightfully twisted, and Thanksgiving’s bloody and disgusting take at the classic Norman Rockwell scene was at once classic Horror Nights and amusingly refreshing.
Compared to the rest of the line-up, Holidayz in Hell seemed to have lesser black halls, with transitions accomplished through the large format posters announcing the next holiday in focus. Unfortunately, it also had one of the stronger water gags, with what amounted to a rapid fire water gun spraying at guests in the Easter scene. That detracted from our experience a bit, but we still enjoyed the maze greatly!
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Fans of the cult classic were thrilled when Universal announced that they would be doing an adaptation of this horror comedy, and as it turns out, Killer Klowns was one of the pleasant surprises of opening weekend. Despite a lack of mainstream appeal, this maze—located behind the Revenge of the Mummy ride building—ended up being many guests’ favorite, or one of their favorites, because of its whimsical yet demented nature.
Recreating some of the movie’s iconic scenes, like the opening tarnations, the cotton candy people, the bathroom clowns, the human puppet, and more, this maze perfectly captured the mix of corny fun and fiendish horror that made the movie so beloved. It even included the shadow puppet scene—my personal favorite—and executed it perfectly.
The sole drawback was the maze’s gratuitous use of water. Out of all the mazes at Horror Nights, Killer Klowns featured the most, as water sprays were utilized in numerous scenes, particularly in the bathroom and the Klown Kannon at the end. And despite the inappropriate use of water, the maze still proved to be a thrilling and thoroughly entertaining one—specifically because of its less serious nature and zany presentation. Not everyone is going to be scared going through a haunted maze, but if the maze is entertaining, they’ll still have a great time. Such was the case here, and we’d love to see more HHN mazes vary their tones from the usual all-intensity, all-seriousness feel and branch out into something a little more playful.
Last year’s Stranger Things maze, based on season one, was the most anticipated maze of the event and consistently brought in huge crowds and long waits. And yet, it didn’t completely feel satisfying, in part because it over-relied on Demogorgon startle and boo box scares much to repeatedly. With the highly acclaimed season three on Netflix bringing the series to unprecedented popularity, it only made sense to bring the maze back, and this version was advertised to feature seasons two and three.
Well, consider the third season to be a misleading promise—only one scene is featured, leaving the large bulk of the maze to focus on the much less lauded season two. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily torpedo the experience, but maze as a whole was plagued by general listlessness and formulaic reliance on redundant scares that just didn’t seem concerted. The maze was also lifeless, with very few actual scareactors present compared to most other mazes, and a high number of puppeteered scares from concealed compartments.
In terms of black hallways, Stranger Things was littered with them and might have had the most out of all the mazes. They transitioned each scene into the next, but unfortunately, in our opinion, they took us out of the story. It also didn’t help that Stranger Things featured the most intense use of water in the cavern after guests enter the underground tunnels and encountered little Demogorgon pollywogs. During times when the line slowed to a crawl or even a standstill, guests might be pelted by the same repeating jets of water, which quickly brought the maze out of any sense of scariness and into just plain obnoxiousness.
Out of all of the mazes, Stranger Things offered the least value out of one of the longest waits, and though it is wholly new this year, we would actually recommend skipping it if there was a long line, unless one was a huge Stranger Things fan. The mazes returning location to the left of the Transformers ride makes it not too bad to access coming down to the Lower Lot, and doing it at the start or end of the night will probably be most efficient.
Over in the Metro Lot, across the walkway from the All Hallow’s Evil scare zone, the third of our 80’s-centric mazes brought to life the classic horror comic franchise in the form of five stories from the movie and upcoming television series:
“They’re Creeping Up on You”
“Gray Matter” (from the new series)
“Bad Wolf Down” (from the new series)
The maze took an episodic approach, similar to the Horrors of Blumhouse mazes of Horror Nights’ past, and progressed through each story one at a time. Iconic scenes from each of the three movie segments were prominently featured, including the Father’s Day Cake, the attacking creature inside the crate, and a roach-covered Upson Pratt. The visuals and theming in each were pretty detailed, particularly in Gray Matter, where the fetid and disgusting home of Richie Grenadine was recreated in uncomfortable grit and grime. Neat effects, like the red and blue flashes of light to simulate comic panels, added some nice touches to the maze. And although some of the stories seemed unbalanced—”They’re Creeping Up on You” only lasted two rooms while “The Crate” seemed to span triple that number—the overall sum of maze parts provided a fitting tribute to this classic horror-comedy production.
Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman
Last year’s Universal Monsters maze, with a dubstep soundtrack from Slash, was the hit of the season and the favorite maze of many guests. This year, when Universal announced a “sequel” of sorts featuring Frankenstein and the Wolfman, exceptions were high for this maze to replicate the quality and success of last year’s crowd pleaser. The maze didn't quite meet that standard, but it still presented an elegant and well put-together experience.
Located in the Metro Lot on the left side of the main walkway, the maze is more of a feature of both characters as opposed to a story that has them fighting each other. I guess “meets” is different than “versus!” In contrast to most of the other mazes, Universal Monsters took a more understated, elegant look that relied more on ambiance and mood to convey its scares. With Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Igor, and even the Bride of Frankenstein, the maze was packed with talent. Unfortunately, it also suffered from a black hallway prevalence. Overall, though, it was still a strong maze worth checking out.
This was my number one maze overall, personally. Ghostbusters brought iconic scenes, some fantastic lighting and technical effects, a large amount of fun and playfulness, and enough of a touch of startle scares from a variety of different media that it felt fresh and diverse and well sequenced and constructed. Located at the far end of the Metro Lot, this seemed to be the other massively popular maze of the night.
Similar to Killer Klowns, Ghostbusters was a welcome and reinvigorating change from a lot of Universal Studios’ typical mazes of years past, because it wasn’t completely focused on scares and gore while utilizing the same boo box scares that have grown stale over the years. In addition, the use of puppetry and projections led to some truly spectacular moments—sometimes for scene storytelling and sometimes for the startle scare.
Some of the most prominent ghosts from the movies were featured—Slimer, of course, plus the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Also spotted was Zuul and a Scoleri Brother, among others. Visually, the maze was stunning (although a more physical Stay Put would have been better than the projection used), and the energy, fullness, and theatrics of Ghostbusters made it the overall strongest maze of Horror Nights for me.
If you want to talk about unique, Us would be the maze to discuss. One of two mazes located in a new location off the Backlot Tour Tram loading area, this maze based on Jordan Peele’s thriller that came out earlier this year was also arguably Horror Nights’ most creative and different mazes in years.
For one, it was the one maze that utilized boo boxes the least. Statue scares and clever and strategic use of mirrors allowed for a disorienting experience that had guests guessing at the next startle. It also featured actors in plain sight to sometimes distract and sometimes lunge scare, and progressed through several notable scenes from the film. The entrance facade on the outside was one of the more elaborate ones, and the scareactors were terrific in capturing the incredibly creepy and nerve-wracking sense of the tethered, with their drone-like movements and ominous bulging-eyed expressions.
The Curse of Pandora’s Box
Finally, we have the other Backlot Tour area maze, a second original maze patterned after an old antiques store with a particular cursed relic that, when opened, unleashes a series of curses and chaos upon the unsuspecting area.
This maze was probably the most photogenic of all the mazes, with plenty of bright and colorful lighting that should have been presented in Chromadepth 3D. Even without it, the maze had plenty of stunning scenes, and of course, plenty of boo box scares. To be honest, though the theme was not based on an IP, this maze still retained a fairly formulaic nature, with the usual boo box and black hallway features. But the storytelling was also strong, starting the shop off in times of Ancient Greece before progressing to saturated land of the underworld and an arachnid cavern. Essentially, creature and plagues have been unleashed, and good luck surviving them!
As you can see, Universal has provided some terrific looking and thematically diverse mazes for Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2019. These days, because the critiques of Horror Nights’ mazes remain the same, I prefer to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry of the mazes as they’re executed. From these galleries, there are a lot of great looking sets and scenes, and Universal should be proud that they’ve been able to pull off. Yes, there are still the traditional irks that we’ve beaten to death. But at the end of the day, I still enjoy Halloween Horror Nights for how vividly they’re able to recreate beloved movies and franchises and bring creepy stories to visceral and often visually decadent life!
That does it from HHN today with the mazes. Check back tomorrow for our last update, covering the scare zones!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.