Universal’s ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ is the spooky event of the season
Natalie Allton | Wednesday, October 25, 2023
If you’re in the know about theme parks, haunted houses, horror events or overpriced park food, then you’re familiar with Universal Studios’ “Halloween Horror Nights” — a staple event of the Halloween season for over 30 years. If you couldn’t tell, I love Halloween, and I had the opportunity to go to Orlando over break and finally experience the sights, sounds and scares for myself.
The production design of every haunted house was outstanding. Each is situated in an empty warehouse or tent just outside of the theme park, but the spaces were transformative. The set designs were masterful, transporting the parkgoers to Parisian catacombs or a remote Colonial-era village and fully immersing each scene in the context of the story. It was easy to forget I was shuffling along a single file line in a warehouse in Florida when every corner was disguised to hide a demon or monster.
And here’s where I learned something very important about myself: I’m a big old scaredy cat. I can handle psychological horror or gore just fine, but I cannot do jumpscares. I shrieked constantly. The same scare actor managed to get me to scream three times in a row and laughed at me as they did it. It was awesome. The dedication the actors put into their movement and characters truly made each haunted house special, and they were rightfully applauded each time a group of them moved from their staging area into the haunted house and vice versa.
I was able to hit all 10 haunted houses, including the four based on existing intellectual property. Sorry to Chucky fans, but his house was the least impressive simply by nature of being the least creative. The other three licensed houses — based on “The Last of Us,” “Stranger Things 4” and recent film “The Exorcist: Believer” — had perfectly balanced atmospheres, scares and franchise references. “Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count” unfortunately missed the memo, trading horror for camp. It was still fun, but it was not what everyone came for.
As a massive fan of the show and an even bigger fan of the game, I was most excited for the house based on “The Last of Us,” and I was geeking hard at every detail. The iconic guitar soundtrack played while waiting in line. The masks and special effects makeup used to create the clicker and bloater creatures were top-notch. Early in the house, an actor playing protagonist Joel Miller stepped out from behind a wall, and — like a kid at Disney seeing their favorite princess — I almost screamed just from the excitement of seeing him in the flesh. My favorite house, though, ended up being “Stranger Things,” which perfectly displayed all of the iconography of the latest season without sacrificing the scares or special effects. They got Vecna’s huge, clawed hand exactly right, and it was terrifying.
The original content houses are unfortunately often overlooked in favor of the flashier licensed IPs, but they’re nothing to sneeze at. This year they ranged from the circus-themed “Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins” to the “Crossroads”-inspired “The Darkest Deal” to “Universal Monsters: Unmasked,” which showcased the less popular of Universal’s iconic movie monsters, including the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Invisible Man. Fans of the park pre-“Harry Potter” will remember the “Dueling Dragons” coaster, which was reworked into a “Choose Thy Fate” haunted house that was light on scares but rich in production design. A particular standout was “Blood Moon: Dark Offerings,” which used its hooded cult aesthetics to hide several scare actors in obvious places and kept me on my toes throughout the house.
“Halloween Horror Nights” is also known for its food, which ranged from genuinely scary to genuinely good — especially the signature “The Last of Us” dish called the Cordyceps Corndog, a delicious potato-encrusted Korean hotdog served with a mushroom sauce. An underrated part of the whole experience was the ability to hop on some of the park’s most popular rides with next to no wait time, including “Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit” and “Escape from Gringotts.” The rides were often near “Scare Zones” where scare actors roamed freely to spook unsuspecting passersby. The best of these was “Vamp ‘69: Summer of Blood,” which featured gore-covered hippies, groovy vampires and a banging Woodstock-inspired soundtrack.
If you manage to make it down to Universal before “Halloween Horror Nights” ends: go in early, stay late and get in line for “Revenge of the Mummy” as many times as possible. If you can’t: pray for a “Five Nights at Freddy’s” house for next year.