Universal Studios Hollywood kicked off Halloween Horror Nights to the throngs of haunt-starved fans. The event running select nights through Sunday, October 31, offers horror fans the chance to step into their favorite movies with haunted maze offerings including The Excorcist, Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives, The Haunting of Hill House, The Walking Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre along with the original concept maze The Curse of Pandora’s Box. These are flanked by multiple themed scare zones, the return of the hip-hop dance show JABBAWOCKEEZ, and the Terror Tram: THE ULTIMATE PURGE.
Looking over Hollywood’s offerings this year, we notice some familiar experiences. There are only three entirely new mazes, a collection of “greatest hits”, yet another PURGE-themed offering, and a JABBAWOCKEEZ stage show. Is this reason to skip? Hardly. There is a lot to love here, more so than in a few previous years. Improvements to returning walkthroughs and experiences along with the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the HHN line up make this worth a trip.
Editor’s note: This article will be updated with video. Stay tuned.
Let’s just get this out of the way, the Scare Zones are weak this year except for one. I want to be clear in saying that the talent was slaying it opening night and quite literally saved each area.
Starting things off at the entrance corridor of the park is the zone referred to as Chainsaw Rangers. Racing up and down the main entrance is the brilliant talent that wields shrill chainsaws to terrorize visitors. The downside here is that well, aside from the hard-working scare actors and there isn’t anything else to it. You could easily breeze through this section of the park without the slightest idea something was there. That is unless you are chased with a chainsaw.
Under the Universal Plaza Tower is Demon City. More themed than the previous A-boos bouche, This area’s centerpiece is the iconic, fire-spewing archway. Flanked by demonic creatures, we are made to navigate through savage demons and creatures of the night. Again, the talent here was relentless. Stiltwalkers tirelessly glided over the masses while nimble monsters at ground level went in for the kill. Phenomenal talent here. This is a spot that you can easily just stand off to the side with a coffee or your favorite tasty beverage, and watch the attacks happen on unsuspecting prey all night long.
Universal Monsters: Silver Scream Queenz
Ah yes. A fully-themed scare zone with an original soundtrack by Slash to boot! Silver Scream Queenz is easily the best overall scare zone at Hollywood HHN this year in my opinion. This is mainly because it has all the elements and gets them right. The theme features obscure female Universal Monsters and puts them center stage, ready for the kill. Each costume, each character was given the care and creative process that we are used to seeing in an HHN scare zone. That’s not to mention the wonderful music by Slash and the talent that skulks about for victims. Solid work here by all involved.
The Jabbawockeez hip-hop dance troupe returns to Hollywood HHN for 2021 and honestly, this is their best show since they arrived on the scene to offer safe crowd-pleasing entertainment. These dancers are remarkably talented and do things with a mechanical precision that is gasp-inducing. Even if hip-hop or dance isn’t your “thing” per se, you should really pop in and check the show out this year.
(On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of interviewing members of the dance troupe upon their arrival to Halloween Horror Nights years ago. I will admit that I was happy to speak with them but not entirely sure I was going to connect with what they were doing. I really have never met a nicer, more friendly group, and the passion for their show and what they are doing is apparent. Give them a chance. You might really like it.)
TERROR TRAM: THE ULTIMATE PURGE
Mr. Murdy, hats off to you. Terror Tram is good this year. No, I was not excited about Terror Tram, nor was I eager to walk through another collection of weapon-slinging ne’er-do-wells with a license to kill. Yet this works. This works very well.
The experience begins with visitors boarding the Studio Tour trams to ride to the annual Purge Festival. Those familiar with the premise used a few years ago will recognize the repurposed video that plays as riders are shuttled to the experience. A blonde correspondent boasts of a wholesome festival to wait out the annual purge. Then of course things go horribly wrong and we realize that we are the victims being sent to the slaughter. The tram stops and we are dropped off along the tram route near the Bates Motel and War of the Worlds sets.
The mayhem begins and we journey through tableaus of violence and patriotic debauchery. A quick jaunt up the hill and we are in front of the Norman Bates Photo op. Those who want a pic with the famous mama’s boy can wait in a queue, others can proceed to the War of the Worlds set. Again the mood is festive, patriotic, and bloodthirsty.
We make it through the insanity and board another tram that takes us back to safety.
I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but after discussion with the group, it became apparent. Of course, the talent rocked it, but this was something more than that. They pulled the dead zones out of the experience, bumped up the theming a bit, and streamlined the walkthrough which resulted in a tighter show. I do hope that as the run of HHN goes on they maintain the tight guest metering on this one to allow for things to run smoothly. Our advice, hit this one when wait times are low as that might be a good indication of solid crowd control and pacing. Well done.
Don’t roll your eyes at the striking amount of returning mazes and the resurrection of The Walking Dead. I will admit that I did too. But trust us. They have improved the returning titles by addressing some things that just didn’t work before and changed things up enough to make them feel fresh and new.
The Walking Dead
I am surprised at how much I missed this walkthrough. The Walking Dead was good when we went through at about 10:45 pm. While the queue and switchback within don’t seem to have been touched, the maze itself was all fixed up and firing on all cylinders. All of the effects were working on our walkthrough and the burning cabin actually looked like it did on opening day. One thing to note, this maze did not open until one hour after the event opened.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
When I experienced Halloween 4 in 2019, It was a mess. I did not have kind words for it. This was MUCH better. Terrorizing Haddonfield once again is everyone’s favorite white-faced Shatner, Michael Myers. Tracing the story beats of the movie, we begin at the gas station where Michael attacks the attendant and where Dr. Loomis tracks him down. This version of the maze jettisons the power plant scene in favor of a series of backyard fences and neighborhood alleys where Michael appears with some great scrim effects. What made this Halloween 4 maze work so well is that they got rid of what fell flat, and plussed what worked. The result is a solid walkthrough with a number of great moments.
Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives
Murdy’s love of the Universal Monsters is on full display here with a lavish homage to the Bride of Frankenstein. An original storyline, the maze picks up seconds after the events of the film to find the Bride surviving and attempting to save her husband from the burning rubble of the castle. His legs destroyed, she takes him to the refuge of the blind man’s cottage with the wives of Dracula in hot pursuit. Bride of Frankenstein begins to harvest the vampires for their life-giving blood to save her husband and the battles begin.
This is easily one of the best mazes at Halloween Horror Nights this year. It has a strong story, stunning sets, and some wonderful scare moments that all come together for a great experience. That’s not to mention that we LOVE seeing a badass female take control and save the one she loves while fighting off Dracula’s three brides. The maze also works on the superficial level of scares and spectacle even if you aren’t soaking in the rich storytelling.
The Haunting of Hill House
An all-new maze based on the hit Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House works as an effects-heavy scare-filled tour of the frightful mansion. While the story of the series is far too rich and intricately detailed to cover in a single maze, Murdy focuses on the house itself and the horrors therein. Wandering through Art Director Chris William’s opulent sets we are confronted with ghost after terrifying ghost beckoning us to stay. They are all here too. The bent neck lady, the Boulder Hat man, all of them. I will admit that this might have been far too large of a property to tackle with it’s intricate storylines and exquisite sets. Still, what is here does work enough to make us skeeved out and asking, “How’d they do that???”
The Curse of Pandora’s Box
The second best maze of the night for us, The Curse of Pandora’s Box again returns to lure visitors into the backlit terrors of Greek mythology. It appears that this maze was unchanged from it’s previous appearance in 2019 and frankly it needed no improvements. We loved this maze as much now as we did then.
The experience begins as we silly people wander into a curio shop while an apparent bit of paranormal activity is playing out. Ignore the fluttering lights, the ominous mood, we are here to see what’s inside Pandora’s Box. The warm amber lighting of the shop is invaded as strikes of otherworldly, backlit tones and we venture forth into Pandora’s box to be ravaged by the likes of Medusa and her pals.
Still an amazing walkthrough with clever lighting, genuine old-school haunted house charm, and a jam-packed scare-a-minute layout. LOVE THIS MAZE.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The one sour note in the maze line-up for 2021 is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The last time this property was given its proper attention it was a harrowing beautifully designed experience. This 2021 version seems to phone it in with a below-par design and a sort of “when in doubt, have Leatherface pop out here.” mentality. To be clear, the talent rocked it. But wow. Hit this one if the wait is 30 minutes or under.
If the Haunt Gods had said to us, “The good news is that Stranger Things isn’t coming back.” I would have been happy enough to enjoy whatever maze appeared in soundstage 29, come what may. But The Exorcist? Thankfully, Murdy and co were afforded a little more freedom than they were when the maze first appeared behind The Mummy. With the expanse of Stage 29 and the opportunity to fix a few problems from the original iteration, The Exorcist is stronger for it.
An effects-driven maze The Exorcist relies on intricate lighting and mechanical effects to work. The opening of the maze plays a little better in the soundstage, but we are still beset by the odd use of mannequins in the place of actors at key points. Part of the fun of Horror Nights is actually seeing our favorite movies come to life and interact with us. The figures still do not work. What DOES work are the refined optical illusions of Pazuzu populating the dark hallways. There are also some effective puppetry scares and stronger use of lighting and sound.
It was great to be back in the fog. In the face of some pretty difficult circumstances, Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights pulled a rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, by refining what they had to work with and giving fans just enough new material to feast on. All of this is sold by the raw, energetic talent populating the mazes, scare zones, and Terror Tram. It is on their backs that this event rides and they sell it.
Norm(an) Gidney is a nearly lifelong horror fan. Beginning his love for the scare at the age of 5 by watching John Carpenter's Halloween, he set out on a quest to share his passion for all things spooky with the rest of the world.