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Halloween Horror Nights brings heart-pounding thrills and cautionary chills to haunting evenings at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. The 2023 frightful season features immersive experiences that reign supreme in the southern California area. Eight scary haunted houses based on a variety of original themes, cultures, and properties such as “The Last of Us”, “Stranger Things”, “Evil Dead Rise”, and “The Exorcist: Believer” envision imaginative nightmares. Three scare zones ensure there is no escape. Two live theatrical performances serve up mayhem and showcase horror filmmaking. The one and only Terror Tram drops guests off on a horrific stroll through the backlot.
Horror today has many definitions and fandoms. It’s refreshing to see Universal try to cater to a variety of fears and tap into what is currently popular in the mindset of mainstream audiences whilst providing original experiences with retold and borrowed concepts. A season break and rest without the pandering of mainstay stables from the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface.
The highly anticipated haunted houses based on the video game “The Last of Us” and season 4 of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” can be found in the Lower Lot. In a post-apocalyptic world, a fungal infection causes humans to become victims of their host. A pair of survivors fight to stay alive.
Trekking through an abandoned cityscape past barricades, shows scenery that pushes the story forward like a cut scene, and dodging the infected; “The Last of Us” makes attendees feel like they’re playing through a video game environment in a physical world setting. A gratifying exposure to detailed creatures and set design sets the bar high for the Halloween season.
The performers that portray the protagonists feel like they came straight out of the video game play. Another impressive aspect is the sights and sounds of the infected creatures coming to scary life, only to be sent back to the wall of their starting positions by gunfire. Thus completing the POV illusion for attendees. A few audio clips of exchanging dialogue could play longer than five seconds.
Understandable to want attendees to quickly continue walking at a steady pace and not linger too long. But if you happen to be stopped in a spot where the people in front of you are not moving, the fear of repeating dialogue could easily become irritating and feel like the game is broken. Using different words that have the same meaning can go a long way.
“Stranger Things” returns to Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights with season 4 of the popular Netflix series. The television season jumped back and forth between different locations outside of the town of Hawkins, but the haunted house wisely concentrated between the trailer park, laboratory, and the Upside-Down.
In place of the demogorgons, Vecna stalks you whenever he gets a chance. The haunted house flies right into the cheerleading victim in the trailer park which serves as a doorway for more scares to come. The experience is more exhilarating for those already familiar with the franchise and caught up with the latest season.
Even more so lucky enough to attend previous Horror Nights whenever there is a house based on “Stranger Things”. The grandfather clock counts down the seconds to a final showoff between Eleven and Vecna. The sprawling vines covering the unkept hallways of a decrepit house work wonders to retain the story over simple black paint. Expectations will depend on what iconic moments from the show are anticipated for each person.
The next-door haunted houses in close proximity to each other in the Lower Lot are “The Exorcist: Believer” and “Holidayz in Hell”. The former is based on the upcoming movie sequel and occupies a new location reserved for Horror Nights. Bypass a marketplace with a demonic doll of glowing red eyes. After being lost in the woods, two girls are found in a barn with no recollection of their whereabouts.
A scrim wall scene fades in and out of the possessed girls. A series of red-lit hallways and black-painted cracklings consume most of the walk from this point. A home filled with red glowing cracks and fallen chandeliers hint at the awaiting danger. Compared to the previous “The Exorcist” experience at Universal Studios Hollywood, guests are spared from the void of black-painted hallways and the repetition of a singular bedroom scene.
Next up is “Holidayz in Hell”. This original concept began as a scare zone from previous years which then evolved into its own haunted house. Traversing the year through the seasons starting from New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Each given its own sinister twist. “Holidayz in Hell” was resurrected in 2019 located in the Upper Lot. Because of the layout, it’s not the same experience as it was before.
But more could have made this version more distinct. Abundant smoke in the Fourth of July room caused low visibility. Crackling firecrackers would have added more as well. Live performers in the Halloween segment could have held pumpkin masks in their hands to add more distortion in the black-lit room. Still a fun walk-through.
The Lower Lot offered Horror Night exclusive refreshments themed after Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop featured themed ice cream sundaes and milkshakes. Surfer Boy Pizza with pizza and wings. Stellar Bar had a Starcourt Mall theme with specialty drinks, food, a lounge, and a pinball machine.
Haunted houses for Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count and Universal Monsters: Unmasked can be found past Hogwarts Castle on the Upper Lot. Witness Chucky at his most heinous as he does away victim after victim in creative ways. From a Good Guys stock room to residential homes, and a dark forest. Although not particularly scary, it’s a fun time for fans of the killer doll. He even targets theme park guests and influencers as evidenced by “Universal Studios” shirts and video recording for streaming. Be on the lookout for Tiffany and Glen as well. The finale ends big with a chase to the finish.
Universal Monsters: Unmasked was perhaps the most unexpected disappointment of the evening. It felt whatever was left in the budget was unceremoniously given to this house. The Universal Monsters series had a pretty could track record up to this point. Not even the unmentioned Slash soundtrack could save this. The few fully fleshed scenes that did come to fruition worked well. These are the moody catacombs, the organ room, the hunchback’s stretching torture, the impressive spilling cauldron, the mirror spectacle between Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the ominous death theatre.
They’re all loosely connected between the newspaper clipping headlines told by a female narrator. The dreaded endless black-painted hallways make their unwanted return here. The almost forgotten invisible man gets a borrowed blacklight effect that feels out of place here with contrasting concepts.
The death theatre featured an effect that poured a vicious stream of water, pressing my glasses into my face. Without my glasses for protection, I most likely would have gone blind in my left eye for the rest of the evening. Universal Monsters was designed to make the classic monsters scary again. This house was scary for the wrong reasons.
The Exterminatorz takes over the Terror Tram for Horror Nights 2023. An eccentric character, like those in low-budget TV commercials, wants the world bug population to take over the disgusting pests owned as humans. The Terror Tram follows the same path as before through the Bates Motel set (now a roach motel), Psycho House and War of the World set. The theme is welcomed but the execution has hits and misses. There are humanoids with bugs, rats, and houseflies for heads. Bug projections on the roach motel windows are a great touch.
Not nearly enough human victims with large and small creepy crawlers on the attack. The main character is overused and quickly becomes less scary. A random Karen is out of place complaining about the motel service. Is this funny or scary? There are two large show scenes in the motel parking. One should not be sacrificed for the other only to leave an empty set. Humans are also warned about a poisonous substance named “sqwooge”. But there is little evidence to show what threat it poses to humans. Hoping it was just bad timing when visiting.
The finale of the Terror Tram brings back a welcome return to the worlds of Jordan Peele’s “Nope” and “Us” with a walk-through of Jupiter’s Claim set. Waiting for a photo opportunity at the exit is Santa Claus himself from Universal’s “Violent Night” film.
The main area of the Upper Lot houses went to Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America and Evil Dead Rise. Universal Studios has had a successful connection with Latin American folklore with La Llorona and El Cucuy. Monstruos provides an opportunity to introduce more of those terrifying beings. A gravedigger introduces creatures with shape-shifting abilities, witches that feed on infants, and stuffing misbehaving children in sacks of staggering bones. A child’s nightmare comes to life.
Evil Dead Rise brings the newest chapter of the Sam Raimi horror franchise out of the big screen. The haunted house cleverly uses last year’s hotel Horror Hotel layout with modifications to fit the apartment setting. The elevator attack, the bathtub, the book of the dead, the kitchen, the work desk, the hallways, playing a recording of incantations, window view of the city, parking garage, the mega monster reveal, and of course, the wielding chainsaw are all here.
Three scare zones call the Upper Lot home. Ghostz welcomes park guests at the gates with buzzing chainsaws. Toyz fights back from being tortured as disregarded playthings and returns the favor with mutilating mayhem. El Terror de la Momias harkens back to Latin American B-movies in the Parisian street by the exit of Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America.
With Animal Actors Stage and Special Effects Stage torn down for a new roller coaster, new shows had to be designed for Horror Nights both out of necessity and practicality. Blumhouse: Behind the Screams and The Purge: Dangerous Waters offer entertaining respite from a sometimes overwhelming environment of scares. The Grabber from the film “The Black Phone” draws an audience to Blumhouse: Behind the Screams inside the Dreamworks Theatre.
The pre-show room showcases a multitude of costumes, props, masks, and photo opportunities from a collection of Blumhouse horror films past, present, and future. The room fills quickly and to capacity which makes getting around to each display a bit difficult. Inside the theater, the audience is quickly seated for a sizzle reel of Blumhouse films that gets interrupted by one of its own characters. The show is a brief but playful distraction. A highlight for any fan of the film “M3GAN”.
The Purge: Dangerous Waters utilizes the Waterworld stunt show arena. Reworking the story, choreography, and special effects with the film franchise The Purge. The show is a retooled concept from Horror Nights years ago called Splatter World. With this year’s show, the liberty has been taken to add more flame effects, stunt performances, blood bags, special lighting, laser projections, and a new soundtrack.
There were plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” exclaimed from the audience due to the bloodier nature of the fight sequences. Thankfully, the show does not get the audience soaked like in the daytime show. No one wants to be dripping wet on cold evenings through a haunt event. The Purge: Dangerous Waters is a welcome back and reinvigoration of a 15-minute show fueled with action-packed adrenaline that fits comfortably as a Halloween overlay to a long-existing stunt show. This also gratefully means the Waterworld queue does not have to close for haunted house construction. If you’re not interested in shows, stunts, or The Purge, this may not be for you.
The Upper Lot is plentiful in its atmosphere and refreshments. Chucky gets his own BBQ-themed restaurant featuring a new menu. Complete with an interactive popcorn bucket that is exclusively sold at Halloween Horror Nights. Just across the way is the Peacock Halloween Horror Bar with visits from special guests. Universal Plaza brings back carnival games, bars, and food. And for Harry Potter fans, the Wizarding World conjures up Death Eaters for spine-tingling encounters.
Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights continues to be one of Southern California’s best and most popular Halloween events every season. A day and night combo ticket, early access, Fear Pass, Universal Express, or R.I.P. tour will help make the most of your time to do as much as you can. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is a separate ticket event open on select nights from now until October 31, 2023.