Universal "Halloween Horror Nights" makes this year's Experience Unique

I’ve gone to the last few years of Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, and I was really beginning to worry that there was nothing left they could do to enhance the experience.  There’s only so many creature-filled depictions of gore and terror you can see before a feeling of deja vu starts to set in.  And yet, somehow, they have once again exceeded expectations and made it feel all new again.  It really did feel like each step was into the unknown, and while there are certain unavoidable patterns, the feelings of walking the fog-filled streets and the atmosphere they have created has evolved in such a way to make this year’s experience uniquely it’s own.

First and foremost, the most exciting change came about as a result of the forthcoming Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Now that preparations are officially underway to bring the hit Orlando attraction to Hollywood, maze space is limited in the upper lot.  As a result, they have finally done what I’ve been dying to experience for years now.  The past several years has had what they call “The Terror Tram,” where the guests are able to walk certain areas of the backlot that have been redressed to the particular theme of that year.  However, it’s all outdoors, and the soundstages are completely off limits.  This year, “The Terror Tram” is still there, but in addition, there is a different tram that you can take directly to New York street, where you work your way into one of two mazes that are actually constructed in soundstages.  After walking through an apocalyptic Hell overrun by “walkers” from AMC’s horror masterpiece, The Walking Dead, you find yourself at a crossroads.  You can either go through a maze entitled “The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven,” or a 3D maze inspired by the lyrics from the history of legendary Metal band, Black Sabbath.

Both mazes are terrifically scary, with the Walking Dead taking you through some of the greatest moments of the show.  Your tour takes you through the prison, the town of Woodbury, etc.  This is your opportunity to come face to face with Walkers in faithful recreations from not only the locations from the show, but specific set pieces.  Whether it’s the epic scale of the helicopter crash, or the intimacy of the Governor’s torment involving his daughter, this is a maze that really gets under your skin.  The purposes of these mazes aren’t just to scare you through shock effects.  Universal has perfected the art of transporting the guests into another world, making you feel as if you are in the actual locations being depicted, and creating a sense of dread beyond simply jumping out at you.

As for Black Sabbath, I was completely blown away by the use of 3D in this maze.  I tend to find 3D mazes distracting, but in this case, the 3D actually becomes a part of the experience rather than a simple gimmick.  They have utilized the 3D to create an unsettling space in which you never feel completely secure with your surroundings.  I’m not completely familiar with Black Sabbath, so the specifics of the maze felt a little disjointed.  However, the audacity of the performers in conjunction with the tone set through the music and set design made this another standout experience.

Another highlight of the night was the maze for “Insidious: Into the Further.”  I loved the first movie and haven’t yet seen the sequel.  However, your familiarity with the source material isn’t really relevant to the fact that this is a fantastic maze.  Great set pieces combined with some of the most dedicated performers of the night made this a standout.  The actors gave it their all in this one, not only having perfected the art of timing the perfect scare, but the artistry of scaring without doing much at all.  Some of the creature movements felt like a cursed ballet, with the fluidity of the motions proving scarier than any sudden jolt ever could.

Don’t get me wrong, not all of the mazes are perfect.  I was relatively underwhelmed with the maze based on the new Evil Dead film, finding that to be simple recreation.  I was also confused by “El Cucuy: The Boogeyman,” a maze supposedly based on a “mythical, shape-shifting monster.”  I am not familiar with the legend, and the majority of the narration was in Spanish, so I just found myself confused throughout.

Universal Horror Nights are more than just mazes however.  The rides are all open, including the fantastic new Transformers ride.  There’s also the infamous “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure,” a recurring show every year that skewers the year in pop culture through extremely risqué comedy and music.  This year’s show had some of the best production numbers I’ve ever seen, especially a sequence themed to Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.  Unfortunately, the script itself was slightly subpar, with many of the jokes feeling forced and the narrative unusually thin.  Of course, you don’t go this show for the story.  While not my favorite year for Bill and Ted, it was still a great show and definitely worth checking out.

Worth noting as well is the Scare Zones.  Walking from maze to maze is an experience in and of itself thanks to these locations.  Featuring areas based on the recent film The Purge, and areas themed to clowns, scarecrows, etc., these are great locations to let yourself just get scared.  This is where the creatures really get to spend a lot of time directly interacting with the guests.  They put some great performers in these areas, and they are fantastic at making you truly uncomfortable.

Overall, Universal has pulled off another successful year.  Production design is top-of-the-line as always, and they are masters at creating an atmosphere of fear.  I had a great time, and highly recommend this event to anybody with the guts to let themselves be truly scared.

“Halloween Horror Nights” dates: September 20, 21, 27 and 28, October 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 31 and November 1, 2. Hours: 7pm to 2am. More information at www.HalloweenHorrorNights.com/hollywood.

Check-out our Photo Gallery from the Opening Night (Photos by Andrew Lockerbie):
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