For Halloween Horror Nights’ 20th birthday, Universal Studios went all out – at least in theme and decoration.
Their broad theme of pure “fear” allowed them to bring back favorite faces of the past, representing the factors the event’s designers said embody fear itself: chaos, death, sacrifice, mythos and vengeance.
Yet despite reexamining past favorites, show directors Patrick Braillard and Lora Wallace promised a scarier event than ever before.
“This year there are no victims,” Braillard said about the characters. “They want to hurt you, they want to kill you; you’re going to scream.”
Unfortunately, that’s a hard idea to transfer when scare actors cannot physically touch you and many of the houses still elicit humor over horror.
“Zombie Gras” is a Mardi Gras parade gone wrong, but the zombies only make the party more colorful. With some upbeat music and zombies literally dripping with blood, it’s fun to hang around for a while and try to catch some beads.
The “Esqueleto Muerte” zone had some of the best costumes – neon hats and silhouettes lit up by black light. The biggest and most extravagant zone is “Fear Revealed,” which brings back main characters from past Halloweens and introduces Fear – a devil-on-stilts type of character. The zone is made even more impressive by the fireballs that periodically shoot into the air.
“Saws ‘n Steam” brings the steam-punk trend to the forefront and forces you to walk through scare actors with chainsaws. However, a small militia armed with chainsaws also roams the whole park.
“We have more chainsaws than we’ve ever had before,” Wallace said. You’ll leave either feeling terrified of gardening equipment or desensitized to it.
The Oracle details the houses Halloween Horror Nights has imagined for its 20th anniversary:
Horror Nights: The Hallow’d Past
While not the scariest house of the event, “Horror Nights” is easily the best decorated. The house reuses some of the event director and designer’s favorite characters and props from previous years.
Like walking through a prop house of horror, it warrants stopping and looking around before the scare actors move you along. It offers a mix of scenes from a demented Alice in Wonderland tea party to a circus mirror maze and a disorienting tunnel, but illustrates the overall effort put into the event every year.
The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes
If you have a fear of small children in animal masks, this house is guaranteed to give you the willies. Through the thick smoke of the inflamed orphanage, it’s hard to tell where to look to expect the next child.
Overall, the house is more eerie than terrifying, but is helped by shrieking audio and fewer cheesy lines from the scare actors – who remain quieter than those in other houses.
Hades: The Gates of Ruin
Braillard said this house was inspired by “the things that kept little Grecian kids up at night.”
One can easily pick out the famous faces of Medusa and the Cyclops, especially as they keep popping up behind visitors.
Another house where you may get a little wet, the special effects were top-notch although the costumes of Greek soldiers resembled Styrofoam. On Sept. 24, this house was the most crowded and among the best for screams.
Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook
This year, the Psychoscarepy – one of the few repeat series for Universal – took out the little dark humor it had in the past in hopes of becoming pure terror.
Unfortunately, when the humor left so did the house’s originality, and by night’s end was the least memorable of Horror Nights’ eight houses.
If you’re in a rush to try as many houses as you can, don’t worry about missing “Psychoscarepy” – without the humor or horror, it offers little.
Havoc: Dogs of War
“Havoc” scare actors took dedication to the next level, making this house a must-see part of the event.
All actors for the house, including the females, shave their heads to become the dogs of war – bar-coded and adrenaline-filled soldiers. The resulting house is nothing short of chaotic.
It’s hard to avoid these dedicated inhabitants with the house’s visitor-surrounding setup. Circular rooms provide actors with several outlets to scare you, so looking one direction only leaves you unprepared at another.
Catacombs: Black Death Rising
“Catacombs” is Halloween Horror Nights’ first house rooted in history, and the scariest this year. Loud and cramped, the house leads you through centuries-old tombs as the final resting place for masked doctors and their plague-ridden patients.
While the dead bodies that suddenly rise from the dead may cause jumps, it is the doctors identified by their bird beak-shaped masks that really give the house its scares.
Not only are the actors unafraid to lean in close, many actually block your path, leaving visitors wondering what they should do.
Following the zombie craze, “Zombiegeddon” ties itself with the “Zombie Gras” scare zone as a training facility for those in a zombie apocalypse, which is interrupted and turned chaotic after a parade float powers them down.
The house is less scary than “Havoc” or “Catacombs,” but there are portions where strobe lights make it difficult to pinpoint where scare actors are hiding and give zombies the staggered walk seen in any decent zombie film.
Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate
Halloween Horror Nights’ first literal haunted house, “Legendary Truth,” strives to be innovative, but it just isn’t scary.
The house sticks scare actors in every crevice from under the floorboards to within the walls, but unfortunately this makes many of them easy to miss. The scares in the open are predictable, and the actors’ masks are rubbery and glow-in-the-dark – never ghostly.
The house’s innovation is there, and a good stepping stone for future years, but unfortunately doesn’t work now.
Despite its over-the-top atmosphere, solid theme and dedicated actors, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights falls short of the cost students pay in travel and tickets. For more information and ticket prices, visit halloweenhorrornights.com.