It’s Friday, September 15th around 5:30pm and I’m standing on the pier at my hotel, waiting for the water ferry to come and take me into the heart of Universal Orlando where I will embark on my first Halloween Horror Nights. A yearly tradition for the theme park since 1991, it has grown from a three-night event with one haunted house into the horror destination that we see today, complete with nine haunted houses, five “scare zones” – sections within the theme park that are overtaken by themed evils – and two live events. As a lover of horror for my entire life, the people in my group are astonished that I’ve never made it out for an event, their surprise only growing as I reveal that it’s also my first time at Universal Studios.
After arriving, gathering our press credentials, being led through the park to a media event, and biding time until the sun set, our group went on guided tours, led by two wonderful Universal staff, Andrea and Jacie, of the attractions. I’ll take you through them one-by-one with my thoughts so that any of you who will attend can know what to expect from Halloween Horror Nights 27, dubbed “The Festival of the Deadliest”.
Set in a half-sunken riverboat, this house was themed around the Voodoo rituals lurking deep within a Louisiana bayou. What was fantastic about this attraction was the house itself, which is disorienting and unsettling. The half-sunken aspect is fully utilized as each of the rooms is askew and offset. Later, after we exited the boat, we walked through swampy weeds and vines, where bloated and decomposing zombies lurked.
Overall grade: B
A post-apocalyptic vision of Heaven’s fallen angels and Hell’s risen demons battling against one another, this was one of the more exciting visions that HHN offered. Essentially Häxan-meets-Hellraiser-meets-Diablo, the house was a gothic journey through piles of skulls, loads of gore, and nightmarish visions. Clearly the legions of Hell were winning this battle.
Something to note is we were told that this is the first time in HHN history that a house features stunts. In this case, Hellish creatures “flew” overhead, cackling and shrieking, in a thrilling display of horror.
Overall grade: A-
The Purge Scare Zone
The first scare zone we encountered was based on Blumhouse’s The Purge franchise, which saw character designs from all three films wandering the streets and spooking attendees with sudden movements, threats of violence, and imposing demeanors. At one point, Purgers on motorbikes led a white truck, their motors revving and the truck honking its horn to part the crowd.
While it was impressive enough, I don’t have enough of a relationship with The Purge to feel like this was a success or failure. It ended up being a rather neutral event for me.
Overall grade: B-
Invasion Scare Zone
This one was cute. Based on a 50’s and 60’s cheesy sci-fi aesthetic, we saw gruesome yet strangely charming aliens walking the streets, many congregating around a large UFO saucer that “crashed” into the ground. With laser guns that lit up and one creature that I jokingly dubbed the “Flavor Flav of aliens” (rather than a large clock on its chest, there was a circular electricity display), it was amusing enough for me to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the zone.
Overall grade: B
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure 2017: The Farewell Tour
For many, this was a bittersweet moment. Those who have attended HHN for years have been able to witness Bill and Ted’s yearly shows. However, this was my first and it will be the last as this year marks the end of the San Dimas duo’s annual extravaganza. The basic plot is that Bill and Ted are playing a festival when Death gets a text from Satan saying that everyone in the audience must die because there is nothing redeemable in pop culture. A spectacle of pyro, scantily clad dancers of both male and female persuasion, and rife with politically incorrect humor, it wasn’t a flawless show but there was more than enough here or me to enjoy the experience.
Fair warning: this show is not for those easily offended. That being said, it’s fully aware of its anti-PC humor, so bear that in mind and you’ll have a good time.
Overall grade: B+
The Horrors of Blumhouse
Maybe it’s because I didn’t enjoy the Sinister films or because I haven’t seen any movies in The Purge series but I wasn’t overly impressed by this house. Perhaps its biggest flaw was that the first two parts of the house just weren’t all that memorable. However, the third section, which was dedicated to Insidious, was a blast! If for nothing else, it’s worth it to wait in line and go through this house for his section alone. Plus, attendees will get a “live trailer” for Insidious: The Last Key, although you won’t see much considering how dark and spookily lit these houses are.
Overall grade: C+
So, The Hive may have been the biggest disappointment for me. The concept is that we’re going to encounter feral vampires, which are essentially a mix of the creatures from The Descent with elements of the ones from 30 Days of Night. Now, this sounds great in theory but the execution was where I was let down. The opportunity here to create visuals that were completely foreign and surreal was on the table but it was yet another crumbling and decaying house that led through dusty rooms and creepy basements. The best part came towards the end when we walked through what felt like a cave system and things got really over-the-top but it was too little, too late. Also, it suffered from an overuse of fog.
Overall grade: C
Ash vs Evil Dead
I might be biased but my love of the Evil Dead series and STARZ’ “Ash vs Evil Dead” but I absolutely adored this attraction. Featuring iconic moments from the second season of the show, such as the morgue, the Jacksonville bar bathroom, the sewer system, and the cabin as well as its basement, it’s a chance to stand next to “Ash” as he dispatches multiple Deadites, all while rattling off his charming, off-color quips and exuding his charismatic bravado.
Overall grade: A-
Scarecrow: The Reaping
One of the best houses in the park, The Reaping is a dive into a world that’s Scarecrow-meets-Children of the Corn. Set in a farmhouse and barn in the middle of a cornfield (those are real cornstalks, by the way), we walked through musty rooms where farming implements lined the walls and second floors have collapsed into the first floor. Living scarecrows jumped out from behind the walls and pictures, many hiding in plain sight but remaining unmoving until the last second.
There’s something wickedly delightful about this house, which is also one of the longer attractions, making it well worth the wait.
Overall grade: A
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw
Again, my bias might be showing here but after the first film, I never really enjoyed the series. As a result, this house didn’t speak to me. However, if you’re a Saw fanatic, you’ll find a lot to love here. There are homages and nods to every entry in the franchise, including the upcoming eighth entry Jigsaw where we saw victims with buckets on their heads being pulled towards a wall of buzzsaws. Overly loud, it’s not the worst attraction but I didn’t find myself wanting to play its game.
Overall grade: C+
Trick ‘r Treat Scare Zone
While the best house is yet to come, the Trick ‘r Treat was easily my favorite part of the night. We walked down a boulevard where the canopy of trees were filled with hand-carved pumpkins, glowing orange and winking with Halloween glee. Sam, Mr. Kreeg, and the other Warren Valley denizens from Michael Dougherty’s film walked amongst the crowd, causing me to crack a huge smile. I love this movie and I love this scare zone.
Overal grade: A+
American Horror Story
This one took my by complete surprise. I’m not a fan of “American Horror Story” by any stretch of the imagination but this house was incredibly inventive and gorgeously realized. Featuring elements from three seasons – Asylum, Coven, and Roanoke – the series was brought to life in wonderful ways.
If I’m not into “American Horror Story” and I enjoyed it this much, I can only imagine what real fans are going to experience when they go through. I find myself somewhat envious!
Overall grade: A-
When it comes to the houses, the crème de la crème of the evening was a rather phenomenal take on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which transformed the psychological thriller into an amazing event that paid homage to some of the most important scenes from the film while also creating something unique and original unto itself. One of the highlights of this house took the infamous carpet pattern and created a disorienting hallway. We also walked through the snowy hedgemaze, the Gold Room, the bathroom where Jack meets Mr. Grady, and the bathroom where Wendy fends off Jack’s axe attacks, amongst others.
Even if you’re not a fan of the film, this is one house worth venturing through. It’s a testament to the HHN team on how they can take a property that shouldn’t work as a haunted house but becomes the best of their yearly event.
Overall grade: A+
For my first year at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, I was incredibly impressed. While I don’t scare at haunted houses, I can’t deny the stunning amounts of work and preparation that go into creating every attraction. The production is simply astounding and this is clearly an event made by horror fans for horror fans.
If you have any doubts about attending, put them to the side and make the trip. You won’t be disappointed.
Overall grade: B+