Halloween Horror Nights 2017 at Universal Studios Hollywood Review

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 is well underway at Universal Studios Hollywood, bringing with it a bevy of monsters and a laundry list of intellectual properties, with The Shining at the top of most everyone’s “curious to see” list.

As has been the case for more than a decade, Halloween Horror Nights here in Southern California has been spearheaded by John Murdy (Creative Director), and Chris Williams (Art Director), with a dedicated and very talented team behind them, helping to make these collections of living nightmares a reality each year. HHN is one of the biggest events in the Southland, attracting tens of thousands of hard core haunt fans to the Hollywood area each night as they pour through the gates, eager to have terror unleashed on them.

Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights is world-famous for a consistently strong lineup of well-known IPs; 2017 is no different, with something for everyone – from classics like Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface, to paranormal thrills, and even some torture porn tossed in for good measure. Featuring 7 beautifully-designed walk-through mazes, 3 all-new scare zones, a new show by the popular dance group Jabbawockeez, and yet another rendition of the Terror Tram experience, it seems that there is a full evening in store for fans heading to HHN this season.

Theme Park Adventure attended opening night on September 15th, and took in most of the sights and sounds, except for the Jabbawockeez; we opted to spend all the time we possibly could checking out mazes and watching monsters interact with guests in the various scare zones. At the end of the day, while I respect their skills and abilities, I’m simply not the demographic for such a show – especially at a major Halloween event, when the real thrills are happening elsewhere in the park.

SPOILER ALERT: This in-depth review contains spoilers regarding the mazes and scare zones found at Halloween Horror Nights 2017. It also features images and video that contain spoilers as well.

TITANS OF TERROR TRAM: HOSTED BY CHUCKY

One of the most unique aspects of Universal Studios Hollywood is its Studio Tour, which takes guests through the property’s Lower Lot and Back Lot during the day, past famous filming locations and impressive sound stages. It’s the biggest component that sets Universal Studios Hollywood apart from each of its sister parks around the world. This is not overlooked when it comes to Halloween Horror Nights, as the Studio Tour becomes its twisted alter-ego, the Terror Tram.

Experiencing the Terror Tram is a commitment. Not only does it require a huge chunk of time, there is a lot of walking involved – not as much as there used to be, but even truncated, it’s a hike and at least an hour of your time at Halloween Horror Nights. For something that involved, you want it to be really, really good. There have been years that are better than others – and the fan reactions range from, “Awesome!” to “Waste of time” from year to year, depending on personal interests. The fact of the matter is, the Terror Tram has remained fairly formulaic over the years because during the day, it still is part of the Universal Studios Tour, and you can only do so much with the Bates Motel and the War of the Worlds debris field. I get that.

This year’s Terror Tram features the Titans of Terror – Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface; the “host” of Terror Tram is Chucky, who appears in the video that guests watch on their way to the Back Lot and then upon returning to the park.

The walking portion of Terror Tram remains the same as it’s been for years now – guests are dropped off at the Grinch set, and they make their way past Bates Motel, up the hill, and through the War of the Worlds crash site scene. HHN cleverly turned the Bates Motel set into “Crystal Lake Motel”, full of terrified – and very dead – camp counselors being tormented and butchered by everyone’s favorite hockey mask-wearing icon, Jason. This transformation in my opinion, is the best part of Terror Tram. There are lots of Jason characters – we see him in action, and there are also some pop-out scares along the way that are great fun!

The Psycho House remains its own entity, and is always a fun photo op with Norman Bates taking photos on the front steps with Horror Nights guests as his mother can be heard berating him from within the old mansion. We’ve made the Psycho photo op an annual tradition – and honestly, Norman Bates truly is a “Titan of Terror” as well, in my book!

Continuing the walk through the War of the Worlds site, we found there to be a guest flow issue getting in to the set, and another exiting it; a problem that Universal had last year, but remedied it by creating a bypass route that guests also took, dispersing the crowds without creating pinch points. We’re unaware if there has been a bypass set up this year, but were surprised to see the same guest flow problem pop up again this season. It’s unfortunate, because it takes people out of the moment when they suddenly are standing like cattle in a huge group rather than walking slowly along the pathway. The talent working Terror Tram have a challenging time when this happens as well – you can only walk up to and interact with the same group of guests so many times before it becomes awkward.

The Terror Tram route takes guests through areas separated into the three different intellectual properties – Leatherface and his cannibalistic family, then the realm of Freddy – set in the neighborhood of Springfield, and then back through more Texas Chainsaw Massacre scenes to end the experience.

What was great about the Springfield section of the Terror Tram, was that Universal played into the whole plane wreckage scene. Freddy’s voice can be heard coming from police squad cars on the set, as well as an ad for “Krueger Airlines”, which we loved!

We enjoy Leatherface as much as anyone else – but found it really awkward that several of the scenes toward the end of the Terror Tram walking portion were pretty much the same as some featured in the Titans of Terror maze on the park’s Upper Lot. Depicting Leatherface and his victims in almost identical fashion in both places really wore out its welcome quickly, and before you could say, “Lick my plate!” we were kind of over the whole Chainsaw aspect of the experience. The Chainsaw franchise is robust enough that duplicating specific scenes really shouldn’t be necessary, so I’m not entirely sure what happened there.

Terror Tram 2017 is fun, and definitely worth a look, especially for the Friday the 13th sequence at the beginning at the Bates Motel set. If you’re hard-pressed for time and feeling kinda “eh” about Terror Tram, at least do the Titans of Terror maze, so you at least get to come face-to-face with these major horror icons at some point in your night!

SCARE ZONES

It’s hard to say what happened, but the scare zones at HHN Hollywood were scaled back this year, and everyone I’ve spoken with certainly noticed. There is a lot of construction taking place on the Upper Lot between the park entrance and Universal Plaza. That whole walkway has been significantly impacted by work walls, giving guests and monsters less elbow room. That first scare zone is Hell-O-Ween, geared toward “traditional” Halloween monsters such as werewolves, vampires, and witches. The bulk of the activity and all of the area props are adjacent to Universal Plaza, near the New York Street façades. The talent is great – from stilt walkers to lurking ghouls – and the props that are on the street are definitely selfie-worthy. What is noticeably absent, is the fire pot archway at the end of the street. While a simple element compared to the rest of the major effort that goes into HHN, people love fire – and walking under that explosive archway as licks of flame lash out at the night sky… that’s part of the HHN experience, and it’s not there this year. My guess is, it has to do with the nearby construction and fire codes. Here’s hoping it returns in all its glory next Halloween!

The Upper Lot and Hell-O-Ween scare zone is also where guests will find the go-go dancers at the entrance of the park, as well as the infamous “Chainsaw Chase-Out” which occurs at the end of the night, usually starting about an hour or so before the event ends. If you’ve never seen the Chase-Out, it’s definitely a spectacle to behold and worth waiting around for – you’ve never heard so many chainsaws revving at once; it’s sheer madness, but wonderful and wicked!

Neither Baker Street or French Street are used this year as scare zones at Halloween Horror Nights. That’s a shame, because when those areas of the Upper Lot are activated and filled with fog and props, HHN feels much more complete and polished. I don’t know why the streets were not part of the plan this year – but it definitely left the entire Upper Lot of Universal Studios feeling very light with HHN content. We are hopeful that one – or both streets will be included in 2018’s plans. One of our favorite things about Halloween Horror Nights is being able to chill and watch the talent work the crowds in these areas. That is truly missed this year.

Moving down to the Lower Lot, guests pass through the second scare zone – Toxic Tunnel – as they are coming and going from the Metro Set maze locations. The tunnel is a long bypass route that allows vehicles to maneuver easily past various shops and stages on the Lower Lot, which makes for a great place to put a scare zone. It’s simple, but very effective – and there is no way around it for the majority of guests; you’ve gotta pass through it going from the Front Lot to the Lower Lot, and you’ve gotta come back the same way when returning, so HHN has you in its clutches! The theme of Toxic Tunnel is just what it sounds like – menacing mutants in hazmat suits roaming back and forth for the full length of the tunnel as music thumps and bright, colorful lights strobe and flash. There isn’t any scenic aspect of this scare zone – it’s just straight-up monsters all up in your business, and it is definitely effective. I think it’s very smart that Universal puts monsters in this portion of the Lower Lot – it breaks up an otherwise horribly long and tedious walk to the Back Lot mazes. Good stuff!

The third and final scare zone at Halloween Horror Nights 2017 is by far, my favorite – Urban Inferno. This is located adjacent to the Metro Sets on the Lower Lot; the transition area that housed The Purge scare zone in 2016. This year’s theme is free of being tied to any IP, and it’s fantastic; one of my favorite things at HHN this year. Urban Inferno is a hellish romp through… well, Hell. Passing by unsettling props and small scenic vignettes, guests encounter demons and devils of all shapes and sizes, as well as their victims wailing for help. It’s nightmarish, it’s creepy, and I absolutely think Universal had a lot of fun with this zone and knocked it out of the ballpark in doing so! If anything, Urban Inferno makes a great case for the return of original creations to Horror Nights in Hollywood – not everything needs to be IP-based, and we fans really do love and appreciate new and unique experiences at the event mixed in with the expected intellectual properties.

All in all, we enjoyed each of the scare zones this year at Halloween Horror Nights; we just wish there were more of them to enjoy, especially on the Upper Lot. Huge kudos to everyone working their butts off – being a scare zone monster is grueling work, and we appreciate you all! Great job!

MAZES

Of course, our favorite aspect to Halloween Horror Nights – or any Halloween event, for that matter – are the mazes. Universal’s designs under the direction of John Murdy and Chris Williams are among the most polished and beautifully-created anywhere in the world. If anything, fans go to HHN to witness the sheer spectacle that are its elaborate mazes. Here in Los Angeles, we rarely get unique, IP-free experiences; these days, it’s pretty much a given that every haunted house/maze at Universal Hollywood is going to be IP-based, and we’re fine with that. It is what it is, and this is Hollywood after all; guests expect it, and the HHN team delivers with flying colors almost 100% of the time.

American Horror Story: Roanoke is one of the most anticipated of the HHN mazes this year, and the team definitely delivered. Sporting the same façade as last year’s American Horror Story-themed maze, this year’s house focuses on Season 6 of the show – Roanoke. Guests step across the threshold and find themselves deep in the backwoods of North Carolina, in an old farmhouse filled with lingering spirits from the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” as a “blood moon” rises. With a footprint pretty much the same as last year, this is one of the largest mazes at HHN, and definitely one with the most beefy content, considering they’ve put one season’s story into a space that was representative of several seasons in 2016. American Horror Story: Roanoke is dark, and features a lot of jump scares coupled with some really nice scenic work. I think it delivers for AHS fans and is what we all expected from this maze.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is considered the maze to see this year at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s one of those big IPs that has a very large fan base and is widely recognized as a horror classic, much the same way The Exorcist was last year. The maze is gorgeous, and it is evident that John and Chris went to painstaking lengths to recreate the look and feel of the Overlook Hotel as seen in The Shining, from lighting fixtures and wallpaper, right down to the pattern and color of the carpet. Word has it that Universal wasn’t cleared to use the exact likeness of Jack Nicholson, who plays Jack Torrance in the film. That said, I thought the masks looked close enough – it didn’t bother me in the least; what is a bit awkward is when they are showcased in scenes and just have to bob their heads along with spoken dialogue – that gets a bit iffy, but they do what they have to do. The Shining depicts key moments of the film, with the use of clever shadowplay as well as projection gags. A very clever and cool touch is the use of the phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in a couple of the transition spaces – including on the hanging strips that you have to push apart to continue through. The centerpiece effects of the maze are the Grady twins, and the elevator hall/blood flood sequences. The Grady twins materialize via a Pepper’s Ghost, while the elevator sequence relies on a projection thrown in a fairly tight space. For me, it works well enough, although I wish there was more physical depth to the space so we could actually be looking down a hallway. It does go the abstract route, changing between blood flood to other visuals and back again. I get why this was done – and it does convey the Kubrick style of the film. I probably would prefer that it just be the elevator with the blood flooding in, minus the other images cut in. However, it’s not that big of a deal for me personally. What is worrisome, is that several of The Shining’s main scenes rely on projection; if that hardware craps out, the maze loses a tremendous amount of effectiveness. We’ve already heard from folks who have gone through The Shining only to find that the projections are not on – leaving rooms with giant blank screens; that’s a drag, and I hope that there are stand-by projectors waiting in the wings for this exact issue so that people don’t get a disappointing show when it’s finally their turn through the maze. Design-wise, The Shining is my favorite maze at Horror Nights this year; a very challenging IP to pull off, and I think the team did a great job within a relatively small footprint.

Ash vs. Evil Dead is just plain fun! The façade of this maze is an old Airstream-style trailer in Mossy Haven Trailer Park. The moment guests step through the door, they find themselves under attack by the evil dead from all directions – with Ash coming to the rescue on more than one occasion. Full disclosure: I have never seen Ash vs. Evil Dead, so I am only vaguely familiar with the IP this maze is based on. In doing my homework, I get that it’s similar to the films in the franchise; Ash Williams taking on a horde of undead – Deadites – as he makes corny quips. I get it – and that’s all I need to really enjoy this maze! With great pop-out scares and some very nice scenic moments, Ash vs. Evil Dead is my all-around favorite maze this year at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s fun, scary, and violent – what’s not to love!? The good thing about this, is that John and the team did such a good job making this experience so enjoyable, Ash vs. Evil Dead is now on my television watch list… which will resume once the Halloween season is over!

Titans of Terror is right up there with Ash vs. Evil Dead when it comes to being super fun and really well done. I’d say for me, Titans of Terror is almost tied as my overall favorite maze this year at HHN. Let me back up and throw some personal background on this. When I was a young boy, I discovered Fangoria magazine in October of 1980 in the magazine rack of a drug store in Irvine. I begged my mom to buy the magazine, and she did – reluctantly (I’m sure I was a nagging, royal pain in the ass about it). That began my love affair with the horror publication for many years to follow. What I did with my issues of Fango are horrifying, I am sure – but I would read them from cover-to-cover, and then cut them up. I would cut out all of the rad pictures and make scrapbooks, as well as “wallpaper” in my bedroom with the images. Heartbreaking, I know – but that’s what I did. In retrospect, it would be nice to have all of those issues in my collection today. However, having my walls plastered with my favorite pictures and imagery from the magazine, I would say that those issues were loved and the content much more enjoyed, had I simply stuffed them into a drawer when I was done reading them. At Halloween (and sometimes other parts of the year), I would decorate the outside of our place with spooky props and even make creepy window scenes for passersby to look at – sometimes in utter confusion, when something bloody and creepy would pop up say, in spring time. The story conceit of Titans of Terror is that we are entering the home of a horror super fan – a young kid who’s adoration of these characters and creatures is evident by the display of kitschy props outside his home honoring Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface. Once inside, we find that his bedroom is a shrine to all things horror – a gateway to the world and realms of the Titans of Terror. I so get it, and it absolutely resonates with me perfectly! Stepping into the faux house and bedroom is like stepping back in time 37 years. I love it, and it works just fine as a story vehicle! Once you’re inside the maze, it’s pretty straightforward – you’re in the worlds of Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface – reliving classic moments from their films as you’re immersed in their themes. From a boiler room to the woods to a rural farmhouse in Texas – it’s all present, and it’s done very well. Sure, much of it feels like a repeat of last year’s Freddy vs. Jason maze at Horror Nights – but it doesn’t matter; these characters are timeless, and people love them and expect to see them in certain locales and environments. Lots of jump scares abound in this particular maze, keeping the pacing frantic and pulse-pounding. For fun and content, I’d put this right up top with Ash vs. Evil Dead for my favorite overall maze this year at HHN… so I guess that means I have a tie for the 2017 season. And I am just fine with that; I love nothing more than a great, scary maze that’s lots of fun – that’s exactly what Titans of Terror delivers!

Saw: The Games of Jigsaw delivers all of the classic thrills and torture porn chills that previous Saw-themed mazes at Halloween Horror Nights has before, and makes you feel like you’ve stepped smack-dab into the middle of one of the franchise’s blood-soaked films. When this maze was announced earlier this year, there was a lot of groaning from fans; despite the fact that HHN hasn’t used the franchise in years, it seems that initially, a lot of people are just simply over the whole Saw thing. In truth, the maze is really good this year, and people are loving the experience! Saw: The Games of Jigsaw celebrates the totality of the IP’s universe, and brings us face-to-face with the horrors that we have seen depicted in Jigsaw’s traps since 2004 on the silver screen, and gives us an idea of things to come in the upcoming release, Jigsaw. It was smart of Universal not to base this year’s Saw maze on the upcoming film; while guests get what Saw movies are – it’s still much better to go into a haunted attraction with the understanding of what’s going on, if it is IP-based. We’ve seen mazes based on future films at HHN and elsewhere – and they never really do very well, because guests have no clue as to what’s happening. Not the case here; the maze is solid, and definitely very nicely done.

Insidious: Beyond the Further was really low on my interest list this year at Horror Nights. Truth be told, I am definitely in the minority – I am not a big fan of the Insidious franchise. It just doesn’t do it for me as a horror fan. That, coupled with previous iterations at HHN had me asking, “Okay – what else?” I didn’t doubt that the Universal crew would do a great job design-wise on the maze; it just isn’t at the top of my own wish list, you know? So I went in with low expectations of getting much out of it – and guess what? It’s one of the best this year at Horror Nights! It’s very dark, incredibly spooky, and I absolutely love it! This is solid proof that you don’t have to be a big fan of a franchise to really get a big thrill out of correlated attractions at HHN. Insidious is badass; probably my favorite of the franchise so far at Universal. The visuals are really good – from shadowplay to low-light vignettes and great jump scares. Insidious: Beyond the Further delivers everything we want from a Horror Nights maze and then some. Make sure this one is on your must-do list when you visit HHN this year!

The Horrors of Blumhouse takes its queue from last year’s Purge: Gauntlet of Fear attraction, in that part of this experience is located outside again, in Universal Plaza. But just before it feels like a repeat of last year’s attraction, it switches gears, and guests head into a “greatest hits” maze that features scenes and characters from various Blumhouse film franchises, including Sinister and the up-coming Happy Death Day. I’m pretty much in the same boat with Sinister as I am (and explained above) with Insidious. So I went into this maze with low expectations of enjoying it as much as the others – and it was about what I expected. That’s not a slam on the design work or the content of the maze; I’m just not into Sinister as much as other folks are, and that’s totally okay. Horror is subjective, and lots of fans have a wide variety of tastes. The response to The Horrors of Blumhouse has been good, so it’s obvious that Universal has another successful maze on their hands this year in Hollywood. This is my least favorite entry in the HHN 2017 lineup this year in Hollywood; that said, I think that all of the mazes this year are solid – there isn’t a stinker in the group. If you’re a big Blumhouse fan and love the Sinister and Purge properties, then absolutely make a beeline for this maze; it’s right on the main walkway through the Upper Lot of Universal Studios, making it many peoples’ first or last maze of the night by default, which means lines can get fairly long for this one.

Speaking of lines – it seems so far this season that there are much lower wait times for most of the mazes at Universal for Horror Nights. We noticed during our visit that operationally, there are some differences from previous years. A lot of visible security, and just more staff in general giving people directions and keeping the crowds moving. In addition, the “blackouts” in the maze are much better this year at not ruining the experience with their flashlights and constant, “KEEP MOVING” demands; in fact, they have been blending into the shadows, simply monitoring each scene and not being as bullish as they have in the past. Whether this is on purpose or not, Universal should know that we’ve noticed – and it makes for a much better experience all around. So kudos to the blackout teams for being more “invisible” this season and letting guests actually enjoy the fantastic work that’s gone into each maze during the night. We really appreciate it and hope it is a continuing trend now at HHN.

The crowds have been much more manageable, and it’s not our imagination; lots of folks bring this up and have noticed, despite Universal saying that nights have been “sold out” already in the run. This means that capacity has either been capped at a lower count so as not to feel miserably packed at HHN, or people have hit a ceiling as far as ticket prices are concerned and simply aren’t going this year. There are several different ticketing options, but honestly, unless you want to wait for a long time in monstrous queues, you’re going to want the Front of Line ticket, which runs about $220 per person. If you want to do the mazes more than once, you’ll want to look into the R.I.P. Tour, which gets you unlimited front of line access, as well as valet parking and a nice buffet spread; this option is about $320 per guest. An evening at Horror Nights can add up quickly, so take a look at all of your options and land on whatever suits your needs (and budget).

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 at Universal Studios Hollywood is solid this year, albeit some repetition between the Terror Tram and one of the featured mazes, as well as a lot of construction on the Upper Lot. We always enjoy our time at HHN, and this year was no exception! We look forward to hopefully returning again for an evening of terror and fun without our cameras before the season is over. As usual, we thank John, Chris, and the entire Halloween Horror Nights crew here in Los Angeles for a job well done, and we send a shout-out to USH’s awesome marketing team for wrangling such a beast of an event and pulling off their side of the operation smoothly!

HHN is a staple of the Halloween season here in Southern California. We are lucky to have such an event in our back yard, and wish them the very best success for the rest of the Halloween season!

  • Rick West

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Be sure to bookmark and reference our 2017 SoCal Haunt Directory for all your Halloween haunt planning!

ADDITIONAL MEDIA

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Highlights Video:

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Photo Gallery:

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