Without a doubt, 2016 is the strongest intellectual property lineup that Universal Studios Hollywood has ever assembled for Halloween Horror Nights. Fronted by the long-awaited maze The Exorcist, HHN features a powerhouse ensemble that includes mazes based on American Horror Story, Halloween 2, Krampus and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There’s more – so let’s dive right in and pick apart Halloween Horror Nights 2016 piece by fleshy piece…
SPOILER ALERT: This in-depth review contains spoilers regarding the mazes and scare zones found at Halloween Horror Nights 2016. It also features images and video that contain spoilers as well.
I’m going to start with the “weakest” maze of the night, which was hands-down The Walking Dead. Unlike its predecessor, House of Horrors, which received substantial upgrades each year for Halloween Horror Nights, TWD was not much more than a slightly amped-up version of the same year-round maze that we’ve been experiencing since it opened this past summer at Universal Studios Hollywood. There were more walkers throughout the maze – although not so many that we were blown away by the increase. The only real “added gore” that we noted were a few spots in the maze where “blood” dripped down from walkways overhead; it really was no more graphic than it normally is. If you’re wondering why we would have expected more gore during HHN, it was stated to the media when the year-round attraction opened that it would transform during Horror Nights to be on par with the rest of the mazes throughout the park. That wasn’t the case. My sneaking suspicion, is that since The Walking Dead is still new, not much needed to be done to ratchet it up this season; my guess is that we start seeing that happen next year, once the attraction itself is more than a year old and more people have experienced it.
The air conditioning – even the fans – in the show building were not working on opening night; it literally felt like a sauna inside the maze, which made the experience miserable for everyone. It was so hot and humid that the lenses on our cameras fogged over, making it just about impossible to get any footage or photos as we passed through. I can only imagine how miserable the talent felt – and want to give them extra huge props for having to deal with that. Hopefully, Universal Studios fixed that major issue immediately.
Generally, we like The Walking Dead. It’s a solid attraction that delivers great scares and amazing scenic elements. If you haven’t yet seen it, by all means, do it when you visit Halloween Horror Nights. If you’re a local with a pass, or a casual guest who has already seen it, you can skip The Walking Dead and save yourself a huge chunk of time for other HHN-specific attractions this year.
Another maze located on the Upper Lot is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For those who love gore and grit, this is your maze! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a unique production this year at Halloween Horror Nights – while it’s based on the film franchise, it’s an “in between” snapshot in time between the first and second films in the series. So while the IP is definitely well-known and popular, the story line and environment is “original” Horror Nights content, which is a treat.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is set within the world of Drayton Sawyer’s roadside barbecue shack, renowned for the family’s special cooking, where they never skimp on the meat! Almost immediately, guests encounter Leatherface, who menaces them with his chainsaw, sending them further into the maze to face the terrors of the family’s cannibalism and absolutely nightmarish way of life. Horror Nights guests maneuver through subterranean tunnels, the Sawyer living quarters and even a cemetery – where the family finds a steady supply of ingredients for their fixins!
There are several recognizable characters found within The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including Chop Top, the outrageous, far-out member of the Sawyer clan played brilliantly by Bill Moseley. In fact, the soundtrack to this maze – which is very good – features sound bites from Chop Top at one point, which are great to hear included. An interesting aspect of the maze is that Leatherface doesn’t always look the same – a conscious design decision that pays homage to the various looks and faces the iconic character has sported over the years. That threw me off at first – but reflecting on it, I really like that they went that direction. It’s fitting and appropriate – and not at all surprising considering how much the event’s Creative Director, John Murdy and Art Director Chris Williams love to pay homage to horror flicks and give something extra to Horror Nights fans.
Overall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a great maze. The length of the experience feels just right – not short at all, and long enough to become disorienting and completely terrifying. A very strong showing for an IP that some might consider “been there, done that” as far as Halloween Horror Nights goes. I can say this definitely isn’t like any other Texas Chainsaw maze we’ve seen in the past – so it’s definitely worth checking out.
Moving further into the heart of the Upper Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood, guests encounter The Purge: Election Year, a large scare zone based on the film trilogy by Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures. The Purge is an interesting twist for Horror Nights Hollywood fans this year, in that it encompasses the entry portal to the event, as well as Universal Plaza, the Parisian Courtyard, and French Street. Baker Street is not used by HHN this year, which instead, is taking up overflow for The Walking Dead queue.
In designing the Purge space, John Murdy wanted to up the ante a bit on a traditional scare zone, giving it more of a linear path with large props and roaming talent. The Purge isn’t a maze – but rather, “the gauntlet” as it’s referred to, is a long, one-way, fog-filled experience that really is a hybrid of a walk-through haunted attraction and an open-air scare zone. We like it very much – and the talent is on fire, so huge props to them. During the day, the scenic pieces are a bit concerning – dayglow skeletons and spray-painted wood pallets make up a majority of the “set pieces”. However, when the lights are out and the show lighting is on, everything works beautifully; quite literally, a night-and-day transformation.
I personally like multiple scare zones with very different themes when it comes to large-scale theme park Halloween events. This year, Universal opted for “one big scare zone” theme, going with The Purge: Election Year. I’m cool with it, so long as it doesn’t continue next year and the next – because then, it’ll smack of budget streamlining, which for an even like Halloween Horror Nights that packs people in at premium prices, doesn’t get too much of a pass from me, you know?
Walking through the fog as shadows are cast by the overhead pyro pots belching bright flame and fireballs into the air as the “Purge siren” wails ominously is definitely something that all Horror Nights fans should experience – simply because it’s rad. Take a stroll through The Purge: Election Year either at the beginning or end of your night at HHN; the cast will be active and badass no matter when you choose, and there’s no formal “line” – you just walk through and go.
The Purge: Election Year continues downstairs, in a long tunnel that guests pass through as they walk from the Lower Lot to the Metropolitan area of the property. This helps break up what is a long and for some, strenuous uphill/downhill trek (note – if you have a disability or are in a wheelchair, check out the online FAQ from Universal regarding transportation around the event). Purge talent roams the walkway, threatening and attacking guests as they pass to and from the Metro sets area of the property. The use of lighting and music work extremely well in “the tunnel”, making for a thrilling bit of fun as you traverse the Backlot.
The final segment of the event-wide Purge scare zone is located at the entrance to the Backlot Metropolitan sets. The same as last year, guests are forced to walk through a talent-packed area that appears to be part civilian and part military in appearance; however, they’re all intent on getting you. This makes for some fun people watching as visitors of all ages are chased with chainsaws and other horrific instruments of purging; enjoy the show!
This year’s Terror Tram is a partnership between Universal Studios Hollywood, filmmaker Eli Roth, and his digital network, Crypt TV. In the event you’re not familiar with Halloween Horror Nights, the Terror Tram takes guests aboard the Studio Tour vehicles to the portion of the Backlot that contains the sets from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Psycho, and War of the Worlds; there, they are dropped off and walk through these sets, menaced by monsters every step of the way.
“Hollywood Harry” is a serial killer that has come to haunt the Backlot of Universal Studios. Thought to be long-gone, this killer clown vanished years ago – only to resurface recently with a vengeance. The story is more complicated than that, and actually really well-presented as guests ride toward their destination – we don’t want to give too much of that away, since it seems that the set-up video played on the tram is the best part of the attraction this year. Big props to John Murdy and team in the creation of the video – it’s really great.
For 2016, the walking route through the Terror Tram area has been truncated. Unfortunately, the amount of guest flow-through expectations has not been altered to match the shorter pathway, resulting in several areas of stand-still queuing and conga line shuffling through much of the experience. On busy nights (they’re all pretty much busy, these days), this is going to be an issue unless fewer trams are put into operation to keep the flow throttled. However, if you do that, you lose your hourly capacity and the people suck that is the Terror Tram – so, Universal has a problem on their hands in this regard.
Walking through the Terror Tram area, guests will find many really cool, ghastly props and vignettes along the way, as well as some close-quarter structures that they must pass through as part of the experience. Where the route funnels down, there you will find major bottlenecking taking place, which is a shame, because it destroys the flow of the experience. Massive switchbacks and throngs of people stuck standing around are no bueno.
I’m not one that has an issue with clowns in general. Sure, they can be creepy – but I’m not the target audience who apparently is terrified of clowns. That said, I think it’s strange that while the Terror Tram’s theme is killer clowns, and it is “presented by” Eli Roth, that there is no tie-in with his own film project, Clown. Granted, probably 10 people have actually seen that movie – but it still is a bit weird to me that Eli Roth’s Clown wasn’t at least incorporated in some way with the Terror Tram’s killer clown theme and story.
It is refreshing to have a new look and feel for Terror Tram after a ton of Walking Dead and then Purge content constantly strewn through HHN each year. Is a clown theme the ultimate answer? I’m not so sure about that. I’d hope that Terror Tram is a one-and-done story this year, and that another theme gets selected for 2017. The issue of over-crowding in general at the event is something I will touch on toward the end of this review, but it’s definitely a concern and absolutely affects the overall effectiveness of the Terror Tram experience. I hate to say it, but unless you’re doing very well time-wise, this year’s Terror Tram is not on the must-do list for Halloween Horror Nights unless you really are into clowns and really want to walk the outdoor sets and visit the Psycho House. Otherwise, I would recommend focusing your attention on hitting the mazes throughout the event, which are all stellar this season.
Moving downstairs to the Lower Lot, there are two mazes in the vicinity of the attractions. Behind Jurassic Park, guests will find Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield. 2016 marks the third year that Michael Myers has haunted Universal Studios Hollywood, and the iconic slasher seems more popular than ever. This time around, John Murdy created a maze that picks up right after the first film, just as Halloween II does; in fact, many fans are referring to this attraction as “Halloween II” when discussing the event.
The majority of the maze takes place, as the film does, within Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, where a series of well-known scenes play out, including the infamous therapy tub scene (sorry folks – no boobs here), which works really nicely. Another powerful visual – perhaps one of my top three favorites from HHN this year – is the scene that has Michael stab a nurse in the back with a scalpel and then lift her off the ground; this moment has been beautifully recreated and looks fantastic!
As was the case last year, Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield takes a surreal, dream-like twist at the end, becoming more abstract than “real”. It may seem strange to folks not terribly familiar with the original Halloween franchise, but for those of us that do love and grew up with Halloween II, getting to step into the giant skull o’lantern logo is seriously badass. The last act of the maze is dominated by the haunting version of “Mr. Sandman” that was mixed by Murdy and team in-house, and it works like a charm. On top of that, the air is heavy with the scent of pumpkin spice – one of the very few instances of a nice-smelling odor at HHN!
Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield is a great nod to the legacy of John Carpenter, with plenty of jump scares and theatrical moments peppered throughout. Halloween fans should be extremely satisfied with this maze. I don’t know that it’s better than last year’s Myers attraction – but it’s certainly done fans proud, and is a very strong component in this year’s event; definitely do not miss this one!
Also sharing the Lower Lot is perhaps the single-most anticipated maze of the bunch: The Exorcist. For more than a decade, John Murdy and Chris Williams have been chasing this IP. They finally got it, and as quickly as the excitement hit, John told me there was a serious, “Holy shit!” moment that quickly followed, because it suddenly was real – and there was a lot of pressure built up on this one personally and professionally for them as designers.
In the film, most of The Exorcist takes place in the home of Regan MacNeil – specifically, in her bedroom. When you’re designing a maze experience that needs to be fairly linear, that begins to pose a real danger of redundancy. John and Chris thought long and hard about this, and decided to hit it head-on, resulting in guests passing through Regan’s room a total of four times during the experience. And you know what? It works perfectly; each time, Regan is doing something different – from writhing on the bed as the room goes nuts around her (another brilliant visual this year that actually gave me goosebumps it is so well done), to the infamous head spin and vomit scene. The Exorcist has my hands-down favorite visual at HHN this year – one that will definitely be in the top moments of Halloween 2016 for me, I’m sure: Regan on her knees at the foot of her bed, arms stretched upward as a vision of Pazuzu suddenly appears in the background (a scrim doubling as her bedroom wall); it’s absolutely fantastic – so damn good.
The only element in The Exorcist that bothered us a bit was the decision to go with a full mask for Father Merrin rather than makeup/prosthetics. The soundtrack has Merrin shouting, “I CAST YOU OUT!” but the mask’s lips don’t move much, making it a bit awkward for everyone – guests, as well as the talent.
A lot of projection and lighting effects are employed in The Exorcist, and they work beautifully – I honestly hated that we had to keep moving through the maze, because I just wanted to stand in each room and take everything in. On the flip side, one of the main practical effects is the “spider walk” scene that has a nightgown-clad Regan coming down the stairs, contorted and terrifying. The effect works well enough, but is positioned so far away from the public (for obvious reasons) that it kind of loses its fright factor. Guests become the spectators rather than targets when elements such as this are so far away in a maze; it still looks really cool, though.
Much like Halloween, The Exorcist employs scent and a tremendous soundscape. Unlike Halloween, the scent is not a nice one – in fact, the smell of feces is so overwhelming when you first enter the maze that it’s difficult not to gag. Audio-wise, The Exorcist is stunning; the soundscape is so well-mixed and so complex that I found it to be very effective in creating great tension and dread, passing through the darkness as Regan’s demonic voice howls, “I am no one!” Indeed, very spooky stuff.
Even the facade is gorgeous for this maze, complete with the bright light radiating from Regan’s bedroom window to the foggy street below where a figure of Merrin stands next to a lamp post – the iconic vignette straight out of film history; Universal totally nailed it.
The Exorcist lives up to its hype and then some, in my book. This is my favorite maze of Halloween Horror Nights 2016, and I offer major kudos to John and Chris for finally making this happen – and to the folks who are working this maze for making it happen over and over again all night long; this is a MUST when visiting HHN this year.
Moving away from the Lower Lot, guests hike – and it’s definitely a hike – to the Metropolitan Sets on the Backlot of the studio. Here, the final three mazes of this year’s event are found.
Krampus is a pretty straight-forward “book report” maze, meaning it’s a linear interpretation of an intellectual property; in this case, it’s the wickedly wild throwback film by the same name, written and directed by Michael Dougherty. From the snow-covered facade of the Engel house to the kitchen over-run by demonic gingerbread men, Krampus is a twisted Christmas delight!
I think fans click with this maze simply because the theme of a really jacked-up Christmas environment works so well. In 2014 and 2015, one of the most popular scare zones (if not the most popular) was Dark Christmas; a horrifying holiday theme complete with warped carols, strings of colorful lights, evil elves, and yes – a towering Krampus figure menacing guests as they made their way through the fog. Since 2014, HHN fans have begged John Murdy for a Dark Christmas maze; the fact that Dougherty was making Krampus was just the spark that was needed to bring this type of maze to life and tie it in directly with a popular horror IP.
Krampus is a win-win for everyone involved; fans of Horror Nights got their Christmas wish, and Universal was able to partner with and use a popular film IP as a springboard for this attraction’s theme.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, the content of Krampus will likely be fairly confusing, considering the maze is a physical recreation of the film. My advice would be to set aside two hours and watch the movie if possible before you attend Halloween Horror Nights this year; this will give you a much better understanding on just what the hell is going on once you step across the threshold and into the snow-blown world of Krampus.
This maze is filled with all sorts of interesting scents, and a soundscape that is really fun – and spooky, too! Guests are going totally nuts for this particular experience; rightfully so! Krampus is yet another very strong part of the lineup; many fans are calling it their favorite Horror Nights maze of the year. Put this one very high on your must-see list, and be good – for goodness’ sake!
Next door to the Engel residence is a burned-out warehouse, Craven Industries. This foreboding structure is the facade to Freddy vs. Jason, a maze inspired by the 2003 film by the same name. As in the film, the maze pits horror icons Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) against one another in the ultimate showdown between, well… evil versus evil! Naturally, Halloween Horror Nights guests are caught smack in the middle of this battle that has Freddy and Jason attacking from all sides inside an old boiler factory.
The good news for fans who haven’t seen the film, is that Freddy vs. Jason works nicely as a stand-alone maze experience that doesn’t really rely on whether or not you’ve seen the movie; it just is what it is – two iconic horror figures going at it, having fun taking everyone else out in between.
Constant bombardment from all sides truly makes this maze a whole lot of scary and even more fun for horror fans, regardless of whether they’re “team Freddy” or “team Jason”. Freddy slashes from the darkness and taunts passersby, while Jason lunges and looms, threatening to destroy everything in his path. In the end, there is only one winner – which is also a very neat component to this maze.
Freddy vs. Jason features an alternating finale scene – some guests will find the gloved one as the winner, others will find Jason as the last man standing. The dual ending is something that was created in Orlando for their Freddy vs. Jason maze in 2015 and has been duplicated here on the West Coast. The alternating ending keeps guests guessing as to who they’ll get as the victor when they reach the end of the experience, which is a clever touch. In the end, I honestly don’t think we actually care who appears to win – because everyone knows you can’t keep Freddy or Jason down for very long!
If you’re concerned that you won’t get to see enough of your favorite horror icon, don’t worry. Freddy vs. Jason hits guests with a continuous stream of each character that becomes more intense as you progress further through the maze. By the end, it’s a flurry of bladed gloves and hockey masks everywhere you turn!
The final maze on the Backlot is American Horror Story. One of the largest mazes in Halloween Horror Nights history, AHS is something that fans have wanted for years here in Hollywood – and now, we have it!
Based on the highly-successful franchise, American Horror Story combines three of the show’s seasons into one terrifying walk-through experience; the selected themes are Murder House (Season 1), Freak Show (Season 4), and Hotel (Season 5). Since each theme is very different, there is no easy way to transition from one story to the next, so Murdy created portals that act as a definitive end and beginning points between each section of the maze. The transitions actually work very well, and they compliment the design of the maze nicely.
Murder House takes guests deep within the infamous mansion in Los Angeles, through the burned-out children’s bedroom and into the bathroom where they encounter Piggy Piggy – and a few other nasty surprises lying in wait. Truth be told, I have yet to see Season 1 of American Horror Story – so as a guest, I am at a loss for the first 1/3 of the experience. Others have told me they’re in the same boat – this is definitely a maze that works much better for fans familiar with the various AHS seasons and specific characters.
From the darkened halls of Murder House, we move into Freak Show, and into the backwater domain of Twisty the clown in Jupiter, Florida. In my opinion, the most impressive visual of Halloween Horror Nights 2016 can be found here – the looming devil’s face facade, its mouth agape, prominent throughout Season 4. Alongside the very impressive facade are multiple Freak Show posters/banners from the show as well; printed from the production files, so they are 100% legit. Guests encounter many of Freak Show’s more infamous characters and are treated to a special Halloween magic show under the big top!
The third and final portion of American Horror Story checks guests into the Hotel Cortez in Hollywood from Season 5. Here, they arrive on Halloween – also known as Devil’s Night – a common thread connecting all three sections of this maze experience. Hotel has been my favorite season of AHS of what I’ve seen, so this portion of the maze is by far, my favorite, although I love it all.
Side note: At the opening of HHN 2016, we attended the red carpet celebrity arrivals as we normally do each year. This year, Universal had several stars from American Horror Story attend. Getting to meet and praise Denis O’Hare for his stunning performance as Liz Taylor in Season 5 – Hotel was absolutely a highlight moment of the entire season for us; hell, of the entire year! Mr. O’Hare is as kind and approachable as you could hope for, leaving us giddy for the duration of the night!
In all, American Horror Story is a stunning maze. The art direction, set design and soundscape are all top-notch, leaving guests with much to look at, experience, and admire. As stated, those familiar with the show – those who have been emotionally invested in these particular seasons and characters – will come away more fulfilled. The maze stands on its own however, and is frightening, gorgeous, and really large in footprint size. Likely a combination of physical location on the Backlot and the immense popularity of the show combine, creating massive wait times for this maze. We recommend that you hit American Horror Story early in the evening, as even the Front of Line queue can get fairly crowded at peak times.
Speaking of crowds, we do need to address the issue of how insanely busy Halloween Horror Nights gets at Universal Studios Hollywood. This year is a banner year for them, with a powerhouse lineup of attractions unlike we’ve ever seen before. In turn, the fans are coming out in droves to check it out – and the ramifications are evident. Monstrous queues packed with thousands of guests, wall-to-wall crowds moving in herds along the park’s walkways, and major backups for Terror Tram guests throughout the Backlot experience. If ever you have considered investing in a Front of Line pass, this is the year to do it. Yes, it’s expensive. However, unless you plan on attacking HHN like a Tough Mudder course, you will find the crowds at Universal daunting, to say the least. It is not uncommon for most mazes to sport more than two-hour wait times; you do the math, and figure out how long it’ll take you to see all of the mazes and attractions. The only way we recommend doing Halloween Horror Nights here in Hollywood is either Front of Line or with the Frequent Fear Pass (season pass for HHN), if you were quick enough to purchase one before the very limited quantity was sold out.
The overall capacity of Universal Studios Hollywood isn’t great when compared to other theme parks in the region that host Halloween events. However, it’s an operational decision regarding how many tickets are sold each night; Murdy and the creative team behind the event have no say in that aspect of it, so it’s not fair to challenge them or even point that loaded discussion in their direction. Halloween Horror Nights here in Hollywood is too crowded; for those braving the queues without Front of Line passes or casual guests wanting to see what all the hype is about – it’s become a mess, logistically. Sadly, as with any theme park experiencing a huge spike in ticket sales – the guy or gal making the decisions likely never has had to endure such crowds or wait times; they simply see the bottom line and deem it all a huge success.
Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood is a huge success – we just wish that ops would throttle down on the ticket sales/maximum capacity and give common guests a fighting chance to enjoy everything as much as the hardest of the hard core fans do.
The only thing we opted not to see this year at HHN were the Jabbawockeez. We saw them last year, and while we’re not their target demographic, the show itself was entertaining and really well done. Our issue was that not much of it was Halloween or horror-related. For 2016, we figured that would be the case as well, although we have heard from some folks that it may be a bit more relative to the season this time around, which is great if true. With time not on our side (covering red carpet arrivals at HHN chews up a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the night), we opted to bypass the show. In addition to being short on time to see the mazes, scare zones and Terror Tram, the idea of sitting on the benches inside the theater where the Jabbawockeez perform (Special Effects Show) wasn’t terribly appealing to us anyway; the benches make for very cramped quarters and are not very comfortable for any more than a few minutes at a time. If you are a big fan of the Jabbawockeez, we do recommend checking the show out – it’s the only live entertainment (as in show) at Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood, and was very well-received in 2015. If you’re on the fence, we suggest investing your time in the mazes and experiences throughout the park – the true “meat” of HHN.
What a tremendous year! John, Chris, and the entire team behind Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood should be beyond stoked by their accomplishment this year. At the same time, the team has a big problem – how in the hell they’re going to top this, I simply don’t know. And I’m glad that problem isn’t mine to solve next year!
We cannot praise this year’s HHN lineup enough – I’ll be wearing my “Titans of Terror” T-shirt, and will be able to say with great enthusiasm for years to come that I was indeed there, when the greatest Horror Nights of all time was unleashed at Universal Studios Hollywood!
- Rick West