The Great Halloween LA Tour: Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights

NOTE: I don’t have pictures from this because I was so thoroughly exhausted by the end that I just didn’t have the energy to go around the park again with my camera. Sorry. Other posts will have more pictures.

In the great pantheon of the Halloween attractions in the Southland, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights one of the cornerstones. Universal Studios, a theme park that tends to only get very moderate attendance, transforms itself at the end of September into a horror-laden bacchanalia. Every weekend, after the sun goes down, the park opens its doors to the horror junkies of LA with several haunted mazes, a number of “Scare Zones,” and their famous studio tour altered into a descent into the terrifying.

Or that’s what they would have you think. In all honesty, this is not my favorite of the haunted attractions in LA. It does have the distinction of being one of the first to open – typically one week before most of the usual attractions traditionally open, and for having a very decent bang for your buck. I’m probably going to get pretty down on the attraction in this review, so I’ll let you know up front that I still find it overall to be an enjoyable experience. It may not be the best crafted experience in all of LA, but it does have excellent value for your admission price, and I always end up walking away fairly fulfilled. With that in mind, on with the specifics of this review.

As you enter the park, you are greeted by loud industrial music and two go-go dancers dressed up like they’re welcoming you to some horror-themed fetish ball. As you go past them and into the park itself, you walk through a few different areas known as “Scare Zones.” To the uninitiated, Scare Zones are parts of the park that are fully decorated with specific themes and have actors wandering around with only one goal in mind: to jolt a scream out of you. I’ll go into my thoughts on the Scare Zones before we venture into the mazes. Halloween Horror Nights has four Scare Zones, but I only passed through three of them. The fourth one, “Witches,” I couldn’t find for the life of me. Or, if I did pass through it, it didn’t really make itself very well known. So, let’s look at the Scare Zones that I did see.

Klownz – Yes, when it comes to things that scare people, clowns tend to rank pretty high on that list. The first Scare Zone in the park is also the most lavish one, and it’s all about the clowns. Loud, crazed carnival music blasts all around you while a creepy clown stands on a stage, harassing the passersby. Behind him is a large display made of cargo containers. On top of the containers are large flame shooters that emit huge gouts of fire in time with the music. All around them are clowns on stilts, clowns with bats, clowns with chainsaws, clowns clowns CLOWNS! This is the one that tends to get people screaming and running more than any other Scare Zone, even though I personally don’t find clowns all that scary or threatening. This area, however, did give me my one big flinch of the night when a clown took a swing at my head with a bat, stopping just inches from my face. I fully admit that I’m not one who scares easily, so it really does take something as extreme as swinging a bat directly at my face to get a reaction out of me. But I can’t help but feel that this crossed some kind of line, and I was less impressed by the scare than I was upset at the action itself.

Toyz – Ugh, can somebody please tell the marketing people around here that replacing the “s” in a plural with a “z” does not make it hip or cool? It certainly doesn’t make it scary. This Scare Zone has always befuddled me. It never really seemed to have any real theme to it. Yes, you have a demonic doll running around, and there’s some deformed ballerina, but there are also zombies and skeletons. It doesn’t have as much of a toy theme as it does some strange, pseudo-Victorian horror motif that seems more forced on it due to the surrounding permanent structures.

Silent Hill – This barely qualifies as a Scare Zone, as it takes up just a very small area in front of the entrance to the Welcome To Silent Hill maze (more on that disappointment later). All I saw that even identified it as the Silent Hill Scare Zone was a guy on stilts dressed as Pyramid Head.

Now on to the mazes. I got a front-of-line pass this year, which is really the only way you can possibly squeeze all of the mazes into one night. Even being able to bypass the maze lines, which can create waits that push nearly two hours, it still took me almost four hours to get through the entire park. If you really want to see as much of this in one go as you can, the front-of-line pass is highly recommended. Without it, you may only be able to get through three or four of the seven mazes in the park. The general front-of-line pass goes for $70-$80 depending on which night you go, and only allows you to cut to the front of the line once for each attraction. I personally had no desire to go through anything a second time, so it was well worth it for me.

Before I go into each specific maze, there are a few general things I’d like to say about them. Overall, each maze has very high production values, and it is clear that a lot of work has gone into the theatricality of it. This is all for the good, and each maze has at least a few set pieces that are quite fascinating to see. Having said that, the layout and structure of the mazes are all very cookie-cutter in style. They are full of tight corners, blocked doorways, and are all peppered with several large set piece rooms. The mazes overall don’t set a very unique atmosphere or incorporate their themes far beyond the basic decorations and makeup and costuming of the characters. Each maze also has a number of areas where actors don’t just jump out at you. They jump out while accompanied with a sudden thunder crash and strobe light, resulting in a sensory assault that is designed to make you jump. It’s very over the top, and becomes repetitive and boring quickly. My biggest criticism of the mazes is something that I’ve only encountered at Universal. They add a smell element to their mazes, which is fine in theory. But given the theme of these mazes, the smells you encounter tend to be of the “dead, rotting flesh” variety, which is quite revolting. It’s present in almost every maze, and it was hard for me to get the smell out of my nose for a day or two afterward. This is just a disgusting addition to the maze that makes it far less appealing to be around. So, let’s talk about the mazes themselves.

Universal Monsters Remix – Several years ago, Universal attempted to build a permanent haunted maze as a tie-in to the movie Van Helsing. Eventually, they discontinued the maze, but the structure continues to stand. So, every year, they try to dress it up and shoehorn some other theme into it for Halloween Horror Nights. Most years, it doesn’t work well, but I had high hopes that this year they might have gotten something they can work with. The building is a re-creation of Castle Dracula, but it’s the Van Helsing version, so there are many other monster tropes inside. It would seem that a Universal Monsters theme would be the perfect fit. Sadly, this maze continues to disappoint. Now, since this is a permanent building, the decorations and set pieces are much more elaborate than what you’ll find in other mazes. It has one hall of mirrors that is very effective at disorienting you, a spinning tunnel, and a huge two-story replica of Frankenstein’s lab. Why is this so disappointing? For one, the only classic Universal monster that seems to be on display here is the Wolfman, and for another, the Frankenstein’s lab room has been transformed into some bizarre monster rave. Since there are very few scares in this, and the ones it does have tend to fall flat or telegraph themselves to even the most uninitiated of maze-goer, it’s a nice casual stroll through some pretty halls surrounded by a head-scratcher of a theme.

La Llorona: The Child Hunter – This is probably my favorite of all of the mazes because it’s the only one that actually attempts to tell a story. How well it does this is open to debate, but I give it credit for at least trying. It also has some of the better and more effective production values of all of the mazes. It began two years ago as a Scare Zone, and then quickly transformed into a full-blown maze that tells the story of a woman who drowned her children and then hung herself out of guilt. She now wanders the world as a creepier version of the bogeyman – looking for wicked children’s souls to steal. The maze takes you through a journey of the legend that actually builds to a point where you finally see La Llorona in her true form: a demonic creature violently pulling children from their beds. The final effect is actually very well done, and the last room features a gigantic La Llorona reaching out toward you. I have to say I really enjoyed this one.

The Walking Dead: Dead Inside – This is one of two ‘Walking Dead’ tie-ins this year, and as a maze, it’s pretty decent. It takes you through some of the more memorable incidents and re-creates some of the more memorable Walkers of the last two seasons. Probably one of the best effects in this is a zombie hanging from a tree with its legs eaten off. It doesn’t do much to tell a story or create any sort of atmosphere other than “Walkers are all around you, but only a few will actually show up.” It was in this maze that I began to notice one major drawback to all of the mazes. The corridors are so narrow that if somebody up ahead has a momentary freak-out, the entire flow of traffic comes to a screeching halt. At one point, I was stuck by a door that clearly had an actor behind it, pretending to be a Walker trying to break its way in. The poor guy jumped out at us twice, not realizing that the crowd hadn’t moved. Overall, it was an okay maze. It just wasn’t anything too memorable.

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3D – I don’t know about anybody else, but the first time I heard 3D used as a selling point for a haunted maze, I thought it was pretty redundant. Aren’t all of the mazes essentially 3D already? But after being handed 3D glasses and entering the maze, I have to say I was pretty impressed with the effects and how they were used. Using special colors and black lights, images and writing on the walls will either jump out and hover in mid-air or sink back into the walls. It’s a very bizarre and otherworldly effect. In this maze, it’s used very well. The whole concept of the maze, on the other hand? Not so much. The entire thing is essentially Dante’s Inferno as retold by Alice Cooper. Each room represents a different circle, and the whole thing is depicted as – big surprise – a heavy metal carnival. This is one of the more tired and overused goth/metal cliches out there. Hell is an eternity of torment and agony, but add a little Alice Cooper to it, and it’s fun for all! The production values were nice. The 3D was well done. But, the maze itself was just unoriginal and uninspired.

Welcome to Silent Hill – I’ll be honest. I had high hopes for this one. Silent Hill is one of those games/movies that has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere that practically screams “Make a maze out of me!” I’m sad to say that what was ultimately done with this was a major disappointment. There was nothing coherent about it, and only those who had played the games or seen the movie would have understood what was happening. There was one room that they got just right, however. It’s a representation of a street from the town of Silent Hill, and it’s done up appropriately in mostly grey and brown tones. The big kicker with this room was that it was so full of fog that you could barely see more than a few feet in front of you. It was the one part of the maze that was really reminiscent of the game. The rest of it, however, was just a mish-mash of random appearances of Pyramid Head and those creepy faceless nurses. The actresses playing them did a solid attempt at their herky-jerky walk, but they mostly ended up just looking spastic. This was a real missed opportunity for a truly creepy maze. They went for the cheap scares instead.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Saw is the Law – This was easily the most forgettable of all of the mazes, but that was mostly due to the fact that I was rushing to get out of it. Oh, I wasn’t scared by it. I was overwhelmed by the utterly repugnant odors that they pumped into it. While most of the mazes tended to have just the occasional whiff of dead flesh, this one added in the stomach-churning odor of tanned hides, creating something that smelled like the world’s worst barbecue. And it was in EVERY FREAKING ROOM! I honestly couldn’t tell you much of what was going on there, because I was just clamoring to get out of it before the stench got the better of me and I left an ugly surprise on the floor. While most of the mazes were at least somewhat enjoyable even on a superficial level, this was just wretched and not worth anybody’s time.

Terror Tram: Invaded By The Walking Dead – This was the second tie-in to ‘The Walking Dead,’ and it was as blatant a commercial for Season 3 as you can get. This is where they transform part of the studio tour into a haunted hike through some of their permanently standing backlot areas. The tram ride begins with a video saying that the infection has spread to Los Angeles. This would have been better played if it was done as an emergency message, and you were part of a group being evacuated. In fact, I think that’s what they were going for. Instead, the video comes off more like a diary entry saying that it’s already too late. When you get off the tram, you’re told that the backlot has been infested with Walkers and that a number of security staff have also gone insane and are killing anything that moves. You then have to walk by Whoville from The Grinch, the Bates Motel, and the plane crash scene from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds all done up like a zombie apocalypse. It was all fine, and the zombie theme worked very well with the plane crash, but it was all very uninspired. The crazed security guards are all armed with chainless chainsaws, making them gas-powered noisemakers. That’s the one thing I never liked about the Terror Tram. There are so many people with chainsaws that the air just reeks of gasoline. After you’re done with the hike, you get back on the tram where they take you back to the park while playing – no joke – an actual trailer for Season 3 of The Walking Dead. It really did feel like just an elaborate commercial through and through.

So those are my thoughts on this Halloween event. It’s definitely far from being my favorite, but I do feel I get my money’s worth when I go. If you’re a fan of excessive gore, then this is definitely one to check out. If you want something that’s more atmospheric, there are many other attractions out there that do a far better job, and I’ll be posting up my exploits at those as the month continues.

The one major upside to this event was that I finally had the chance to check out Transformers: The Ride 3D. Now, I’m certainly not a fan of movies. I never have been, and I never will be. But you know what? This ride was exceptionally well done and whole lot of fun. If you go to Halloween Horror Nights, this is good way to break up the onslaught of screams and gore.

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Post Author: Josh Rubinstein

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