Last week, I was invited to attend the opening night of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, which this year boasts a total of six movie and TV-themed mazes: The Exorcist, American Horror Story, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Freddy vs. Jason, Halloween and Krampus, in addition to a “Terror Tram” attraction “presented” by Eli Roth. It was a free ticket! Of course I went.
Truth be told, I sort of loathe theme parks. Or at least, I loathe the interminable lines that you're forced to stand in when you visit one. I'm also not particularly fond of the kind of monstrous, stomach-destroying roller coasters that have seemingly become more and more life-threatening with each passing year. Once, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, I foolishly rode X2, described on the park's official website as “a trail-blazing fifth dimension roller coaster.” I can't be certain of this, but somewhere between the first 200-foot high backwards drop and the ride's merciful end, I'm pretty sure I witnessed flames shooting directly at my face. Also, I lost my cell phone. Not a good time!
Luckily, Universal Studios Hollywood has nothing approaching the death-defying likes of X2, though their Mummy attraction does provide a certain Space Mountain-style jolt, while Jurassic Park: The Ride ends with a sheer 85-foot drop into a “tropical lagoon.” For a scaredy-cat like me, even that relatively minor plunge tests the limits of what I can handle.
Of course, I wasn't there for the coasters but rather the park's seasonal assortment of Halloween mazes, which feature the kind of feet-on-the-ground thrills that I find preferable to the gravity-defying loops, corkscrews and sheer drops into oblivion you experience on the former. Did I feel a little too old to be subjecting myself to a maze dedicated to one of the dumbest wide-release horror movies of the noughties? Sure! But every time I started feeling a little ancient as I waded through throngs of teenagers and early twentysomethings wearing Slipknot tees, I took pains to remind myself that I was a serious journalist doing my job.
I entered Universal Studios through “Krustyland,” the section of the park that's made up to look like you've magically entered the jaundiced town of Springfield, and, after indulging in a gigantic slice of Meat Hater's pie and cheesy bread with marinara sauce at Luigi's Pizza, I made my way to the mazes. After safely passing through a gauntlet of clown-faced, machete-wielding performers made up to look like extras from the Purge franchise who literally get paid to intimidate you, we were ushered into the “A” line of the Exorcist maze and minutes later entered its dark confines. Below, you can find a quick description of that maze and the six other attractions I experienced last Friday evening.
I entered to find myself in the foyer of the MacNeil residence, complete with an animatronic Regan descending the stairs in her famous upside-down “spider walk.” After entering the maze's dark inner depths, I encountered numerous re-creations of Regan's bedroom, each featuring a different iconic moment from that setting including the infamous 360-degree head spin. This was all very well done. I screamed and jumped and occasionally even cowered as performers both live and animatronic leapt out at me from behind doors and secret panels, often accompanied by flashing lights and loud sound effects. This was terrifying! I wanted out. It went on for a long time.
I felt a little more prepared when I entered the Krampus maze, based on Michael Dougherty's surprise-hit Christmas-themed horror film from last December. In addition to fun recreations of the kitchen scene featuring murderous gingerbread men and the attic sequence featuring the demonic, literally man-hungry jack in the box (the film's best monster, for my money), at one point a live performer stalks you from above as you make your way through curtained corridors. This part was fun because for the first time in my life, I got to feel like Newt dodging the Alien Queen on the Sulaco.
Freddy vs. Jason
If you like Freddy or Jason, and especially if you like Freddy and Jason together, you will no doubt get a kick out of the Freddy vs. Jason maze, which thankfully ignores Kelly Rowland's unfortunate use of the word “faggot” from the 2003 film and instead focuses on iconic moments from the larger franchise, my favorite of which involved a live female performer made up to look like Patricia Arquette from Dream Warriors re-enacting that film's famous “Snake Freddy” moment. Unfortunately, much like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises themselves, there were so many Freddys and Jasons running around that the scare factor here actually wore off pretty quickly.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Parents: do not bring your children to Halloween Horror Nights, and especially don't bring them to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze, which — true to the franchise's grisly origins — is by far the most gruesome of the bunch. I am saying this for a reason, because the group directly in front of me had a young boy with them who could not have been older than eight. Gee, I hope he enjoyed and was not at all warped by the sight of a man serving up human-flavored “pork chops,” or the stitched-together sculpture of human bodies, or the performers dressed as Leatherface running out of dark corners with chainsaws! I'm sure he's fine.
American Horror Story
I admittedly have not been the closest watcher of American Horror Story during its now six-season run, but I did note references from the majority of the seasons thus far, including “Murder House” (at least one Rubber Man was spotted), “Hotel” (alas, the Countess was not portrayed by Lady Gaga), “Asylum,” and “Freak Show.” It was certainly a lot of fun to walk through this one, though it will doubtless prove more enjoyable for one of the series' die-hard fans.
Largely for nostalgic reasons, my favorite horror film of all time is John Carpenter's Halloween, and one of the coolest things in the maze dedicated to that long-running franchise was the commitment to recreating scenes from the first couple of films. Witness Laurie Strode cower as Dr. Loomis shoots Michael Myers over the balcony! Watch helplessly as Nurse Alves' blood drains out on the hospital floor! Hell, there's even a Season of the Witch reference for fans of that standalone entry, whoever you are (I can't relate).
A Halloween-themed version of the theme park's famed Studio Tour, the Eli Roth-presented “Terror Tram” takes riders through the studio's backlot as a guide relates the story of “Hollywood Harry,” a former celebrity clown driven to murderous insanity after he and his terrifying ilk fell out of fashion as children's entertainment. It felt pretty nice to kick back on the tram after enduring, by that point, a number of the Halloween mazes…until, alas, they asked us to get off and walk. (I felt extremely old here.)
Once I reluctantly got off the tram, I found myself in a “hellish” landscape populated by dozens of creatively-styled “scary clowns,” from “Hollywood Harry” himself (holding a bunch of black balloons) to a literal pig-headed monstrosity that at one point snorted all up in my grill like he knew me or something. I wanted to like this one so much more than I did, but there's something decidedly less scary about facing these horror movie scenarios out in the open (in full view of the park's brightly-lit, multi-tiered escalators) as opposed to within one of the cramped, shadowy mazes inside the park. If you feel inclined to skip one of the Halloween-themed attractions this year, I'd make it this one.
So there you have it! I survived Halloween Horror Nights with all my parts intact, and I hope you do too, should you choose to visit. And for the love of god, leave the kids at home. The attraction runs through November 5, and you can buy your tickets here.