Halloween has always been the most fun time of the year growing up. Dressing up and getting free candy was the only thing you would get excited about well until you were in high school, and then Halloween became all about which parties you would go to, and what costume would everyone get a kick out of. For guys like me who were never the party-going kind, the only thing I got excited about in October (after I outgrew door-to-door hi-jinx) was Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. Sure, there’s Knott’s Scary Farm to look forward to as well, but Halloween Horror Nights isn’t just a place to go to get your cheap scares in. To me, it is a celebration of the horror genre; an opportunity to walk through the movies I grew up terrified of, and then later, developed an appreciation for. Each year, Universal Studios uses the resources of a major movie studio to give us the production value you come to appreciate as an adult going out on Halloween, using movies and TV shows we are all familiar with to theme their walk-through mazes.
This year, HHN’s line-up consists of mazes themed after “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Krampus,” “John Carpenter’s Halloween,” “Freddy vs. Jason,” “American Horror Story,” and “The Exorcist.” The Terror Tram (an attraction where several Backlot Tour movie sets have been set up to allow guests to walk through as scare zones) has been designed with a “clowns” theme by Eli Roth himself, while The Walking Dead year-round walk-through attraction is open as well.
Every year, Halloween Horror Nights grows more and more in popularity, and while that gives the park a reason to invest heavily into the event, it also makes it increasingly difficult to navigate every maze the event has to offer in a single night. While I have been able to hit every maze in previous years, this year’s opening night crowd made it so I had to choose which attractions I would have to axe on the night. Those attractions would end up being The Walking Dead (it’s there all year round, I’ll get to it eventually), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (it’s really the same maze every year), and Eli Roth’s Clowns on the Terror Tram (as much as I would have loved to see Roth’s vision, Clowns seemed like too generic of a theme). My review will cover Krampus, Freddy vs. Jason, American Horror Story, The Exorcist, and John Carpenter’s Halloween mazes.
The front set-up for “Krampus” was by far the most colorful and eye-popping, featuring the exterior of a house dressed up in Christmas lights and decorations. However, this maze ended up being just that- all flash, no substance. Whether you saw the movie or not (I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of you haven’t), the real issue here is that it’s really hard to set up legitimate scares in a maze based off of a horror-comedy, especially one that wasn’t very well-received from audiences. It doesn’t help that most of us didn’t find the actual character of Krampus all that scary, taking it more as a jokey version of Santa Claus than someone who strikes fear into your heart (seriously, it’s a Christmas theme). The tone was very light and fun, which would have been a good warm-up maze for the night, but with the kind of crowd you have to contend with the whole night, your line-time is best spent elsewhere.
Freddy vs. Jason
For those of you who haven’t seen 2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason,” it might be one of the most underappreciated slasher movies in recent memory. The film was able to deliver genuine scare moments, while also staying very faithful to each franchise’s tone and canon. The maze reflected the same sentiment- it delivered great scares, while also giving you the qualities of both franchises and their respective maniacs. Both slashers are famous for perfecting the jump-scare, which, while it may tend to get old with hardcore horror fans, is exactly what you want when you enter a Halloween maze. The set design particularly stood out, as it flawlessly blended the settings of Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake, recreating great movie moments from each that allowed us not only to fear both characters, but to also have fun with the nostalgia. This maze is on the lower lot and is the furthest from the main entrance, but is easily the dark horse attraction of the night.
American Horror Story
Due to the timing of when we got in line (around the middle of the night), this was the longest line we waited in, which I assume would be the case with any of the mazes you line up in between 8pm and midnight. There is a large screen playing some of the best clips of “American Horror Story” for you to enjoy while you wait, however this, and the show’s theme music got a bit tiring as the line gets around the 2-hour mark. Points for the effort.
The maze is based off AHS seasons “Murder House,” “Freak Show,” and “Hotel,” a selection I thought made the most sense, as those would provide the best ambience for a walk-through attraction. The maze really shines when it incorporates the recreation of the sets and characters you remember from those seasons. But the real scares come during the “Freak Show” section, as Twisty the Clown is easily the most frightening-looking clown in horror since Pennywise from “It.” Fans of the show will definitely appreciate the art direction and costumes, but it seemed like the creators cared more about giving the fans a chance to walk through their favorite show moments, instead of blending more legitimate scares into them. You shouldn’t regret walking through the maze itself, as long as long lines don’t sway your judgement.
As I’ve stated above, I’ve been attending HHN for a long time. Every year, I have fun mostly from just getting to walk through my favorite horror scenes, and more so when a jump scare actually surprises me, but overall, I usually never let the mazes get to me. So when I say that coming face to face several times with the demon-possessed Reagan truly terrified me, to the point where my back was hugging the turns around every corner, you know this maze is the real deal. Most of us know demon-Reagan as one of the first horror monsters that legitimately scared us growing up (and for most, even still as adults), and we react to her the way we would any phobia- DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH OR COME ANYWHERE NEAR ME! What makes this maze so effective are the moments where the performers dressed as Reagan never give you a chance to relax; daring you to pass by them as they reach out for you, preying on that phobia. The layout of the maze is definitely redundant, but so by design, as it takes you through a time lapse of the famous bedroom scene where Father Merrin and Father Karras attempt to exorcise the demon from Reagan. Towards the end, my friends and I, who are usually hootin’ and hollerin’ inside the mazes, ended up running out at the end, in an attempt to avoid the very last scare. If “The Exorcist” affected you in any way as a movie watcher, this maze will take full advantage.
Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” has always been a personal favorite of mine, so I tend to hold this maze to higher standards whenever they bring it back. The best change to this attraction this year is the incorporation of the sets of both the Strode home from “Halloween,” and also the Haddonfield Hospital, where Michael Myers continued his pursuit of Laurie Strode in “Halloween 2.” Not only did they recreate great scenes and the ambience from both movies, there were great jump scares in most of the rooms. But as I said, I tend to hold the Halloween mazes to higher standards, and the biggest issue for me were the performers’ portrayals of my beloved Michael Myers. What made Michael so frightening, alongside the infamous Captain Kirk mask, was Nick Castle’s physical performance of Michael in the first “Halloween.” Michael Myers never moved quickly; he was always so eerily slow and methodical. But no matter what, he would eventually get to you. The maze performers moved too quickly and wildly, which did break my suspension of disbelief that I was being pursued by Michael himself. It didn’t ruin the maze for me though, because ultimately, it did it’s job and delivered enough good scares in the setting of John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece.