When I turned the corner and saw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, I knew I was in for a good night.
Beginning today, Friday the 13th, Halloween Horror Nights is open at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. (It’s also open at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.) This is the annual event where the theme park is transformed at night into a huge collection of gross-out, jump-scare mazes as people with chainsaws chase you around. You know, a fun night out this time of year.
This year, Horror Nights in Hollywood is comprised of 10 mazes, a mix of general scary themes as well as major pop culture properties. The latter are my favorite—I love seeing how the team behind the event takes movies or shows like Ghostbusters, Us, Stranger Things, House of 1000 Corpses, and more and makes them into a cohesive, scary narrative. So that’s what I focused on, with the help of an Express pass thanks to the team at Universal.
The highlights of the night, in terms of pop culture mazes, were Ghostbusters and Us. Ghostbusters, while having “ghosts” in it, is way more of a comedy than a horror movie, and that extends to the maze too. It’s not “scary” exactly, though it tries, with plenty of Slimers and Gozers jumping out at every turn. But what makes the maze so much fun is the recreation of the movie itself. You walk in and an actor is playing the receptionist, Janine. Throughout, you run into actors dressed as the four main Ghostbusters. Dana Barrett is stuck to a chair with creepy hands all over her. Seeing these characters, played by live actors, gives the whole maze a pop.
Then there are those monsters. Slimer is everywhere, including a bit where he flies down a hallway and you hear a voice say “He slimed me!” at the end. And, of course, before you leave you see the Ghostbusters taking aim at a massive Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s a beautiful sight, which again takes away from the scares a bit, but that’s okay because it just feels so damn good to see it.
The Us maze, based on this year’s Jordan Peele hit, similarly takes guests through the story of the movie, but in a much more frightening way. From the boardwalk funhouse, to a few vacation houses, back to the boardwalk, and down into its depths, you feel like you are in Us. All along, the score and songs from Peele’s film play, as actors dressed as the Tethered lurk in every room and corner. Some of them aren’t even hiding. They’re just there. Standing. Staring. Seeing an actor playing Red, standing absolutely still with a pair of scissors, is truly upsetting, but maybe not as much as seeing a man trying to break down a door from the outside as you walk through the house.
Us is a scary, excellent experience because it feels real. You feel like you’re in the movie, yes, but it’s also a realistic, recognizable world. This one just so happens to have dead bodies you have to step over on the ground.
Besides those two mazes, the other very popular experience when we went was Stranger Things. Because, of course. It’s Stranger Things. However, unlike Ghostbusters and Us, Stranger Things was a huge letdown. The maze focuses mostly on the second season, so you get a lot of imagery of tunnels and Demogorgon dogs and stuff like that. There’s even some Will and the Mind Flayer in there. But the maze is lacking the wow factor of Ghostbusters and Us. You may even think that’s coming when the maze transitions into Stranger Things 3 at the end but that section is only a few small rooms, and there’s no shopping mall or pool or anything. You walk out of the maze disappointed and even a little wet...because there’s a room where you get water shot at you.
Thankfully, that’s far from the end when it comes to pop culture mazes at Horror Nights. Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses maze is very disturbing, even if you don’t know the movie. Killer Klowns From Outer Space does a solid job of blending funny and creepy with truly beautiful recreations of those recognizable clowns. And then there’s also Creepshow, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and a slew of non-pop culture scary stuff too.
When it comes to a fun, themed, scary night out for the Halloween season, Horror Nights is almost always a good time. I just keep finding that, as I get older, the truly awkward layout of Universal Studios Hollywood takes away from the experience. The four huge escalators breaking up the top and lower levels are not themed and completely ruin the mood. The maybe quarter-mile walk between the lower level and the backlot (where three-plus mazes are kept) is themed, which keeps things scary, but it’s just so, so far. By the time you get to the backlot, you’ve walked so far, standing in line even for 10 minutes (let alone 100) is a chore.
And yet, no matter how tired you are, once you go through those curtains and enter any of the mazes, the craftsmanship is so good and actors so invested, it’s hard not to have a good time.
Horror Nights is open now through early November. Visit this site for tickets and details.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.