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The cost for Halloween Horror Nights? Your soul
Original content slays at Universal Orlando’s annual event
When Universal Orlando hypes this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, its focus is on the brand-name intellectual properties that inspire some of its haunted houses, including “Stranger Things,” “The Last of Us,” and “The Exorcist.” That’s to be expected, given that the popular IPs generate buzz, the theme park paid big bucks to license the titles, and the well-known properties help set Universal apart from its competitors. What also sets HHN apart and makes it arguably the biggest and best theme park Halloween event is its incredible creative team and the big-bucks budget at its disposal. The horrormeisters have lavished their warped sensibility and largesse on all ten of this year’s haunted houses, including the five homegrown ones.
“Here at Universal Orlando, what we love the most is creating the terrifying original content stories,” says Lora Sauls, who helps lead the charge for the event.
That passion shows. For my blood money, it’s often the non-brand-name houses that steal the spotlight. So it is at the 32nd presentation of the fall classic, which kicked off this past Friday and continues on select evenings through November 4.
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Among the best of the houses, which send a steady stream of guests through a maze of darkened corridors filled with lunging monsters, jump scares, blood-curdling (literally and figuratively) special effects, and other things that go bump in the night, is The Darkest Deal. It tells the time-honored story of selling one’s soul for fame and fortune. In this case it is Pinestraw Spruce, a struggling blues musician in the Mississippi Delta striking a grand bargain with The Collector, who is apparently an emissary of the devil.
The evocative set design, which includes beguiling concert venues and a blues-infused soundtrack, is enticing. After The Collector holds up his end of the deal and gives Pinestraw his moment on the big stage, we see him move in for the kill. That’s followed by a hellscape of soul-sucked, Collector-ravaged musicians.
Guests generally go into the original houses without any knowledge of the storyline. Perhaps it is the need to immediately set the tone and convey the tale as concisely and forcefully as possible in the four minutes or so that it takes guests to walk through the houses that drives the HHN team to do some of its best work. Or maybe it is the totally blank canvas and the freedom to indulge their creativity that inspires them. Whatever the case, it is houses like The Darkest Deal that send shivers down my spine–both because of the scares and because I’m moved by the art form.
Likewise, I was blown away by Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate. Talk about original content. The house takes its inspiration from the gone-but-not-forgotten Dueling Dragons roller coaster in The Lost Continent at the theme park resort’s Islands of Adventure. Fans adored the suspended, twin-track ride as much for its highly themed, nearly half-mile-long queue as its thrills. The HHN house retells the Arthurian legend of Merlin and the Fire and Ice warlocks that the magician turned into fire-breathing dragons.
With its gothic, skeleton-filled catacombs, the house replicates the creepy look and feel of the queue in glorious detail, but inserts wildly inventive Fire and Ice creatures that lurk in the shadows. In addition to being wowed by the set design, I found Dueling Dragons to be the scariest of HHN’s ten houses.
In what I believe is a first for the event, there are alternate endings for the house. Just like the coaster, where guests had to “choose thy fate” by splitting off and heading to either the blue Ice or red Fire train, HHNers have to pick either the blue or the red path near the end of the house. (I went with Fire and was rewarded on my hero’s journey by a benevolent Merlin who congratulated me for triumphing over adversity.)
Dr. Oddfellow: Twisted Origins also ranks high on the HHN-ometer. It gives the recurring HHN character a starring role in his own house and reveals how the impressario became the dreaded doctor of death. Set in a circus during the Dust Bowl 1930s, the designers have done a masterful job establishing the time and place through the judicious use of rusty, vintage signs, decrepit circus tents, and other iconography.
There are bizarre contortionists, sad clowns, and other nightmare-inducing scenes. The circus turns out to be a pretense to attract audience members whom the doctor can victimize in his quest for immortality. Yup, he is also a collector of souls, and he is lusting after ours. The house also shows how one of Dr. Oddfellow’s victims became another HHN icon, Jack the Clown. Through the decades, Universal has established its own layered mythology for the Halloween event.
The IP-driven house that called out to me was Universal Monsters: Unmasked. Universal Pictures invented the horror movie genre, and its stable of classic monsters frequently appears at HHN. This year, the Phantom of the Opera gets top billing, with support from the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oh, and the Invisible Man makes a cameo “appearance.” It’s set in the catacombs and dank streets (it actually rains on guests in the house) of early-19th-century Paris. There is a stunning scene of the Hunchback, high up in his bell tower, that is punctuated by the haunting peels of the bell. By the way, it is heavily rumored–oh, the heck with it; it’s a virtual certainty–that the new Epic Universe theme park set to open just up the street from the current Universal Orlando campus in 2025 will give the Universal monsters their own land.
Rounding out the original content entries, Sauls describes YETI: Campground Kills as this year’s “dark comedy house.” I guess if enormous slasher creatures are your idea of comedy, you’ll find this hilarious. I didn’t. But I did get a kick out of the sound design which cranked the guttural roars of the Yetis (possibly on loan from Expedition Everest?) up to 11. Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings transports guests into the middle of a deranged Colonial-era, pagan kill cult that have decided the best way to worship the blood moon and ensure a good growing season is by slaughtering people as an offering. Maybe they should try using fertilizer and irrigation techniques instead.
There’s nothing wrong with the IP houses. Fans of the Netflix series will enjoy Stranger Things 4 (based on the fourth season), which alternates scenes of the unfortunate kids and the strange monsters that have cursed them. Likewise, gamers will get a charge out of The Last of Us, which is based on the PlayStation game and not the HBO series. Set in post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh, it looks appropriately godforsaken and is populated by clickers, stalkers, and other mutated weirdos.
And The Exorcist: Believer, which is based on the new Blumhouse sequel coming October 6 and not the 50-year-old horror classic, has some great exorcism scenes and snippets of the chilling “Tubular Bells” song that freaked me out all those years ago. It also makes great use of smells, with incense permeating the house. This year’s IP houses, however, just don’t resonate the way some of the original ones do.
Then there is Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count. I liked the Chucky animatronic figure in the house’s opening scene. And I liked the telethon-style toteboard that keeps track of the demonic doll’s serial kill number. But I found it weird that the scenes are grafted onto an apparently unused but still quite visible section of the queue for the Fast And Furious - Supercharged attraction. That really impaired the set design and made it seem thrown together.
All five scare zones are connected to Dr. Oddfellow this year. The good doctor has his own stage near the front of the park to greet guests (and steal their souls). As is usually the case, the zone in the Studio’s Central Park area, which is heavily treed and tightly constricted, really pops. Set in the 1920s, the jungle-themed zone has some mighty odd characters prowling in the fog. The red eyes of the bats nestled in the trees are quite a sight as well.
Universal has really upped its food and beverage game in recent years for Halloween Horror Nights. I enjoyed noshing on Left Behind Ravioli, which is topped with yummy tempura fried enoki mushrooms and served in a Last of Us-inspired FEDRA ration can. If you need some liquid courage to brave the houses, I recommend the Tinseltown Torment cocktail, which combines bourbon and cherry brandy with orange and cranberry juices, chocolate and cherry syrups, and orange bitters.
Depending on the night you visit, wait times for the houses can grow quite long. Consider getting an Express Pass or booking an R.I.P. tour to bypass the lines.
Will you be heading to Halloween Horror Nights? What houses are you most looking forward to visiting?