The focus of Halloween Horror Nights 2022? Halloween
Universal Orlando sticks with tried and true for annual event
Every year, Halloween Horror Nights is all about Halloween. It’s right there in the name. But the scaremeisters who conjure Universal Orlando’s seasonal event often feature a character to unify the event, create an overarching theme, or shine a spotlight on one or two brand-name intellectual properties. This year, however, the big names are taking a back seat to the holiday itself. As Lora Sauls, senior manager of creative development and show direction for Universal Orlando entertainment, art and design, noted during a presentation kicking off the festivities last Friday, the three decade-old event is marking a significant milestone.
“This year, it’s HHN 31, and we’re celebrating Halloween.” As such, she said, there are lots of pumpkins, scarecrows, witches, candy, and other traditions among the things that go bump in the night. There is even a haunted house dedicated to the eponymous classic film franchise, Halloween.
It’s the original content houses, however, that steal the show. Even without the big guns, the wildly creative Universal Orlando team deftly demonstrates that it produces the industry’s most noteworthy and best Halloween event. Let’s review some of the highlights from this year’s HHN.
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Spirits of the Coven 4.5 (out of 5)
As a native New Englander, two of Universal’s houses really hit home this year. Despite it being an obvious choice, I don’t believe that HHN has used Salem, Massachusetts as a setting for its mazes before (or if it was targeted, it was a long time ago). Spirits of the Coven is based in the city, but instead of revisiting Salem’s infamous, 17th-century witch hysteria, it’s set during the 1920s. Flapper femme fatales preside over a speakeasy and dance to Jazz-Age music as they seduce patrons.
Things begin to seem a tad amiss when the lovely gals start feasting on the flesh of their guests. Hey, they didn’t call it the Roaring 20s for nothing. It turns out that the proprietors are actually witches, and the speakeasy doubles as a meatpacking company. The ladies use distilling equipment to turn the blood of their victims into potions. The proceedings get progressively more disturbing as satanic symbols emerge, and the flappers reveal their true identities. The set design, which includes some understated Art Deco touches, is stunning, and the scares are intense.
Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake (4.25 out of 5)
Set in a New England fishing village (which may be Gloucester, Massachusetts judging by some subtle clues), undead fisherman are brought back to life by the melancholy violin melodies played by the captain’s widow. The reanimated captain and his crew wreak havoc and are hellbent on killing us and taking us with them to the ocean floor. Among the more discomfiting scenes, crazed divers whose anguished faces are illuminated in retro diving bell helmets beg to be saved.
Again, the sets are extraordinary, including a large-scale fishing boat and a distant lighthouse that shines a beacon on the ensuing mayhem. There are lots of high-speed fans simulating stormy seas. Instead of the cacophony that generally accompanies HHN houses, the sound design emphasizes the delicate and haunting cadences of the violinist. It adds to the elegiac quality of Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake.
Universal Monsters: Legends Collide (4.25 out of 5)
The studio’s classic monsters are back with a clever story to justify their joint appearance. Following the suggestion of his benefactor, the alter ego of the Wolf Man travels to Egypt in search of an amulet that can reverse his curse. The benefactor, it turns out, is Count Dracula. The vampire is also seeking the glowing red amulet that is encased in the chest of the Mummy so that he can offset his own pesky curse and become a day-walker. The three battle it out for supremacy.
It’s always great to reconnect with the Universal monsters–even if this house is in color rather than glorious black & white. (By the way, the classic monsters will reportedly be getting their own land in Universal’s Epic Universe, the new Orlando theme park that is now under construction.) The scares, led by a particularly aggressive Wolf Man, are potent. Featuring lots of ancient artifacts, Egyptian references, and beautiful rock work, some of which includes skeletal remains, Legends Collide has a great vibe.
Will the real Micheal Myers please stand down?
Among the other haunted houses rounding out HHN 31 is Halloween. This isn’t the event’s first go-around with John Carpenter’s slasher icon. As in past presentations, there are multiple confrontations with the hockey mask-wearing lunatic, including a finale where guests have to make their way through a gauntlet of many knife-wielding Micheal Myers. Based on the original 1978 film, the scenes faithfully reproduce its creepy atmosphere.
Near the beginning of The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare, there is a scene depicting the vowel-challenged singer with sensors jacked into his brain. The implication is that we are getting to experience what’s in his mind. If what follows, including some poor shlub getting graphically fried in an electric chair and a nightclub scene in which the popular performer tries to kill his audience members, is any indication, the dude has some serious anger management issues and bizarre thoughts. The house’s bright lights and upbeat soundtrack of The Weeknd tunes stand in contrast to its stream-of-consciousness ultra violence.
When asked what her favorite house was, Universal’s Sauls demurred, but let on that she loved the “ooey-gooeyness and kitschy hokeyness” of Bugs: Eaten Alive. The inspired theme concerns a 50s-era trade show in which a pest control company demonstrates its latest innovation: air-conditioning units that pump its pesticide to eliminate creepy, crawly creatures. Let’s just say it has the opposite effect, and the pests get decidedly out of control.
Descendants of Destruction takes visitors down into New York City’s subway tunnels where we witness the de-evolution of post-apocalyptic survivors from humans to cannibals to animals. I must admit that the cannibals were grilling up some mighty tasty cuts of meat. I’m not sure why monsters were locked away in a prison in the first place, but even I could have predicted they’d eventually break free, as they do in Hellblock Horror. The legendary chupacabras are some mighty freaky looking monsters, and they are out for our blood in Fiesta de Chupacabras. It’s a double feature in The Horrors of Blumhouse as guests make there way through two of the studio’s lesser-known movies, Freaky and The Black Phone. In what I believe is a first for HHN, a high school girl who has switched bodies with a serial killer is shown taking a chain saw to the crotch of a defenseless guy. Ouch!
Talk about sugar-addled kids. The scare zone, Sweet Revenge, in which a candy company gives out its treats at a 1950s-era Halloween parade, and causes the children to kill their parents, is a real hoot. Ghoulish! A Halloween Tale fills Universal Studios’ lagoon with its pulsing music, synchronized fountains, lasers, and media projected onto water screens and nearby buildings. Some of the animation is a little cheesy, but the grand-scale show is captivating.
Halloween Horror Nights will be presented on select nights through October 31.
Are you planning to visit Halloween Horror Nights? Is there a house you are most anticipating? What do you think about featuring The Weeknd in one of this year’s houses?
Your comment in your article made me think that I would love to see a totally black & white haunt like an old movie. Has anyone ever done that?
Really bummed I'm not going this year, but loved the rundown and descriptions. Can't wait to watch some walkthroughs, as it's always a fun event. I think from this batch I'd most look forward to Dead Man's Pier: Winter's Wake. I've read that the set pieces are stunning.
The question about The Weeknd is really interesting. Musical artists (with the exception of those who embrace a horror style) don't initially seem like a good fit for a haunt. However, I always love seeing mash-ups of non-horror with the genre because I think it really inspires creativity in how to get those scares.
A great example of this is a local "haunted forest" trail near Charlotte that I've attended several times. The last year I went they had a maze room in which they turned out all of the lights except for strobes, and had extremely loud heavy metal music blasting. It was incredibly disorienting, with the music serving as a way to rob you of another sense besides just sight. It was incredibly effective. That was the first time I really understood how music in a haunt could be used simultaneously as entertainment and as a psychological scare tactic.
The drawback, of course, to using artist-themed houses is that you may alienate those who don't recognize the music or who are not fans. However, ultimately it's a win-win all around. The artist gets new fans out of it, the park gets IP-recognition, and I'm guessing most people - even those who don't care for the music - still have a good time. Let's see Universal take on a real challenge next time though - John Denver haunt, maybe? The Carpenters? =)