strange like that

Review of Universal’s Horror Nights

Halloween Horror NightsLast Friday, after hearing many positive reviews of the event, I attended Halloween Horror Nights which takes place at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I was left wondering how so many guests walked away with positive things to say.

To be clear, I am no stranger to the world of haunts. I’ve worked at several myself as a scare actor, and have attended many more. I’ve found that most haunts have their own strengths and weaknesses, but it seems that Universal has very few strengths to trumpet. I found this pretty shocking considering that Universal is not only a real live working film studio, but also because it has a history of horror films to draw on. (Hell, it’s very name is practically synonymous with the horror of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.) As a Halloween horror destination, it’s not very scary nor very interesting.

Horror Nights has a little over a handful of mazes. (Seven of them as compared to Knotts Scary Farm’s thirteen.) Because of this, once the night gets rolling, the wait times skyrocket. As you walk around the park, there are boards listing wait times and only a few had anything listed under sixty minutes. There are only a few rides, which also experience higher wait times. Then, lastly, there was one live show.

On the night that I attended, my basic ticket cost $57, and I was only able to experience a little over half of the attraction offerings. For almost double the price, I could have gotten a pass that allowed me to skip to the front of the lines, but since there’s so little content, I imagine you could do everything in a few hours, leaving you with a lot of extra time where you’re either bored or have to start repeating attraction visits. As a comparison, a basic Knott’s ticket on the same night of the week will cost around $47, for more than double the attractions (maybe triple when you could in all of the rides and shows available to haunt guests). From a basic monetary standpoint, Universal simply doesn’t live up to the price.

To get into a more specific review, I will start by saying I believe that with all haunts, terror should start at the door. Upon entering the park, you are thrust into a fog-filled clown nightmare that should have set the tone for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, nearly all of the scare actors were in full rubber masks (something that occurred in nearly all of the evening’s events). Rubber masks have their time and place, and I know they’re cheaper and easier than makeup, but these are the first scare actors to greet your audience. They are in your customer’s faces. Rubber masks when close up tend to be less shocking that a really good makeup job.

Secondly, the entry area of Universal suffered from a proliferation of chainsaws. Chainsaws are scary. They’re loud and should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. However, when there’s a dozen of them running around and whirring like mad, they lose some of that essence. You start to acclimate to them, and it ruins the terror they should instill.

Aside from the entry area, the park was pretty free of scare actors. I hate to make comparisons again, but you can’t take two steps at Knotts without running into another monster. It keeps the tension up in between attractions. Universal also missed a golden opportunity to place monsters along the attraction lines. There was a perfect captive audience, ripe for scaring, who instead spent most of their wait looking bored and checking Facebook.

Of the few mazes available, the ones I was able to get into were The Wolfman, The Thing: Assimilation, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and Scream for Your Life. None of them were particularly good.

- The Wolfman: This maze had to utilize a preexisting space, and in places it showed. The walkthrough area they used normally showcases imagery and sets from various Universal horror films. They really should have worked harder at retheming the parts that were out of place, rather than trying to shoehorn Wolfman elements in. The best part about this maze were the actual werewolf costumes as they really resembled the look from the film. They also worked in the feral boy look from the movie. This maze was consistently the shortest wait all night, likely because the 2010 film remake was not terribly successful. I still felt it was one of the more pleasant ones to experience at the haunt.

To go on a quick tangent, why not just amp up the attraction that is already there? From what I’m reading online, there are normally scare actors in there anyway that fit the variously themed rooms. It would likely have been more effective than their attempted overlay.

- Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare: This was the first maze I went through and I can’t really say that there was anything about it I liked. It has the same issue as all the others in that it focuses almost solely on what I call “jump out” scares. To me, a jump out scare is one where the actor jumps from their hiding place at you, sometimes while making a banging noise or rattling a noise can. They are cheap scares and are almost always going to get the guest to twitch. However, their twitch is a natural reaction to something coming at them at high speed, not necessarily a real indication of true terror. It’s almost always more impressive when the scare actor can freak a patron out by their very presence, or the idea the guest can’t avoid walking by them and is terrified at the prospect. Also, having a monster ahead of you that catches your focus can be a distraction from the jump out scare actor. This misdirection leads to an even bigger fright as guests are less likely to start intentionally gazing around for hiding places.

The other huge annoyance of this maze (and several others) was the use of heavy hanging plastic and fake bodies along the maze route. It was tiring to consistently have to push everything away to just get through the maze. It wasn’t scary, it was frustrating. There is also nothing like getting hit by a heavy body prop swinging backwards from the guests ahead of you. This element could have been used far more sparingly and been more effective because of it.

- The Thing: Assimilation: While this was the best of the mazes I went through, that really isn’t saying much. It was far better themed than any of the others and had a nice mix of actors in makeup and ones in giant “Thing” costumes. It was obvious they were trying to do something to help bump up interest in the recent release of the film prequel. (Sadly, the maze was better than the abysmal movie.) The maze had a very creepy vibe, it was accurately themed, it had a nice mix of scare techniques, and it also had an average wait time of ninety minutes. I don’t believe that any five minute maze is worth that much wait time.

- Scream for Your Life: This should have easily been the best part of the night, but it wasn’t. Scream for Your Life is a sort of open air maze that takes place on the actual studio backlot and uses real movie sets. But before you even get to that part, you have to hop on the studio tram to get out to the location. Again, here was a wasted opportunity. The spiel on the ride over was cheesy, and there were no frights along the way. Universal, you had a captive audience that paid for scares, so scare them already!

The tram dropped us off near the Whoville set and then wound us around the Bate’s Motel, the Psycho House, some of the War of the Worlds set and a few other small areas. I feel like a broken record, but yet again, there was an over-abundance of rubber masks and chainsaws. I did run into a “Norman” outside of the Psycho house, and that was pretty cool, but short-lived. There were a few less jump out scares, which was a nice break, but it was pretty lackluster regardless.

The only other Halloween specific attraction we were able to experience was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, and it was a whole lot less excellent that its name would have you believe, unless they meant it to be in excellently poor taste.

The show is an attempt at making fun of all things pop culture, but it only manages to be pretty boring and tacky. Rife with booty shorts and lame jokes, it was an hour of my life I can never have back. It’s also another shining example of why Knotts has the better haunt as they too have a pop culture extravaganza and it’s actually funny and makes more sense.

The other discomforting thing about this show is that it was either written before Osama Bin Laden was pronounced dead, or someone has a really poor sense of when they’ve crossed a line. I don’t want to get political here, but having Bin Laden as the main villain of the production just seemed wrong. And even if he wasn’t dead, it seems far from topical. (When was the last time you honestly heard a Bin Laden joke aside from immediately after his death?) Furthermore, when you set him alongside characters spoofing TRON and The Avengers, it gets even creepier, and not in a good way.

All in all, Universal’s haunt is not something I would attend again. I know the economy is bad and that this event must have been expensive, but for the price and quality it’s just not a fair bargain. Besides that, I’ve been to smaller local haunts that have packed a far bigger punch on what is certainly less of a budget. There was so much wasted potential, and that’s what makes me saddest.

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