Haunt Review: Halloween Horror Nights Orlando

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

For the 27th year in a row, Halloween once again descends on Universal Studios Orlando, bringing with it thrills, chills and even a few laughs now and then.  For the second year in a row, we have 9 houses (mazes for you west coasters), 5 scare zones and 2 shows to entertain and terrorize us.  As you may know, mother nature treated us to her own horrifying event with Hurricane Irma just one week prior to the event starting.  While the houses sustained little damage, the street zones and shows have felt the effects of the storm.  The Academy of Villains were performing an abbreviated show on a small temporary stage.  Some of the scarezones did not feel complete and there were visible technicians working on lighting and set pieces every night of the first weekend.  Because of that, this review will focus on the houses for this year’s event with another article featuring the shows and scare zones making its way to you early next week. 

This year, Halloween Horror night boasts 9 houses, 5 houses based on existing intellectual properties and 4 original creations from the minds of the brilliant creative team at Universal. The IP houses challenge us to go face to face with Deadites with Ashley J. Williams, be stalked through the hedge maze by Jack Torrance, and survive a little game with Jigsaw.  They also pit us against Purgers, the Lipstick Demon, The Black Bride AND Bughuul in just one house, The Horrors of Blumhouse.  Finally, we are treated to 3 seasons of American Horror Story:  Asylum, Coven and Roanoke in one house.  The four original houses stand toe to toe with their more widely-known counterparts as well, having you face beastly vampires, dry-rotted scarecrows, demons and possessed voodoo dolls.  The Universal creative team put a ton of work into their original houses, weaving storylines into some of the most detailed haunt environments ever experienced.  Before I start to ramble, let’s get into the houses this year at HHN 27.

THE SHINING

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

Thirty-seven years ago, Stanley Kubrick unleashed his vision of Stephen King’s The Shining on unwitting audiences across the world.  As it is one of the most iconic and meticulously crafted horror films ever created, Universal certainly had their hands full when taking on a property of this caliber.  It had to be perfect.  Those little seams that are often present in other houses had to be hidden.  From all angles, every room, hallway and visual effect had to be a painting.  I am happy to say that Universal pulled it off.  From some sets that perfectly duplicate key locations in the film to more interpretive areas of the house that use repetition to convey the impossibility of escape from the isolated hotel, the creators of this maze went to unprecedented lengths to ensure that your stay in the Stanley is one you will never forget. 

AMERICAN HORROR STORY

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

Since the first season of American Horror Story aired on television and shocked the world with a kind of horror never before seen on cable programming, people have been clamoring for a house based on the series.  Universal delivered last year with a house featuring not just one, but 3 seasons:  Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel.  This year, Universal took on another 3 seasons: Asylum, Coven and Roanoke.  This is by far the longest house this year, their so called “Uber Maze”.  Clocking in with an amazing six-and-a-half minute walkthrough time, this house dwarfs your average walkthrough time of three minutes and thirty seconds.  Expect to see and smell the most iconic characters and scenes from all three seasons in incredible detail.  Dr. Arden is taking new patients and Papa Legba is making deals, just be careful of the consequences.  Oh, and I know one little Piggy that will be very happy to see you...

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

Ashley J Williams just wants one thing, one all expense-paid trip to his spiritual center, a place so nice they named it… Jacksonville.  Unfortunately for Ash (but fortunately for us!),he kept going a little too far south and ended up here in groovy Orlando.  After unleashing the deadites once again on the world, only Ash can save us by taking out every last one of ‘em.  If you are a fan of the show, this house will deliver all those scenes that you were wishing and hoping would make an appearance while you watched. From Ash’s trailer in Michigan all the way to Jacksonville, join him in hunting Deadites, tapping kegs and closing the Necronomicon for good.  Grab your boomstick for this one!

THE HORRORS OF BLUMHOUSE

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

If you have seen a major horror film in the last 10 years, there is a very good chance it was produced by Blumhouse.  From Paranormal Activity to The Purge to Insidious and Sinister, Blumhouse has come to be the largest mainstream horror franchise powerhouse ever created. Universal has partnered with Jason Blum of Blumhouse to create unique experiences on both coasts.  While the west coast maze features Purge, Sinister and Happy Death Day, ours here on the east coast features insidious instead of Happy Death Day.  Also absent from our house here is the cohesive storyline of the west coast’s maze.  Ours quickly brushes through The Purge to Sinister for a few scenes, then to Insidious, which I would consider the main part of the show. You will see the iconic characters from all three films, but Insidious offers a bit more:  a sneak peak at Insidious 4, not releasing in theaters until 2018.  

SAW: THE GAMES OF JIGSAW

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

Wrapping up this year’s IP houses is Saw : The Games of Jigsaw.  In this house, you will see scene from almost every installment of the franchise, from our first victims of Jigsaw’s games all the up to scenes from the yet-to-be released Jigsaw.  Billy is featured throughout on his iconic tricycle.  Jigsaw and his disciples are waiting for you at every turn.  His victim’s screams permeate the house, creating a symphony of fear.  Will you be able to make the sacrifices required of you to escape?  

(A little side note on this one:  There are three GATs (Guest Activated Triggers) in this house, so be sure to push any red buttons you may find along your path.)  

THE FALLEN

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

In The Fallen, you are placed in the middle of a battle between the Fallen and the Chosen.  As it is referred to in Universal’s promotional materials, the classic battle of good vs evil, the Eternal Battle so to speak.  Reading between the lines, I think you know where they are going with this.  Without saying it out loud, this house sort-of features a battle between the Demons of Hell against the Archangels of Heaven.  Don’t expect fluffy clouds and harps in this one, though.  The archangels are the warriors of heaven, and as such are not the friendly winged beings from on high. The sets are a blend of dark, cool gothic architecture and fiery brimstone and bone, reminiscent of the Catacombs in paris.  Actors fly high above you, grab at you from below and face you head-on in this one, so be sure to look up, down and all over to get the full effect of this house. 

SCARECROW

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

“...And my head I’d be a scratchin’, while my thoughts are busy hatchin’, if I only had a brain…” 

The lyrics sung by the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz are more appropriate for the farmers of the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. For years prior, farmers with no knowledge of the ecology of the great plains ravaged the lands they farmed by using plowing techniques suited for less arid climates.  This caused a huge swath of the plains to suffer the effects of debilitating wind and dust storms that erased their crops from existence.  In this house, the scarecrows have risen to once again avenge the crops they silently guarded for a century. Only now, they aren’t after the crows, they are after those who rendered their lands desolate.  They are after us.  All the actors portraying scarecrows are over 6 feet tall to add to the cramped, confined nature of your surroundings.  This house is one of the darkest, scariest houses that Universal has ever put together and my personal favorite of the event so far. 

DEAD WATERS

Photo by Travis Terrell

Photo by Travis Terrell

In 2014, HHN 24 featured a voodoo-centric scarezone in the Central Park area of the Studios called Bayou of Blood.  This zone, hosted by the Voodoo Queen quickly became a fan-favorite, and a source of controversy.  After the first weekend, a mini show featuring the Voodoo Queen sacrificing a victim was stopped with no reason cited.  This led many to speculate, and as we all know in the horror world, speculation leads to cult status in a lot of cases.  Since then, many fans have been waiting for the Voodoo Queen’s return, hopefully as an event Icon.  While she did not get Icon status, she did get her own house, which many are saying is the best house this year.  Set in New Orleans, this house features some really amazing set design.  You will venture though a half-sunken steamboat, sludge through a murky swamp and face the Voodoo Queen’s children in her village.  This house is truly beautiful and one-of-a-kind.   

THE HIVE

Last but not least we have The Hive.  Universal creative have set many of their original houses in the fictional town of Carey, Ohio.  Carey is a place that is seemingly a normal, 1980’s midwest town.  If you take a closer look, however, you will see that there is great evil lurking under the surface.  As show director of the houses this year Charles Gray said, the creative team tried to emulate the feeling of that horror movie you see in the video store, walk by a few times, end up renting and loving.  Borrowing the trope of the creepy abandoned house at the end of the street, you dare your friends to go inside.  Only once you get in, you are face to face with a hive of vampires.  And we aren’t talking Twilight sparkles here.  We aren’t even talking Bram Stoker or the romanticism of the vampires in Interview, we’re talking Beasts.  Nosferatu-style creatures of the night, creatures being the key word.  This is a very dark house and one that I call an “actor-driven” house.  The sets are nice and detailed, but the actors are the stars of the show in this one and how good they are on a particular night will dictate your enjoyment of the walkthrough.  They were all on-point on opening weekend and I expect this house to get better and better as the event goes on.

All in all, this year is an amazing year for the houses at Halloween Horror Nights.  Every house is well thought out and provides plenty of scares for your buck.  Please join me again next week as we delve into the shows and scarezones for this year.  

Halloween Horror Nights 27 runs select nights through November 4th and you can buy your tickets here

Darren Schmidt