With all due respect to Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake, Orlando is the epicenter of scary happenings this month. But for lovers of fear and all things Halloween in October, the good news is that those two iconic film locations -- along with a werewolf-plagued London, walker-infested Atlanta, a purging city and the haunted Further -- are all combined in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 25.
And I had the gleeful, fearful joy -- or joyful fear full of glee -- opportunity to walk through the big year of this haunt, which runs through Nov. 1.
The annual event at the Universal Orlando resort is a leading attraction in the haunt community due to its high production values and the ability to craft houses around iconic properties such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and An American Werewolf in London. But Halloween Horror Nights has also created its own signature characters and unique haunts to freak out guests.
This year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary, HHN features an impressive nine houses, and five “scare zones” to walk through, along with two live shows.
The biggest draw of the year is likely “The Walking Dead: The Living and the Dead” haunt, which takes attendees through Season 5 of the AMC show. Other houses include film properties such as An American Werewolf In London, Freddy vs. Jason, Insidious and The Purge. Signature areas include “Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters & Mayhem,” which is a best-of haunt starring the evil Jack the Clown; “Run: Blood, Sweat, and Fears,” a Running Man-esque 1980s house about a murderous game show; “Asylum in Wonderland 3-D,” a trippy, disturbing take on the Alice story; and “Body Collectors: Recollections,” which is sort of a return to a favorite haunt but with a new twist.
Halloween Horror Nights also has its scare zones, or essentially haunted streets instead of houses. As guests walk from haunt to haunt, or on their way to theme park coasters, they pass through creepy areas filled with themed monsters and maniacs. This year, they range from horror versions of fairytale characters to iconic screen creatures and folkloric beasts.
For me, the best haunt this year had to be the Werewolf house. This one debuted two years ago but returned with more, and bigger, wolves this year. Since AAWIL is one of my favorite horror flicks, it is a kick walking through scenes of the movie. Director John Landis initially told creative director Michael Aiello that they couldn’t bring his movie to life. After walking through it, Landis said, “You did it.” Now, after a detour last year to the Universal Hollywood, the attraction is back. This is the one you want to walk through very slowly, though that’s hard to do, to catch all the nods and references to the movie. Where else can you encounter a bucolic household (overrun with werewolves), a peaceful hospital room (overrun with werewolves) and an adult theater (overrun with talking corpses and werewolves!)?
My second-favorite house was Freddy vs. Jason. As a child of the 1980s, this was essentially a horror superhero throwdown unfolding before my eyes. This begins in Camp Crystal Lake before transitioning into the Freddy Krueger-centric 1428 Elm Street -- THEN we enter a dream zone where both icons duke it out. I simply loved watching Jason Voorhees stalk by, then seeing him again out of the corner of my eye before catching Freddy slashing his way across my path (and last year the fine people of Universal also had a Halloween house, and an Evil Dead one in 2013, so maybe there is hope down the line for Michael Myers or Ash to enter the fray with these two monsters).
The other top haunt at HHN this year was The Walking Dead Season 5 experience. Aiello has been working closely with TWD EP Greg Nicotero for a few years now, and the relationship keeps looking better with each haunt. Starting at Terminus, and moving through the church food pantry, and working up to a Wolves-run warehouse and truck, “The Living and the Dead” house bring Walkers and cannibals right into your personal space. More than most of the haunts, this one actually startled me as opposed to simply putting me in a state of awe with the visual creativity.
Also, the Asylum house deserves a mention this year. Although I am more prone to loving haunts based on movies at HHN, this one earns the honor of messing with me the most. The light effects here, while wearing 3D glasses, bent my reality for a few minutes and left me disoriented. If you choose to fall into the rabbit hole, and go through the looking glass, just remember that what appears to be a wall might also be a 3D monster looking to make you freak out.
Overall, Halloween Horror Nights has stepped up an already impressive game for its quadranscentennial. This is a spectacular year to head to Orlando to discover what the masterminds of fear have cooked up to mess with your head, and make you laugh, through a combination of familiar and new characters.