Be afraid: The best haunts and scariest faces of Halloween Horror Nights

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Mar 26, 2021, 7:00 AM EDT (Updated)

When you populate an amusement park with the monsters from Ash vs. Evil Dead, Trick 'R Treat, Saw, Insidious, Sinister, American Horror Story, The Purge, and The Shining, which nightmare creation reigns supreme in this horror hellscape?

It isn’t the Deadites, Sam, Jigsaw, the Lipstick-Face Demon, Bughuul, Bloody Face, or any of the Purgers. And no, it isn’t Jack Torrance, nor even the creepy twins who haunt the Overlook Hotel.

Instead, the best bringers of fear are a Voodoo Queen you never met in the movies, scarecrows that have come to life, and a nest of hungry vampires.

At least, that’s the case on the streets and in the sound stages of Halloween Horror Nights Orlando 27, where original houses outshine also-entertaining haunts based on recognizable movie and television properties.

Perhaps the nation’s best haunted attraction, set at Universal Studios Orlando, HHN has set a bar for nearly 30 years with impressive budgets, outmatched set design, special effects wizardry, and top-notch scare-actors. And they’ve done it once again with nine themed haunted houses. Five are based on pre-existing franchises: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; Ash vs. Evil Dead, American Horror Story Coven, Asylum, and Roanoke; Horrors of Blumhouse; SAW: The Games of Jigsaw. But the remaining four – Dead Waters, The Hive, Scarecrow: The Reaping, and The Fallen – are unique to HHN Orlando.

The event also includes five free-range “scarezones”: The Purge, Trick 'R Treat, Festival of the Deadliest, Invasion!, and Altars of Horror.

Going in, I was most looking forward to The Shining house, curious as to how the iconic psychological thriller was adapted to haunt form. The design holds up, as you begin walking a snowy path to the Overlook Hotel, and are immediately dropped into the “Heeere’s Johnny” scene between Jack and Wendy in the bathroom. Instead of on the floor, the famous Overlook carpet is plastered against a wall, with little Danny’s cycle above. And as I walked through, I encountered the twins, a silhouette of the bathing beauty who becomes a hag, bartender Lloyd, former caretaker Grady, and even the fellating bear.

And there’s quite a bit of Jack. Every corner seems to deliver another actor portraying Jack Nicholson’s character. It provides a fair amount of starts, but nothing can ever truly be as creepy as Nicholson himself. As a result, there is a slight disconnect where the scare is great, but when I caught the actor in a flash of light, it did impact my sense of disbelief.

This is actually similar to a challenge faced in the Ash vs. Evil Dead house as well. Although remarkably true to the Starz series, there is only one Bruce Campbell. The haunt, which follows the first two seasons of the show – complete with the Ashy Slashy puppet – is a helluva lot of fun, and the Deadites look great. Admittedly it took me out of the action when I saw a guy with a chainsaw hand, boomstick, and blue shirt that was not groovy Bruce.

That is by no means a jab at the houses, but it does reveal a challenge, as opposed to HHN haunts from the past such as Halloween, Freddy vs Jason, or even Alien vs Predator, where a scare-actor could more convincingly portray a famous monster or maniac.

However, these are minor complaints from a person who potentially pays way too much attention to detail when walking through a scare.

Meanwhile, Dead Waters was my favorite haunt at HHN this year. Set in a “pestilent swamp that oozes evil,” the story begins in a moldy riverboat in waters that are steamy, green, and foreboding. As I wandered through a candlelit house with mournful blues playing, swamp thing creatures leaped from behind walls. The Voodoo Queen’s zombies peeked from behind forest trees as a ritual commenced, where slavers were being bled dry. This was a visual feast where designers clearly had a lot of fun.

Set in an abandoned Depression-era farmhouse, Scarecrow: The Reaping is a haunt where the earth itself has gotten pissed off enough to harvest the living via its strawmen and mummified minions. The best part about this impressive part of this scene takes place outside, where a windmill slowly turns, high above a field of real corn. But the house, which has been overtaken by vines, and rot, makes a cool setting for an original story.

The Hive is another noteworthy original at HHN27, which draws inspiration from Salem’s Lot insofar as the bloodthirsty vamps have holed up in an old house, and are dining on the neighbors. The nest of suckers is more gruesome than glamorous, and the design on this one pulls no punches with visuals such as a mound of bodies, and I believe I even caught a child-sized victim hiding in the dirt – which was friggin great, from a haunted house perspective.

The best scare zone at Halloween Horror Nights Orlando 27 is based on Trick ’R Treat, where Halloween’s personification of Sam has let loose with his pals. Located on what is normally a Central Park pathway set at the theme park, the scare zone is lined with jack-o-lanterns, a pumpkin patch, and a giant pumpkin king – though the creepiest visual are the little 1950s trick-or-treaters with plastic dimestore masks.

A close runner-up is the original scare zone concept of Invasion! that imagines the flying saucer, buggy aliens from 1950s sci-fi, but ups the threat level. It isn’t necessarily scary, nor as immersive as Trick ’R Treat, but it’s charming, and fun.

Overall, Halloween Horror Nights Orlando has earned its ranking as the best haunted house attraction out there. And while the haunts based on pre-existing IP do deliver the scares, it’s the original ideas that win the best frights.

The event runs through November 4. But before you go, check out the creatures I caught on camera who sought to scare the ever-living crap out of me.

Yes, the lighting is low, and they were snapped as I was likely jumping. But what follows is a gallery of the stuff of nightmares from HHN 27.