As far as spooky time Los Angeles traditions go, there are few better than Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, which sees the iconic Universal Studios theme park taken over by all manner of ghouls, ghosts and goblins.
Part of the fun of the experience is being there so late; the park typically closes at 6:00pm in September but extends hours for Halloween Horror Nights (see the schedule here). And the other part that makes it so fun is seeing how they have been able to cram Halloween-y experiences into every nook and cranny of the park.
This year Halloween Horror Nights has houses devoted to “Stranger Things 4,” “The Last of Us” and “The Exorcist: Believer,” plus original haunted houses, a “Purge”-themed show in the “Waterworld” arena and a new Terror Tram experience. All of that, plus three “scare zones” and Death Eaters wandering around The Wizarding World of Harry Potter area. It’s pretty great — if you can handle it.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is currently running Sept. 14 – 17, 21 – 24, 27 – 30; Oct. 1, 4 – 8, 11 – 15, 18 – 22, 25 – 29 and 31. (And chances are it’ll be extended at least another weekend, which happens almost every year.)
For the purposes of this rundown, we won’t be talking about the scare zones or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Death Eaters, although all of that is very cool indeed. (You’ll get a good look at the Death Eaters as you make your way to the Chucky and Universal Monsters houses.) Honestly, this event is great. I got my photo taken with David S. Pumpkins.
11. “Blumhouse: Behind the Screams”
Avoid this at all costs. It’s not that the idea is bad, exactly, but it takes way too long and leaves you with way too little. The line is serpentine and slow-moving and after you get into the building (the DreamWorks building that usually houses – wait for it – a “Kung Fu Panda” movie), you’re crammed around a series of props from recent Blumhouse movies (like the upcoming “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and last year’s “The Black Phone”) listening to a host vamp for far too long. Then you get inside, see some trailers, and eventually M3GAN units come out and dance. If the Terror Tram this year is an embarrassment of riches, this is the opposite end of the spectrum, with far too little to experience. You’ll wish you had never gotten in line.
10. “Evil Dead Rise”
One of the more intense (and loudest) houses, “Evil Dead Rise” is based on the “Evil Dead” sequel released by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema earlier this year. Even if you didn’t see that movie, chances are you’ll get freaked out by this house. (It might help if you have a cursory understanding of the franchise’s lore.) There are a lot of scare-actors and a lot of gags. My wife hadn’t seen the movie yet and was constantly screaming, which is a very good sign indeed. The house also serves as a great reminder that reading from the Book of the Dead will get you in a ton of trouble.
9. “The Exorcist: Believer”
How about some good, old-fashioned synergy? Universal has a new “Exorcist” film (“The Exorcist: Believer”) opening next month so that means there’s a new “Exorcist” haunted house at Halloween Horror Nights beginning this month. Considering nobody knows anything about the movie, really, aside from some trailers (which play throughout HHN this year), the house is still pretty scary: there are synchronized possessions, tips to ancient rituals and loud sound effects that will make you jump out of your skin. But experiencing the house after you see the movie will probably make for a richer experience.
8. “Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count”
Chucky has been a staple of Halloween Horror Nights before; there was even a year where he served as the host of the Terror Tram, the fog-filled version of the Backlot Studio Tour. And 10 years ago he had a house dedicated to “The Curse of Chucky,” a direct-to-video sequel. This newest house is at least partially inspired by “Chucky,” the recent series on Syfy, and has a cool, metatextual twist, as Chucky (seen on video screens) is tallying his kill count as you make your way through the house, almost like an affable game show host. The scenes themselves are very cool and fun; some are inspired by the show while others are more like, What if Chucky was really big? And you know, sometimes that’s enough. Anything else would be child’s play.
7. “Universal Monsters: Unmasked”
Okay, this house is docked points for how godforsaken out of the way it is (right next to Chucky). What is very cool about this house is that it highlights a collection of often overlooked Universal Monsters, from The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The entrance is great, all of the monsters are incredible and there’s a new score composed by Guns ‘n Roses’ Slash, a frequent Halloween Horror Nights collaborator. Ostensibly an original haunted house, just utilizing Universal IP, this is a low wattage charmer; just remember that getting there is going to be a hike.
6. “Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America”
We love the original houses and this one is even more exciting because it’s new for this year and only available in Hollywood. It’s also one of the best houses this year, full of culturally specific iconography and flourishes and a storyline that strings together one scare to another seamlessly. According to the official synopsis, it “includes Latin American folklore’s most terrifying ghosts and creatures.” And while you never get a huge amount of information about any of them, they are impressive and terrifying, with vignettes dedicated to each monster. Just great.
5. “The Last of Us”
First, a disclaimer: this house is based off of the popular videogame and not (we repeat not) the recent HBO series. There’s enough crossover that you enjoyed one aspect of “The Last of Us,” you’ll probably enjoy the other, as hallmarks of both the game and show pop up again and again. (Even the music utilized through the house is reminiscent of both.) That said, this is a pretty effective house – the “clickers” (fungi-controlled zombies, basically) are genuinely scary and there’s a terrific moment later in the house with a Bloater (a super-sized clicker), who can be seen dispatching a victim in explicit fashion. A word of warning too: this is one of the better houses of HHN this year and also one of the most popular. If you don’t have an express pass, considering giving this priority position in your creep quest.
4. “Stranger Things 4”
“Stranger Things” has been a staple of several years of Halloween Horror Nights, but once Netflix started doing “Stranger Things”-themed experiences during the pandemic (including this insane and very clever drive-through thing in downtown Los Angeles during the pandemic), they cut ties with Universal. Now they’re back, for an impressive house centered around “Stranger Things 4” which means one thing – lots of Vecna. (Just look at the merchandise produced for this year’s event; Vecna is all over it!) The house starts with the moment early in the season with Eddie Munson selling drugs to Chrissy (and Chrissy promptly getting killed). From there, we dip into the Eleven flashbacks and face down Vecna, again and again. The house is easily one of the best on display this year and a great continuation of the partnership between Universal and Netflix. Also, there are a ton of other “Stranger Things”-related activities elsewhere at HHN this year, from grabbing a bite at Surfer Boy Pizza to some ice cream at Scoop’s Ahoy, to a full, 1980’s themed bar over by Jurassic World: The Ride. “Stranger Things” and Halloween just go so well together, don’t they?
3. “Holidayz in Hell”
One of the best original haunted houses returns! Last seen in 2019, “Holidayz in Hell” is pretty much exactly what you think it is – a house full of horrifying holidays, including Valentine’s Day, with a terrifying Tunnel of Love; Easter, with a monstrous bunny hatching out of a giant egg; to (of course) Christmas, with the most devilish Santa Claus you’ve ever seen. There’s even a St. Patrick’s Day section with conniving leprechauns. Everything is so well done and creative, from the creatures to the different set pieces, that it’s easy to see why they brought back this wickedly smart and scary house back from the dead.
2. “The Purge: Dangerous Waters”
After the Terror Tram, this is the other must-do of this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. There used to be more shows as part of the experience, but with two large soundstages gone (the new Fast & Furious coaster is being built in their place), they needed some entertainment so HHN took over the “Waterworld”-themed stunt show and turned it into a “Purge”-themed show. WOW. The story doesn’t make a ton of sense, especially since it is clearly set in a floating post-apocalyptic landscape, but that doesn’t really matter. The essentials of “The Purge” franchise are there (people letting loose on Purge Night, stuffy white folks hiding from those purging). And it’s a genuinely impressive show – people get lit on fire, they drive around on water skis festooned with Christmas lights. And at the end of the show (spoiler alert!) all the rich white people are dead and those taking part in the Purge dance around to “Spitfire,” a marginal track off of British dance act The Prodigy’s 2004 album “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned,” while lasers shoot around the stage. It is glorious.
1. “Terror Tram … The Exterminatorz”
Easily the best experience in all of Halloween Horror Nights this year, which is something of a surprise considering how hit-or-miss the Terror Train sometimes is. This is especially true given how long the experience is; from getting on the initial tram to exiting the experience takes about an hour (it could be longer if you wait for a photo with Norman Bates, which is a favorite HHN pastime). But this year’s experience is out of this world. It is primarily focused on an original story involving The Exterminatorz, who are alien-ish bug creatures (led by the redneck Larry Larva, an instant HHN icon) who are attempting to do to humans what humans do to pests: exterminate them with extreme prejudice. The creatures themselves are so cool and creepy and they are everywhere – at the Bates Motel, along the crashed plane from “War of the Worlds” and elsewhere. And you get some great set-up for the story during the brief tram tour, with videos playing that set up the action. If this wasn’t enough – and, really, it’s enough – you also get to mosey through the Jupiter’s Claim set from “Nope,” only this time it’s filled with The Tethered from “Us” too. It’s enough to make you wonder: does Jean Jacket have a Tethered? This is a full, robust experience and if someone said, “I only have a couple of hours at Halloween Horror Nights,” I’d tell them to make this priority #1. It’s the best.