The Spooky Season is not only upon us, it is well into its Halloween rampage. If you have not yet begun a horror movie marathon, picked pumpkins, bobbed for apples, or embarked on a ghost tour, we’re starting to really question your odds of surviving the season as a creepy camper.
But you’re in luck, because today marks National Haunted House Day, occurring on the second Friday of October (and a day that sadly never quite gained prominence). So it seemed like a good time to recommend one of my favorite seasonal events: Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort.
Sure, HHN is also taking place at Universal Hollywood, but I’m a hometown Orlando kid, so I’m somewhat partial to the Sunshine State scares. In fact, I love HHN Orlando so much, and have attended dozens of times since I was a kid, that I was excited to interview Lora Sauls, Senior Manager of Creative Development and Show Direction at Universal Orlando Entertainment Art and Design, to talk about the event on my Talking Strange paranormal pop culture livestream show and podcast (available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube).
But I digress. Celebrating its 31st year, the annual event — canceled in 2020 due to the global pandemic — features 10 haunted house attractions, five walkthrough “Scare Zones” in the park, two live shows, and a lot of themed food.
This year, the houses include haunts based on established franchises, such as “Universal Monsters: Legends Collide”; “The Horrors of Blumhouse,” based on the films The Black Phone and Freaky; a return of the John Carpenter Halloween house; and “After Hours Nightmare” featuring characters, themes, and music from the artist The Weeknd. Additionally, there are original concept houses from the mad scientist creatives at Universal Orlando, including “Spirits of the Coven,” “Bugs: Eaten Alive,” “Hellblock Horror,” “Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake,” “Descendants of Destruction,” and “Fiesta de Chupacabras.”
As you can imagine, that’s a lot of scary ground to cover, and it can be a challenge, but not impossible, to make your way through all of the haunted houses in one visit.
One tip to maximize your horror night is to purchase, in addition to the $80 single night ticket, the $110 Express Pass, and the $35 Scream Early ticket. With the Scream Early option, you can enter the Universal park at 3 p.m., kick around and ride some attractions. At 5 p.m. you’ll be held in a “Stay & Scream” pen until the event opens to the standard ticket holders at 6:30 p.m. The benefit here is you’ll already be in the park when HHN kicks off.
I suggest selecting the pen near the “Revenge of the Mummy” ride and Finnegan’s Bar & Grill. In fact, I would recommend going to Finn’s straight at three or so, getting a table for a bite to eat and some adult bevvies as you wait for HHN to open. From there, I was able to walk through “Halloween,” “Coven,” and “Chupacabras” in swift order. I figured “Halloween” would accumulate a line fast, and aimed for that first. (Note: I have noticed that if you visit the houses right when the event opens, they are not always fully staffed with scare-actors, so take that into consideration if you are dedicated to witnessing every jump — which in and of itself is nearly impossible.)
Through great tenacity and dedication, and perhaps aided by torrential downpour that slowed down some other ticket holders (and sadly washed out the Scare Zones for most of the night) I was able to visit all 10 haunted houses in one night. But if you manage to visit five or six houses in a single evening, you’re doing pretty good. With that said, here are my five picks for the best of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 31.
Most Frightful Haunted House – Halloween
Michael Myers has been a frequent visitor of both the Orlando and Hollywood events since 2009, and he returns once more in a repeat performance based on the 1978 John Carpenter Halloween film. Michael appears everywhere as attendees walk through key scenes from the movie, and while there are plenty of jumps to be had, what makes this the scariest is the anxiety of constantly being stalked by The Shape. The funhouse maze finale especially ups the creep factor, reminding visitors why Michael remains such a terrifying monster.
Most Original House – The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare
Though artist The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye) has utilized a lot of horror imagery in his music videos, I was admittedly skeptical of this house for fear that it would be an ego project devoid of actual frights. I was wrong. The house, populated by “grotesque characters … slashers, bandaged maniacs, gruesome toad-like creatures and other unfathomable horrors from the mind of the artist” is a trippy body horror ride that is genuinely freaky and unsettling — and quite visually compelling.
Unsurprisingly there is a lot of his music throughout, but not to a distracting degree. The nightmare nightclub feels like it could exist in the same universe as From Dusk Till Dawn (and is great fodder for any psychotherapist who wants to analyze the musician).
Most Visually Stunning House – Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake
The creatives at Universal do their best work with the original concept houses, when they are not constrained by intellectual property limitations. The “Urban Legends: La Llorona” house from 2013 comes to mind as a lovely affair that was not only spooky, but just plain lovely. And I felt the same about “Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake.”
Set in a New England fishing village during a windy winter (and built in a chilled soundstage) this haunt is a maritime ghost story complete with a phantom sea captain, undead fisherman, and barnacle-encrusted humanoids. It is simply gorgeous with an eerie ambiance punctuated by a ghostly siren playing violin on a ship’s bow. The experience evokes a classic tale told by fireside in a seaside pub, or sung about in a ballad.
Also, the ghoulish deep-sea divers with glowing faces peeking out of copper helmets? Creepy cool!
Most Overlooked House You Shouldn’t Sleep On – “Fiesta de Chupacabras”
Another example of an original concept house that delivers in a big way. What makes this house so great is how it effectively weaves an original story based on a well-known urban legend, the “goat sucker” Chupacabra of Latin America, by adding to the mystery and folklore, and it does so primarily in the Spanish language. The official synopsis is, “Visit a Latin American village where the legend of the creature Chupacabras is celebrated with a colorful ﬁesta, and the streets are lined with the crimson blood of tourists like you and your amigos.”
The affair has spiritual significance to these villagers, and a mask maker character, who lure visitors to their doom to be offerings to the legendary beast. It truly feels as if you’re walking through a lived-in puebla, and as the threat builds from the townspeople, the Chupacabra emerges in the form of a monstrous puppet (which looks to be an updated version of the one HHN used for the very popular An American Werewolf in London house).
Poor Chupey is sometimes dismissed as a joke in the cryptid world, but this gives it a shot of adrenaline, and amps up the monster’s threat level. This may not be everyone’s top house to visit, but is a great haunt not to be overlooked.
Most Overall Fun – (tie) Bugs: Eaten Alive and Universal Monsters: Legends Collide
Try as I might, I cannot choose between the original concept house of “Bugs: Eaten Alive” and the “calling all monsters” mash-up of “Legends Collide.” The former is a 1950s-era sci-fi horror romp through a home of the future where a hi-tech pest-control system failure unleashes insect swarms that grow, mutate, and infest human hosts. It is full of gross-out bug effects that make you literally squirm. It is also so damn fun, and occupies the same space as another inspired favorite of mine from HHN Orlando: 2018’s B-horror drive-in house Slaughter Sinema.
However, I am also a lifelong fan of the woefully underused, and criminally mismanaged, Universal Monsters brand. The backstory of the house is that Lawrence Talbot is lured to Egypt by a mysterious benefactor to seek the Amulet of Amun-Ra, which possesses magic to lift his werewolf curse. Meanwhile, the mummified high priest Kharis is summoned forth, and dons the amulet. The Mummy and The Wolf Man duke it out until the benefactor reveals himself: Count Dracula, who wants the amulet to grant him the power to walk in sunlight. The supernatural throwdown between three classic monsters delivers shocks, but is also a blast to see these icons all together, and in the cool setting of an ancient pyramid.
As a bonus, it appears the victor of the epic fight changes on various walkthroughs. And interestingly, Orlando is something of Chapter One of the tale, with HHN Hollywood serving as Chapter Two.