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Pop Culture Comes to Life Again at Halloween Horror Nights 2019

The Ghostbusters are a big part of Halloween Horror Nights.
The Ghostbusters are a big part of Halloween Horror Nights.
Photo: Germain Lussier (io9)

When I turned the corner and saw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, I knew I was in for a good night.

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Beginning today, Friday the 13th, Halloween Horror Nights is open at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. (It’s also open at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.) This is the annual event where the theme park is transformed at night into a huge collection of gross-out, jump-scare mazes as people with chainsaws chase you around. You know, a fun night out this time of year.

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This year, Horror Nights in Hollywood is comprised of 10 mazes, a mix of general scary themes as well as major pop culture properties. The latter are my favorite—I love seeing how the team behind the event takes movies or shows like Ghostbusters, Us, Stranger Things, House of 1000 Corpses, and more and makes them into a cohesive, scary narrative. So that’s what I focused on, with the help of an Express pass thanks to the team at Universal.

Slimer!
Slimer!
Photo: NBCUniversal

The highlights of the night, in terms of pop culture mazes, were Ghostbusters and Us. Ghostbusters, while having “ghosts” in it, is way more of a comedy than a horror movie, and that extends to the maze too. It’s not “scary” exactly, though it tries, with plenty of Slimers and Gozers jumping out at every turn. But what makes the maze so much fun is the recreation of the movie itself. You walk in and an actor is playing the receptionist, Janine. Throughout, you run into actors dressed as the four main Ghostbusters. Dana Barrett is stuck to a chair with creepy hands all over her. Seeing these characters, played by live actors, gives the whole maze a pop.

Then there are those monsters. Slimer is everywhere, including a bit where he flies down a hallway and you hear a voice say “He slimed me!” at the end. And, of course, before you leave you see the Ghostbusters taking aim at a massive Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s a beautiful sight, which again takes away from the scares a bit, but that’s okay because it just feels so damn good to see it.

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The Tethered, getting snippy.
The Tethered, getting snippy.
Photo: NBCUniversal

The Us maze, based on this year’s Jordan Peele hit, similarly takes guests through the story of the movie, but in a much more frightening way. From the boardwalk funhouse, to a few vacation houses, back to the boardwalk, and down into its depths, you feel like you are in Us. All along, the score and songs from Peele’s film play, as actors dressed as the Tethered lurk in every room and corner. Some of them aren’t even hiding. They’re just there. Standing. Staring. Seeing an actor playing Red, standing absolutely still with a pair of scissors, is truly upsetting, but maybe not as much as seeing a man trying to break down a door from the outside as you walk through the house.

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Us is a scary, excellent experience because it feels real. You feel like you’re in the movie, yes, but it’s also a realistic, recognizable world. This one just so happens to have dead bodies you have to step over on the ground.

An intruder enters the Stranger Things cabin.
An intruder enters the Stranger Things cabin.
Photo: NBCUniversal
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Besides those two mazes, the other very popular experience when we went was Stranger Things. Because, of course. It’s Stranger Things. However, unlike Ghostbusters and Us, Stranger Things was a huge letdown. The maze focuses mostly on the second season, so you get a lot of imagery of tunnels and Demogorgon dogs and stuff like that. There’s even some Will and the Mind Flayer in there. But the maze is lacking the wow factor of Ghostbusters and Us. You may even think that’s coming when the maze transitions into Stranger Things 3 at the end but that section is only a few small rooms, and there’s no shopping mall or pool or anything. You walk out of the maze disappointed and even a little wet...because there’s a room where you get water shot at you.

Thankfully, that’s far from the end when it comes to pop culture mazes at Horror Nights. Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses maze is very disturbing, even if you don’t know the movie. Killer Klowns From Outer Space does a solid job of blending funny and creepy with truly beautiful recreations of those recognizable clowns. And then there’s also Creepshow, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and a slew of non-pop culture scary stuff too.

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The Killer Klowns stand ready with pies.
The Killer Klowns stand ready with pies.
Photo: NBCUniversal

When it comes to a fun, themed, scary night out for the Halloween season, Horror Nights is almost always a good time. I just keep finding that, as I get older, the truly awkward layout of Universal Studios Hollywood takes away from the experience. The four huge escalators breaking up the top and lower levels are not themed and completely ruin the mood. The maybe quarter-mile walk between the lower level and the backlot (where three-plus mazes are kept) is themed, which keeps things scary, but it’s just so, so far. By the time you get to the backlot, you’ve walked so far, standing in line even for 10 minutes (let alone 100) is a chore.

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And yet, no matter how tired you are, once you go through those curtains and enter any of the mazes, the craftsmanship is so good and actors so invested, it’s hard not to have a good time.

Horror Nights is open now through early November. Visit this site for tickets and details.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

Also attended the preview last night, was impressed by most of the mazes this year. Having gone to HHH for a few years now, here are a few tips:

  • Go early. The crowds (and prices) will go up the closer we get to Halloween. This preview weekend (and specifically this weeknight, when a lot of people and kids can’t go) is a great time to hit the park.
  • Pick a level and hit all the mazes you can before you move on to the next one. As stated, the multi-escalator ride is a slow buzzkill, and you don’t want to be riding it up and down all night.
  • If you get there right when HHH opens: pick either A) the most popular maze and jump into line early, or B) the furthest maze away from the main gate on the lower level. If you can beat the crowds down there you stand a reasonable shot at having a short line.
  • If you get to HHH after it opens then pick your battles. The lower backlot will be swamped by then (Ghostbusters especially), so maybe check out the mazes closest to the entrance as they get less crowded after opening. House of 1,000 Corpses is close to the front gate and we pretty much walked right in at 11pm.
  • If you’re there on a night that’s not too busy, the lower backlot may start clearing out early. We waited until the last 2 hours of the night before going down there and had short-to-no waits at Ghostbusters, Creepshow, and Frankenstein vs. Wolfman. Mind you, this was preview night, but if you go on a random Thursday you might see similar results.
  • FYI, the backlot isn’t just at the bottom of the massive escalator block – it’s also down a long walkway, a TUNNEL, and another walkway before you land at the end. So keep that in mind before you go down there, because unless you’re in a wheelchair you have to walk all the way BACK too. (Not sure how many miles we walked last night but my Fitbit read 15,000 steps by the end of the night.)
  • The Us maze was decent, but the line was horrid. It’s down by where they used to run the tram ride off the upper level, and you wait inside a warren of turnstiles that make it feel longer than it is. Either jump into this one first or wait until the end of the night when the wait is shorter.
  • Stranger Things really was a disappointment, as it was last year too. Not sure why they can’t zero in on what would make for a fun maze with that show, but basic jump scares with the Demidogs or Mindflayer aren’t that interesting. The feeling of disappointment is magnified by how long you have to wait to get in (was up to 120 mins at one point last night) so if your choice is a popular maze like that one or one with a shorter wait time like Killer Clowns, do yourself a favor.. You’re not missing much.
  • Speaking of Stranger Things, don’t get all hyped about the “Starcourt Mall” popup. It’s really just a tent placed over a street kitchen slinging burgers, dogs and tater tots. The real action is across the street at Scoops Ahoy :)
  • Download the HHH app, you can get live line updates while you’re waiting in your current line.
  • Don’t forget about the little pop-up mazes that are in-between the big ones. They provides a quick jolt of adrenaline for a short walkthrough, often with no waiting.
  • You will get wet. And sweaty. And maybe covered in glazed donut crumbs. Dress accordingly. And for the love of all that’s holy, wear good walking shoes.
  • Happy Halloween, y’all!