Prepare yourself for the horror event of the year with our comprehensive ranking of all 10 haunted houses and five scarezones at Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights.
I might not be the best person to evaluate something like Halloween Horror Nights. The annual haunted house extravaganza at Universal Studios started its legendary run in 1991, frightening guests with increasingly elaborate displays of terror every fall. It’s widely acknowledged as the industry leader in the lucrative field of mind-flaying horror, the pinnacle of modern haunted house theory and design. And until about two weeks ago, I had never been to one, ever.
It gets worse, though. I live in Atlanta and have never been to the world-renowned Netherworld Haunted House, which just moved to Stone Mountain after 20 years in a mostly abandoned indoor flea market. I’ve never been to a Six Flags Fright Fest or the Chambers of Horror or anything connected to the local cottage industry that’s popped up around The Walking Dead. Unless we count Disney’s Haunted Mansion (which, as amazing as that classic is, isn’t trying to scare us in the way these grislier attractions are), I haven’t been to a haunted house since one inside a Sarasota shopping mall in 1987 or so. And bored ‘80s teens getting paid minimum wage to yell at me from behind a latex mask is a far cry from the Hollywood-worthy makeup and effects of Halloween Horror Nights.
I realizing dwelling on my lack of credentials makes it easy to dismiss the 2000 or so words that I’ve written about Halloween Horror Nights below. It gives me a unique viewpoint, though: I’m coming in to this blind. I don’t have any expectations, positive or negative, and no frame of reference for my reactions. If you’re a first-time visitor to Horror Nights, or even to Universal Studios Orlando, and have no idea what to expect, let me walk you through it as a fellow first-timer.
Last month I went to Orlando and visited Halloween Horror Nights for the very first time. I had no idea what to expect, and so I was a little anxious when I went through my first one. And although none of the houses actually terrified me that much, I still fell in love with how beautifully designed and exactingly detailed most of these houses are. I didn’t get scared, but as a fan of themed environments that transport me into worlds that don’t feel like our own, I’m pretty sure it won’t be another 27 years before I return to Halloween Horror Nights.
This year Halloween Horror Nights has 10 haunted houses and five scarezones. Haunted houses are the main draw, twisting mazes of terror that use lighting, sound, practical effects and live actors to create overwhelming sensory experiences devised exclusively to frighten us. Scarezones are less elaborate open air exhibits found at specific points throughout the park. You have to walk through the scarezones to get to the haunted houses, basically. Together all 15 experiences create an unforgettable night of horror. Here’s a quick overview of each one; if these sound interesting, you have until Nov. 3 to check ‘em out. And note that Halloween Horror Nights never repeats a house, so if you’re desperate to walk through a real-life recreation of the first season of Stranger Things, this might be your only chance.
This original house feels unofficially inspired by the Stephen King segment of Creepshow, with a meteorite infecting Earth with parasitic plant life that quickly covers the entire planet. There are some genuinely beautiful visuals (you might even think a haunted house can be lyrical), with mundane environments given mysterious new life with a lush coat of green, but it quickly grows monotonous. Scare actors can already be a bit of a crutch—when you approach a door, corner or anything else that somebody can jump out of or behind of, you can bet that will happen—but they’re an especially weak device here, with an anonymous legion of faceless plant monsters failing to make an impression. This is the weakest house of the year, by far.
It’s no surprise that Michael Myers would bring his bloody kitchen knife back to Universal this year, what with the new movie from Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green coming out this month. This year’s house is based on the fourth Halloween movie (Universal’s already done the first two, and unsurprisingly skipped the Myers-less third movie in the series), and as expected it recreates key scenes from the movie, with a non-stop stream of Michael Myerses slicing away at you. Yes, the Jamie Lloyd character is here, and yes, she’s wearing that costume. It’s a little perfunctory as far as these things seem to go—the designers didn’t take that much liberty with the source—but at least it has some fantastic music.
You get two Blumhouse hits for the price of one with this house, which combines scenes from both The First Purge and Happy Death Day. Constantly walking through the same dorm room in the Death Day portion is suitably disorienting, but overall this house is about as disjointed as you’d expect. A single maze devoted to either movie would’ve been a stronger choice. Still, some of the details and individual rooms make quite an impression.
Michael Dougherty’s 2007 cult classic returns as a haunted house after making its Horror Nights debut as a scarezone last year. This maze has you walking through the picturesque neighborhoods of Warren Valley, whose residents tend to meet violent ends if they don’t properly celebrate Halloween. The facades of suburban homes make this almost calming at first, but that’s quickly punctured by gun-toting weirdos, blood-soaked passersby, and one intensely vomiting young man. At least that sack-headed little moppet Sam is there to (very creepily) guide you through—he’s a real cutie, no matter how hard he tries to kill you.
The latest version of Horror Nights’ original twisted fairy tale franchise opens with the most striking image of the entire event. As you turn the first corner into the opening chamber, you’ll find an overwhelming castle looming above you, with the Wicked Witch of the West cackling maniacally and flying around in the sky. The concept is that she’s conquered the land where fairy tales live, and has corrupted them all into evil versions of themselves. So Hansel and Gretel are now cannibals, Goldilocks devours Baby Bear, and all the king’s men deliriously feast on Humpty Dumpty’s insides. Nothing matches up to that first sight of the Witch, but Scary Tales is still a perversely charming bit of grotesque fun.
In keeping with Florida’s deep connection with the carnie industry, Carnival Graveyard is a keenly detailed tour de force of county fair-themed mayhem. Decaying husks of beloved childhood amusements highlight how all nostalgia is underpinned by a fear of death, as a constant stream of monstrous carnies frightens you at every turn. There’s an impressive amount of thematic detail in these grand piles of junk, which, when combined with the house’s sprawling size, makes this one of the more overwhelming houses this year.
This original concept proves that the Horror Nights designers could’ve been pretty great grindhouse horror directors if they had come around a few decades earlier. Filled with brief glimpses of old horror and sci-fi films that criminally don’t actually exist (complete with scene-setting movie posters and trailers), Slaughter Sinema is a wickedly smart tribute to the Z-grade trash that filled drive-in theaters in the ‘70s.
This year’s headlining haunted house ingeniously condenses the original Stranger Things storyline into a single maze, leading you from the Hawkins National Laboratory to the Byers house, into the Upside Down, and through the hallways of Hawkins High School. Along the way the Demogorgon stalks you around every corner. This house captures that nostalgic ‘80s atmosphere that made Netflix’s show such a surprise smash, but ramps up the horror considerably. It might not be the scariest haunted house here, but as a themed environment that recreates familiar locations from a popular show, it’s a big success. Read my in-depth look at the Stranger Things haunted house for more info.
Described as a “white whale” by multiple members of Universal creative, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic finally makes its Halloween Horror Nights debut. The designers are clearly more excited and inspired by this property than some of the other ones. Not only do they splice up the plot a bit (to start with a more appropriately frightening jolt), but they even get to extrapolate what the spirit dimension Heather O’Rourke’s character was trapped in looks like. I’m probably biased as an old guy raised on Spielberg who was frightened senseless by Poltergeist at far too young of an age, but this is the closest any Horror Nights house came to actually scaring me.
Apparently haunted houses can be art. Who knew? Dead Exposure: Patient Zero feels truly special, with design and back story effortlessly combining into one genuinely creepy experience. You’re stuck in a zombie outbreak in Paris in the 1980s, and the only vaccine leaves you temporarily blind. Actors and sets are highlighted with UV paint, which interact with strobes and blacklights to create a stuttering, fragmented journey through the dark. A recreation of a Metro station is a feat in theming, and the oppressive atmosphere and constant bursts of color in the darkness are enough to scare even without the expected legions of zombies. It can be hard to fit every Horror Nights house into a single evening, considering how long the lines get; if you only have one night to spend there, definitely prioritize Dead Exposure.
This is almost more of a show than anything else, with a Chucky doll haranguing the crowd from a platform. It has the same vaudeville-turned-evil humor as the movies, but the area is so sparsely decorated that it’s hard to find how anybody would find this scary.
The oddball cult favorite from the ‘80s is another “white whale” for Horror Nights designers. Beyond the clown characters, which look like they stepped right out of the movie, it’s hard to see that passion on display, though. There’s not much to this zone, other than the chance to come face to face with some of the weirdest horror icons of the ‘80s.
It’s theoretically possible to walk through The Harvest without even realizing it’s supposed to be a scarezone, assuming you somehow miss the creepy scarecrows throughout. That seems to be kind of the nature of scarezones, though—since they exist in between the larger, more fleshed out experiences, it’s easy to dismiss them as you hurry from one house to another. If you slow down and really make a point of soaking up The Harvest, though, you’ll find some wonderfully creepy farm-based creatures and environments.
With a variety of ghouls dressed up in peak ‘80s fashions (including the mandatory Prince and Madonna lookalikes), Vamp ‘85 shows us what Times Square on New Year’s Eve 1985 might’ve looked like if a swarm of fashion forward vampires took over. With period perfect music and fashion and hourly ball drops, Vamp ‘85 is kitschy fun from the heart of the Reagan Era. Between the party music and the zone’s large, open space, it’s a great respite from the claustrophobic haunted houses.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but Twisted Tradition is the best of the scarezones because it’s the one that feels the most like Halloween. It’s in conversation with all the familiar customs of the holiday, with rotting jack-o’-lanterns and withered trees evoking a New England autumn corrupted by some kind of unspeakable evil. (Yes, it made me think of New England, even thought it was still 90 degrees in Orlando when I walked through it.) It’s the one scarezone that feels like a fully realized, exhaustively detailed experience, and is worth seeking out before even some of the haunted houses.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.