Prepare yourself for the horror event of the year with our comprehensive ranking of all 10 haunted houses and five Scare Zones at Universal Studios Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights.
Halloween Horror Nights, the raucous annual celebration of the macabre and mortifying, has returned once again to Universal Studios Orlando. Every year the theme park is transformed into a living, breathing descent into horror throughout September and October, with 10 haunted houses and five “Scare Zones” frightening guests on select nights. If you’re a fan of horror movies, haunted houses, or just getting screamed at by the local actors of central Florida, you owe it to yourself to check out Halloween Horror Nights.
I didn’t consider myself a fan of any of that until I went to last year’s Halloween Horror Nights. I knew I loved theme parks, though, and especially the way various forms of artistry and craftsmanship combine to create spaces as immersive and unforgettable as, say, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I didn’t expect that level of detail in an event that’s inherently temporary like Halloween Horror Nights, and so was a little shocked by how beautifully designed those haunted houses were. They may not have been Hogwarts, but those houses were still gorgeously detailed and realistic, representing another side of theme park design that I had never really considered before. It was my first time at a Halloween Horror Nights and I was hooked.
This year’s event kicked off the Friday after Labor Day, and I was fortunate enough to make it back on opening night for a tour of this year’s entire lineup. (Yes, that included the Academy of Villains dance show, and the brand-new Marathon of Mayhem lagoon show, which impressively projects onto water scenes from some of the movies and TV shows found in this year’s haunted houses.) As far as I’m concerned, the creative teams and show directors at Universal have outdone themselves once again with a suite of horrific experiences both familiar and new. Here’s a rundown of every haunted house and Scare Zone at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, ranked from the least to most impressive. And if you want to scream your way through ‘em yourself, check out Universal’s official website to find out what specific nights the event will be running.
(Note: There’s also a Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, but there are a number of differences between the two events; this piece is only factoring in Universal Studios Florida.)
This perfunctory recap of Rob Zombie’s cult horror movie doesn’t skimp on the fake corpses, but it also doesn’t get anywhere near 1000. Of course what matters is not how many corpses you’ve got, but how you use them, and unfortunately this haunted house just feels kind of lazy. Yeah, there are actors playing Captain Spaulding and the Firefly family, with mulched up mannequins and other practical effects standing in as their unfortunate guests (which, in the movie, included Rainn Wilson, Chris Hardwick and Walton Goggins). This is blunt force gore, though, just blood and guts spread out throughout a maze with occasional actors jumping out in front of you. It’ll definitely get a reaction from most guests, especially those with weaker stomachs, but there’s nothing fun or clever about it.
Obviously I love Ghostbusters. I am a middle-aged white man: I have to love Ghostbusters. What makes for a great comedy does not make for a great haunted house, though. There is nothing even remotely scary about this house, because there is nothing scary about the movie it’s based on. The designers try to wring some reactions through the most egregious example of jump scares this year, with the devil dogs and other ghosts popping out of walls and from behind corners in predictable ways. The tone of the movie just isn’t compatible with the goals of Halloween Horror Nights, making this the most nostalgia-dependent of the nostalgia houses. It’s basically a series of “hey, remember this scene?” moments, but without an amazing cast of all-time great comedians and actors. (The Annie Potts stand-in did a great job during my walkthrough, though.) I definitely enjoyed this house, and dug the recreations of iconic scenes from one of the biggest movies of my childhood, but it just felt out of place at Halloween Horror Nights.
This has some of the same problems as the Ghostbusters house, but at least this ‘80s fave has more gore and frights along with its laughs. The haunted house also has less of a book report feel, as it jumbles up the movie to put all the outdoors scenes first and string all the scenes inside the circus tent-shaped spaceship together. The awesome sets and comically grotesque clowns look like they were pulled straight from the set of the Chiodo Brothers’ film, and there are a variety of GATs (guest-activated triggers) throughout to give it a bit more of an immersive and interactive feel. Don’t let the low placement fool you—this is still a really good haunted house, but like the movie it’s more goofy than scary, which might limit its appeal for some. Like most of the movie-based houses, it’s also just a little too dependent on nostalgia. It’s got to be almost impossible to balance the audience’s expectations of seeing a movie come to life with the need to make these spaces feel real, alive and shocking, and the Killer Klowns house sticks perhaps too closely to the former.
This original house has a timely conceit: two punk teens in New Orleans decide to livestream themselves pranking people in a supposedly haunted graveyard. The problem comes in the execution. I can excuse the goofiness of naming the teens Sid and Nancy, but the livestream concept is hard to convey through a haunted house, mostly resulting in a handful of moments where a dead body is holding a phone. The design of the graveyard is suitably creepy, but feels a bit generic, as do the ghosts and other monsters. And as obnoxious as social media-addicted teenagers can be, I don’t know if that merits their murders at the spectral hands of undead spirits. It’s a cool graveyard with some solid frights, but like the vast majority of social media posts, you’ll forget about it as soon as you’re done with it.
Here’s another Halloween Horror Night original, this time set in an underwater laboratory that’s been overtaken by fish monsters who embed their eggs in human’s faces through projectile vomiting. Nice! The set design is crucial to enjoying this one: the hallways have the rough metal appearance of a submarine, with sound, light and water effects completing the illusion. (Don’t worry: you won’t get wet.) If this was a movie it’d be pitched somewhere between horror and disaster, like an underwater Alien with the crew frantically trying to escape certain death. The only reason this one isn’t higher is because of the design of the monsters—they’re just a little too goofy, which defuses some of the tension. Also there’s a totally unnecessary bit of violence against a household pet, which really bugged me, even after seeing, like, 100 fake people get ripped to shreds throughout this park.
Stranger Things made its Halloween Horror Nights debut as the main event of last year’s event. That maze focused exclusively on the first season, even though the second season premiered almost a full year earlier. This year’s maze makes up for that, combining both the second and third seasons into one massive maze with almost twice as many scenes as the average Halloween Horror Night house. I’ll be honest: I kind of forgot what happens in the second season, so the first half of this house was a solid refresher, even if the nature of these things means a lot of the context and connective tissue was missing. The second half, though, features pretty much everything a fan of the third season could hope to see, from Scoops Ahoy and the Starcourt Mall, to the upbeat pulse of a certain beloved ‘80s movie theme song. It doesn’t have a single scene as transfixing as last year’s recreation of the Byers’ living room, but that’s also a problem the show itself hasn’t been able to fully work out. It’s still a fun and well-designed recreation of a popular and almost terminally nostalgic show, making it in many ways the ideal Halloween Horror Nights property.
Somehow they made it snow in Orlando in 90 degree heat. Walking into Yeti: Terror of the Yukon is like walking into an industrial freezer or cold storage warehouse, and that alone made me immediately love it. Thankfully it’s also a beautifully crafted maze that captures a time and place rarely seen in movies (and even far less so in haunted houses): the Yukon of the 18th century, as European trappers struggle to survive a winter that was brutal enough even before the yeti started eating them all. The maze is essentially a long, sprawling log cabin surrounded by a winter wonderland, with snow constantly falling and ceiling-high snow banks brushing up against the man-made walls. This yeti gets around—you’ll run into the thing over and over, often as he’s mauling some poor, unfortunate trapper. The only risk here is that you’ll feel so comfortable in the cold that you won’t ever feel that scared or stressed by the man-eating monster popping out of every corner.
Universal revisited one of its older original haunted houses with the return of Nightingales. Instead of the World War I trenches of the original, Blood Pit takes place almost 2000 years earlier, in the hypogeum of a Roman arena that had housed gladiatorial games for over 100 days straight. The blood that soaked down beneath the arena floor attracted the supernatural beasts known as the Nightingales, bird-like monsters that feed off human blood and carnage. This haunted house starts with an elaborate Roman-themed entrance before plunging guests into tight, winding quarters full of blood and beasts. It’s a detailed recreation of a real Roman amphitheater’s underground quarters, and I would’ve loved exploring it even without the story unfolding around me. More than any other house this year, Blood Pit reinforces my belief that the Halloween Horror Night designers are far more invested in their own original concepts than the houses based on movies. Blood Pit is actually unique and fascinating enough to warrant its own film.
I did not expect this: Us the haunted house does a better job of telling Jordan Peele’s story than his movie does. I liked the movie a lot, at least up until the final few scenes (it goes a bit off the rails once a certain character goes down a certain escalator), but Universal’s haunted house establishes the movie’s premise and stakes while streamlining the clunky exposition of its climax. It’s also the only house that legitimately scared me this year—unlike every other house, where the monsters looked like monsters, the only way to tell which actors in the Us house were playing the movie’s main characters and which ones would scream at us was if they were wearing a red jumpsuit. Bonus points for actually having a Tim Heidecker scare actor, even if he looked way more like Eric Trump than Heidecker.
This defies expectations in two major ways: first off, it makes Universal’s classic monsters legitimately frightening without leaning hard on gore and easy shocks. Secondly, it avoids the nostalgia crutch by stripping these characters and movies down to their most elemental and iconic natures. You’ll walk through the lab where Frankenstein was created, with lighting effects recreating the ripple of electricity throughout the room, but there’s no Dr. Frankenstein screaming “it’s alive!” It plays on our familiarity without shining a spotlight on our nostalgia. The art design is superb throughout, combining wildly disparate architectural motifs in a fluid but dizzying manner. The highlights are scenes from two Lon Chaney films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera; they’re both grotesque and yet also beautiful little art installations as fated to disappear as the creatures that stalk them.
Once again there are five Scare Zones to ramble through this year. These aren’t houses or mazes, but open-air stretches of Universal Studios turf that house a bit of thematic set dressing and a legion or two of costume-wearing scare actors. Basically they serve up some minor thrills as you’re walking around the park, from one maze or ride to the next. By their nature it’s easy to not even realize you’ve stumbled into one. The best Scare Zones, though, are impossible to ignore.
Who else forgot that Zombieland was getting a sequel this year? Hopefully the movie is better than this theme park tie-in. I didn’t realize I was even in a Scare Zone until my third time walking through it, and that was only because I finally spotted the ‘00s-era Nissan Altima parked on the sidewalk. If you find yourself walking past generic street zombies with carnival games and mundane used sedans, you might be down in Zombeland.
I would absolutely love a frightening haunted house set in a classic ‘80s arcade. Sadly this ain’t it. Anarchade would be better if the oversized arcade machines had creepy or unexpected images on them instead of generic-looking retro game knockoffs. This is just another bit of sidewalk you have to scoot down to get from one haunted house to another, and maybe you’ll get yelled at by somebody in a mask.
This Scare Zone brings the musician-turned-horror director’s best-selling album to life, complete with photo opportunities with the living dead girl and the Big Daddy Roth-inspired Dragula. There are far worse records from the late ‘90s that you could have to walk through, and this Scare Zone definitely makes an impression. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in it, though, if you aren’t a fan of the record; sadly, I’m not. Rob Zombie fans will love this, and everybody else will wonder why it’s here.
Here’s where the Scare Zones get interesting. This body horror spectacular imagines an annual contest where people go to horrific surgical extremes to make themselves match a deeply misguided idea of beauty. You can’t really walk through this zone without realizing what’s happening around you, which alone makes this better than most of the other Scare Zones. It’s an original idea with an effectively grotesque execution, and hopefully people won’t overlook it—it’s the only Zone that you kind of have to go out of your way to find.
This year’s best Scare Zone is in the same spot as last year’s best Scare Zone, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. This narrow, dark corridor is surrounded by twisting trees that immediately lend an overpoweringly spooky atmosphere. Add in this year’s best Scare Zone concept—a band of viking warriors who refused entry to Valhalla so they could continue to pillage and torment the living—and fantastic lighting, sound and costume design, and you’ve got yourself a zone that is legitimately unsettling. It’s creepier than most of the actual haunted houses.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.