There are many charms to Universal Studios Hollywood, but foremost among them is its Studio Tour. A tram takes you on a motorized, shaded tour of Hollywood’s oldest working studio, through the “front lot” where the sound stages are, and the “backlot” where the practical sets are, with some interactive surprises between. It can take up to an hour depending on which parts are open to view and which are in use by productions. The tour is all about the history of Universal Studios: you can see the “Little Europe” set where Universal invented the monster movie, the Western sets where everyone from John Wayne to Leonardo DiCaprio filmed cowboy movies, the metropolitan set that has been the cityscape for everything from Transformers to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and more.
During Halloween, it’s different. Throughout September and October, the Studio Tour becomes the Terror Tram. A tram takes you to the studio’s backlot, and then forces you off to survive a gauntlet of horrors that changes from year to year.
Last year’s Terror Tram had one cohesive theme: The Purge, where murderous berserkers wearing grotesque masks were given permission to end you if they so desired. This year, Blumhouse, the production company responsible for your worst nightmares the Purge franchise, has its own haunted house at Horror Nights, which is a combination of Freaky and The Black Phone. That left the Terror Tram wide open for other horrors to take over, and take over they did.
This year’s tram has three distinct parts. Some might wish they were more cohesive, but I was not among them. Last year, my main takeaway was oh god please not another maniac with a chainsaw running at me, whereas this year it was more I wonder what’s coming next to haunt my dreams.
Normally, when you get on the tram for the Universal Studio Tour, Jimmy Fallon greets you through monitors on the tram cars, welcoming you to the 40-60 minute ride through the largest working studio in Hollywood, so big that it has its own zip code and fire department, and giving you some background of the studio’s history. (He also sings a song about how you should have a “tramtastic day,” which will haunt you in a totally different way. Knowing I was writing this story today, I woke up singing that saccharine little ditty, and it has been with me all. day. long.)
On the Terror Tram, though, the video is different. This one explains the worst tragedy to ever befall Universal. Professional clown Hollywood Harry had his own television show until it was cancelled due to “increasingly erratic behavior,” which caused him to snap and become the murderous psycho that I believe every professional clown is capable of being, deep down, if given the proper motivation. (Otherwise why would they choose such a disturbing, serial killer-ey profession?)
For his last broadcast, Hollywood Harry televised the live murder of two people, whose bodies were never found. Harry was also never caught. If you think this is the part of the ride where the tram will stop and you’ll be foisted out into a sea of murder clowns, you’re exactly right.
Make it through that grotesque gauntlet, and you’ll turn the corner to the real set of the Bates Motel from Hitchcock’s Psycho, which has been turned into a horror motel of a different kind, where murderers and murderees of different stripes are in every room. There’s even one with a bar full of skeletons where I would genuinely like to sit and order a zombie (although what kind of zombie would appear from behind the bar is unclear.)
If you don’t get killed at the Bates Motel, you’ll be rewarded with a visit from Norman Bates himself, who will pull out an enormous knife from his breast pocket while you pose for a photo on the porch of his house.
Then comes the scary part. When you walk through the real wreckage of the 747 jet from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, surprisingly creepy murder cats jump out from over a high fence, prepping you for the Halloween groteqeries about to greet you in the form of demented trick or treaters. It all leads up to Hollywood Harry’s lair, where—you guessed it—you’ll find the desiccated corpses of those two unwilling guest stars of his last broadcast.
Did I mention this is for fun? (It’s extremely fun.)
The most exciting thing about this year’s Terror Tram is the last part, which plays into Jordan Peele’s latest, Nope. In this section, you’re walking through Jupiter’s Claim, the ill-fated Western theme park from the movie, which has been taken over by the Tethered from Us. There are red jumpsuited, scissors-wielding psychos all over the little Western town. It’s your job to make it past them, the corpses they have left in their wake, and the dazed Western townsfolk/theme park actors wondering exactly what happened just moments ago when the alien ripped through the area and ate a bunch of people. If you squint, maybe the storyline is “the tethered were able to emerge because the alien disrupted reality” or something like that, but I was too entranced by the truly excellent physical acting of the scareactors playing the Tethered to think too hard about it.
There are a lot of other things to recommend Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Hollywood: haunted houses based on movies Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Halloween, scare zones full of scare actors just trying to catch you off guard, and a Dia de los Muertos plaza where they serve mezcal margaritas garnished with fresh flowers. But the one thing I look forward to most every year is the Terror Tram. For me, Halloween isn’t complete without it.
Julie Tremaine is an award-winning food and travel writer who’s road tripping—and tasting—her way across the country. Her work appears in outlets like Vulture, Travel + Leisure, CNN Travel and Glamour, and she’s the Disneyland editor for SFGATE, covering California theme parks. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.