Collins’ Crypt: Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights Is Back - And So Am I!

BC hasn't been to HHN for a long time, but picked a good time to make his return.

If you read every Collins' Crypt (why?) you'll probably notice I am frequently discussing time; specifically, my lack of it. Unlike some of your friendly neighborhood horror writers, I have a regular day job, with a fairly lengthy commute to boot, so that eats up a sizable chunk of my (barely) awake time. Then I got the kid, and every now and then I am at a loss to explain how he's already four years old, something that might not be as mind-blowing if the day job (and other side ones) didn't take me away from him as often as it does. On the average weekday, I'm in my home for less than three hours or so not counting sleep, and that's my time to spend with him and my wife, catch up on DVR, read, play games, and maybe even watch the occasional movie. Needless to say, we don't get out much, so when we do it's gotta be pretty special. 

Luckily, this year's incarnation of Universal Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights hit that mark. Despite the annual event being very much in my wheelhouse, I've only gone I think once in the past 7-8 years, as various financial issues or that pesky time deficiency would always rear their ugly head and keep it at bay. Or even when I did have time/money, I'd be denied; I remember in 2013 I was set to see the Orlando version for the first time, as a planned Florida vacation turned out to start on the last weekend HHN was running. Our flight from CA was supposed to arrive in early afternoon on that final Saturday, which would give us time to check into the hotel, freshen up, and head to the park - but our flight was delayed by several hours, and our luggage was temporarily lost on top of that, so alas it did not happen (insult to injury, it was the year they had a Cabin in the Woods maze, which was something I tweeted the park's official Twitter the year before only to be told it wasn't likely). We finally managed to carve out a night and some money to go in 2015, but it wasn't a particularly memorable year: they had a good Halloween themed maze, and an inspired This is the End 3-D funhouse kinda deal, but the others (like Crimson Peak, a barely horror movie that wasn't even out yet, and for some reason Alien vs Predator) weren't good fits for the source material - there's something just "off" about a damn Predator jumping out at you and then walking away.

Don't get me wrong, that year wasn't "bad" - it just didn't exactly make us want to make it an annual thing again. But when they announced a Halloween 4 maze would be part of this year's lineup, I knew I had to return. This particular entry is more than just my favorite sequel in the series, it was my entry point for this franchise that has become so entwined with my general love of horror, so the fact that they were making a maze specific to its plot and characters was just too enticing for me*. Plus, their big thing this year was a Stranger Things maze, and while I was indifferent at the time (I've changed my tune since) my wife is a huge fan so I knew she'd love going through - plus she tends to miss out on more stuff than I do given the nature of our work schedules (mine being more flexible than hers), so just getting to go to *anything* Halloween-y is a big treat. And thus, on Friday night, for only the second time this decade, I walked through those gates at Universal and found myself engulfed in fog machines set to James Wan mode. It was good to be back.

It will surprise no one that I beelined for the Halloween 4 maze, but in my defense it's pretty much the first one you'll come across anyway. Interestingly, while most of the movie-themed mazes walk you through that film's entire plot, this one omitted anything with the rednecks (no Ted Hollister, alas) and school sequences, walking you through the gas station and power stations and then taking you into the two houses (the Carruthers', where a little Jamie dummy is dragged under a bed as you walk by, and the Meeker's). I was surprised that the houses made up such a brief section of the maze, but let's face it - a number of these attractions take you through suburban homes (including three others in this year's particular lineup) so it's not like you'll be under-served if you have an affinity for them. Plus, the gas station area had so much detail for fans to appreciate - they even had the framed photo of Abe Lincoln on the wall near Loomis (a pretty convincing lookalike!) as he fired at Michael. And there was even... OK, I won't spoil the surprise, but if you're a hardcore Halloween 4 fan you'll probably get a pretty good laugh at one particular Michael that jumps out at you. I would absolutely love if they continued doing specific entries in the other franchises (Jason Takes Manhattan maze?) in the future, as the designers can dig deep into just the one film (as opposed to a whole franchise) and work in these kinds of easter eggs while still providing plenty of all-purpose jolts for the people who just want to get scared and don't care much about the source material.

Next up was the Universal Monsters maze, which I believe was the longest one (or at least tied with Stranger Things) and drew from a good chunk of Universal's collection of monsters, though THE Monster (as in "Frankenstein") featured most prominently. Slash composed some new music that played in a few spots as you make your way through a fairly random but always engaging series of rooms and exterior locations drawn from Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, etc. I was most happy to see a few deeper cuts in there - the likes of Invisible Man (the actor was covered in black save for a few clothing items that were lit up via blacklight), the Hunchback, and the Phantom all popped up as well. No Gillman, but that makes sense - he came much later than the others, so if they were sticking to the original run from the '30s and '40s, he'd be opening up another era - one they could possibly save for a future incarnation. If you have a good sized group, this line is the easiest to deal with, since it's centered adjacent to many of the snack stands - send someone on a run as necessary, and it'll fly by.

Whatever length the line may be, I assure you it's worth it for the Poltergeist maze. I should warn you that it's a bit of a trek; I'm not sure how Orlando or the other Universal parks are laid out, but the Hollywood one is split between an Upper and Lower lot, with four lengthy escalators (or an elevator for those with wheelchairs and the like, though I believe you need to have park staff assist) separating the two areas, a 10-15 minute excursion on its own. So to get from the aforementioned mazes to Poltergeist, you gotta get from the Upper Lot to the Lower one, then make your way to the other end of the studio from where the final escalator lets you off - it could be a half hour (more?) from departing the Upper Lot to getting in the line. Not that it matters in the long run, because it's just so good, one of the best I've seen in all the times I've gone. Housed in a convincing replica of the Freeling's home, you make your way past Carol Anne talking to the TV, through the kitchen (the chairs are stacked!), into the bedrooms, and even a sort of recreation of the pool area, where skeletons emerge from vertical coffins to taunt you as a recording of Stephen's famous "You only moved the headstones!" bellows through the PA. Pretty much every scare you remember from the movie is depicted in some way - even the tree and that goddamned clown doll - making it a perfect experience if you're a fan of the film, and who isn't? My unshakable bias puts Halloween 4 over it, but just barely - if I'm being honest, this was the highlight of the event.

Not too far away from that was the "Holidayz in Hell" scare zone, and since there's no "line" per se you can easily walk through it again if you wish, because it's pretty awesome and jampacked with details you might miss the first time. You are taken through macabre or just plain fucked up versions of all the major holidays (yes, there's an evil Leprechaun for St. Patrick's Day), with Thanksgiving being a particular highlight as an anthropomorphic turkey menaces you as you make your way past a table with half eaten corpses. From there, head back for Trick r' Treat, which is a great maze that walks you through all four of the anthology's storylines, but with some mix and matching for good measure - Dylan Baker's Principal character popped up in an unexpected spot, and of course you'll see a number of Sams. Now, when you get to the park you'll notice you pass Trick r Treat on the way to Poltergeist and the Holidayz thing and might be tempted to do it first, but trust me - save it for your way back, as the TrT exit is on the opposite side of the entrance, so you'll have to circle around again to make your way over to the others. Unless there's no line at all (doubtful) it's better to save it for your way back, since it will spit you out right next to the escalator.

Of course, when you go to the lower lot you'll likely want to prioritize the Stranger Things maze, or perhaps even skip all the upper lot stuff and get there first before the lines get any worse. At one point on Friday, I saw that the line was two and a half hours, though I assume that the opening night crowds will be thicker than normal so you shouldn't expect to see it that bad again, at least not until closer to Halloween. Since I already had many of its surprises spoiled for me last week, this wasn't as thrilling as it was for my wife, who got properly spooked by the Demogorgon and hazmat guys on several occasions. She also got the fleeting thrill of seeing some of the actors (the kids who play Dustin, Lucas, and Max) walk past as they checked out the maze - I wish we could have joined them if only to see Gaten Matarazzo react to the creepily undersized dummy of his character that appeared early on in the maze (as Murdy explained to us last week, they couldn't hire kids to play these characters given the long hours, so they had to use alternate means to represent them). But it was nice to see it all finished and properly lit, and if you're a megafan I can't imagine being disappointed even if you did indeed wait in that seemingly impossible line.

The rest of the stuff was hit or miss, and of course your mileage will vary depending on your love for the source material (or just by how easily you get scared). If you're the world's biggest Purge fan, I'm sure walking through a maze inspired by the newest film is enticing, but I couldn't help but wonder why they didn't just opt for some branded folks to be wandering around the park to promote the film and use that space for something a little more fitting, as it ultimately has little to do with the film's plot anyway. Likewise, if Truth or Dare was your favorite movie of the year then by all means check out the Blumhouse of Horrors (which also highlighted the first Unfriended, instead of the newer one?), but otherwise unless there's no wait, I think you'll find better uses of your time. The Terror Tram was also kind of a bust; it's always kind of the same (you get on the tram, ride for a few minutes, get off at Whoville, walk around it, Bates Motel, and War of the Worlds while scary dudes chase you around, then you get back on the tram) so beyond getting off my feet for a bit and watching a little Halloween promo on the way back, I wasn't particularly engaged by any of it.

But even when the specific attraction wasn't wowing me, it was still kind of invigorating and got me in the holiday spirit quicker than all the pumpkin spice cookies or lattes could manage. I only got jolted once or twice (and was kind of endeared how concerned a staff member was when I turned at the wrong time and collided with a masked marauder - I felt bad for the poor bastard since he took the brunt of the hit, but they only wanted to make sure I was okay!) but they got my wife good probably 3-4 times every maze, and that's not counting all the various guys they have stalking their way around the park (presumably all employed there and not actual killers; this is of course the plot of the movie Hell Fest) and in the themed scare zones. Ever since moving to LA, I find it harder and harder to get into the Halloween spirit since the weather is so hot and - again - I keep finding less time to do these sort of things, but by the end of the night, when the temps had fallen into "chilly" for LA (so, like 70?) it felt like any good night at Spookyworld, memories of which are mostly responsible for my realization that celebrating the Halloween season didn't have to end because I got too old to go trick or treating. 

I know lots of theme parks have scary makeovers this time of the year, but there's really nothing like the way Universal can pull it off. The resources it can provide (being a working studio) along with the more hospitable weather makes it far more elaborate and appealing than any of its competition that I've seen. I don't know if I will ever be able to afford/find the time to make it an annual event (especially when we also have Disney, Six Flags, and Knott's doing their own Halloween-ified events that I'd like to see), but this time I was not only more open to the idea than the last time I went, I even want to go back again THIS year. I ended up missing one of the scare zones, and because it was opening night there were some obnoxious press types flashing their lights/cameras around as they walked through the mazes, killing the mood on occasion. It probably won't happen, but the fact that I'd even look into it is testament to how well they put it all together this year (even the long walks are fine - you'll notice I didn't say "going to the gym" in my list of things I squeeze into my free time, so I could probably use the calorie burn). Going is something every horror (or Halloween) enthusiast should do once in their life, and if you can make it happen - this year's version is an ideal time to start.

*I assume that since the new movie wouldn't be out for another month, they were limited to what they could show without spoiling its surprises. H4 is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it was a perfectly fitting substitution. David Gordon Green's version will be represented in the future, I'm sure.