This year’s HHN programme – the park’s 26th year of putting the frighteners on its guests – is packed full of headline horror and outrageous acts, but there’s even more to enjoy as Universal has expanded its repertoire with a new show and even more of the usual haunted houses and scare zones.
For those who have never been, Universal Studios is transformed after dark into a separately-ticketed event that features well-known horror franchises – and some of Universal’s own creative ideas – in set-piece indoor mazes and atmospheric outdoor zones. There are nine of the former and five of the latter, plus two headline shows, making for a blockbuster experience from 6.30pm to 1 or 2am on select nights from now until the end of October.
You’ll be hard pushed to see everything that’s in store, even with a Universal Express pass for the haunted houses, so here are our 10 must-see highlights, counting down in reverse order to our top experience of HHN 2016:
10. Dead Man’s Wharf
Wander into this scare zone (which is cleverly set up on the edge of San Francisco, next to where the Amity town from the Jaws attraction used to be) and you’ll encounter the restless spirits of many souls lost in the deadly seas offshore. There’s fog, and strobe lighting, and underwater effects, plus a whole pirate ghost ship washed up on the ‘shore’ to lure more unsuspecting victims to their doom. The wandering scare-actors include barnacle-encrusted deep-sea divers and other hideous apparitions to keep everyone amused!
9. The Walking Dead
Now an annual fixture, the haunted house for the big zombie-laden TV series is one of the biggest, and piles the scares up using classic moments from all six series, including a variation on the iconic ‘Bicycle Girl’ character that remains a genuinely shocking encounter (and is a brilliantly conceived special effect). It’s dark, macabre and with lots of walkers ready to burst out at you at any moment, especially in the tunnel scene.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The houses don’t come much more creepy and obviously alarming than the stark white house at the centre of the Chainsaw film franchise. You know you’re going to be menaced by Leatherface (and others) as you work your way around this particular maze, and the scares don’t end at the exit, either. Oh no! There may still be a chainsaw (or two) waiting for when you least expect it, while some of the ghastly touches en route – even the wicked odours – are suitably grisly.
7. Ghost Town
This is one of the best examples of Universal’s own vision and creativity, with a whole Wild West extravaganza twisted into a haunted house of death and destruction. The cowboy theme is brilliantly maintained all the way through – you can practically taste the choking dust of the tumbleweed and the dried-up gold mine – and there are several shootout scenes along the way to keep you ducking and diving for cover while also dodging the ghouls who want you to join them!
6. The Exorcist
The familiar Mike Oldfield theme music greets guests at this truly haunted set-up, and there’s no going back once you set foot inside the door of “an ordinary house in St Louis.” The ghostly action comes at you fast and furious, with a series of superb special effects taken directly from the classic horror film as well as several created specifically for HHN (look out in particular for the superb three-dimensional outdoor tableau that suddenly springs to life from a two-dimensional wall – it’s even more dramatic than it sounds).
5. Survive Or Die Apocalypse
This scare zone, on the streets of New York, has a genuine post-apocalyptic look and feel, like Mad Max meets Escape From New York, with ranting marauders, fire-spouts, roving armoured vehicles, fire-spouts, chainsaw-wielding figures that lurk in the shadows and fire-spouts. It’s a great visual look and pretty scary, with an actor on the main tower rallying visitors to their desperate cause. Pay attention to him if you dare! It’s also a zone that you can return to several times to sample the different special effects (and did we mention there are fire-spouts?!).
4. Tomb Of The Ancients
This ‘ancient Egypt’ haunted house is another Universal original in 2016 and benefits from a suitably terrifying storyline that reveals immortal beings from an ancient past have returned to lay claim to the world. As visitors wind through the maze they have created, the eerie darkness comes to life sporadically with vague warnings, mummified remains and lurking creatures, including the Amut, a crocodile-faced, lion-like apparition. It all combines in a novel way to make this one of the most creative experiences of this year’s HHN.
3. American Horror Story
For anyone not familiar with this recent TV series (which airs on FX in the US), this is a whole series of highlights from various programmes, including Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel, highlighted (or ‘low-lighted’ would probably be more accurate) by the genuinely sinister figure of Twisty, the disfigured clown from the Freak Show episode. It’s creepy rather than out-and-out horrific, but the brilliantly recreated scenes – like the demonic figure that emerges from a bed mattress – are all first class.
2. Academy of Villains: House of Fear
With very little advance promotion, we almost missed this stage show in front of Mel’s Diner, which would have been absolutely tragic as it’s a real stunner. A superbly choreographed piece of high-energy dance and acrobatics, all backed by a story told on video screen and on stage, it features the performance troupe Academy of Villains (a bit like Cirque du Soleil but on the dark side), who appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2012 and have gone on to create a number of themed shows, all with a macabre edge. The energy and power of their performance is anything but deathly, though, and the sequence with a shadow screen to the sound of Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life is utterly breathtaking. If you’re heading to HHN this year, don’t miss this show.
1. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
OK, so for all the haunted houses and scare zones, our top two elements this year are both shows, but it’s no surprise to see Bill and Ted at No.1 as their regular riot of gags, dance and risqué humour is as slick and memorable as ever. This has become Universal’s annual mickey-take on a year of politics, celebrity and music, and, with five performances each evening, the cast never fail to turn in a top-notch show, for which there is absolutely no photography or video-taping allowed, hence our only photo is of the stage! But make no mistake, these 1989 film characters still come across as fresh, fun and relevant, and you simply can’t go to Halloween Horror Nights without taking in Bill and Ted. It’s most bodacious.
There is more, of course, plus most of the rides that make Universal such a winning park these days. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit in the dark? You bet! Just be ready for long queues at many of the haunted houses and our advice is to arrive early (about half an hour before opening time) and be patient. There is SO much horror to enjoy, you don’t want to miss a moment.
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