Full Review of Halloween Horror Nights XXVII at Universal Orlando

Posted in Universal Studios Florida on Monday, September 18, 2017
Author: Ryan L. Terry

"Here's Johnny!" Experience some of your favorite horror films and television shows as Halloween Horror Nights 27 (HHN27) at Universal Studios Florida showcases the iconic and contemporary in one terrifyingly fantastic celebration of the macabre. Be sure to catch Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure's final tour as they riff pop culture and relive some of the best moments in the popular comedy show for the last time. This year's houses include a selection of TV/movie-based houses and original IPs; furthermore, be sure to visit the scare zones as well! The movie or TV-based houses are: The Shining as the big headliner this year, American Horror Story (Asylum, Coven, & Roanoke), Saw, The Horrors of Blumhouse, and Ash v. Evil Dead; the original IPs are: The FallenDead WaterScarecrow: the Reaping, & Hive. You'll also find scare zones featuring familiar elements and scenes from The Purge and Trick'r Treat in the lineup as well as a nod to classic alien films from the 1930s-50s. From several park guests, the general consensus was that this year was solid, offered precisely what most were looking for and successfully brought nightmares to life.

Attending opening weekend is an experience like no other during HHN27. Much like attending the Thursday night preview of a highly anticipated film, facing that which frightens you in your darkest of nightmares is best experienced with those who countdown to this event from the close of a previous season to the opening of the following one. I have two friends, in particular, that absolutely live for this seasonal event and are always on top of the latest developments. The degree to which the park guests are energized cannot be measured by any conventional means. Queueing up dozens of minutes before the gates open and lining up at the gateway to HHN27 is certainly a sight to behold. Such an incredibly diverse group of people. You'll find HHN guests from every walk of life! From tweens, going for the first time, to older guests who are taking their grandkids to Halloween Horror Nights. Often, the most enthusiastic fans can be identified by horror themed t-shirts. I was sporting my Psycho t-shirt while my friends had their favorite horror fandoms represented. Researcher Carol Clover writes about the pleasurable unpleasure, and her observations are realized year after year at HHN. Few other places (other than other theme parks or local haunts) will you find such a large group of people collectively excited to be terrified.

While Universal Studios Florida may not utilize its sound stages on a regular basis throughout the year, the stages are heavily used during HHN. An observation that I make year after year is the complete contrast between that for which the sound stages were originally purposed and the haunted house attractions that are now located within the stages. For longtime fans of Universal Studios Florida, you'll remember that some of the soundstages used today were the home of Nickelodeon Studios in the 80s and 90s, and others were used for Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. It never fails. When I walk through those stages, I cannot help but be reminded of the childhood memories from those TV shows and attractions. But you don't want to wax nostalgic; you want to hear about this year's offerings! Here we go.

The first house I experienced was The Shining! It was definitely my favorite. It stands out to me because of the experiential storytelling, and it's the one that I will spend the most time discussing. Of all the houses for HHN27, this is the one I was looking forward to the most even before hearing of the experiences from UO team members from the night before at the preview. Traditionally, my favorite houses are those based upon foundational works of horror cinema. For instance, last year's favorite house was The Exorcist. Although the TV mini-series (limited series) The Shining was closer to the book and was shot at the hotel (The Stanley Hotel) in Estes Park, Colorado where King was inspired to write The Shining, the definitive motion picture adaptation is Stanley Kubrick's film. It's highly respected for the brilliant cast, cinematography, and set design; and all those elements were channeled directly into the haunted house at HHN27. From the moment you enter the house, you will instantly be transported to winter in Colorado at the snowed-in Overlook Hotel near Boulder. Two important locations in the movie are the hedge maze and hotel itself. Both of those locations are used in the house. Just like the hotel and hedge maze were quite the labyrinth, the house is designed in much the same way. I absolutely love the literal use of smoke and mirrors to achieve "movie magic" within the house. Some of the scenes that are recreated in detail are: the bathroom lady, "here's Johnny," REDRUM, the ghostly twins, and the elevators overflowing with blood. Other characters such as Lloyd and the father of the twins make appearances as well. The attention to detail is incredible. Just like the movie, the design of the house is truly artistic and completely immerses the park guest into the world of one of Stephen King's best-known and best-selling works of all time and the iconic Kubrick film adaptation.

Following my checkout at the Overlook Hotel, my friends and I headed directly for Dead Waters. To be honest, this was a attempt at copying Death Water Bayou at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Even the name barely changed. Although it is clear that this house has a bigger budget than the original at Busch Gardens, it was not nearly as scary nor was it as creative. Just apparent that more money was spent on it. Of course, the highest form of flattery is imitation; so Busch Gardens must have had a good house if Universal Orlando copied it. Regarding the experience, the house mostly consists of an old haunted riverboat. One of the design elements that I appreciated the most was the uneven flooring on the desk of the riverboat. That spacial reality of actually being off balance added greatly to the experience and tightened the senses (note: for those in a wheelchair, there is a bypass to the uneven walkways).

From the merky waters of a bayou to the circles of hell, we headed for The Fallen. This house is an original IP and features fallen angels and those who are possessed by demons. The design is filled with brimstone and fire. The only thing missing is the aroma from Epcot's Spaceship earth when the ride vehicle passes the destroyed Great Library of Alexandria. My friend Derek, who is in a Satanic horror phase, noted that this ranked up there for his favorite experiences at HHN27. While I'm mentioning Derek, I've asked him to write out his impression of the Saw house. "The Games of Jigsaw see the return of the Saw franchise to HHN before its return to theaters this Halloween with Jigsaw. Walking through scenes featuring traps directly from the previous 7 Saw films lets you relive these bloody moments and even teases a trap from the new film. The set design and attention to detail are what really bring this house to life. With plenty of twisted pneumatic effects and grisly make-up, you are sure to not want to end up in one of Jigsaw's traps" (Derek Rosenberg). After these houses, we began the treacherous journey through the streets of The Purge scare zone located in the New York City area of the park. Whether in house or scare zone form, The Purge has been a staple at HHN for a few years. Speaking of staples, there is one particular food item that I HAVE to mention: the twisted taters. One part food art form and one part delicious snack. The twisted tater artisan chefs take a whole potato and create one continuous spiral of potato goodness that comes in flavors such as: salt & vinegar, cracked pepper, sea salt, and garlic. You have got to get one while you're at HHN.

While enjoying our twisted taters, we made our way through another scare zone based upon classic alien films of the 1930-1950s variety. I really like the crashed flying saucer and the old-timy sound effects. After nearly escaping our would-be alien captors, we paid two more original IP houses a visit. Scarecrow: the Reaping is probably among the scariest houses that HHN has ever had. The four of us were in agreement that this house took the award for scariest. Scarecrows, much like clowns, hold a great deal of fear by default. I do not scare easily; however, this house had me nearly terrified. I don't even have a fear of scarecrows, but I think it's because the scarecrows are supposed to be scary anyway--I mean, they keep birds away from cornfields. Between the infamous cornfield in the episode of The Twilight Zone where the little boy sends those who displease him to the one featured in The Children of the Corn and even in the Scarecrow horror movies, cornfield have come to be a frightening place for many. There was a true feeling of claustrophobia as we meandered through the cornfield. Around every turn, there seemed to be a menacing scarecrow popping out of the corn stalks. Next door to the Scarecrow house is the Hive. This house is a combination of--and this is now my friend Dani put it--"Nosferatu meets the 1980s" (Danielle Hill). Recently, I found out that Nosferatu is getting remade (as so many films are nowadays), so I wouldn't put it past the production company that this house is a taste of what we are to encounter in the new film. Lots and lots of vampires in Hive, and there is an equal amount of guano on the floor.

For those who have attended HHN before, you'll agree that it is nearly impossible to visit all the houses, shows, and scare zones in one night. So, my friends and I returned to HHN the next night to finish out the houses and Bill and Ted show. Returning to HHN this year is American Horror Story. Like last year, this year's AHS house contains three seasons of the anthology series. Featured this year are: AsylumCoven, and Roanoke. My friend Dani and I were particularly excited for this house because she and I are fans of the show. My favorite season in the series (including what we've seen so far this year) is AHS: Coven. Unfortunately, Coven and Roanoke collectively comprise half the house with Asylum getting the other half all to itself. What's interesting about this layout is that Asylum is often seen as the least common favorite while Coven is often the favorite out of the fanbase. But I digress. It is no surprise that the house was designed well and appropriated some of the most notable scenes and elements from the series into the house. You get to see some of your favorite characters from the show and there are some great smoke and mirror practical and pneumatic effects in the house. You even run into Santa Claus along the way.

Up next was the Ash v. Evil Dead housed based on the show that's based on the movie. Here to review it, because she also watches the Starz show, is my friend Dani: "The ash vs evil dead house brought the Starz show together perfectly. It had all points you would want to see in it from the show. I would also say though, that if you have not seen it, you may not get [most of] it; however, according to my friends, you can still enjoy the second half when you get into the cabin. Definitely the fun house this year" (Danielle Hill). The last house we visited before attending the final tour of Bill and Ted was Blumhouse. Featuring SinisterThe Purge, and Insidious, this house was a smaller version of what was designed for AHS, and also suffers from not treating each film with equal time in the house. This house was a--to borrow a line from Muppet Vision 3D at Disney--"a salute to all Blumhouse films, but mostly Insidious." So much from Insidious that we get scenes from a future installment in the franchise but we will all likely forget these scenes by the time the movie comes out. Prior to heading to the last event for our evening, we headed over to the Trick'r Treat scare zone. Stunning. Brilliantly lit. This scare zone featured scenes from the movie consisting of several short films. The sheer number of jack-o-lanterns is impressive! I found this scare zone to be the creepiest out of all of them and I certainly hope that this scare zone is a test for a future house for Trick'r Treat.

The offering that I look forward to the most every single year is the hilarious Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure show that riffs pop culture year after year. Sadly my friends and I went into this year's show with heavy hearts as this is the last year we will ever get to enjoy this treasured show. Strategically, this show just works because park guests need a break form the horrors of the houses because the comedy cleanses the palette to be able to continue to enjoy the various frightening offerings. In addition to enjoying the show's writing, I also enjoy watching a former coworker of mine from our shared time in the entertainment department of another company. One easy-way to describe this final show is "self-aware." From the Grim Reaper to longtime running jokes, it's apparent that the show writers are going out with a bang. Unfortunately, tears follow the end of the show for many. It's no surprise that former White House press secretary Sean Spicer is parodied throughout the show, and Trump's tweets even make some cameo appearances. You will not be disappointed at this year's show; it really is wonderful and is a great way to remember the show. As the Grim Reaper points out to Bill and Ted "[when you go back to 1991] all this will seem like a dream, but one that you were lucky enough to have." So true. The jokes, satire, and parody are all on point and deliver successful punchline after punchline. The theme of the evening is finding something redeemable about pop culture. And you'll just have to watch the show to find out if Bill and Ted are successful.

Well, there you have it! A complete breakdown of HHN27. The event is going on now through November 4th. Ticket prices vary by when you choose to attend. For those who can make it in September, there are some great deals on the Rush of Fear pass. Here are some tips: if you are going for ONE night only, then I urge you to splurge on the Express Pass because it is highly unlikely that you will make it to most of the houses and shows otherwise. If you go for two nights in a row, you will most likely make it to all the offerings with some time to spare (with or without Express). For locals, getting the Rush of or Frequent Fear passes are the best deal and pay for themselves quickly. Personally, I plan to go back 2-3 more times because it really is that much fun.

A special thank you to Derek Rosenberg and Danielle Hill for contributing to the full review of Halloween Horror Nights 27!


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Ryan L. Terry

Ryan L. Terry

Ryan (right) is a theme park enthusiast living in Central Florida, and loves going to the parks as often as possible! He's an annual passholder to Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld. In the Fall of 2017, his Thrillz article on Turn it Up: the Hottest Show on Ice at Busch Gardens was cited in a massive ad campaign. He also loves horror films and just movies in general! If you see him out and about in the Florida parks, stop him to say hi! 

Ryan holds a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies (with a concentration in cinema and themed entertainment) from the University of South Florida. His research area is on the convergence of cinema and theme parks. He explores ideas such as narrative, spectacle, setting, and setting in terms of movies and themed entertainment. Learning how to successfully translate an idea of intellectual property from one medium into another is the primary goal of his predictable model for creative design that affects both theme parks and the cinema.

Although he loves to write for Thrillz, his "day jobs" are working as a video editor for Disney on Ice and teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa.

He is also a figure skater.

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