For nearly 30 years, Halloween Horror Nights has been the biggest celebration of all things spooky – with fans travelling from all over the planet to get chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac or brain-thirsty zombie.
Held at several locations globally, Universal transform its theme parks for after-dark scares by breaking them into five different themed ‘Scare Zones’ filled with in-character ‘scare actors’ and gruesome set pieces. Guests have to travel through these zones to reach specially-themed haunted houses, many of which are based on some of the biggest horror icons from film and television.
The houses, built on studio backlots, are created to look – and smell! – terrifyingly real and once again are filled with in-character creatures ready to jump out and scare you as you are immersed in the story scene-by-scene.
For our sister publication SFX, that’s a challenge we’re willing to take on – getting to live the original Ghostbusters movie in the real world, well, who else are they gonna call? We also got to take a terrifying trip through Dawkins, escape the Tethered from Us, and come face-to-face with all the original Universal Monsters. For fans of film and horror, getting to relive some of our favourite on-screen moments is the closest we’ll get to a religious experience. We tried to be brave and rank the horror houses at Universal Orlando for you...
The 10 haunted houses – ranked
10. Depths of Fear
An original story, Depths of Fear puts you in an underwater base, belonging to mining company Fathomcorp, at the bottom of the ocean. Except you’re not alone.
Mouthbrooders – piranha-like humanoid creatures – have been unleashed by the miners and the base is infested. They spit acid that contains their eggs and the infected humans are trying to escape. The clock is ticking down until detonation and the base implodes (spoiler, this is the only house that you don’t ‘survive’).
A bit of an Aliens rip-off, with spores creeping up the walls. There’s also a lot of ‘slime’ involved this year, by the way…
Based on Jordan Peele’s horror from earlier this year, you enter this house through a life-size recreation of the funhouse from the movie, set to the soundtrack. This house is incredibly accurate – ridiculously so. It feels really big, particularly the recreated set of the luxury apartment the family escape to.
The family of replicants, the Tethered, appear throughout, while audio from the film haunts at every turn. It’s extremely sinister and the detail is fantastic. The only thing that lets it down is how they’ve realised the scenes with rabbits. But what can you do? Just when you think the scares are over, the final room/scene puts you in a room full of Tethered – and you have no idea which ones are mannequins and which ones are real actors. Seriously scary.
8. House of 1000 Corpses
Rob Zombie’s 2003 movie might not spring to mind as a classic, but the horror house incarnation is done absolutely perfectly. Again, it’s another house that recreates scenes from the film so faithfully you’d think you’re actually walking through the original set.
It has jump scares from the very moment you approach and is filled with ‘oh my god’ moments. The smell – something that Halloween Horror Nights get absolutely spot on with their houses every year – is absolutely vile. As you approach the final scenes of the house/movie where the action takes place underground – including Doctor Satan himself – this house is absolutely relentless. An adrenaline hit!
7. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Following a great response to this being a Scare Zone in 2018, now guests really get to live the 1988 movie, scene by scene. It makes great sense to get to know films or TV series that play a part in Halloween Horror Nights before you go, because you’ll get to appreciate the detail so much more. That’s definitely the case with Killer Klowns – it’s so accurate that the original creators joked they could immediately film the sequel here.
It’s big, it’s fun, it’s full of giant rubber Killer Klowns. Not only is it screen accurate, but it’s scent accurate – with all the smells of a circus and, of course, cotton candy. It makes great use of neon, as well as projections to emulate the shadow scenes – make sure you push all the buttons as you’re going through.
The final scene features an appearance from the giant Klownzilla, one of several ambitious finales featured this year. You’ll genuinely forget you’re walking through a haunted house. Hardcore fans – and there are more than we thought – will absolutely love this.
6. Stranger Things
Last year's runaway hit house returns – with the Netflix series having brought an entirely new fanbase to Halloween Horror Nights in 2018. So it’s no surprise that, with 14 scenes, this is their biggest maze ever.
Focusing on both seasons two and three, this picks up exactly where last year's maze left off, with a recreation of the scene from season one where Eleven fights off a Demogorgon – then has the neat trick of a room where you experience the title sequence. Some incredible staging gives a great sense of depth as you look past familiar characters to impending doom in the distance.
You travel through the tunnels under Hawkins, through the bus where you – and the kids – are under siege from Demogorgons, to the climactic season two battle scenes.
And then it starts all over, with another title sequence to signify the move to season three (we did say it was the biggest house…) and into the out of town mill where the possession of Billy begins.
The set for Hopper’s house is huge and, like most of Halloween Horror Nights, it’s like you’re walking into the actual show. Finally, the battle of Starcourt Mall has the biggest prop build that the event has ever staged and one final fright you’ll never see coming.
5. Yeti: Terror Of The Yukon
Another original story. This house – which is lovely and cold – transports you to the remote tundra of Yukon in Canada. ‘Snow’ falls from above throughout as you travel through a set of sprawling ice sculptures and claustrophobic log cabins. The yeti have overrun Shadow Creek Camp – with rangers trying to hunt them to no avail.
The towering creatures attack you from all angles, including above – there’s no escape and it’s brilliant. The scares are fantastic, the acting great – particularly those unfortunate rangers having their entrails ripped out. You’re having every sense attacked, it’s exceptionally well done.
The classic 1984 movie finally gets the Halloween Horror Nights treatment. It’s incredibly film faithful, spectacularly impressive, and funnier than it is scary.
You enter into the public library set from the film’s opening moments and, as you would expect by now, follow the narrative scene by scene. You’re able to see proper floating ghosts, as if they’re lifted directly from the film – the librarian and then later Slimer (yes, expect more actual real slime).
You walk through the Ghostbusters fire station, complete with Janine manning the desk, improvising at guests. You see Dana Barrett being attacked by Zuul, the containment unit being shut down, the demon dogs, a huge set with Gozer the Gozerian and the gates, until you end on top of a New York building looking eye-to-eye with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Hugely enjoyable.
3. Nightingales: Blood Pit
With nearly 30 years of scares under their belt, Universal often revisit their own original characters. This house is a prequel to 2001’s Nightingales: Blood Prey, which was set in the trenches of World War 1.
The Nightingales – vulture-like creatures that have been around since the dawn of time – are drawn to the dead and dying. This time it’s ancient Rome, suffering a drought and an emperor who insists the gladiator games must continue. In this house you find yourself underneath the arena, looking up through drains above as the Nightingales rip the flesh off human victims.
The lighting in this house gives off a feeling of flames, heat and sweat – once again the smell created for this house is something else.
There are carcasses with spewing entrails hanging from above, an incredible life-size lion puppet that attacks, and an actual rain machine indoors that frames an incredible scene of a Nightingale feasting. Grim, brutal, savage and brilliant.
2. Universal Monsters
A classic franchise that Halloween Horror Nights has visited in different forms previously – but this time the Universal Monsters are all represented in one huge house that places them in iconic scenes from the beloved movies.
You walk past stone statues of legendary cinematic monsters – Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Bride, the Mummy and the Creature and come face to face with them in their own environments. The Wolfman lunges out at you as you walk through a graveyard, the Hunchback descends from the rafters of Notre Dame – where gargoyles come to life – before you’re submerged in the lagoon (where another guest mistook the Creature for Swamp Thing…) through Dracula’s castle, the cobweb-filled tombs of the Mummy, the catacombs of the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s laboratory. It’s absolute film-nerd heaven. Huge and – as ever –faithful to the source material, this is like living art. There were a huge number of screams when we were in there, with the actors and the guests really going for it –there’s a lot of love for this house and you can see why.
1. Graveyard Games
A crumbling graveyard with a sinister secret is a classic Halloween tradition and Universal have nailed it with another original story. The spirits of Ascension Parish Cemetery have been awakened by two disrespectful teenagers defacing their eternal home and bragging about it on social media. As you queue for this house, you’ll see a Facebook feed projected outside the building – guests can take part in the story by logging into messenger on the official HHN page.
This fantastically-well lit house is eerily beautiful and looks huge from the start, with the design spreading right up to the ceiling, giving you a full immersive experience.
There’s just something brilliant about being able to step through a decaying cemetery with broken mausoleums, shattered tombstones and crumbling coffins – with lurching skeletons and spooks aplenty. Statues come to life, cobwebs cover everything and candles flicker into the distance. It’s a gruesome gothic dream.
As is always the case with Halloween Horror Nights houses, you’re so caught up in the incredible detail of one scene that they’ve lulled you right into a scare you weren’t expecting. Extremely clever.
Flights and accommodation were provided by Virgin Holidays.