At this year’s Scare LA convention, John Murdy, creative director of Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) Hollywood was asked, “What is best time to visit HHN?” His quickly responded that the second weekend of the event was the best. He said the scareactors have had time to work out their scares, opening weekend crowds have died down a bit, and operations have worked out some kinks. So, after usually visiting on opening weekend, we decided to take his advice this year and attend on Friday, September 27, the second weekend of HHN’s run.
Reviews of opening weekend were mixed, but a common theme was that the lines were LONG and the park was crowded. And that has certainly been our experience in the past few years, so much that we won’t even consider going anymore without buying a front-of-the-line (FOL) pass. The last time we did not have that pass, we weren’t able to get into all the mazes because of the lines. And this is terrible, because of course, not everyone can (or wants to) buy an FOL pass. At $119, it’s crazy expensive. So we’re very happy to report that the second Friday of the season is an excellent time to visit HHN, and with some good planning, the FOL pass doesn’t seem necessary. We made it through 3 different mazes in the first hour alone, and we were even able to go through 2 of those mazes twice. This means we did 5 mazes in that first hour. Note that we followed our own Terror Tip and arrived well before park opening, which is important because the lines did grow as the night went on.
It’s important to have a plan of attack before going into HHN. This year, the mazes are more spread out, as there is only 1 maze in the upper lot (plus the House of Horrors), 2 mazes in the lower lot, and 2 mazes in the newly used location of the backlot, which requires boarding a tram. On the night we visited, the two mazes on the backlot (Black Sabbath 13 and Walking Dead) had the longest lines throughout the night. We progressed from front to back and will present our reviews in the order in which we visited them.
So, onto the reviews!
We do our best not to spoil the mazes for those who’ve yet to experience them, so we won’t provide scare-by-scare reviews, but we will share highlights and our overall opinions from our own experiences in the mazes. Haunts are rated on a 1-5 “skull” system.
El Cucuy: The Boogeyman
El Cucuy is based on the Mexican legend of a “shape-shifting” monster with sharp teeth and claws who comes in the night to eat children. Throughout the maze, we hear actor Danny Trejo’s voice narrating the story for those who are unfamiliar with it. The narration is not too intrusive, and there’s also the voice of El Cucuy himself following you as you walk through, growling about how he’s going to kill your children, which is pretty creepy. The maze goes through scenes of a movie theatre, a birthday party gone wrong, and a destroyed living room, and then it takes you into the caves where El Cucuy has his dark lair of imprisoned victims with pumpkin heads. This was the first HHN maze we walked through that actually smelled good--they seem to be piping in the smell of pumpkin spice (or something) in some of the rooms.
This is one of the mazes at HHN this year that is not based on an existing TV or movie property. These original maze concepts can sometimes be more engaging to walk through, as y0u’re forced to piece together the overall story on your own. We found El Cucuy to be dark and disturbing, with decent scares and very good sets. There were a lot of scareactors in the same masks, and the pumpkin heads on the victims was sort of confusing, but the pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns in the maze did add a bit of Halloween spirit to HHN, which is lacking from the event overall. Overall, the originality of El Cucuy and the sinister nature of the story itself made it one of our favorite mazes of the night.
- Haunt Design: 4.5 skulls
- Theming: 4 skulls
- Scare Factor: 4 skulls
Overall Rating: 4 skulls
Evil Dead: Book of the Dead
Evil Dead is the property that more fans have requested be turned into a maze than any other. We never got a maze based on the classic Bruce Campbell version, so fans have had to settle for this year’s maze based on the 2013 remake. But excitement has still been high for this one. This maze is located in the lower lot behind The Mummy. The maze starts out in the woods, where you see Mia being attacked by the tree (which, unfortunately, was just a writhing dummy rather than an actual actor). From there, we see the facade of the cabin bathed in red light, which makes for a cool entrance. The cabin has some cool blacklight and regular lighting effects, but there’s another dummy just sitting there at a table. This is where we began to notice that HHN seems to be using a lot more static dummies this year. Some of them looked rather cheap and actually took a lot away from the realism HHN is usually known for.
In the cabin, we go through the most horrific and gruesome kill scenes from the movie. This maze is a lot of eye candy, and it’s a great translation of the film to a maze, down to the re-creation of the rainstorm at the end. But that’s also the maze’s main downfall: it’s almost a scene-by-scene retelling of the movie. Sure, it’s important to capture the story and characters of the property you’re turning into a maze, but we’d like to see something unexpected or surprising.
Most of the main actors in this maze were female, and they were going full throttle in bringing the creepiness of the movie to life, especially the tongue-splitting character. Although we loved the detail and sets in this maze, the scares just didn’t live up to our expectations.
- Haunt Design: 4 skulls
- Theming: 4.5 skulls
- Scare Factor: 3 skulls
Overall Rating: 3.5 skulls
Insidious: Into the Further
Insidious is HHN Hollywood’s first attempt at a truly paranormal maze. Paranormal mazes are notoriously hard to pull off, because it’s much easier to scare people by putting a mask on a huge guy and giving him a chainsaw than to re-create the tension and mood needed to build the suspense of a “ghost” scare. But Insidious works well as a maze because HHN has focused their scenes on all the interesting demons and spirit characters from the two movies, while also adding in ghostly elements that bring the paranormal feeling to life.
We enter the maze through the front door of the Lambert’s (first) home from the first movie. As we progress through the house, we see the Old Woman and various demons haunting the childrens’ rooms. Eventually, we pass through the red door and enter The Further. The low-lying fog was a cool effect here, but when we passed through this maze again later in the night, it didn’t seem to be working. Scenes from the Chapter 2 movie sequel were scary, especially the woman in white, who looked like she stepped right out of the film. This was our favorite maze of the night, as it had the best effects and best scares.
- Haunt Design: 4.5 skulls
- Theming: 4.5 skulls
- Scare Factor: 4.5 skulls
Overall Rating: 4.5 skulls
Black Sabbath 13
Black Sabbath 13 is this year’s “Horror Rock” maze, following in the footsteps of the Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper mazes of previous years. It’s a bright, psychedelic walk through scenes depicting some of the most popular Black Sabbath songs, such as “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Iron Man.” As expected, loud Black Sabbath music plays over everything. Because each scene has its own song, if you walk too fast, it can be kind of jarring to hear the songs change so quickly. Fans of Black Sabbath will probably like this maze, but if you’re not a serious fan, you might find this one to be just mediocre. The 3D effects were pretty cool but very similar to what we saw in the Alice Cooper maze last year. We just didn’t get a lot of scares in here.
We know that John Murdy loves to create mazes based on his favorite bands/music artists, so our fingers are crossed for a “Smiths” maze next year.
- Haunt Design: 3 skulls
- Theming: 3 skulls
- Scare Factor: 3 skulls
Overall Rating: 3 skulls
The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
This year’s Walking Dead maze features the prison from season 3 of the series as well as Woodbury and the Governor. As with the other mazes, the sets were detailed and looked straight out of the show, but the scares just weren’t there. Maybe it was the long conga line that was forming inside that prevented most of the scareactors from surprising anyone. There was one really great scare that got us that involved a whole horde of zombies that lunged right at us, but for the most part, it was a typical zombie maze, with actors staggering around slowly and lots of gross-looking festering sores and detached body parts.
- Haunt Design: 3.5 skulls
- Theming: 3.5 skulls
- Scare Factor: 2.5 skulls
Overall Rating: 3 skulls
Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection
What is there to say about this maze, really? It’s more or less a rerun of last year’s, supposedly featuring “Figure,” but we couldn’t tell any difference. There are basically no scares in here. It’s a mish-mash of monsters from Universal’s old films, and the highlight was getting to see the Invisible Man DJ in the laboratory room, who was designed by a fan as part of a contest orchestrated by John Murdy. There were also Frankenstein characters created on the show Face Off. This maze is worth going through only if there’s a short line; we suggest skipping past it on your way in and visiting toward the end of the night, when there is usually no line at all.
- Haunt Design: 2 skulls
- Theming: 2 skulls
- Scare Factor: 1 skull
Overall Rating: 1.5 skulls
Terror Tram: Invaded by the Walking Dead
Like last year, the 2013 Terror Tram features The Walking Dead and covers the same ground as all years before. As you exit the tram, a line of chainsaws greets you, ushering you up the path toward the Bates Motel. Walkers stumble around, attempting to scare but moving just too slowly to really cause anyone alarm. The trail takes you past the Bates house, through some zombie sets, through the War of the Worlds sets, and back onto the Tram. There is nothing really new this year, and we suggest that if you’re running out of time in your evening, this is the attraction to skip.
- Haunt Design: 1 skull
- Theming: 1 skull
- Scare Factor: 1 skull
Overall Rating: 1 skull
The Purge: Survive the Night: This year, the main entrance into HHN is taken over by The Purge scare zone. This was a fantastic use of a movie as a scare zone, as its placement is perfect at the beginning of the park, where most of the mayhem and disorder take place. This area is always the most chaotic, so The Purge is a great setting for that. The opening “Scare-amonies” feature a line of sinister-looking folks (“purgers”?) with chainsaws, wearing those creepy expression-less masks from the movie. There’s also an actor portraying the “Polite Leader” at the head of the scare zone, and one of these actors looked so much like the guy in the movie, we had to watch him for several minutes to decide whether or not the real actor had joined the ranks of HHN this year. 4 skulls
The Curse of Chucky: Supposedly there are Chuckies running around this area, but we didn’t see any as we walked through. Chucky does make appearances on the balcony to insult people, which can be a funny way to kill a few minutes, if you’re into that sort of thing. We’d rather be in the mazes. 1 skull
Cirque Du Klownz: The clowns are back, this time in French clothes. Unfortunately, weird French makeup does not make clowns scarier. 2 skulls
Scarecrowz: This was probably a good idea on paper, but the execution was terrible. This “scare zone” is basically the area on the lower level at the bottom of the “Star Way” and consists of about 4 or 5 stilt walkers in masks that only sort of look like scarecrows, while the lighted word “Scarecrowz” twirls around the area (probably because you wouldn’t know you’re in the scare zone otherwise). It was interesting to see some of the stilt walkers scaring people as they exited the restroom, and we have to admire these guys for their agility on the stilts. 2.5 skulls
The Walking Dead: Dead on Arrival: This scare zone is located in the New York streets backlot area, used this year for the first time at HHN. We’ve always thought it would be so cool to have mazes in a backlot area, and our wish finally came true this year. It really did add a lot to the whole event, since the backlot area is so immersive and completely themed already. Although we didn’t really get scared by the zombies in this area, the setting is really great and we hope it returns next year. 4 skulls
From 2007 through 2011, if you wanted to be scared at a major haunt, HHN was the place to go. Unfortunately, the past 2 years of HHN have left us disappointed with regard to the scare factor. The sets and theming are still top notch and the best of any haunt out there, but the scares are just not coming through effectively. We think this is due to a number of factors, number one probably being the overcrowding at the event. A Front of the Line pass will get you past the long lines outside, but it doesn’t do anything about the conga lines inside the mazes. It’s just impossible to be scared when you’ve seen the same actor come out and scare people 10 feet ahead of you.
Could the other factor be that the mazes are too well done? The sets are amazingly detailed and perfectly lit, which doesn’t always allow for the shadows needed to hide an actor. And where there are shadows, they’re in the perfect place to hide an actor, so you can easily guess he’s there. The mazes also have a lot of scenes that are made up of really large rooms. So as soon as you enter a scene, you have almost the entire room in your eyeline, and it’s easy to immediately spot the closet door, the picture frame, the shower curtain, or some other device behind which the actor will be hidden. Compare this to Knott’s, which has a lot of narrow hallways (although that setup is often limited to the “monster around the corner” scare). The best haunts have a mixture of expansive sets and narrow passages, scares from different directions and using different gimmicks, and also use of lighting that throws your sense of perception off balance, creating that sense of tension that’s required to set up a really good scare. Of the HHN Hollywood mazes, Insidious came the closest to meeting these criteria, and that’s why we’re ranking it as our favorite at HHN this year.
Despite the low scare rating this year, we still found HHN to be a fun event. The addition of the backlot area was fantastic and a good way to space out the mazes. The walkways and paths didn’t feel as crowded this year, and we think that’s partially because more guests were trapped in that backlot area. We hope they continue to use this area in the future, and we still hope every year for a revamped Terror Tram experience. We’ll see what 2014 brings!
For great videos of all the mazes at HHN Hollywood this year, be sure to check out ThemePark HD’s YouTube channel.
Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights Overall Fright Value: 3.5 Skulls
Overall Rating of HHN Hollywood 2013: 4 Skulls
Check our ratings guide for further details.