Dan Harkless' Universal Studios Hollywood Info: Halloween Horror Nights 1997-2000

The premiere year of Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) at Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) in 1997 was awesome. (Actually, according to this rec.parks.theme post, there was also a Halloween event at USH in 1992. Not sure what it was called, though -- I did not attend. I have a vague recollection that it may have been called Fright Nights, like Universal Studios Florida's premiere event in 1991, but over there they were already calling it Halloween Horror Nights by 1992.)

The event, like other those of other theme parks across the country, was very much in the mold that Knott's Scary Farm had created back in the early 70s. However, it had some notable improvements. Most of the mazes at Knott's, while wonderful and absolutely full of heart, have the feeling of very high-end amateur mazes. The artistry is not always at the level you would expect from professional artists. Universal, on the other hand, appeared to be utilizing Hollywood artistic and construction talent, and the mazes had a more professionally finished look and a low "cheese" factor.

Likewise the makeup and costumes of the monsters appeared to be created by Hollywood makeup artists and costume designers. And the actors wearing them did a lot more interaction with the patrons, and seemed more like, well, actors (Universal's term for their monsters, ScareActors, reflects this). I remember very well walking onto the main thoroughfare of the park when HHN opened in 1997. A guy in a really impressive Mr. Hyde type costume and makeup (utilizing prosthetics and realistic fake facial hair, I believe), speaking in a good creepy English accent, came and got right up in our faces, humorously horning in on my girlfriend. Took a bit of work to ditch him, and then right away there was a dirty and disheveled mother character controlling a really neat deformed baby puppet, sticking it in our faces and wailing, "My baby! My baby!". These characters, I thought, had so much more character than those at Knott's, where the average monster is wearing what's clearly a mask and an unrealistically weathered costume and mutely shaking a can of pennies at you.

It certainly wasn't the case that everything was better than Knott's, though. For instance, while the wandering characters were more upscale, they didn't do as good a job at scaring as their Knott's counterparts. And the Scare Zones where they did their wandering were never as freaky as the very dark, fog-choked, wandering corridors at Knott's Ghost Town and other areas. Also USH did a much worse job than Knott's of re-theming some of the rides for Halloween.

Unfortunately, unlike with 2006 and on, I don't have any video or photos from these years, but below are some of my observations on strengths and weaknesses of specific mazes, shows, and rides from the period.

Halloween Horror Nights 1997

Mazes

Shows

Rides

Halloween Horror Nights 1998

I didn't have the opportunity to go this year. You can read about what they had on Wikipedia. Sounds largely the same as 1997, although I'm kind of sorry I missed Clive Barker's FREAKZ maze, which sounds impressive and apparently had more of the "dog-faced boy" type of freaks not present at the Circus of Freaks / Carnival of Carnage.

Halloween Horror Nights 1999

Mazes

Shows

Rides

Halloween Horror Nights 2000

Didn't get to go to HHN this year either. Certainly would have tried harder to go had I known it was going to be the last year for USH's HHN until 2006. Not too heartbroken I missed the Undertaker and Buffy & Angel mazes, but I'm kind of sorry I didn't get to give Rob Zombie and Clive Barker a second chance to impress me as I know they're capable of doing. Pretty interesting that Universal was willing to let Zombie make a Halloween maze out of House of 1000 Corpses, but wasn't willing to release the movie itself (which didn't come out until 2003, through Lions Gate). My favorite part of that flawed film is the "Capt. Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen" roadside attraction, whose portrayal made me wish I could visit it, and since this maze reportedly contained at least one room themed like that wonderfully deranged dark ride, I am indeed jealous of those who got to check it out.


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Dan Harkless
Created: November 5, 2006
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Last modified: March 1, 2009