Dan Harkless' Universal Studios Hollywood Info: Halloween Horror Nights
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
Area 51: I miss the days when alien mazes were de rigeur at Halloween
theme parks thanks to the popularity of The X-Files, Fox's Alien Autopsy
special, etc. Speaking of which, there was a room in this maze with a
recreation of the autopsy. They constructed this maze on one of the upper
levels of a parking structure, I believe one that's on the backlot and is
used by the cast and crews of movies filmed there. The stark, cold, grey
concrete was a very fitting industrial setting for the Area 51 maze. The
entrance to the maze looked like a CDC
quarantine area, which was very cool. One room from the maze that stands
out in my mind was a tunnel where you had to push through densely-packed
clear swinging body bags hung from the ceiling and filled with realisitcally
weighted alien corpses. Another cool touch was that just before entering
the maze they would put a sticker on your shirt that said it would glow
orange if you're receiving a lethal dose of radiation, and then the black
lights in the maze caused it to glow the whole time.
Classic Monster Maze: They did variations of this maze throughout
these years, but I believe this was the time I enjoyed it the most. Not far
in from the entrance, a huge guy in an amazing Frankenstein's
Monster costume and makeup would lunge out at you and block your path.
Having such a tall guy in such a realistic get-up be so in-your-face was
quite intimidating, even if you're not usually scared by Halloween maze
monsters. Great stuff.
Cryptkeeper Film Vault: This had the expected Jasons, Freddys, and
Michaels, and also had a wonderful Cryptkeeper puppet at the end. I believe
he was performed to a recording of the actual voice actor from Tales from the Crypt, but the voice might have been live -- can't
Monsterquarium: I can't seem to locate my 1997 map currently, but "Hauntings", an article in UCLA's Daily Bruin, called this "the
Creature from the Black Lagoon's Monsterquarium maze", so that may have been
the full name. This took place in the WaterWorld theater, and was really
quite unique in its theming. Basically you had a bunch of aquariums, some
using dry-for-wet and some using actual water, containing quite an
assortment of different static props, mechanical monsters (including two made by Total
Fabrication, a moving squid, appropriate since these guys also made the
(motorless) motorized octopus from Ed Wood, and a huge
devil fish head that would fly at you, chomping away, in the last corridor
of the maze), and human ScareActors (including a mermaid, if I recall
correctly). The one thing I didn't like was that there was one guy in an
open-front tank who would complain about how he couldn't get out to go to
the bathroom, and then while yelling that he couldn't hold it any longer,
he'd squirt you. He got me right in the eye and nearly knocked my contact
lens out, which really, er, pissed me off.
Beetlejuice's Rockin' Graveyard Revue: This camp-laden "rock" musical
was the same as the daytime show and was thoroughly lame. Definitely didn't
capture the spirit of Tim Burton's wonderful film.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure: The pop-culture satire
format of this show was taken directly from Knott's "The Hanging", but it
had much funnier writing (utilization of studio talent again, I would
imagine), much more of a story, better special effects, and was made more
enjoyable thanks to having the lovable Bill & Ted characters to root for.
(Oh, and also less violence and blood, for those put off by those elements
in "The Hanging".) The actors did a good job of living up to Keanu Reeves'
and Alex Winter's performances. The plot this year involved an evil
Circus of Freaks: Not sure if I made it to this show, but I believe
it had the same type of freaks as its successor "Carnival of Carnage", which
is to say sword swallowers, glass eaters, human pincushions, and the like,
not bearded ladies, dog-faced boys, Siamese twins, and the like.
Creepy Animals: Pretty unique for a Halloween theme park event. They
featured cockroaches, snakes, spiders, bats flying through the audience,
Back to the Future: The Ride: This was the only ride open this year,
which was a bit of a bummer. I love the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but
I'm not a big fan of this ride. The premise and effects are okay, but I
feel like they should provide complimentary chiropractic service on the way
out, to fix your neck. This is mostly a problem, I've found, if you're
unlucky enough to have to sit in the back seat, as your head gets repeatedly
slammed against the unpadded back wall. Plus the show building for this
ride replaced the Battle of Galactica attraction on the tram tour, which I used to
love as a kid. (Reportedly the Back to the Future ride itself will
be closing after Labor Day 2007, to make way for a Simpsons ride.)
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
Cleaver's Meat Locker: "Blood-thirsty butchers hack their way through
various cuts of meat, including human flesh!" As a vegetarian, you would
think I would have found this maze particularly freaky (or at least
disturbing), but I don't really recall it.
Clive Barker's Hell: I always thought the "guided tour" was an
underused concept for theme park walk-throughs (it worked great at Tokyo
Disneyland's late, lamented Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour). Seems like it
opens up a lot of opportunities (effects that need to reset before they're
seen again, etc.), although I suppose they aren't as tolerant of large
crowds as continuous-flow mazes are. In any case, here was a rare Halloween
theme park maze conducted in guided-tour fashion (reportedly, Clive
Barker's FREAKZ maze used this format as well). But I couldn't tell you
whether the guided-tour format was especially well utilized in this maze or
not. About all I remember from it was the initial room, where a huge Cenobite (pretty sure it was Pinhead)
gave an intro monologue before you walked through the rest of the maze. The
Cenobite was basically a normal human-sized torso on top of a huge
fabricated skirt. I recall him having a visible headset mic, which allowed
for some cool pitch-shifting effects but looked a bit cheesy. Beyond that,
though, I don't remember the maze. I do remember it being disappointing
considering what I was expecting based on the imagery in Barker's films and
books. On the Total Fabrication
Puppets & Props page also linked to in the Monsterquarium write-up
above, you can see a 10-foot moving "flayed Satan" head that was in this
Creature Features: The latest name for 1997's Classic Monster Maze.
I don't recall how it differed from the 1997 edition, but I believe only one
of the two years had the the huge intimidating Frankenstein's Monster
(1997?). The map does mention "Frankenstein" being one of the monsters...
The Mummy: Before there was Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, there was
this maze, which came close on the heels of the release of The Mummy (1999). Don't
remember many particulars about the inside, other than that there were
mummies. I do remember how
horrendously long the line was. Interestingly, in between this
maze and the Mummy rollercoaster, from
2001 to 2004, USH featured a year-round mummy maze called The Mummy Returns Chamber of Doom. It had people in mummy costumes,
like this HHN maze, but also had actual sets and props from The Mummy Returns. Sound
familiar? Yeah, just like the Van Helsing Fortress Dracula attraction, and
indeed that's what the Chamber of Doom was re-themed to in 2004.
The Thrilling Chilling World of Rob Zombie: The second disappointing
maze this year from a horror icon. Rob Zombie's music certainly works well
for a Halloween maze, but it's not like we haven't seen a million mazes
using it already. About the only room that stands out in my mind had a
bunch of askew TVs playing his music videos, while live go-go dancers
cavorted. No scares, that I recall. In fact, the most enjoyable part of
the maze was probably the line outside, since there were TV monitors showing
Rob Zombie videos, most of which I hadn't seen before.
Animal House of Horrors: Not actually positive whether I went to the
animal show in 1997, or 1999, or both, but I believe just 1997.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure: I seem to remember this
being not quite as good as the 1997 show, but still better than "The
Hanging". Sadly, this appears to have been the last year for the show at
USH's HHN, though it
continues yearly in Florida.
Carnival of Carnage: I've definitely seen a sword swallower / glass
eater / human pincushion show, but not positive whether it was here or just
Chucky's Insult Emporium: This wasn't really a show, but that's the
section Universal puts it in -- it was an ongoing thing where you'd stand in
line for a puppet Chucky that sounded quite similar to Brad Dourif's version
to insult you. I remember it being pretty funny.
Back to the Future: The Ride: Same old, same old.
Backdraft: Don't think they did anything Halloween-specific with
The E.T. Adventure: They don't list this on the 1999 map, but I
believe it was actually open -- I think that's the last time I went on it
before it got the axe in 2003.
Jurassic Park in the Dark: Just stupid. Take a really cool
attraction with great dinosaurs and then turn off the lights so you can't
see them. The worst was the T-Rex, which is a really amazing animatronic
and which is completely invisible without the spotlight that's supposed to
illuminate it. Duh Universal, in-person giant dinosaurs are scarier when
you can see them than when we have to just take your word that they're
Terminator 2: 3-D: I really wanted to see this, but didn't have
time. Didn't have time at USH HHN 2006 either. One of these days...
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.