Review: Terror-ific new thrills fill Halloween Horror Nights 2011 at Universal Studios Hollywood

in Entertainment, Movies, Theme Parks

Despite its same event name, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood in California couldn’t offer entertainment any further from the scares seen here in Orlando at Universal Studios Florida. While for 2011 Orlando’s creative team has continued to create original haunted houses and street scares based solely on their own ideas (with a few exceptions), the Hollywood team is fueled by decades of movie-making history at the original Universal Studios to create an event that’s distinctly unique to that park. But even with four of six mazes based on movies, the two stand-out new experiences this year are those unrelated to films.

Universal Studios Hollywood arch

While I was at Universal Orlando experiencing opening night of Halloween Horror Nights 21 (event review here), we sent photographer Jessica Chenowith to capture the opening of Halloween Horror Nights in California for us on the same night. In addition to sharing photos and a few video highlights, she also offered me her thoughts on how this year’s event came together.

As I reported when I visited and reviewed Horror Nights in Hollywood event in 2010, our photographer noted the “attention to detail and work behind Halloween Horror Nights is always staggering. I love gore, and they deliver plenty of it.” You can tell she’s a fan, and the right person to report back to us about it all.

Video: Quick highlights of Halloween Horror Nights 2011 at Universal Studios Hollywood

Six haunted houses populate Halloween Horror Nights 2011 in Hollywood, four all-new, one returning, and one overlay of the park’s year-round “House of Horrors” attraction. For Jessica, it was two of the new houses that impressed most.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Haunted Houses

When the maze called “Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare” was first announced, some doubted the shock rocker’s ability to put together a truly terrifying experience. But Jessica told me this house was the stand-out of the night featuring a solid mix of story, music, and scares – particularly with an unexpected moment with a surprising snake.

Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare - Haunted House

Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare - Haunted House

Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare - Haunted House

And after last year’s scare zone based on the Mexican legend of “La Llorona” failed to excite, many doubted its ability to serve as a solid theme for a full haunted house this year. But Jessica called this house wonderfully done and extremely creepy with this maze solving the problem of many guests not knowing the story of La Llorona. Jessica also told me highlights of this maze include dead children in a lake and the fact that “you could smell the dead pigs.” (Only at Halloween Horror Nights is the smell of decaying pig carcasses actually considered a good thing.)

La Llorona - Haunted House

La Llorona - Haunted House

La Llorona - Haunted House

Both the events in Orlando and Hollywood feature a maze based on the upcoming remake/prequel of “The Thing.” I wasn’t thrilled by the one here in Florida, but Jessica says California’s version should get people excited for the upcoming movie, which hits theaters in October.

The Thing - Haunted House

Of this year’s movie-based mazes, “Hostel” impressed Jessica the least, despite its promise of gore, which from her statement above, we know she loves. But the hype must have worked, as she reported long opening night lines for this house all night.

Hostel - Haunted House

Hostel - Haunted House

I thoroughly enjoyed Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” maze last year and it sounds like it’s equally entertaining again in 2011. The 3D effects are used sparingly, only for added pop in certain scenes. But they’re certainly not necessary to enjoy this house, as Jessica thought the experience was great even without wearing the supplied 3D glasses.

House of 1,000 Corpses - Haunted House

House of 1,000 Corpses - Haunted House

House of 1,000 Corpses - Haunted House

This year, a maze based on “The Wolfman” occupied the always difficult to fill House of Horrors attraction. The year-round haunt features classic horror icons and just enough scares to entertain the daily theme park audience. But for Halloween Horror Nights, guests expect more than just a handful of mediocre scares. Shoehorning an additional theme into the existing space is always difficult for the Horror Nights team, though creative director John Murdy believes this year’s use of The Wolfman is the best they’ve ever achieved inside the House of Horrors. Jessica though it fit well inside, but still called it the weakest of the mazes at the event. No surprise.

The Wolfman - Haunted House

The Wolfman - Haunted House

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Scare Zones

When asked about the scare zones on Twitter, creative director John Murdy recently admitted that they took somewhat of backseat this year in favor of paying more attention to the haunted houses. Apparently this showed, as Jessica felt the street zones were smaller than usual. The “Reapers” area in the lower lot gave chainsaw wielding fiends plenty of room to roam, but Jessica noted that even that area has shrunken over past years due to Transformers ride construction walls. And speaking of chainsaws, there are none in the park’s entrance area this year – only Ghostface killers from Scream pointing knives at guests.

UPDATE (10/3/11): Mike from San Diego has let me know that when he visited the event on October 1, there was an abundance of chainsaws throughout the park, including at the entrance. So may, in fact, he said, “It’s like they had a sale at the chainsaw factory.” It shows that Halloween Horror Nights is always evolving, rarely the same experience from night to night.

The Klownz zone is still in full hilarious swing this year, which I still believe is the best use of evil clowns in any Halloween event I’ve ever seen. They stray from the obnoxious and focus on being mischievous and creepy.

Klownz - Scare Zone

Klownz - Scare Zone

Zombieville - Scare Zone

Freakz - Scare Zone

Chainsaw Scare Zone

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Shows and Other Attractions

The annual tradition of roasting pop culture icons and celebrities continued this year with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. In reviewing Jessica’s photos from the show (unlike in Orlando, photography is allowed in the Hollywood version), I noticed the same irreverent humor and overt sexuality still present – both welcomed by the audience, I’m sure. But I also noticed several Disney properties were poked fun at, including “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Tron: Legacy.”

Osama Bin Laden - Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure

Pirates of the Caribbean - Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure

Tron Legacy - Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure

Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure

Universal Orlando, for the most part, steers clear of Disney-related humor, largely due to a legal fiasco that resulted from a Captain Jack Sparrow appearance a few years ago that ended up on YouTube. But these knocks at the competitor down the highway seem like a perfect fit for the show, which works best when the joking jabs are the expense of familiar characters, movies, and TV shows, and it’s unfortunate that poking fun at the Mouse is largely off-limits for Orlando’s show. Fortunately, Hollywood holds very little back, blasting anything and everything that was in the public eye in the past year.

A favorite each year and an attraction completely unique to Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood is the Terror Tram and this year it took on a Scream theme. When I experienced the Terror Tram for the first time last year, I was blown away, given the ability to step off the backlot tour tram and onto the sets of Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the famous Bates Motel and house from Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and the plane crash disaster scene from Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” Walking among notable Hollywood history is an incredible treat.

Bates Motel on Terror Tram - Haunted Attraction

Terror Tram Ghostface

However, Jessica feels the Scream theme invaded the experience this year, with Scream’s Ghostface replacing Norman Bates in the Psycho areas, popping out of doorways and appearing in windows throughout the Bates Motel set. In fact, Bates himself is nowhere to be found this year, which Jessica found to be disappointing.

UPDATE (10/3/11): Mike (from the update above) again pointed out to me that Norman Bates is back, standing in front of the Psycho House. Perhaps Norman was tending to his mother when Jessica dropped by…

In addition, despite the Scream overlay to the first half of the Terror Tram experience, she was confused by the complete lack of Scream-based elements in the War of the Worlds area, filled with various “ghouls” instead. In the end, however, she still felt the whole Terror Tram attraction was fun, despite the new pitfalls.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is still a relatively young event compared to its 21-year-old counterpart in Orlando, but the Hollywood event is quickly making a name for itself, often relying on familiar films to immerse guests into. But this year’s event really came together as it branched out beyond movies into the worlds of macabre music and a creepy legend, a result that Horror Nights Hollywood creators are sure to take note of.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 at Universal Studios Hollywood continues for 17 more nights on the following dates:
Sept. 30; Oct. 1, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30 & 31.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit

More photos from Halloween Horror Nights 2011 at Universal Studios Hollywood:

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