One of the few things scarier than Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights is a global pandemic. That’s why I haven’t been to the theme park’s annual Halloween celebration since 2019, well before we’d ever heard of Covid. 2020 was the first year since 1991 that Horror Nights didn’t happen (although the park did ultimately open two of the planned haunted houses for that year), and a flare-up in Covid rates near the end of the summer of 2021 kept me away from last year’s 30th anniversary celebration. But with a couple of boosters in me, and society at large just deciding that the coronavirus apparently doesn’t exist anymore, I decided to brave the teeming masses and screaming scare actors of Halloween Horror Nights once again this year. I’m really glad I did.
Halloween Horror Nights, of course, is a night-time event that takes over Universal Studios Florida every September and October, featuring a variety of haunted houses based on both popular IP and original ideas from Universal Creative. Between the houses, throughout the park itself, are five “scare zones”—open-air exhibits with their own creepy concepts and cast of characters. (I’ll be ranking this year’s scare zones in a separate piece soon.) It also includes a live stage show, a light and effects show at Universal’s lagoon, and a diverse range of unique, horror-themed food and drink. It’s not for the trick-or-treat set—the houses and zones can be legitimately frightening, and the movie-level makeup and special effects can make you think you’re really looking at ground-up body parts. It’s probably best for the young or faint of heart to steer clear, but people who love horror movies or are just looking for a good scare will probably dig it. I had no interest in it personally until the first time I went to one, and now it’s one of my favorite theme park events of the year.
This year’s collection of houses includes properties both familiar (John Carpenter’s Halloween, the Universal Monsters) and unexpected (pop star The Weeknd), along with six original concepts. One of those originals houses is the best thing I’ve ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights. Which one, though? Read on to see my thoughts on every haunted house at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights this year. Meanwhile, you can find ticketing and schedule information Universal Orland’s website. Also, for all your West Coasters out there, note that Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights features its own lineup of houses; even when a house overlaps between the two events, it’s not guaranteed to be an identical copy. I’ve never made it out to California’s version, and have absolutely no idea what those houses look like this year.
Let’s start it off with one of this year’s original houses, based on a theme that Universal has explored a few times now.
Something I’ve noticed from going to Halloween Horror Nights the last few years: the original haunted houses—the ones created wholly by Universal Creative and not based on a popular movie or TV show—are usually both the best and worst houses of the night. There are typically five of these houses (this year there are six), and the best of them are some of the most amazingly designed spaces you’ll find in a theme park. The worst of them, though, are usually forgettable—like Hellblock Horror. Set in Hellgate Prison (a maximum security prison for monsters) in the middle of a riot, it’s as generic as Halloween Horror Nights get, with random monsters popping out from every spot you’d expect them to. If you’re solely into this stuff for the cathartic thrill of getting yelled at by a scary beast, this might be one of your favorite houses this year. If you’re looking for unique or impressive design work, or an interesting story, you’ll want to look elsewhere. This is the closest HHN 31 gets to the straight-forward haunted houses that used to pop up in malls back in the ‘80s, only with much better costumes and makeup and a much higher budget.
Another original house, Descendants of Destruction suffers from the same general lack of inspiration as Hellblock Horror. This one is just a little bit better, though, due to a greater commitment to its theme and more detailed theming. It’s the future, there’s been an apocalypse, people now live underground, at least some of them have turned into cannibals, and you’re stuck in a collapsing subway station alongside a whole lot of them. (Yes, it has a slight Fallout vibe.) Cannibalism is a recurring theme at this Halloween Horror Nights (and probably at every Halloween Horror Nights) and Descendants of Destruction is about as grisly as it gets. Again, though, the story doesn’t really have any interesting twists, and the house itself doesn’t make nearly as much of an impression as every other one higher on this list. It’s fine, but forgettable.
Blumhouse is a reliable source of both horror hits and Halloween Horror Nights haunted houses. This year’s Horrors of Blumhouse mashes Freaky and The Black Phone together, and it highlights two of the fundamental drawbacks to the Horrors of Blumhouse concept. First is that neither movie gets a full house, meaning they can feel a little rushed or abbreviated compared to the others. Second is that these houses are almost always based on pretty recent movies (Freaky is from late 2020, The Black Phone is from earlier this year), so if you don’t stay fairly current on the horror world the house won’t really mean much to you. That hurts the Freaky half far more in this case; it felt like an unexceptional slasher house with jokes that didn’t really land. The Black Phone half is a good bit better, but the storyline is still opaque if you haven’t seen the movie. Still, that part of the house (which is actually split up in two different buildings this year, a first) is much better designed than Freaky; you’ll really feel like you’re stuck in a dingy kitchen and sparsely decorated bedroom in some small ‘70s tract home. Also the Grabber’s mask is a great look for a horror villain. The second half is some good, scary fun, but the first half didn’t really do anything for me.
Don’t worry: every house from here on out ranges between good and excellent. It’s just that some are better than others. Universal Monsters: Legends Collide has a cool story that pits three infamous movie monsters against each other, with the Wolfman and Dracula both conspiring to steal the Mummy’s amulet. For the Wolfman it would bring a cure to his supernatural ailment; for Dracula, it would grant the ability to venture into the sunlight without bursting into flames, making him almost unstoppable. (The Mummy’s motivation, meanwhile, boils down simply to “what’s mine is mine, losers.”) This house promises a different victor every night (although I will say there’s one monster that I’m pretty sure won’t ever come out on top, based on how the story goes), which gives it a degree of unpredictability even for people who have been through it before. Set almost entirely in an Egyptian tomb, it boasts a couple of amazing setpieces, a good story, and enough jump scares to rattle even the sturdiest guest.
Spirits of the Coven is ultimately my greatest disappointment at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights—and yet it’s still really cool. It has the best concept of any of the original houses, and a setting that’s rich for both scares and the kind of detailed set design and world-building that I love about theme parks, but doesn’t fully deliver on either. You’re in Salem, Mass., in the 1920s, at the height of Prohibition, and you hear about a speakeasy known for its beautiful flapper girls. When you get there you quickly realize these flappers aren’t drinking hooch, but feasting on the men they lure in. Yep, they’re witches, and they’re draining the men of Salem of their blood in order to preserve the youth and beauty of their ancient witch queen. The house starts you off in the speakeasy, which is sumptuously designed (if a little small), before guiding you through hidden underground caves towards the witch queen’s unholy altar. You’ll meet increasingly old and haggard witches along the way. Between the beautiful speakeasy and the witch queen’s impressive chambers, it’s book-ended with some top-notch design; in-between, though, lies a series of nondescript caverns and hallways. There aren’t enough flapper witches or enough time spent in the speakeasy itself, and there’s at least one scene that doesn’t fit at all—a monstrous butcher with a grotesquely carved up hog living inside this secret witch cave. Story often gets subjugated to scares in these houses, but it’s rarely as obvious as when you walk past that butcher. It’s a bummer, because Spirit of the Coven starts up with such promise.
It’s hard to go wrong with Michael Myers, the rare slasher icon who hasn’t devolved into something of a joke. Universal returns to John Carpenter’s original movie with a newly designed house recreating some of the most iconic scenes in slasher history. (Does this house have hedges? You bet it does!) As always, the hairs on the back of your neck will start to rise whenever you see that mask or hear the first new notes of Carpenter’s theme. This house has the one moment that truly frightened me this year, although it wasn’t the kind of instant reaction scare you get from an actor jumping out and yelling at you; when I first opened the curtain to the last room of the house I felt actual dread, the anticipation of fear as opposed to the reaction to it. Also, I don’t even know if she did many other horror movies, but just as I believe the world in general needs more P.J. Soles, Halloween Horror Nights needs more P.J. Soles scare actors.
This original house doesn’t have a concept as inspired as Spirit of the Coven’s, but it’s much better at realizing its concept. It presents a realistic, lived-in space where every room and detail adds to the story. As a dumb white American I have to admit a slight bit of unease at that story—a remote Latin American village invites tourists to an annual celebration in order to feed them to the cupacabra, which can be seen as playing into the damaging stereotype of foreign countries and their residents (particularly countries that aren’t as financially well-off as the U.S.) being creepy, mysterious, and dangerous. I sort of stopped thinking about that once mask-wielding murderers and cannibals were yelling at me from every direction, though. This is another intricately designed house that believably recreates its setting with keenly observed details, and then packs it out with blood, gore, scary villagers, and even a few startling chupacabras puppets (or perhaps animatronics?). I could totally see this Latin American village existing in an EPCOT World Showcase pavilion.
Yeah, one of this year’s houses is based on a guy. If you’ve seen the videos for The Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours, you know that the singer, songwriter and producer has an eye for visual composition and a mind for horror. After Hours Nightmare is loosely based on the videos to “Blinding Lights,” “In Your Eyes,” “Save Your Tears,” and “Heartless,” with a medley of songs playing throughout, and a quick detour to the mirror room from the artist’s amazing Super Bowl performance. It features its fair share of grotesque imagery—at one point an evil nurse dances sultrily with The Weeknd’s disembodied head—but it’s perhaps the least scary house of the bunch. It might be low on scares, but it’s a master class in design, using sound, light, color, and the environment to create a dazzling, at times overwhelming sensory experience. You don’t have to like The Weeknd’s music to appreciate how brilliantly designed this house is—although it certainly helps.
I didn’t know a haunted house could be so hilarious. Bugs: Eaten Alive will no doubt traumatize anybody with a strong fear of insects, but for me this ‘50s set house is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in months. It turns the techno-utopianism of the 1950s—that belief that science and technology can only make the world a better place—into a sci-fi horror fest that evokes the real-life climate disaster we’re currently living through, while also packing in a lot of great jokes and sight gags. Basically a fancy new device that’s supposed to keep your house cool and drive bugs away backfires, acting not as a bug repellant but as some kind of bug performance-enhancing drug. These bugs get huge and start to slaughter unsuspecting humans in comically grotesque ways, all throughout a trade show demo exhibit that might as well be Disneyland’s old Monstanto House of the Future. I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as when a giant, six-foot bug hopped out of a wall like the Kool-Aid Man and started stomping its feet and waving its hands like a cartoon character. These giant bugs look like the Minor League Baseball mascots of the damned. Yes, this house is absolutely disgusting, and full of gore, body horror, jump scares, and everything else you look for in a haunted house. It’s also funnier than any haunted house has a right to be, though, while looking absolutely amazing throughout. I’m already sad that it’ll be going away forever at the end of October.
If Bugs proves how funny haunted houses can be, Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake—hands down this year’s best house, and the best one I’ve ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights—shows how sad and beautiful they can be. Set in a fading fishing village, it’s the story of one woman’s grief over the loss of her sea captain husband, and the obsession she develops with trying to rescue him from the sea. An elegiac violin plays as we meet the ghost of her sunken husband haunting his favorite bar and proceed through ramshackle ships and boathouses. The waterlogged corpses of lost sailors reach out to us, with barnacles and tentacles overtaking their faces. In the single most impressive visual at this year’s event, we eventually see the widow herself standing atop the prow of a sinking boat, a ghostly figure playing the sad violin that echoes throughout the house. Finally we pass under the waves ourselves, where we see more dead lurking in the water and swaying back and forth above us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Dead Man’s Pier made me reconsider the artistic possibilities of a haunted house. It’s a gorgeously designed space, from the small New England town square of the first scene, to the decaying boats we walk through, to that show-stopping moment when you enter a clearing and see the widow playing her violin far above you. Remember what I said at the start of this list about how Universal’s original houses represent both their worst and best work? Well, this is the greatest thing they’ve created during the few years I’ve gone to Halloween Horror Nights, and something that deserves to be a permanent part of the theme park’s lineup. It’ll be a tragedy to lose this so quickly. If you have any interest in the art and design of theme parks, you should try to visit Dead Man’s Pier before it fades away.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.