Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando's annual extravaganza, has launched this year with a horde of terrifying experiences aimed at the most die-hard horror movie and TV fans.
Every year the event brings together a community of horror aficionados who get to explore Universal Orlando after dark, experience world-class horror mazes based on new ideas and the world's biggest franchises, eat some weird and wonderful food, and generally get the crap scared out of them. There's nothing quite like it.
This year, 'mazes' (extended haunted houses with movie studio-level production) based on The Last of Us, SyFy's Chucky series, Stranger Things, and the upcoming The Exorcist: Believer are taking centre stage.
We were lucky enough to visit HHN this year, and our personal highlight was the Stranger Things 4 house, which painstakingly recreated scenes from the most recent season of Netflix's global megahit.
Guests can walk through Eddie Munson's trailer, see horrible things happen to Chrissie, watch Eleven fighting Vecna (a lot), and even get front-row seats to Dustin and Eddie's iconic Metallica cover-band moment.
As with every live experience Netflix puts its name to, the level of detail present in the Halloween Horror Nights house is out of this world. The house's most impressive moment is undoubtedly when you realise the HHN team has built a complete replica of Eddie's caravan to place, upside down, above the one you're walking through – recreating that iconic moment from the show.
The Stranger Things house, like all of Halloween Horror Nights, is brought to life by two things; an amazing cast of scare actors, playing out key moments and embodying your favourite characters, and truly killer soundtracks.
As you'd expect, the Stranger Things 4 house blasts Kate Bush at all the right moments, really capturing the magic of the show especially as you walk through Max's nightmare and Vecna's clock-filled dreamspace.
Speaking of iconic soundtracks, the other big headliner at this year's Halloween Horror Night is of course The Last of Us. A fully immersive maze based on the Playstation game of the same name calls to fans with Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting main theme outside and inside the house.
The maze is set during the events of The Last of Us Part 1 and has visitors accompanying Joel and Ellie through the Pittsburgh Quarantine Zone section of the game as they avoid clickers and bloaters, and dodge bullets in a number of tense firefights.
As with Stranger Things, the amount of love and detail poured into recreating the world of The Last of Us is seriously impressive. The franchise is famously concerned with sound and noise, those clickers have very sensitive hearing after all, and the house's use of music and creepy sound effects really brings the whole thing to life.
The other major element of the Last of Us maze is the prosthetics and costumes present throughout. Universal Studios made its name in horror by pioneering special effects and innovative makeup techniques, and it's always fun to see those skills on show at Halloween Horror Nights.
If we had one complaint it would be that, compared with some of the houses, we'd have loved to spend more time in the world of The Last of Us via a longer maze set in a more expansive aspect of the game. The Stranger Things maze works so well because it's essentially a montage of all the best bits, and a similar approach might have worked here too.
Houses based on Universal Monsters, SyFy's Chucky series and the upcoming movie The Exorcist: Believer rounded out the houses based on existing horror properties. The latter two mazes are based on specific entries in their respective franchises, but since the SyFy series is full of references to the Child's Play movies there are still things for all fans to catch on to.
The Exorcist house was a surprising standout since often the mazes work best when you have some familiarity with the movie they're based on – but here all we have to go on is a trailer.
Despite this, the minds at HHN managed to communicate a lot in terms of tone alone. As we mentioned above, sometimes a montage approach can work best for the houses, and since trailers are basically movie montages themselves, the format really lent itself to giving visitors both a terrifying experience and a taste of what to expect when The Exorcist: Believer releases.
Real HHN fans know that the scares don't stop there though, and that the twisted team at Orlando creates some truly devilish areas when left to their own devices. This year's original houses were Dr Oddfellow: Twisted Origins – a lore-heavy house for die-hard HHN fans, and a horrible circus for those encountering the doctor for the first time.
Abominable snowmen, not usually associated with the sunny climes of Orlando, also returned for YETI: Campground Kills, while The Darkest Deal took visitors from one hot southern night to another with its story of a Louisiana musician who pays the ultimate price for his shot at fame.
The real gem in this selection was Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings, a colonial-era cult story in the vein of The Witch. We won't spoil too much, but the house ends with a one-two punch and a very, very active congregation.
Dr Oddfellow is also responsible for this year's scarezones - areas between attractions that feature scare actors, creepy music, and lots and lots of dry ice. Collection of Horrors, Dark Zodiac, Jungle of Doom: Expedition Horror, Shipyard 32: Horrors Unhinged and Vamp '69: Summer of Blood all provide plenty of scares without the need to queue. Summer of Blood is especially evocative and campy, with era-specific music blaring, broken-down VW vans, and more than one undead hippy.
If you need a break from the continuous screaming don't worry, there's also a full-blown theatrical live show and an abundance of unique food and drink options.
The attention paid to the above areas, and the narrative that links them all together makes this year's event feel different in one key way.
This year, Halloween Horror Nights feels like a celebration of not just horror fans and the movies they love, but of HHN fans themselves. Whether it's the Dr. Oddfellow house full of callbacks to the event's opening years, or the layered scarezones and returning original characters from previous attractions like Duelling Dragons. It all creates an internal mythos that rewards fans and families that have been voluntarily scaring themselves silly for 32 years.
At the end of the day, one of the best things about movies and TV shows is the way they bring people together - and this is absolutely true for horror, maybe more than any other genre. Fandom is all about finding your community, and there's no better place to do so than Halloween Horror Nights.
Typical cost: seven nights at Loews Sapphire Falls in Orlando with Virgin Atlantic Holidays, including scheduled direct flights from London Heathrow and room-only accommodation starts from £1,576 per person. Price also includes a Universal 3 Park Explorer Ticket and Halloween Horror Nights single-night ticket.
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