Here in the UK, Halloween rarely gets the treatment it deserves. A couple of neighbourhood kids in sheets might try to extort the odd Rolo, but that hardly gets an 'A' for effort. Not so in America. Across the pond Halloween is a national institution and nowhere is that better demonstrated than at the annual Halloween Horror Nights event put on at Universal Studios Orlando. Months of blood (only some prosthetic), sweat and tears are poured into the construction of the theme park’s fiendish horror mazes, which are unleashed on an unsuspecting public every September. This year marks Universal's 26th celebration of this most horrific of holidays and we went along to experience the running and the screaming first hand. These were the highlights.
1. The Walking Dead
Walkers are nothing new to Halloween Horror Nights, with the park having done Walking Dead mazes consistently for the past few years. This time, however, the maze isn’t based on the most recent Season but marks a celebration of all six to date. We were taken from the hospital where Rick wakes up, through the camp site, Hershel’s farm (don’t worry, you don't sit around for twelve episodes while nothing happens), Woodbury, the prison and even Alexandria. Walkers grasped at us from every angle, machete-wielding ‘wolves’ roamed the wreckage of Alexandria's walls and we even spotted Negan’s bat, Lucille, hidden near the end (along with the faint echo of a familiar whistle). The best Walking Dead maze yet, it climaxes with a strobe-filled, zombie-packed encounter that places you slap bang in the middle of a handsy horde. Don't walk, RUN!
2. The Exorcist
Not a traditional jump-fest, William Friedkin’s once-banned story of possession and regurgitation plays on our primal fears, and its tribute horror house is no different. Sure, there are frights galore (spider-walk!) and getting splashed with holy water while Reagan levitates above a bed is never calming but it’s the psychological terror that really takes hold here. Voices bombarded us from hidden speakers, the smell of pea soup tickled our nostrils and, having walked through layers of filthy mattress, we ended up following Father Karras in his fatal fall down the steps and even beyond into Pazuzu’s corner of hell. And just when we thought it was all over, the demon returned for one final scare. Bastard!
Michael Dougherty’s comedy-horror might not seem something likely to give you sleepless nights but try walking through a kitchen filled with cackling, maniacal gingerbread men and see how well you fare. The demon jack-in-the-box, the evil cherub and the carnivorous teddy bear were all in attendance, as well as a cadre of dark elves, ready to leap upon unwary visitors (i.e. us). Counter-Claus Krampus himself made an appearance at one point, too, rounding off the most detailed, lovingly-crafted house in this year’s crop. It may not feel like Christmas yet but there are festive frights galore in this one. Yule love it! (Sorry).
HHN put on a house based on John Carpenter's Halloween a few years ago and this one picks up where that house — and the film that inspired it — left off, with Michael Myers down but definitely not out. If you think it's just a bunch of Myers-masked men brandishing knives in your face... then you’re exactly right, but the ordeal is no less frightening for it! Sticking to the plot of the 1981 sequel, we followed in the footsteps of the iconic killer as he stalked Laurie Strode through the halls of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, before getting engulfed in a ball of fire. It doesn’t matter how many times we see Myers’ inverted-Shatner mask, it still scares the bejesus out of us!
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
One of the most consistently heart-stopping things about Halloween Horror Nights is the chainsaw-wielding psychos who accost you as you walk the streets. Well, imagine a whole house full of that, complete with Leatherface masks, and you’re halfway to understanding the bowel-loosening experience of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze. Based on the 1974 original (not the shonky remake), this is a ‘70s video nasty brought to life, with the entire house coated in a layer of grime and filth. If the feather-strewn chicken room wasn't enough to set our nerves on edge, getting ambushed by a towering cannibal certainly was. A word to the wise: once you get outside and breathe a sigh of relief that it's all over, know this: it isn’t.
6. Tomb Of The Ancients
Of the three non-franchise houses this year (alongside Lunatics’ Playground and Ghost Town), this creepy crypt proved by far the tricksiest. With low ceilings, narrow corridors and an array of shutters and trapdoors hiding ancient, evil gods, this isn't for the timid or the claustrophobic. Snake priests, mummies and an assortment of other unearthed horrors lurk in the catacombs ready to maul us and, thanks to the uncomfortably close quarters, there was nowhere to run!
7. American Horror Story
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s demented anthology horror series is the most disturbing thing on television. It’s small wonder, then, that it’s also the most nerve-shredding experience at this year’s HHN. An amalgamation of Hotel, Murder House and Freak Show (we can only hope Coven, Asylum and Roanoke make an appearance next year), the maze sent us through the Langdons’ former home, down the corridors of Hotel Cortez and in amongst Elsa Mars’ monsters troupe. We were duly terrorised by Infantata, horrified by Twisty the clown and bellowed at by a Lady Gaga-alike. The Shining-inspired carpet in the Hotel sections was a nice touch, too, but you’re unlikely to notice it while running in blind panic from Rubberman, whose red room of pain will haunt us till Christmas!
Holiday Package Information
Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick direct to Orlando and accommodation at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort starts from £1376
Two-park bonus with Halloween Horror Nights combo ticket is £233.50 per person.
To book, call 0344 557 3859.