Even though I’ve been a resident of South Florida for over 20 years, and even though I’ve been to all the theme parks multiple times each year, I had never been to Halloween Horror Nights, the yearly event at Universal Studios that turns the park into a major haunted, terrifying house of horror.
I never went for a number of reasons. First, we don’t celebrate Halloween and years of Yeshiva Day School education convinced me that going to a Halloween celebration would transfer into my kids asking me to convert. I also always worried what the update on my family WhatsApp group would look like if my father saw pics of me celebrating with pumpkins and zombies. (“Adina’s gone pagan! Send help!”)
But this year, when I found out that there was going to be a Stranger Things haunted house, I threw caution to the wind and told my kids that, Pagan rituals be damned, we were going. We are serious Stranger Things fans, and if there’s an opportunity to go to Hawkins and meet a demogorgon, I was in. So were my kids.
If you’ve seen the commercials, it seems like it’s going to be terrifying. Truth is, it is a lot more fun than terrifying. Yes there are people jumping out at you with chain saws as you make your way through the park, and there are alien killer clowns walking around next to bloodied brides and zombie Michael Jacksons, but the experience is more exciting than blood-curdling. Also, thanks to our good ole American litigious society, you walk through all the scare zones safe in the knowledge that no one is actually going to touch you. Though, for a short time we convinced my daughter that we bought her the “You Can Touch Me” ticket which was a lot of fun to watch play out. (NOTE: There is no “You Can Touch Me Ticket. We made it up for the purposes of her inevitable future therapy sessions.)
The haunted houses themselves were amazing and were like a throwback to another era. There weren’t animatronic scenes to walk through like some twisted version of the Hall of Presidents. Instead, actors populate the haunted houses, jumping out at the right moments, getting in your face, and genuinely throwing themselves into their roles. This made the Stranger Things haunted house pretty cool. The actors looked like the characters and so when we walked into the Byers home and witnessed Joyce Byers axing her way through the wall while Christmas lights flickered and a demogorgon pushed its way through the wallpaper, it was all I could do to yell, “Hey Winona! You were awesome last season!”
There were ten themed haunted houses scattered throughout the park. We did 6 before we decided to call it a night. The Poltergeist house was probably my second favorite after Stranger Things because it was literally a “walking into your nightmare” experience for me. I have fond memories of hiding all the clown dolls from my room for years after seeing that film, so walking into the house that Carol Anne inhabited was a bit triggering. Good thing about the haunted houses, though, is that after every intense scare moment, there’s always a Universal employee waiting around the bend. I assume it’s to discreetly carry off anyone who goes into cardiac arrest or something. Good planning.
The whole experience was definitely worth the ticket price. And there are areas that are scare-zone free where you can hang out, relax, go on some theme park rides and enjoy the glowing mixed drinks that they sell. Though I think they definitely missed the boat when it came to the Harry Potter part of the park. If Knockturn Alley is the safest spot to hang out in at Halloween Horror Nights, someone missed the mark. I was at least hoping to catch a dementor or two roaming around, but no.
The idea of paying money to get scared might seem a little nuts to some people. And staying up all night to get chased by chain-saw wielding clowns and pumpkin headed creatures might not be everybody’s thing. We spent a good part of the evening screaming and running but a larger part laughing at ourselves, enjoying the adrenaline, and marveling at the attention to detail in every scare zone and house. It took me over twenty years before I tried out Halloween Horror Nights and I left wondering why I waited that long. If you get the chance, I recommend it.
At the very least, you’ll definitely get your cardio in for the day.