It’s hard to believe that we’re still a week away from Halloween, since it feels like it’s been going on for a year already.
Last year, I was unsure how I’d do with spooky Halloween-time events. It seems that if you’re into theme parks at all, you never stop hearing about all the haunts at Universal and elsewhere, to the point that if you don’t go to these things , we have to question your commitment to the season at all (if not the very concept of fun). But I have unpredictable, physical reactions to horror movies, so would I even enjoy them?
Turns out the answer was yes; I had a great time at a couple of last year’s events. My initial trepidation faded pretty quickly, and by the end of the night, I gauged the success of a house not by whether I made it through unscathed, but by how many times I’d been genuinely scared.
Against all reason, I’d become a Haunt Guy.
Well, not really. The type of interactions at Horror Nights or Scary Farm are the limit of how much I want to get involved. (Absolutely no touching allowed, for instance). And even for that, there’s an entire community of people who are way more into the haunts, their lore, and their history, than I will ever be.
So here’s my rundown for 2023, which only included three events. (We skipped Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland, since last year’s was enough for me to see that it’s not my kind of thing).
Universal Studios Hollywood Horror Nights
This year and last year, Universal’s event was my favorite. Last year’s was a little better, mostly because of the surprise of the La Llarona house, but this year still had some highlights.
My favorites were the Universal Monsters house, one called Monstruos that was about Latin American monsters, and the Chucky house, mostly for one scene in the woods.
I think the overall volume of Universal’s horror nights is way, way, overboard, and that’s not just me as a middle-aged man talking. My watch was going off constantly, warning me about environmental noise over 90 dB.
I also really liked the scare actors around Universal the night we went. Their routine mostly consisted of straight creepin’, which I prefer to the people getting all up in my face. Some 20 year-old screaming at me will never be as engaging as turning around and suddenly seeing a skeleton bride or a giant demon bird standing silently behind me.
We ended the night with a short show that was a promo for Blumhouse, which ended with a group of M3GAN dolls murdering our host (he was kind of asking for it tbh) and then marching into the theater to dance menacingly. I kind of loved it.
This year was my first time at this event, a relatively small bit of immersive theater+haunted house in an old mansion.
We had a long time before our group was called, which we spent wandering around the house and watching a really well-executed comedy magic show.
Then we were in a group of about twelve people who were led through the experience. It went into a cellar, a chase through the back yard, and various rooms in another building across multiple floors.
I think I was most impressed with the crowd control and pacing, honestly. There are several stretches where your group is ostensibly left without a guide, but there are still ways to keep the experience moving briskly.
I was told afterwards, by friends who’d been to earlier years of this event, that this one was kind of a “greatest hits” combining scenes from earlier years. I didn’t find it disjointed at all, though, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Knott’s Scary Farm
The last event for me was the original, Knott’s Scary Farm on its 50th anniversary.
I’d be curious to hear from long-time fans how much this event measured up to previous years. Some of it seemed like a victory lap, rewarding fans with references to years of lore and Easter eggs.
For me, it’s a lot of loving the idea more than the execution. I love that the start of the event has people waiting outside of ghost town as the fog gets heavier, and then the ropes drop and zombies are let loose into the crowd. However, I’ve been to two of these now, and I haven’t been able to see what was actually going on, unlike if I’d just stayed home and watched a video.
Another issue I’ve got with Scary Farm is that the scare actors outside of the houses are more annoying than scary or even atmospheric. I’m skeptical that that’s the fault of any of the actors; it’s just how this event has evolved over time.
There were a couple of highlights for me this year. It was the last year of “The Depths,” a water-themed house that has a couple of great scenes, including one in which you’re wading through water as creatures jump up from below the surface. (It’s actually fog and lasers instead of water). It’s going to be tough to beat.
Also there was a new house called “Cinema Slasher,” that was not only my favorite, but honestly felt like Knott’s punching well above its weight. The idea is that you go into a haunted movie theater and walk into three different slasher movies, by literally walking into the screen.
The movies were noticeably different in style and tone, something you don’t typically see in events like this. There was a Black Christmas-style slasher in a sorority house, and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style one just called “Slaughterhouse.” But the Friday the 13th-inspired section was titled Camp Gonnagetcha, which was just way too clever. That won me over, and then I became a true fan as we were exiting the theater and had to confront a giant cartoon popcorn bucket (from the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” trailer playing at the beginning) welding a knife.
If I’m being honest, I left Scary Farm thinking that maybe I’m not a Haunt Guy after all. Not necessarily because they made me uncomfortable, as I’d feared, but because it feels like there’s only so much they can do before they start repeating themselves.
I do want to thank my friend Dave for coordinating and getting a group together for all of these things! Next year, though, I may be content just to see Universal’s. I still haven’t been to the Universal Orlando horror nights, which might be worth a trip?