A few weeks ago it looked like Universal was gearing up to start hiring its annual scare actors (say it fast) for Halloween Horror Nights, the hard-ticket after-hours event that has become a staple of both Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando (where it’s been a holiday tradition for nearly 30 years). Sadly, these performers will have to be content scaring their pets and significant others, since Universal announced that the events on both coasts this year have been canceled due to health and safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s understandable, but very disappointing.
The official statement about Halloween Horror Nights read: “Universal Orlando Resort will be focusing exclusively on operating its theme parks for daytime guests, using the enhanced health and safety procedures already in place. Universal Studios Hollywood continues to face ongoing business restrictions and uncertainty around its opening timeframe.” Refunds are already being rewarded for those who have already purchased tickets or vacation packages. Universal vows that the event will return for the 2021 spooky season.
Halloween Horror Nights started at the Universal Orlando Resort, then known as Universal Studios Florida, in 1991 under the name “Fright Nights.” The following year it adopted its Halloween Horor Nights moniker, with themed entertainment, haunted houses and scare zones, centered around properties like the classic Universal Monsters and contemporary Universal horror movies like The People Under the Stairs. Early iterations in Florida also had a central character the entire event was themed around. Sometimes that was an actual pop culture figure like the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt and other times it was a character that Universal had created themselves like the Caretaker.
While Universal Studios Hollywood had attempted seasonal events in both 1986 (which resulted in the actual death of a Universal team member) and 1992, its version of the increasingly popular Halloween Horror Nights didn’t begin until 1997. It has been a staple ever since, scaring the pants off of visitors for more than 20 years.
In 2011 the overlay debuted at Universal Studios Singapore and the following year it arrived at Universal Studios Japan.
A highlight on both coasts, Halloween Horror Nights has become an annual tradition for horror fans and theme park enthusiasts, thanks to the care, attention and detail put into each of the elaborate haunted houses, scare zones and live entertainment offerings. (There used to be a jokey Bill & Ted-themed live show at Universal Orlando that was taken away when that space was needed for a new attraction and also it was horribly homophobic. Worth wondering if the righteous dudes would have been brought back this year as a tie-in for Bill & Ted Face the Music.) Each year the houses have become bigger, scarier and more fun. Last year there was an Us-themed maze, one of the highlights of the entire event, and one night Lupita Nyong’o stopped by and actually performed as her character from the movie in the maze.
In recent years, too, there was a greater emphasis on television-based properties like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Stranger Things, with some houses devoted to more all-ages things like Ghostbusters (that was last year and it was good). But Universal had done a great job of mixing those IP-based mazes with original concepts and characters for a truly unique experience. Among the experiences supposedly planned for this year were houses based on Beetlejuice, pop star Billie Eilish and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Coronavirus cases have been surging in California and Florida, the two states with Universal Studios theme parks, and the level of interactivity is probably something that just couldn’t be justified at this time. This Halloween will be a little less special without Halloween Horror Nights.