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The evolution of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights

September 11, 2019, 4:00 PM · Few theme park attractions elicit as widely ranging reactions as Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Each year, it seems, some fans dismiss the event as a failure when compared with previous editions, while others hail it as the very best one yet.

Obviously, people’s opinions differ, as they do for almost all entertainment. But I feel the divergence of opinion over HHN is exceptional. A couple of comments from John Murdy and Michael Aiello - from my recent conversation with the creative directors from each coast - provide some perspective that might help explain why some fans adore this event while others pine for years past.

Aiello, who oversees the event in Orlando, mentioned that anthology houses typically get higher ratings in Universal’s surveys of event guests than single-instance IP houses do. That surprised me because it runs against the consensus I’ve heard from fans online, who typically rail against houses that combine multiple movies or series into one installation.

Fans who feel strongly enough about themed entertainment (or anything else for that matter) are not typically a representative sample of the larger population of consumers. So it’s possible that those who feel a stronger than typical reaction toward anthology houses are more likely to dislike them than those whose reaction is not strong enough to prompt them to share that reaction online.

Or... it’s just possible that haters love to hate more than lovers love to love. Whatever. But Aiello’s comment remind us that online consensus does not necessarily reflect true popular consensus. (I haven’t taken one of Universal’s HHN surveys so I can’t comment as to whether their questions tend to lead respondents to one conclusion or another about certain houses.)

But what drives the public displeasure toward recent editions of HHN, whether that displeasure is representative of a broader consensus or not? That’s where a comment from Murdy, the creative head of the Hollywood event, informs.

Murdy was speaking about the evolution of HHN IP line-ups since Hollywood revived its event in 2006. During that time, the focus has shifted from the slasher-driven franchises and jump scares that once defined Halloween Horror Nights to a broader focus that welcomes IP that many fans would not consider “horror,” including Stranger Things and this year’s Ghostbusters.

Mazes just aren’t collections of jump scares anymore, either, with ever-advancing puppetry and stage effects making Halloween Horror Nights something that many people who never would consider themselves horror fans now queue to enjoy.

And that, I think, fuels much of the resentment with the modern HHN. I suspect that many of its most vocal online critics miss the event’s previous focus on old-school horror.

What was once a sharply-focused event catering to a devoted fans of a specific genre is now a much more crowded event that accommodates a pastiche of franchises loosely connected with the supernatural.

Of course, the counter argument here is... look at all those people in the queues, packing an event that offers more entertainment options than ever. The people have voted, and they voted yes on the ‘new’ Halloween Horror Nights... regardless of what a smaller selection of once-passionate might feel.

So... what do you think?

Replies (5)

September 11, 2019 at 4:45 PM

My family took me to Orlando’s Horror Nights when I was 10-years-old in the 90’s and I don’t remember anything outrageous in the Haunted Houses or the Bill & Ted show. Going back yearly as an adult, I don’t think my family would have had the same reaction to the houses with very adult content (American Horror Story, Evil Dead, American Werewolf), Bill & Ted going very blue and tons of pop up bars serving liquor. All of which have been rolled back the last three years with apprehension from me. But I don’t think you can die on a hill saying the event has always been for mature audiences.

September 11, 2019 at 9:24 PM

I started going to HHN in 2004, so I don't remember the very early years. I don't go to be scared -- I love Halloween, I love ghosts and goblins and scary beasties, and I love set detail. I've always been impressed with HHN's creativity and attention to detail. And if that's the direction they're moving in, then I'm all for it.

My favorite houses tend to be the original, non-IP ones, such as the WWI Nightingales house, La Llorna, the Gothic house from a few years ago, or the Psychoscarepy one that took place at Christmas. But I've also been impressed with some of the recent IP houses, such as the one based on the sequel to The Thing, American Werewolf in London or Krampus. Again, it's the attention to detail and the individual elements that make a house for me, not the scares.

I can't wait to go again this year, as the house reviews so far sound awesome!

September 12, 2019 at 3:00 AM

Let's be real, IPs like Stranger Things or Ghostbusters that generally aren't considered frightening (and possibly even family-friendly depending on who you ask) are used at HHN mainly for the merchandising opportunities. Universal makes good bank on all those Camp Know Where hats that can then be used for the scarier properties.

September 12, 2019 at 9:44 AM

Speaking to a wider demographic is fine. There is a lot to do during HHN, too much for one night, just like a theme park.
And, just like a theme park, not every attraction will be a match for every guest. You choose what you like to ride, right? I myself would go for the Stranger Things and Ghost Busters houses. I love those IP's.
Not having 1 theme or character is fine too. In the past people loved or hated that so it's fine they steered away from that.

September 13, 2019 at 1:07 PM

I actually believe that a person's rating of a house is directly related to how many personal scares and scareactor interactions they have, regardless of any IP or detailed settings. You can go through the same house 5 times and have 5 different experiences but the one you remember, and the one you use as a barometer, is the one which gave you the most jumps.

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