Universal thrills audiences with Halloween Nights

If you thought horror mazes and haunted houses were the most frightening aspects of Halloween, try a red carpet chock-full of vampires, zombie brides and some of Hollywood’s most frightening celebrities.

On Friday night, Universal Studios kicked off the Halloween season and its annual Halloween Horror Nights with the Eyegore Awards, celebrating all that is not necessarily horrifying but largely affiliated with Universal. For example, four of the six award winners have various connections with Universal: Guillermo del Toro is producing the new Universal picture Mama, Bitsie Tulloch and Silas Weir Mitchell star in the NBC show Grimm, host McKenzie Westmore hosts Syfy FaceOff and Alice Cooper is the face of one of Horror Night’s frightening mazes.

[Correction: A previous version of this story stated NBC co-produced the Eyegore Awards. NBC was not involved in the production of the event.]

The Eyegore Awards offered a narrow peek into the unique culture surrounding the horror genre. A bizarre mix of potential honorees — from horror filmmakers to basketball players — highlighted the universal and genre-defying appeal of scary movies. After all, everyone likes to have a fright every now and then.

Unfortunately, the Eyegore Awards proved to lack purpose and influence in the Hollywood community (besides some pretty neat gargoyle trophies). The award ceremony, which was a measly 30 minutes long, played out as more of a promotion than anything else. A trailer for Guillermo’s new thriller was shown at the close of the event at which point one audience member shouted, “That’s it?!” The presence of a few household names does not equal legitimacy.

To truly establish itself as a reputable beacon of the niche industry, the Eyegore Awards need to be more inclusive. Is Grimm really the first thing that comes to mind when one hears “horror genre?” Is the mundane FaceOff the best place to draw a host for a horror movie awards show? Where was the creative team behind Prometheus or the writers of The Cabin in the Woods?

The production falls flat because it is not a wholesome representation of what the genre has to offer. The Eyegore Awards are largely self-serving and blind-sighted to the bigger picture.

The true treat for the evening came when the black iron gates to Universal were opened and the Halloween Horror Nights came to life.

With six mazes, one tram ride and a large group of scare-actors, the logistics are incredible. Nowhere is safe (minus the safe zone, of course). Bloodstained crazies with chainsaws, Frank, the rabbit from Donnie Darko, sadistic clowns and macabre zombies freely roam the streets of Universal Studios. No park-goer is exempt from being approached with a knife or getting growled or screamed at. Even Universal employees working the awards ceremony are attacked. The dead don’t play favorites.

Lines for the signature mazes are massive. Thousands of park-goers wait upward of 90 minutes for a five-minute stroll through attractions such as Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3-D, La Llorona: La Cazador de los Ninos (The Child Hunter), Welcome to Silent Hill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Saw is the Law, Universal Monsters Remix and The Walking Dead: Dead Inside. But for horror fans, the wait is well worth it.

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3-D offers an intriguing visual experience. With 3-D glasses in hand, guests who are brave enough walk into a phosphorescent maze that initially seems more akin to a Dr. Seuss fantasyland than a haunted maze. But the 3-D glasses warp the experience: Bright colors become visual obstacles, and the changing scenery alters the walker’s depth perception, making the walk through the maze treacherous and arguably more frightening than all of the attractions. While the patrons walk through embodiments of the seven deadly sins and arrive at a Dante-accurate representation of an icy hell, monsters, murderers and mayhem strike around every corner.

John Murdy, creative director of Halloween Horror Nights, is the man responsible for creating this month-long event and is tasked with the challenge of outdoing himself every year. Because of the TV show’s popularity, Murdy brought the idea of bringing AMC’s The Walking Dead to life for Horror Nights, which came to fruition in The Walking Dead: Dead Inside maze and the Horror Tram.

The Walking Dead: Dead Inside caters to fans of the hit AMC show; the maze is constructed to be as true to the storyline as possible. The uninfected cautiously round corners to find the iconic trailer littered with walkers and a few familiar faces: the porous zombie who was stuck in the well at Hershel’s farm, the disturbingly massacred walker with no legs and a host of other familiar faces that fans will be dying to see.

The Horror Tram compliments the Walking Dead maze by taking pass holders on a unique version of the Studio Tour, which is quite an unexpected haul. Beware of hordes of zombies and men with chainsaws — as with the rest of the park, the cast and crew won’t be babying anyone who decides to take on this attraction.

Though the other mazes offer equally frightful and enjoyable experiences, the sheer magnitude of the crowds are a staggering drawback. Waiting in lines for more than an hour dampers an already short night. For a full experience, guests should buy a Front of the Line pass to ensure they get to see every maze and ride every attraction in the few hours of the night that Horror Nights is open.

Similarly, the mazes reek of sweat and are extremely hot, though some might say that this adds to the maze experience (seeing as how each is saturated with blood and cadavers). Admittedly, each is maybe a five-minute walk at best, but the atmosphere is suffocating. The uncomfortable environment and the relentless onslaught of living dead jumping out from walls turns out to be a great impetus for keeping lines moving. Zombies: crowd control at its finest.

Halloween Horror Nights is a scream. And after a tough week of classes and impending midterms, it’ll be nice to go for a stroll with an axe murderer or take a soothing boat ride through a hazy Jurassic Park.

[Correction: This article has been revised from its original version to clarify the writer’s perspective on the event.]

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