2021 is a truly important year for Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. For one, it’s a return to form after the 2020 event's impact was muted for COVID-related reasons, but more importantly, this year's showcase marks 30 years of horror-fueled festivities within the Universal theme parks. Thankfully, the gleefully gore-covered anniversary celebrates and honors Halloween Horror Nights' legacy in awesome ways, from the food additions to the scare zones to the can't-miss haunted mazes that draw millions of visitors each year.
CinemaBlend was present for opening night of Halloween Horror Nights 30 at Universal Studios Orlando, and I had the massive pleasure of visiting all ten haunted mazes featured this year, from those inspired by classic films such as Beetlejuice and The Bride of Frankenstein to those paying homage to the park's original characters, such as Jack the Clown in the HHN Icons set-up. For anyone who is planning a trip to the park soon, we've ranked all ten mazes below to help you decide which ones to hit early to avoid the lines, and which ones are worth any amount of waiting.
Before we dive in, I want to make it clear that each and every one of the haunted mazes featured in this year's Halloween Haunted Nights event hits are true standouts, especially in comparison to the majority of other companies' Halloween attractions, so ranking them is like trying to rank bites of ice cream. Sure, a few are going to be better than the rest, but they all make one's day that much better.
10. Welcome To SCarey: Horror In The Heartland
With an origin story that links back to the hometown of a Halloween Horror Nights creative, the setting of Carey, Ohio has served as a central location for Universal’s original frights since 2008. And while park-goers have visited specific Carey locations in previous years’ mazes, such as the Elementary School and the Drive-In, fans finally get the big-picture version with Welcome to SCarey. By and large, this maze is a glorious tribute to the abundance of freaky and nasty creatures that often serve as small town urban legends. Its biggest draw is probably the wide variety of monster types throughout, or perhaps the abundance of nods to Carey’s past within HHN lore. (Give me all those movie posters!) But that also plays into the maze’s biggest drawback, in that it basically lacks a character-centric focus that just about every other house employs with great effect.
9. The Wicked Growth: Realm Of The Pumpkin
What could be more natural than a haunted maze centered around an evil character dubbed Pumpkin Lord, whose life (death?) is all Halloween, all the time? Well, there’s nothing too natural about ol’ Pumpkin Lord, who is totally off his gourd. This maze takes horror fans through the entities stomping grounds, which includes such supernatural minions as cackling witches and nightmarish goblins. The Wicked Growth felt a little too much like it came out of a 1980s cable anthology for my tastes, admittedly. But I can’t say enough about how disgustingly awesome it is to witness the constant progression of rot seeping into the increasingly more horrifying visuals, which brought to mind Calvin & Hobbes’ imaginatively garish snowman scenarios. I dare say this is the perfect house for anyone who cringes at the words “pumpkin spice season.”
8. Puppet Theatre: Captive Audience
Boasting a twisted storyline that goes back to San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, Halloween Horror Nights 30’s Puppet Theatre: Captive Audience is not going to be a very fun experience for anybody bothered by puppetry and marionettes. Or by the idea of a ballet troupe being slaughtered and their parts being used within the act of puppetry. Or by music that sounds like it could be sourced to a player piano in Hell. Honestly, this maze might have ranked higher had I been able to spend a more ample amount of time looking around (which is probably the case for all the mazes), because there are a handful of puppet-related scares and props that immediately latched themselves onto the darker recesses of my memory banks. Once you see the bit involving a size transition, you won’t soon forget it either.
7. Case Files Unearthed: Legendary Truth
Similar to Welcome to SCarey in that it’s more a hodgepodge of different topics than a maze with a narrative cornerstone, Case Files Unearthed pays tribute to Halloween Horror Nights’ in-canon paranormal investigators, the Legendary Truth, by putting fans behind the eyes of founder Boris Shuster. What makes Case Files Unearthed stand out is the noir-heavy, private eye aesthetic that all of the maze’s freak shows are filed away in, from the Kitty Kat night club to seedy offices and apartments to the woman who does all kinds of sadistic crap to baby dolls. I guess that part is less noir than psychotic, and it’s one of many characters, as it were, that could easily support standalone haunted mazes for future events. There’s at least one creature in there that looks like every theorized non-human Area 51 inhabitant thrown into a meat grinder.
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
At this point, Leatherface is as much a staple of Halloween Horror Nights as any non-Universal horror movie icons, with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise now having inspired six different mazes across both the Orlando and Hollywood events. That repeated use does somewhat dull the novelty of having a dozen versions of the chainsaw-wielding cannibals chasing fans around the nightmare-filled Sawyer home. But not that much, as I will never get tired of seeing Tobe Hooper’s classic Leatherface imagery coming to life in haunted-house form. Especially when it contains appearances from Chop Top and other family members that may or may not leave a bad taste in your mouths. Quite literally.
5. Revenge Of The Tooth Fairy
I’ll admit that I went into my Halloween Horror Nights 30 experience with the expectation that The Tooth Fairy would be my least favorite maze of the night, and came out of it so pleasantly surprised by how utterly disturbing the entire shebang is. In this twisted tale, tooth fairies are sinister hobgoblin-ish beings who take matters into their blood-covered hands when children don’t offer up their baby teeth. If Revenge of the Tooth Fairy lacks proper nuance, it makes up for it by leaning so hard into the theming with reckless abandon. Monsters stone-cold ripping teeth out of kids’ heads? Check. Those kids screaming like banshees in the aftermath? Check. And things somehow get even more unsettling from there. Perhaps my favorite element, however, is the storybook aesthetic utilized in the maze’s earliest rooms, Babadook-style.
4. Universal Monsters: The Bride Of Frankenstein Lives
Unlike many of Halloween Horror Nights’ media-sourced haunted mazes, The Bride of Frankenstein Lives isn’t a retelling, but rather its own follow-up story following the events of James Whale’s classic 1935 sequel. Fans journey with the titular hair-raising Bride as she attempts to bring her monstrous lover back to “life,” even if it means having to face down the dreaded Brides of Dracula. The production design in this maze is as good as it gets, and would have felt right at home within a production from the 1930s. Needless to say, it certainly helps to be a fanatic about the core Universal Monsters lineup in order to enjoy this maze, but even someone who’s never seen a horror movie would be impressed at this HHN 30 debut.
3. The Haunting Of Hill House
Following its Stranger Things mazes in previous years, Halloween Horror Nights’ second major collaboration with Netflix comes in the form of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s beloved novel of the same name. As much as one might wish for a full-blown recreation of the Crane’s mansion from the TV series, HHN 30 delivers a pretty spectacular capsule that embodies not only the show’s bone-chilling scares - watch out for The Tall Man! - but also its emotional horrors. From its intriguing uses of the Bent-Neck Lady to moments hinging on parental traumas, it’s the relatively rare haunted maze that taps into tragedy-based fears as much as completely supernatural ones. But then it’s also fun to just walk through and say “Hey, look, it’s that one thing from the show!” without thinking about how depressing it all is.
2. Halloween Horror Nights Icons: Captured
As much as I'm a sucker for haunted mazes based on licensed IP, I can never deny the strength and power of characters exclusive to specific theme parks, and the Halloween Horror Nights ensemble is about as big as it gets for that brand of spooky seasonal fare. So while it was a major sacrifice to take all of the HHN Icons away from other areas of the park, their combined magnificence inside the Captured haunted maze more than makes up for any solo efforts that might have happened. Not only does the house bring together Jack the Clown, Chance, The Storyteller, The Caretaker and others for the first time, with each at the center of their own horrifying mini-universe, but this maze will feature a different monster reigning supreme in terror within the final room, depending on what night you visit. It's like a lottery, only more violent, which is right up Shirley Jackson's alley.
As its top-spot placement might tell you, Halloween Horror Nights' very first Beetlejuice-themed maze is absolutely everything the ghost with the most deserves, at least in a world where the attraction can't last as long as the film itself. Fans can walk through some of Tim Burton's more mind-bending cinematic moments, including the afterlife waiting room scene, while also taking a moment to appreciate its recreation of Adam Maitland's miniature model town in the attic. It's the best, babe, I'm tellin' ya, and it's also a tribute to the very first event in 1991, which featured Beetlejuice as the initial Icon. And even though this ode to Beetlejuice is easily the most amusing and playful of HHN 30's core lineup, the Universal Studios team still found plenty of ways to give fans shocking jolts throughout. That last room is a total doozy. (To clarify, a version of this house did open unannounced in 2020 as part of the truncated Halloween lineup's final weekend.)
Once again, keep in mind that each of the haunted mazes hitting the limelight for Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 30 is worth a walkthrough for any and all horror fans, or even anyone looking for an air-conditioned respite from the Florida mugginess. In any case, the goal should absolutely be to hit all of attractions before leaving the park, and that definitely includes the scare zones and the stage show/fountain show. Always best to plan a-head, and that's a shrunken head in the case of Beetlejuice's Harry the Hunter.
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights 30 is open to the public on select nights from now until October 31, 2021.