Halloween Horror Nights, Howl-O-Scream look to the '80s and classics for horror nostalgia

Published September 18 2018
Updated September 18 2018

A thin guy with perfectly Purple Rain era Prince curly mullet hair, blood dripping from his mouth to the front of his puffy shirt, struts past a group of theme park guests onto the streets of "New York City."

With Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam blaring in the distance, he turns toward them, licks his finger seductively, and swaggers on toward the celebration around the corner, followed by a parade of punks, b-boys, hair metal types, yuppies and at least one woman in a Madonna wedding-dress-on-MTV look. These 1980s-archetypes-turned-vampires are celebrating "Vamp ’85: New Year’s Eve," a street party at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror nights that showcases this year’s theme: the ’80s.

"It happened kind of organically," creative director Mike Aiello said.

Getting the rights to add a house based on Netflix’s 1980s-set hit Stranger Things was a "white whale" for the HHN team since the series premiered, he said. After Stranger Things came plans for a scare zone based on 1988’s cult-beloved Killer Klowns From Outer Space. "And then all of a sudden we just kind of said, ‘Oh, we’re doing the 1980s, we’re going to go there.’?"

There’s also a scare zone featuring Chucky, first seen in 1988’s Child’s Play; a house based on 1982’s Poltergeist; and Seeds of Extinction, a post-apocalyptic nightmare set in a decaying mall.

If you actually remember the ’80s, there’s the fun nostalgia factor, and if you’re too young for that, you get the "best version of that time period," show director for houses Patrick Braillard said on opening night. "I think the truth though … is that those stories are timeless."

Without movie franchise ties, Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens litters its haunted houses and scare zones with classic, nostalgic fears, like creepy clowns.

"In pop culture, what’s popular right now is a deliberate nostalgia, but to us fear doesn’t age," said Ben DeWitt, senior production manager at Busch Gardens.

Howl-O-Scream has six haunted houses this year and added more scare zones — open areas populated with creeps and misfits from classic nightmares (murderous toys, motorcycle gangs, a maniac midway).

"If they had Google back in the ’80s and you looked up what is the most terrifying sound, it would be chain saws," DeWitt said. "Do it now, and it’s chain saws."

Halloween Horror Nights

A mix of iconic Hollywood properties and original scares with all-around top-notch production values is what you’ll get at this 28th installment of Universal Studios’ after-hours event, spanning more days than ever before and featuring a record 10 haunted houses, all tied together under this year’s 1980s theme.

The buzz this year is around the Stranger Things house, an impressively vivid and accurate trip through Season 1, from the flickering chaotic halls of the facility where Eleven is housed to the living room of the Byers family (featuring Christmas lights, obviously) to the Upside Down (surprisingly featuring those weird, floating particles), and pursued by a disgustingly detailed Demogorgon all along.

Also not to miss: the Poltergeist house, which takes you into the coffin-filled catacombs beneath the iconic home from the movie; Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After, an immersive, original house that features the Wicked Witch of the West presiding over a bunch of twisted versions of beloved fairy tales that will have you asking, "Were the three little pigs cannibals?"

For some open-air atmosphere, check out the Twisted Tradition scare zone, an impressive design where the trees are decorated with hundreds of glowing jack-o’-lanterns, every one of them different. There’s also themed food, such as a chicken sandwich served on waffles (a tribute to Stranger Things); six rides that remain open late including the new Fast & Furious Supercharged; and the Academy of Villains cyberpunk dance battle, which has replaced the long-running Bill and Ted show.


Opens 6:30 p.m. select nights through Nov. 3. Universal Orlando, 6000 Universal Blvd. $62.99-$87.99. Toll-free 1-866-258-6546. orlando.halloweenhorrornights.com.


Without classic movies to draw on like Universal, Busch Gardens draws on classic nightmares in its 19th year of scaring the beejezus out of its visitors. One new house this year, Insomnia, is about nightmares in a haunted asylum where evil doctors are conducting a sleep study experiment. Also new this year is Simon’s Slaughterhouse, a title that says it all. That maze empties into a Meat Market realm where intense scares come with a warning to anyone under 17. Returning houses are the pirate-themed Black Spot; the Voodoo Queen’s Death Water Bayou; a vengeful demon’s Unearthed; and Motel Hotel, with a dingy feel of an old hotel and the song Mr. Sandman playing to great creepy effect.

At six, Howl-O-Scream has one fewer haunted house this year, but it has upped the number of open-air scare zones from two to six. Managers hope this answers the common complaint about long lines for the houses. Sparky the Clown and his carnie crew command the new Maniac Midway; swamp mutants arise in the new Camp DOA scare zone; childhood memories turn murderous in Deadly Toys; a motorcycle gang commands the Hell on Wheels apocalyptic arena; and the new Día de los Muertos realm is a creepy party zone with a Day of the Dead parade.

Hundreds of scare actors are poised to jump out of the bushes, sidle up next to you on a coaster and even hop on the tram ride from the parking lot this year. The park likes to say "there’s nowhere to hide," and that’s pretty true. Specialty food and cocktail items include drinks in test tubes, Jell-O shots in syringes and a refillable cup that lights up and has a cap so you can take it into the haunted houses.


Opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and select nights through Oct. 28. 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. $39.99-$44.99; Fright Feast buffet $29.99-$39.99 add-on features early entry and a front-of-the-line pass. (813) 884-4386. howloscream.com/tampa.


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