Up ahead, the gargoyle descended upon the pretty young things with high-flying acrobatic awesomeness. Whoosh! The lovers screamed and laughed. The gargoyle — its stony goblin getup impressively stretchy — bellowed and clawed, the big money-shot moment in Gothic, one of seven new haunted houses at the 22nd annual Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. + I wanted that same scare, too. + So I waited for it. + Until security told me to move.
Gothic is a jaw-dropping attraction, gorgeously assembled in one of the theme park's massive soundstages, a towering cathedral overrun by surly statues. Although the new Walking Dead house is getting all the buzz for good grisly reason — we'll get to that claustrophobic zombie sprint in a bit — Gothic will no doubt wind up being a lot of guests' second-favorite house.
But Gothic is also a good example of why Universal's talent and success is a double-edged butcher knife. I was there on opening night. To accommodate as many guests as possible, the various houses were crammed with a steady stream of giddy guests, all but eliminating the inherent intimacy and aloneness needed for a bone-chillin' scare.
In Gothic, there are squadrons of flying gargoyles zipping all over the joint, but too often I saw the good stuff happening to groups in front or in back of me. I wanted those scares, too! I wanted soaring gargoyles, gosh darn it! But alas, I had to keep going, watching other people get the stuffing shocked out of them.
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Penn Jillette, the verbose half of magical duo Penn & Teller, says the difference between Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights and all other haunted house events is sort of like "Sgt. Pepper's versus garage bands."
He's right. It's been a game changer. The park — the entirety of which is now a scare zone — is all moody lighting and fog machines, roving bands of ghoulies getting in your grill. (Love the trick-or-treaters of the damned.) The entire experience — save for maybe the two goofy shows — is meant to overwhelm.
Jillette and his wee pal were at Universal Studios recently to open up a maniacal 3D maze: Penn & Teller's New(kd) Las Vegas, a post-apocalyptic neon-splattered vision of Sin City. After working with the creative team at Universal, Jillette, not known for humility, said, "I don't think we have anything to teach them about misdirection." Indeed, there are clever scares in there (watch out for radioactive Elvis), but again, because of the crowd, you see too many jolts and surprises happening in front of you.
If Universal had the luxury of staggering groups — say, five or 10 people at a time — the experience would be more intense. The house for Silent Hill, the video-game-turned-flick about an eeevil Otherworld with mutated nurses, would benefit from a "lost" feel, especially since those unfamiliar with the franchise might grow bored. Same goes for Dead End, an "abandoned" house in Carey, Ohio, in which all the rumors about the place have come true. It's architecturally sublime, and there's truly disturbing stuff in there (ohhh, that baby's room), but the halls get so packed it often underwhelms.
Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare house — bonus points for having School's Out cranking through the speaks! — would be a total freakout too if it weren't so jammed. Although the finale in which you're engulfed by angry Alices is fun, unnerving stuff.
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All that said, if you're wavering on whether to head to Universal this spooky season, there's a house that's worth the money, the wait and the psychological torment: The Walking Dead is a painstaking re-creation of the hit AMC show. You'll still love the house (and sob uncontrollably) if you've never seen the show. But you'll absolutely flip out (and sob uncontrollably) if you're a drooly, nerd-obsessed fan like myself.
Walking Dead co-executive producer, director and special effects master Greg Nicotero had a hand in authenticity, and wow, it's all there. You enter through Harrison Memorial Hospital, scamper past Dale's RV and end up in Herschel's barn. (Is that Sophia over there?) Along the way, keep a look out for Merle's handcuffs, Daryl's motorcyle and the bunny slippers belonging to hero Rick's series opening zombie kill. The show's ominous soundtrack pounds through the speakers, and there were easily more screams heard in that house than any other at the park.
The Walking Dead walkways are tighter, no room to run, and the zombie attack is steady. At times, some 75 zombies can be found roaming just outside of the attraction, meaning there's no relief. At one point, I was jarred so badly by a "walker" I toppled backward on my rump. A zombie kindly reached out for me; but once I was back on my feet, he lunged, showing no mercy for the fallen.
And I loved it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.