Halloween Horror Nights 2022: Hollywood Is Still Orlando's Scrappy Little Brother

Should you reside in either Los Angeles or Orlando, you're lucky enough to call Universal's Halloween Horror Nights neighbor. I've attended both — spooky season isn't complete without a Horror Nights excursion. While living as an East Coaster, Universal Orlando was my first encounter with Universal's epic Halloween celebration filled with scare actors, delicious cauldron treats, and screams aplenty. It's been on my mind ever since. 

Universal Hollywood is now practically in my backyard, yet I'm left yearning for Orlando's grand horror-fueled immersion every Horror Nights. Hollywood feels like the younger sibling paid less attention, while Orlando boasts and bellows Halloween excellence you can practically hear across the country.

Hollywood is the scrappier Horror Nights by necessity alone; Orlando spans roughly 541 acres, while Hollywood crams into a 400-acre space. Orlando's transformation into a playground for mutant candy armies and harvested masters of ceremonies is all-enveloping, while Hollywood opens some mazes and shoves danger zones into off-the-beaten-path alcoves. Hollywood feels like second billing when it comes to recent Horror Nights, though dedicated, hard-working scare actors with dull chainsaws fight to elevate it. 

I love attending Universal Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights as a Los Angelino — an October ritual. Still, I dream of a day when Orlando and Hollywood are frightening in the same weight class.

La Llorona and Scarecrow: The Reaping are Horror Nights done right

Orlando and Hollywood primarily differentiate themselves via their original (aka non-IP) mazes, with Orlando boasting six from the minds of creative architects. Hollywood delivered three, two of which are the event's crowning must-see attractions. La Llorona: The Weeping Woman puts "The Curse of La Llorona" to shame, while Scarecrow: The Reaping caused my two most significant "jump but pretend I'm not scared" reactions (a futile farce as my maze buddy instantly called my bluff).

La Llorona utilizes blood river landscapes with floating kiddie corpses and splices horse mythology into the regionally amendable Latin American fable, culminating with gigantic La Llorona monsters devouring children whole. Scarecrow: The Reaping sends maze walkers through dust bowl farmlands where entrails dangle from barn support beams, and crows peck out victim eyeballs like we're in a rural Americana nightmare. These showstoppers at Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights in 2022 showcase the heights Hollywood can achieve.

Elsewhere, this year's event feels more repetitive than reinventive. Patrons confront Michael Myers in a "Halloween" maze, which doesn't majorly differentiate itself from last year's "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers" walkthrough. The same funhouse of mirrors exit trap is reused along with key character encounters that swap costumes from the sequel to the original. There's a recycled factor about Myers' return to Hollywood merely a year later.

The same goes for the "Killer Klowns from Outer Space," who crash land in Hollywood with only a single event between their previous 2019 Hollywood Horror Nights appearance. There's stagnation that equates to Hollywood filling slots with reusable blueprints where Orlando can afford more original mazes without sacrificing massive IP houses. It's a shame because I'd kill for any number of Orlando's current original mazes to substitute Killer Klowns — between brewery witches and Chupacabras — swapping another familiar waltz down cotton-candy-coated blacklight hallways.

Less Peele than was promised

This year's Terror Tram also mismarkets itself as a "venture into the mind of Jordan Peele," when "Nope" and "Us" are merely a last-stretch logjam in honor of Hollywood's latest backlot addition: Jupiter's Claim. The first two-thirds welcome riders into Koodles the Clown's killer Halloween bash, retracing usual steps around Bates Motel into the "War of the Worlds" airplane crash. Then masses venture through Jupiter's Claim, which makes no connective sense as tethered doppelgangers dart around Jupe's employees — it's thrown together for promotability, but in function, ends Terror Tram like an afterthought. 

Peele's not even featured in the buildup tram videos, hijacked by Koodles as he puppets Universal tour guide corpses. I hoped Peele would become the Master of Terror Tram Ceremonies, but Koodles ranks higher with his demonic black cat greeters and pumpkin patch hay-gore decor. Sensible narrative cohesion seems cast aside in these instances, where Orlando pays more attention to Halloween Horror Nights playing like chapters in a walkable Universal anthology.

Orlando also trounces Hollywood in Scare Zones because park sizes favor Florida's dimensions. This year's Clownsawz, Sideshow Slaughterhouse, and El Pueblo del Terror don't alter Universal's existing environment beyond plopping scared actors onto fake New York City streets. El Pueblo del Terror stands out because survivors of La Llorona's maze confront myths like El Chupacabra, who join La Llorona to say goodbye before attendees seek their next maze — themed decorations line our path and add cultural ambiance.

Two missed calls

The rest? Hollywood's reused iron entrance with pyrotechnics spurting from the top is passed as the spectacle while Clownsawz minions scamper underneath, but there's nothing like Orlando's grandmaster Pumpkin Lord. Orlando's production value creates these memorable scenes where patrons walk into different realms — my mind still recalls a stringed pumpkin tunnel right out of "A Nightmare Before Christmas" upon my first visit — while Hollywood feels like costumed scare actors are enough.

Hollywood depends on its mainstream IPs more than Orlando, which makes the disappointment of Blumhouse's "Freaky" and "The Black Phone" double-feature a colossal letdown. The Weeknd's After Hours Nightmare maze was my surprise delight this year as we witnessed the musical artist being electrocuted, performing for high-society maniacs in white-and-red clubs, and finally turning into a weretoad aberration. But Blumhouse, what happened? The Black Phone felt criminally underutilized and without a single fright, which is a big disappointment considering I'm a huge fan of both stunning terror tales. Hollywood's heaviest hitters like Blumhouse, Halloween, and Killer Klowns are under enormous pressure to deliver given fewer mazes and Scare Zones altogether — which is unfair but also makes repetition blatantly noticeable.

Come to think of it, the Blumhouse maze wasn't the only curiously spaced-out attraction this year. By "space out," I mean long dark hallways where nothing happens. No interactivity, no scare actors, just a nondescript tunnel leading to the next room. Hollywood's limitations would make me think mazes utilize every square inch of passageways, yet this year, multiple mazes experience lengthy dimmed lulls that break anxious momentum. A shame.

The Halloween hits and misses

Mind you, we shouldn't be afraid to critique what we love — and I love Halloween Horror Nights. Whether in Hollywood or Orlando. There's just a sense as of late that Hollywood is falling behind Orlando, a gap that can quickly be closed. The Weeknd's freakshow, La Llorona's child-snatching, and scythe-wielding scarecrows exemplify what Hollywood can be capable of at its peak performance. 

Something like Universal Monsters: Legends Collide scores cheap thrills but whiffs on storytelling flow as classic icons pop out of closed caskets versus last year's The Bride Of Frankenstein Lives (which still reigns supreme). Then there's the Terror Tram needing an overhaul, less atmospheric than hoped Scare Zones, and pedestrian hallways in haunted mazes — what separates Orlando from Hollywood. 

Both locations are dear to my horror-loving heart, but that's all the more reason why I'm hoping Hollywood can learn from Orlando. Right now, it's "East beats West," but even the tiniest tweaks can secure coast-to-coast domination.