Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 31 Review: The Premier Halloween Haunt Goes Back To Basics

When you think of Halloween, what do you think of? Perhaps you think of candy, pumpkins, black cats, and scarecrows. You wouldn't be alone, as these elements of classic holiday iconography have been used and celebrated for decades, even after they weren't necessarily considered scary anymore. They have become intrinsically associated with spooky season to the point where you can't look at a pumpkin anymore without thinking of it with a carved face.

For the 31st iteration of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando Resort has taken these symbols and elevated them for modern sensibilities. Pumpkins have been given demented sentience, witches now make their famous brew from human blood, and scarecrows come to life to stalk the living.

However, that's only a taste of what the event this year has to offer. /Film was invited to Universal Orlando for an exclusive opening night experience, and while not without its issues, Halloween Horror Nights 31 will certainly have a terrifying experience for everyone.

Houses mostly terrify, but one tops them all

For the most part, Universal's slate of haunted houses this year is a success. "Halloween" is a pitch-perfect homage to John Carpenter's 1978 classic. "The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare" will surprise Horror Nights purists, as the collaboration between the event and singer Abel Tesfaye is appropriately disorienting and surprisingly gory. "Spirits of the Coven" is also a stand-out for its immersive theming and storytelling.

"Bugs: Eaten Alive" strikes a good balance between creepiness and campiness, as its over-the-top bug designs elicit both screams and chuckles. "Fiesta de Chupacabra" also makes good use of puppetry to convey the titular folk creature while also honoring the various Hispanic and Latinx communities that call Orlando home.

However, one house is undeniably the best of the bunch. "Dead Man's Pier: Winter's Wake" is both aesthetically gorgeous and teeming with startling scares. It also stands as perhaps the most depressing house the Universal Orlando team has created, and if there is one house that absolutely must be experienced at the event, it is "Dead Man's Pier."

Some houses, unfortunately, are not quite as effective. "Horrors of Blumhouse," which features scenes from "Freaky" and "The Black Phone," has some very disconnected scene transitions that suck the tension out of the experience, as well as some obvious cast absences (sorry, there are no Vince Vaughn lookalikes in the "Freaky" section). "Universal Monsters: Legends Collide" also feels more like solely The Mummy's story instead of the crossover with Dracula and The Wolfman teased in promotional material.

Scare zones provide tricks and treats

The classic Halloween iconography is shown in full force throughout HHN's scare zones. Set forth by the nefarious Pumpkin Lord (a character that featured in last year's haunted house, "Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin"), "Horrors of Halloween" give attendees a first look at the four other scare-zones sprinkled throughout the park in small sections. While nothing special, it is fun seeing the Pumpkin Lord occasionally giving monologues about how evil he is.

"Graveyard: Deadly Unrest" takes place in a creepy cemetery, with ghosts from all eras find themselves rising from their graves. The music really ties this zone together, along with the varied and unique makeup put onto each scare actor. "Scarecrow: Cursed Soil," a sequel to the 2017 house "Scarecrow: The Reaping," is also impressive from an atmospheric perspective, but its large sets made its location on an already narrow walkway feel even tighter.

"Sweet Revenge" transports attendees back to the 1950s, smack dab in the middle of a Halloween festival gone horribly wrong. While the zone's story goes that the candy consumed by the trick-or-treating kids turned them into crazed killers, those who haven't already read up about the event might not understand what's going on. The same could go for "Conjure The Dark," which takes place on the very first All Hallow's Eve when an unnamed witch sets chaos upon a village. At least that scare zone has a mini-show that explains the plot, but if you've missed it, you might be out of luck.

Final thoughts

It is hard to please everyone at an event like this, especially since everyone has different ideas of what makes something scary. Some houses and zones at Halloween Horror Nights 31 might be weaker than others, but the sheer scope of the event and the extensive planning that goes into it cannot be ignored. It is horrific spectacle at its best, and if you are able to get the Express pass add-on, it is certainly worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, that Express pass is necessary if you want to experience as many houses as possible, as regular admission can often span more than an hour in the fall Florida heat.

When looking at HHN 31 as a cohesive event, it works. The combination of classic Halloween iconography, modern pop culture, and, of course, Universal's continued honoring of its Classic Monsters makes for a holistic Halloween experience. Although houses like "Blumhouse" and "Descendants of Destruction" (which is so forgettable, I forgot to mention it in the house section) aren't among the best houses the event has ever done, the amount of satisfying and genuinely scary houses on the lineup makes up for these weaker links. These highlights, combined with the lore-heavy scare zones, will make for a fun experience that can only be achieved by Universal Orlando's scareactors and creative team.

Halloween Horror Nights 31 runs from September 2 to October 31 at Universal Orlando Resort. If you're over on the West Coast, Universal Studios Hollywood's iteration will run from September 9 to October 31.