Spooky season is officially upon us, boils and ghouls! And if you’re anything like us, you’ll know the only way to legitimately celebrate is by getting the ever loving crap scared out of you at a theme park maze. And thankfully, this year is an embarrassment of glorious ghastly riches! Many in the Los Angeles area love Knott’s annual Knotts Scary Farm celebration. Those looking for roller coasters to go along with their supernatural scares can go to Six Flags for Fright Fest. But for our money, the biggest, and best Halloween haunt has always consistently been Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights!
The annual event is always anticipated year after year by every horror aficionado under the sun. And year after year, the park always delivers. And 2023 is absolutely no exception. However, that also means you can expect some of the longest theme park lines around for every single maze offered. And with so many mazes and so little time, prioritization is key. So here at That’s It LA, we’re going to help you by ranking all of the 8 mazes offered this year, plus the Terror Tram, from the ones least worth your time, to the greatest “must-do’s” at the park!
Ready for the terror? Then let’s let it rip (or rather “R.I.P”):
9. Terror Tram: The Exterminatorz
If you’ve never done the Terror Tram, it usually is a must-do. After all, it’s incredibly rare for attendees to actually get off the Universal Studios Tram and walk around the backlot featuring the sets of Psycho, War of the Worlds, and Nope. But unfortunately, the theme for this year’s installment is incredibly goofy and lacking. The Exterminatorz is an original horror concept designed by Universal Parks’ creative team. The logline is a human-insect hybrid exterminator wants to exterminate humans so bugs can conquer the earth. It’s grotesque and silly, but it’s never actually that scary.
Guests start out right in front of the Bates Motel, which has been overtaken by insects devouring “Karens” and influencers, all while The Exterminator ends up electrocuting humans on a rack. After a quick hustle up hill past the Bates home, where guests can take their annual family photo with Norman Bates, they are led into a segment called “Spider-Alley” where humanoid spiders have cocooned several corpses alongside the walls, threatening to make you next.
Walking past that, you’ll find yourself into an abandoned nightclub called “Colony” where a bunch of ant or fly-looking creatures pop out at you as you walk through a blacklight lit facility covered in toxic waste.
Eventually you make your way from the War of the Worlds set to the Nope set, passing (what looked like) sasquatch-looking creatures on the way, before heading into The Teathered from Us walking among the Jupiter’s Claim park from the movie Nope.
To be honest, this was a very confusing concept, and none of it blended well. The monsters looked really silly and the scares were truly lacking. I’ll give it credit for being original and creative. But it honestly wasn’t worth the level of effort one would have to undertake to experience this attraction. If you’ve ever done a Terror Tram before, you can skip this year’s guilt free.
8. Stranger Things 4
The maze has to be praised for its wonderful production design. The artists at Universal Creative have outdone themselves in painstakingly re-creating almost exact replicas of the sets from this past season of Stranger Things. The elaborate decorations and props from the Creel House surround you, immersing you in the creepiness of the setting within both the real world and Vecna’s twisted version within the Upside-Down. Additionally, the effects are pretty good – in particular one scene recreating 011 sending 001 into the Upside Down.
That being said, Stranger Things has never really entirely been all that scary. The mainstream popularity among Gen Z’ers and teens will make this maze a complete hit for younger parkgoers. But those looking for scares and blood and viscera will be greeted by the most family-friendly scenario one can find in a mostly “R-Rated” Horror Nights event. It’s interesting that a lot of the scares come from scare actors dressed as the kids, rather than monsters like Vecna and Demogorgon. Also perplexing that the maze ignores some of the more iconic moments from the season, such as Eddie Munson’s guitar solo.
All in all, if horror’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find that in Stranger Things 4.
7. Chucky – Ultimate Kill Count
We do have to give credit for the fun meta-premise the maze presents, alongside the beautifully crafted animatronics that are the load bearing features for this maze. In fact, this may be one of the few mazes solely dependent on small animatronics to do most of the scaring over real scare actors (talk about fears of AI replacing actors eh?). But sadly that’s also the reason this maze is near the bottom of the list. It’s incredibly lacking in scares. And as inventive as the robots are, haunted house mazes work far more effectively when the character trying to scare you has an actual sense of timing, and fluid human motion. The kill count videos that serve as chapters for the segments within the maze are fun, and allow you to play along with Chucky while he offs different victims in each scene. But it does get stale after the third scene, even if thankfully it doesn’t quite wear out its welcome.
Inventive, but overall, also not very scary.
6. Evil Dead Rise
We’ve come to the portion of the list where the scares begin to get a lot more potent, and the mazes begin to get a lot better as a result. And while it’s not the best maze on this list, I found myself having a blast in Evil Dead Rise. The maze fun even begins in the queue, with an out of service elevator and an animatronic victim being hoisted up through the sparks and frayed electrical wires.
And that’s just to set the mood. The rest of the maze follows the storyline of this year’s hit film pretty closely, confined specifically within the apartment complex featured in the movie. The different family members from the movie make thrilling appearances, menacing their way through every scene, behind every corner and door.
The maze makes great use of animatronics and projection mapping, depicting scenes, such as the corpses fusing together to form the 3 bodied deadite from the film’s finale. There’s even a really creative recreation of the “bloody elevator” moment in the film.
The maze is ultimately pretty scary, and that’s great. But it also was fairly underwhelming when compared to some of the other mazes on this list. It’s a straightforward Evil Dead maze that refrains from pushing the envelope the same way other variations of mazes from the past based on the property have done before (I’m specifically referring to HHN’s version of the Evil Dead remake maze from 2013).
5. Holidayz in Hell
It’s a nice tradition that Universal Studios Hollywood continues to bring back variations of this concept every year, whether as a scare zone or a maze. This year’s offering was a maze, and it was a relatively strong one. It wasn’t necessarily one of my favorites, but it was still pretty well done.
Holidayz in Hell takes you through, obviously, incredibly terrifying and twisted perversions of various major holidays. Starting with New Year’s Eve with twisted versions of New Years babies are being birthed by skeleton nurses, guests make their way to evil Valentine’s Day and an evil tunnel of love, where they’ll will find an evil cupid dissecting a victim. Naturally evil St. Patrick’s Day brings about evil leprechauns, cooking stew made of human flesh as the pungent stenches are pumped into the walls of the maze. Evil Easter predictably brings evil chicks and bunnies. Evil July 4th brings forth evil Uncle Sam. And naturally Halloween with Pumpkin Monsters, demented turkeys on Thanksgiving, and evil Krampuses on Christmas.
It’s a fairly standard, somewhat forgettable maze that is made quite impressively immersive in its use of scents and set design. Not the best this year’s mazes had to offer, but still reasonably scary and fun.
4. The Last of Us
Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. The Last of Us maze was arguably my most anticipated one this year, solely out of my love for the property both as a game and terrific show. And for my money, I’ll say this: it’s the most theatrical of the mazes this year.
Several actors dressed as Joel and Ellie from the games make frequent appearances to recreate scenes of danger in various Quarantine Zones and underground facilities. Given that Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker lend their voices to newly recorded dialogue exclusively for the maze, the love for what was served up was all the more palpable. Throughout the journey through the maze, the effects and projection mapping were so incredible, from gunfire against the wall, to a live animatronic tank travelling back and forth across a wall. The makeup effects on the Clickers and the Bloaters were also really incredibly well done, and utilized exceptionally well in terms of recreating the brutal deaths from the game.
So given all that, you must be wondering why this is only 4th. It’s because it’s not very scary. Most of the maze you’re being attacked by random humans, and that really diminished the impact of the potential scares and tension one may get if immersed into the world created by Naughty Dog. The maze itself simply needed more Clickers and Bloaters, and better staged scares. Now the staging of the characters and skits was very strong. But it never quite gels into a coherently immersive narrative for you, the guest.
In short, it’s perhaps one of the most fun mazes at the park this year. But do not expect this one to be nearly as scary as our top 3 picks.
3. The Exorcist: Believer
Admittedly, one could see this as a cash grab for Universal and Blumhouse’s upcoming legacy sequel to The Exorcist. And it very much is. But here’s the hilarious thing. The maze is actually quite a lot more innovative and terrifying than the trainwreck of a movie (currently sitting at 21% on Rotten Tomatoes).
The Exorcist: Believer maze was actually surprisingly well done. Without the use of very many effects (no animatronics, no projection mapping) the maze managed to be a straight up scary conventional maze experience, with a few clever tricks up its sleeve. One of the cooler effects involves the use of transparent walls, that look opaque one moment, but trick lighting reveals a hallway on the other side with a scare actor behind it. It was simple, clever, and effective.
The maze begins in Haiti, where the movie does. And goes into the narrative of the film a bit more, taking you into the woods where the film’s two leads disappear. From there, the whole maze plays out like a descent into Hell, as you’re being pursued by demonically possessed versions of the two girls, and giant clawed demons as well. What makes a maze like this effective was the amount of opportunities the maze takes to throw scare actors at you. In every room there’s at least 2 outlets for actors to jump at you. And in one instance, the grand finale, there’s at least 4 back-to-back opportunities for jump scares as you exit. Couple that with some effective makeup and terrific horrifying imagery, and you actually had a surprisingly terrifying maze.
2. Universal Monsters: Unmasked
Hands down one of my favorites this year has to be Universal Monsters: Unmasked! This was one of the finest mazes this year, with the park going absolutely all out with the use of practical gags, effective production design, and terrifying thrills within this single maze alone. And it utilizes the lesser known monsters from Universal Monster lore is such terrifyingly wonderful ways.
Inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the maze begins in the French Catacombs. Scenery is set by captions inspired by silent era filmmaking, really reminding you that the property is utilizing a lot of icons from an era somewhat forgotten. The grotesque visage of the Phantom pops out at you at every corner. But that’s just the start. The second you go into Notre Dame, you’re treated to really well done set pieces of The Hunchback ripping victims in half, before going into a 2-story room where he tries to pour scalding hot water on guests. It really was an effective and inventive trick. Next you are treated to a bit of brilliant theatricality of scare actors doing dual roles for Jekyll and Hyde, with a monstrous Hyde pursuing you every step of the way. You descend further into chaos and madness, witnessing the Invisible Man giggling at you, before confronting the Masque of the Red Death, in the form of talented stilt walkers, standing on the corner, ready to terrify you on your way to the exit.
So to recap: Projection mapping, video screens, stilt walkers, terrific make up, two-story set pieces, and practical gore effects. This is a maze that had everything! And it was the most unexpected and pleasant surprise of the evening for me. Until, we made it to our final maze.
1. Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America
Hands down the best surprise of the night was the one maze no one was talking about. Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America was excellent. It was an incredibly well done maze that utilized scent immersion, large-scale animatronics, and terrific make up and scares, with terrifying imagery so effectively, that it was the highest of highs for us to end on.
Stepping through a crypt surrounded by thick vines made of entrails, you and your group are pursued by grotesque looking bird creatures that force you further and further into the biggest surprise of the evening: a giant animatronic statue of a bird monster, spreading its wings as it viciously tries to devour you! From there you move into a room with effective jump scares courtesy of other winged demons. You then encounter a small Latin American village being guarded by evil demonic men on stilts, jumping out at you, as you walk through the quiet town, taking in the disgusting scents of blood and carcasses burning on broilers nearby. Suddenly you find yourself walking through a giant sack and into a crypt of bones, as large monsters attack you through every hole. You wind up in a graveyard marked especially for you, before making your way out to a scare zone themed to the iconic monsters of Latin America.
This was the little maze that could, and one no one expected to be as gorgeously and elaborately designed and executed as the other bigger named ones. You’d expect Universal to pull out stops for branded properties like Evil Dead, Exorcist, or Last of Us. But Monstruos proves it’s not about the IP, it’s about how effective and impressive you can make a maze, bringing monsters to life in inventive and creative ways. Thrilling, disgusting, and jaw-dropping in its execution, it was the maze I never anticipated to be my favorite, but was the reason I found myself smiling from ear to ear as I walked out of the gates of Universal Studios Hollywood.
Until next year, Horror Nights! It’s been a blast! And Happy Halloween everybody!