A bittersweet aspect of Halloween 2014 was the final opportunity to wander the haunted hallways of the House of Horrors. Located at Universal Studios Hollywood, this elaborate walk-through attraction functioned as a sort of living history tour of the horror genre, taking visitors scene by scene from the silent era to early sound films to thrillers of more recent vintage, along the way passing characters from such Universal Pictures as The Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy, Psycho, and The Wolf Man.
Although open year-round, House of Horrors served double duty as a major attraction during Universal’s annual Halloween Horror Nights, when it thrilled dedicated horror fans by amping up the terror to levels of intensity not inflicted on casual tourists during daylight hours.
Creative director John Murdy explained the strategy behind the venue, which often acted as a counterpoint to the more contemporary horror franchises offered elsewhere at Halloween Horror Nights.
“I’m a huge fan of our horror franchise here at Universal, particularly our classic horror films, and I felt we had never really given them their fair shake,” Murdy told me in a 2007 interview. “With House of Horrors, what I wanted to do was to take the entire brand of Universal Horror and do an homage to everything: Dracula, Frankenstein, the fruit cellar from PSYCHO, Chucky’s toy factory from CHILD’S PLAY. So modern and classic are all together, and each room you go into is a different movie basically.”
This layout provided opportunities for additional scaring during Halloween Horror Nights, when each setting would be haunted by its own particular monsters.
And what settings they were! In terms of size and scope, Universal’s House of Horrors was the most impressive haunted labyrinth ever seen in Los Angeles, featuring a lengthy trek through an impressive variety of meticulously created environments, starting with Dracula’s castle and culminating with Frankenstein’s laboratory.
It all started back in 2006, months before the attraction’s official debut.
2006: Fortress Dracula – a.k.a. House of Horrors
Universal Studios did not launch the House of Horrors as a year-round daytime attraction until 2007; however, there had been a night-time preview of sorts the previous year.
After years of inactivity, Universal Studios Hollywood revived its dormant Halloween event in 2006, naming it Halloween Horror Nights. Seasonal attractions that year were minimal: a spooky version of the back lot tour; a maze called The Asylum; and the Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula walk-through – rebranded as “Universal’s House of Horrors” with a temporary banner beneath the permanent sign over the entrance.
Though the setting still suggested a trek through Castle Dracula as seen in Universal’s 2004 movie Van Helsing, clearly some effort had been made to insure that the “House of Horrors” lived up to its new name: instead of simply being a night-time version of the familiar Fortress Dracula, the dark corridors were prowled by characters ranging from Nosferatu to Hannibal Lecter, anticipating the all-inclusive approach that would be the eventual hallmark of the attraction, which would come to serve as the abode for famous monsters of generations past and present.
Perhaps prophetically, Freddy Kruger and Michael Meyers were among the monsters lurking inside the castle; both would star in their own mazes during subsequent Halloween Horror Nights.
It was an altogether auspicious debut for what would become a must-see attraction every Halloween.
2007: House of Horrors
In April 2007, the newly re-christened House of Horrors made its debut, offering family-safe scares during daylight hours. Much of the Fortress Dracula structure remained intact; however, design elements specific to VAN HELSING had been removed, and many rooms had been transformed into distinct environments, inspired by other films.
Unlike its predecessor, House of Horrors had been specifically designed to accommodate an expanded cast during Halloween Horror Nights, when it was haunted by a minimum of 25 monsters instead of the eight or so seen the rest of the year. The attraction was thus able to serve an even more satisfying blend of tricks and treats: Chucky popped out of a toy box; Mrs. Bates leaped from behind a shower curtain; and a werewolf lunged through trees in a wooded setting (the exterior look convincingly realized indoors).
The House of Horrors culminated with the spectacular Frankenstein’s laboratory, where the monster appeared from behind crumbling stones to startle unwary guests. A similar setting had existed in Fortress Dracula, but with less flash and fewer scares. More than anywhere else on the Universal Studios lot, this scene achieved the stated goal of Halloween Horror Nights: to put the audience inside a living horror movie. Its enormous set – including flashing lab equipment towering over head and the body of the Bride of Frankenstein a hundred feet above the floor – certainly felt like a horror film brought to life. Even better, the cast of characters – including a gruesome mad scientist’s assistant and the Frankenstein Monster himself – filled the space with good old-fashioned horror movie chills.
2008: Meet the Strangers
For 2008, Universal Studios welcomed new guests into the House of Horrors, inviting customers to “Meet the Strangers.” The inclusion of the masked maniacs seems to have been a last-minute decision, based upon the surprise success of the film The Strangers earlier that year. Nothing within the Gothic setting was changed to accommodate the contemporary characters, who struck an anachronistic note among the stone walls, wooden bridges, and mad scientist equipment.
Fortunately, despite their featured billing, The Strangers were mere guest stars. The familiar monsters retained center stage and did an even better job of scaring. One nice touch was an “electric chair” in which the Frankenstein monsters would periodically sit to get a booster jolt of energy.
2009: Chucky’s Funhouse
The following year, Universal Studios introduced the practice of rebranding the House of Horrors, in order to make it sound like a new attraction every Halloween. The first example of this was the less-than-ideal choice of “Chucky’s Funhouse.” The killer doll had been part of the House of Horrors since the addition of the toy store setting in 2007; however, Chucky worked best when confined to his own room. Within the lofty laboratory set, the diminutive doll seemed positively dwarfed by the towering electrical equipment.
Worse, many of the House of Horrors’s usual inhabitants – the monsters and mad scientists from Universal Pictures’ classic horror movies – kept a low profile, like absent parents allowing an ill-behaved child the run of the house – turning the event into an inadvertent spin on Home Alone.
2010: Vampyre Castle of the Undead
With Vampyre: Castle of the Undead, Universal continued its practice of rebranding the House of Horrors and populating it with new “stars,” who would hopefully reinvigorate the familiar setting – like putting new wine in old bottles. The theme was based not on a film franchise but on a comic book, which featured gargoyle-like vampires that were the ugly antithesis of the Twilight clan. The unfamiliar characters lacked the recognition factor that was a big part of the House of Horrors’ appeal – seeing your favorite monsters brought to life – but at least the vampires more well suited to the setting than Chucky had been. In particular, they easily replaced the oft-seen Nosferatu in the early Castle Dracula portion of the attraction (though they were a bit out-of-place in the toy store).
2010 also saw the addition of a house of mirrors, which would recur during subsequent years. The fun house effect was less impressive than the other settings, but the angled mirror corridors did provide the vampyres with plenty of hiding spaces from which to surprise the unwary.
2011: The Wolf Man: The Curse of Talbot Hall
In a relatively rare instance of Universal Studios dipping into their own catalog instead of sub-contracting monsters from other companies, the House of Horrors was haunted by Universal’s own monsters in 2011 – specifically, the Talbot clan from The Wolf Man, starring Benicio Del Toro, based on the 1941 black-and-white classic. With its vintage pedigree, the Wolf Man was a perfect fit for the abundant Gothic gloom of House of Horrors.
There was one small drawback: werewolves had been inhabiting the venue since its days as Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula, so the rebranded attraction did not look particularly new to the casual observer. More discerning horror fans could appreciate the distinctive look of Rick Baker’s marvelous movie makeup, wonderfully recreated in the live setting with convincing masks and costumes.
2012: Universal Monsters Remixed
Universal Studios took the rebranding of House of Horrors to a new level with Universal Monsters Remixed: for the first time, the venue’s logo was completely eclipsed by a sign announcing that year’s theme. This approach continued for the next two years, presenting the attraction as something completely new each Halloween, instead of the same old House of Horrors available year round.
Perhaps the great virtue of the House of Horrors was turning out to be something of a weakness as well: the venue offered dozens of unique environments beyond the scope of any other Halloween attraction, but the permanent structure was – well – permanent. Perhaps sensing that the long corridors and memorable settings were becoming a familiar routine to fans who attended Halloween Horror Nights annually, the Universal Creative Team decided to dust off the old crypt and pump it full of high-volume dance music.
Though the decision betrayed a whiff of commercial calculation (how can we make classic monsters relevant to a target audience who think of SAW as a golden oldie), the results were a pleasant surprise. Throbbing music boosted audience adrenalin and galvanized old monsters with new life – shocking them out of the coffin and onto the dance floor, where their antic gyrations proved them to be anything but dusty museum pieces.
Also, the flashing equipment of Frankenstein’s workshop proved to be the perfect source for a stroboscopic light show on the dance floor. The brightly colored beams cut through the familiar shadows, providing a much appreciated opportunity to clearly see the spectacular creation set in all its glory.
2013 Universal Monsters Remix – Again
Apparently, the Universal Monsters enjoyed their 2012 dance party so much they decided to do it again in 2013. This year’s musical martini remained much the same blend as before, but with an added garnish here or there, including a towering dome-headed monster that replaced the more familiar flat-topped Frankenstein.
Making a surprise reappearance were The Strangers – though we suspect that their masked faces were supposed to remind audiences of The Purge, which had opened earlier that year.
2014 Face Off
Taking its name from the Sy Fy Channel reality show, Face Off: In the Flesh was essentially “Universal Monsters Remix Part 3” – it retained the bright colors and pulsing music from the previous two years but filled the House of Horrors with an amazing array of bizarre creatures. Though not all of them were appropriate (a wonderful insectoid creature belonged in outer space, not Dracula’s crypt), there were some wonderful, original creations, including witches, demons, and an odd creature with a Jack O’Lantern for a head.
It was certainly nice to walk through Dracula’s Castle and Frankenstein’s lab one more time. However, despite the mesmerizing sight of a pole-dancing Alice in Wonderland (with the Mad Hatter laying down the beats), it is easy to imagine a more appropriate final hurrah for the House of Horrors – such as a “House of Frankenstein” monster rally featuring all of Universal classic creatures (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, etc) in an all-out, no-claws-barred throw-down rumble. Alas, that was not to be.
After Halloween 2014, Universal Studios forever closed the doors on the House of Horrors, ending an era that was all too brief – a mere nine Halloween seasons.
Quibbles about Chucky and The Strangers aside, Hollywood Gothique enjoyed the House of Horrors in all its guises. Whatever its theme and cast of characters, the venue provided an immersive environment with spooky sets and old-fashioned atmosphere perfectly suited to a traditional Halloween celebration. In a way, the House of Horrors was Universal Studios’ equivalent of the Queen Mary – a setting so perfect that it always made the haunt inside enjoyable. Even the milder, daytime version was worth a visit now and then.
With its passing into the Graveyard of Los Halloween Haunts, the House of Horrors earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hollywood Gothique’s annual Halloween Haunt Awards in 2014. May there spirits interred therein never rest in peace, but instead rise every Halloween to haunt our memories.