Universal scare zones spur street frights

Scare zones are the glue that holds Halloween Horror Nights together, guiding visitors from house to house through spooky-themed environments built in the streets of Universal Studios.

“I love to sit for hours in the scare zones and just watch,” Lora Sauls, senior manager of creative development and show direction, said on HHN’s opening night. “If you haven’t done that, I ask you to do that — just sit for hours and just watch.”

With those instructions in mind, I spent an evening strolling through the event’s five scare zones, ignoring the 10 haunted houses and their queues. Among the scares and sights: the return of the Pumpkin Lord, trick-or-treating gone wrong and a vegetable used as a weapon. (It’s corn!)

Where: Near park entrance, between Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and the former Shrek 4-D attraction

In Universal’s words: Hordes of fiendish characters

What we saw: The archway of jack-o’-lanterns and vines plus the raised platform of the Pumpkin Lord are the second logical photo stop of the event, following the round HHN sign above the entrance. The Pumpkin Lord, seen in a Horror Nights house last year, feels iconic already and spiels some warnings along with a long, loud sort of grrrrrr that feels like it might morph into a belch. It gets repetitive, but you’re not supposed to linger here.

Universal refers to this area as a table of contents, introducing elements of other zones in the park, including scare actors such as a “child” dressed as a black cat wielding a baseball bat.

The archway is high (and home to mascot Lil’ Boo), and it distracts, craftily, from the scare action down low.

What lingers: Pumpkin Lord’s silent stare as a guest tries to correlate his threatening “minions” line with the nearby little yellow goggled beings of the same name.

Where: New York street

In Universal’s words: Candy turns children into crazed killers.

What we saw: It’s basically a disaster scene with roaming costumed children. They are shorter than average and sneakier than most. The area is well populated with scare actors and broken up with repurposed Mardi Gras floats and other props. The piped-in screeches are effective on this dark and foggy street.

What lingers: The honker on Major Sweets, the walk-around character not his logo on the van, which has been, um, smoothed out for public consumption.

Where: San Francisco, near the exit of Fast & Furious: Supercharged attraction

In Universal’s words: A sorceress summons monstrosities from dark dimensions.

What we saw: Bits on stage, flanked by smoking caldron, are intriguing but somewhat anticlimactic in the end. Scare actors are armed with axes, and that can be realistically alarming. The zone probably shows off the most flesh, costume-wise.

What lingers: The scare actor who made a beeline for us before we even knew we were in a zone.

Where: The pathway near Central Park

In Universal’s words: Abandoned farm and scarecrows that will “harvest your screams.” It’s based on a former house called Scarecrow: The Reaping.

What we saw: A shell of a barn, obvious but very dark hiding places and convincing costumes. In the daylight, there’s an elevated scarecrow scene that might be translated as sacrilegious. And at night, the chainsaw-toting scare actors are stationed just outside this zone.

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What lingers: A character threatening to stab folks with a corn cob, Michael Myers-style. Shucks.

Where: Hollywood

In Universal’s words: An abandoned cemetery with long-dead spirits.

What we saw: The ghostly population — old and young-looking, mostly dressed up — lurking about. And what we might call skull-faced gargoyles.

What lingers: Intriguing costuming, sometimes multitiered — even without the aid of stilts.

Halloween Horror Nights is an after-hours, extra-ticket event. It continues on select nights through Oct. 31.

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