Conventional wisdom would indicate that this year’s inclusion of Stranger Things in the annual Halloween Horror Nights (HHN8), currently in its eighth edition, would be the stand-out showcase at Universal Studios Singapore (USS).
But as the hit Netflix TV series would seem to highlight, what might be the most obvious doesn’t always necessarily represent all there is to it, and more often than it, it pays to look deeper.
That’s not to say that the Stranger Things haunted house at HHN8 isn’t worth visiting – it’s just not the best thing about the month-long showcase happening at USS. Having embraced Asian horror elements in the last few years, HHN8 continues that legacy by whipping up more scary rituals, each with a decidedly Asian influence. That’s the strength of the annual event, even if it needs to focus a little on Western horror, simply because it is Halloween.
The basic format of the show remains – there are five haunted houses, two scare zones and four performances. The first, Scaremony, takes place as you walk into the park, and the second one in the theatre. Since it’s literally the first horrific thing you’ll see when you get it, the Scaremony isn’t really an optional performance for park attendees – stay for a little song and dance, some pyrotechnics, before entering the main area.
On normal years though, one recommendation would be that the theatre performance is normally on the, not-much-to-see side of things, as the whole, mad doctor, Beetlejuice song and dance schtick gets old pretty fast. But surprisingly, this year’s Dead Talks segment is actually pretty entertaining. Held as a keynote-styled session given by a demon, Gideon, such performances usually hinges on the lead star, and Gideon is the kind of monster who can wake the dead with his charisma. Sure, there are still the usual song and dance routines, but the actor USS hired can easily wipe the floor with the other talents who used to host these performances. If anything, USS should bring him back next year for an encore performance. Like raising the dead, but for a good laugh.
And like Gideon, the other talents in HHN8 seemed to have also picked up a few new skills of their own this year. Regular HHN attendees would no doubt have learned some tricks of the trade, and can easily identify hiding spots in each houses, but this year, the designers and actors have outdone themselves. The intention is not to out any of these vengeful spirits here, but in almost every house, the corridors are filled with spirits, some of who don’t do anything.
Oh, they are definitely paid to scare the guests, but whereas previous shows made it painfully obvious where the hiding spots or performance points where, there were moments in this year’s show where the actors intentionally skipped interacting with attendees, so that those attendees walking behind would be lulled into a false sense of security of not hearing or seeing anything ahead, before the actors struck. This gave each haunted home a more organic approach to interactions and scares.
There were various moments when a group of us would position ourselves, either thinking that something was coming out, only to get scared by another actor whom we did not know was lurking nearby. Otherwise, we would wait deliberately for a second performance, only to be denied.
Oh, and that hidden door that obscures an actor? Why not try entire props that actually move, to reveal a dreadful ghoul lying in wait. More effort has been added in HHN8, to trick the audiences, thereby adding a new element to the show.
And when you get to Killuminati, be prepared for greater interaction with the actors. In this home that introduces a centuries-old group of secret society of vampires, the short, live performance that kicks-off the walkthrough actually sets the stage for the party ushered in to be split into two. The fear of seeing another group head off in another direction already puts you in a dreadful place – one that even a demonic stripper doing sexy moves on stage cannot snap you out from – as you wander around in smaller groups.
Then there will be moments when the actors will attempt to pull some attendees into yet another private tour, separate from the already pared-down group. That’s the surprise of Killuminati, as it can give two groups two different experiences in the house. Is this house scary? It’s probably the least grotesque of all the houses, but this is the one house you need to circle back for, because dying once is never enough.
Pagoda of Peril
Based on the early promos USS did to promote HHN8, the Pagoda of Peril stood out as being one of the more original concepts but threaly is that it is also one of the biggest disappoints. Whereas Killuminati made proper use of its environment, and Haunting of Oiwa rode on the coattails of Japanese horror, the pagoda here is a little bit of everything, with nothing to call its own. Yes, there are some magnificent costumes here, and when you’re decked out in some eerily majestic armour, preening for the camera is a must, but last year’s TERRORcotta Empress already set the gold standard for overdressing with style, and sadly, the Yin Demon acted more like a Yawn Monster.
Enter for the lovely sets and a little of the atmosphere, and get a kick out of creatures who look like they belong in an episode of the Power Rangers.
Haunting of Oiwa
Atmospheric horror is something that HHN has done well in the past few years, from the HDB heartland in HHN6, to the mall from HHN7, and the Haunting of Oiwa, set in the Edo-era of Japan, stands up there with the best that the series has to offer. Poisoned by her unfaithful husband, Lady Oiwa returns for revenge.
They actually built a small garden into some of the homes this year, and standing in a tiny room filled with plants and foliage, together with a soft ground under your feet just adds to the tension of this room. One of the coolest thing a haunted house is capable of, is to make you feel as if you’re not in one, and creating an open air environment helps with the illusion. Having a giant head suspended from the ceiling also helps, but here’s hoping that in HHN9, we’ll get to see an expansion of that idea. After all, if you have an open world environment, why build walls around it?
Like the themed hospital from the year before, to the hawker centre that reminds you of the local heartlands, Pontianak is another great addition to the development of tapping on to local horror. Many of us would be familiar with the vengeful Malay spirit, and to enter a home filled with Malay actors, each playing a recognisable part, adds to the allure of this house.
The shouting, the screaming, the use of Malay, and the familiarity of this room, makes this house a must-see for horror buffs. And remember the part earlier when I said some hidden areas have been carefully obscured? My only advice is not to look to high up, or too far down. The only drawback about this house is that one can identify some of the recycled props from previous shows used openly here.
Maybe is it the unconscious recognition that helps with enhancing the illusion here, but if HHN can find a way to not recycle that psychedelic spinning room that has been a staple of past shows, and finally retired this year, it can also explore other props to bring out the easily recognisable fixtures in local homes.
Ah, Hawkings. Unless you’ve never heard of the hit Netflix series, the Stranger Things house will put a smile on your face, as the familiar and recognisable now have a real-world presence to it. Heck, who can even deny that seeing the title card blown up on the outside of the house can warm your heart?
The setting for this home was showcased in an earlier report, so there’s no point repeating it again. There are some changes, to make the experience more akin to the series, as you walk into homes, laboratories, schools and even the Upside Down. Some characters from the show also make an appearance, including everyone’s favourite demogorgons. This special tie up only covers Season 1 though, so don’t expect to see new characters anywhere.
And here’s a pro-tip: Remember the better use of props to obscure hiding places? There are a few here too, so get all smug if you think you know Hawkins – just don’t blame us if there are hidden surprises in store.
One of the bigger disappointments from last year was lasertag, which suffered from technical issues. This year, the action takes place in an open area, where groups of eight are given assault weapons, as they have to clear through obstacles filled with the undead.
Here’s another tip for you: Head for this at the very start, because this session requires the most waiting. Using laser tag rifles, the “guns” activate the light sensor each zombie is wearing, to identify them as being shot. They’ll then curl up on the floor and act dead, but they don’t stay dead, as the timer resets, and the zombies well…. rise again.
This is where cooperation comes into play, as the guy ahead might have killed the zombies but by the time you get to that position, said zombie might just come alive again. While this is a short segment, it provided the most fun and while you cannot touch the actors who are coming at you, you can at least navigate the course without getting bitten, to at least show your friends that you stand a chance, should a zombie apocalypse ever hit us.
As for the two scare zones, simply enjoy them for what they are. The set details and costumes of the actors in Apocalypse Earth are worth the extra scrutiny, and like the Scaremony, these zones are merely transitional points that everyone has to navigate past, to get to the houses on the other side.
Sherwin once held the Matrix of Leadership, but wisely passed it on to the rightful leader of the household.