The celebration of Halloween has never been an Asian traditional, but for the last two years, I have been looking forward to attending the annual celebrations at Universal Studios Singapore (USS).
There’s nothing quite like walking into a deserted theme park (if you’re very early), and seeing a place of fun and thrills turn into a night of terror. And it’s terror that people pay for at the park’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), which has fast become a local institution.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Now in its sixth iteration, the simulated haunted attraction had some serious competition back then. Wildlife Reserves Singapore started Halloween Horrors in 2007, but killed it (pun intended) in glorious fashion in 2011. Sentosa, which USS, and HHN, now calls home, actually had its Sentosa Spooktacular running from 2009, but it too was decapitated in 2014.
HHN was the only one left to pick up the pieces but being the last man standing (which is the ultimate achievement in any horror movie) is not the reason why it has become an institution.
As a constant attendee since HHN 2, I can safely say then that the show then paled in comparison when matched to the Halloween themed nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando.
I remember my first Halloween haunted house attraction in the US back in 2000. It was a US$20 event to a haunted house, organised by friends of a friend. They turned an old house into a haunted mansion, complete with strobe lighting, fake blood, plenty of makeup and even more jump scares. The scares were pretty good, and the gore was graphic. I walked away impressed by that experience, and had fun in every subsequent haunted house I visited after that, until 2008.
I happened to be in Los Angeles in October that year, and went to Universal Studios during one of their Halloween weekends. It was my first time at a closed park event, where the horror theme ran through the entire park. How many of you know that the original house on the hill in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is located at that park?
There we were, taking one of the studios tour of the park, when the tram broke down! Everyone was made to walk, in total darkness, back to the drop off point, and that was when creatures of all sorts came out of the woodwork. There was a crashed vehicle on the road, and silhouettes of zombies gorging on the soon-to-the lifeless bodies of the wreck survivors. Men in hockey masks and roller blades appeared out of nowhere, with chainsaws buzzing. The air was filled with the smell of gasoline, and when the chainsaws hit the ground, sparks flew.
One of the fellow passengers in the rear suddenly screamed, and she was taken by the zombies flanking us from behind. Yes, gone. Dragged away screaming, until we could hear her voice no more. The walk took us less than 15 minutes but the memories of that journey have remained all these years, and it has become my benchmark for haunted themed houses.
The first three HHN nights had their own scares, and I remember walking in to HHN 2, and being bombarded by terrifying creatures along the main street in Hollywood. Every other step brought you face to face with some nightmarish creature, and people stopped to snap photos.
And that broke the fear. Folks whipped out their cameras and took photos. I suspect that the human jam caused by the hundred of selfie toting attendees cause Resorts World Sentosa to relook the human jam, and from then on, the main street was never used as a staging area.
But what drew my criticism was the reuse of American Halloween pop culture. There were zombies, Leatherface, witches, demons and other dark creatures populating the various haunted houses and scare zones, but all of them were appropriated from Western folklore.
There was a year (HHN3 IIRC) where Beetlejuice even showed up, to wow audiences. Do you know who he is? Unless you are a Tim Burton or Michael Keaton fan, Beetlejuice will have zero impact on you, and his antics will seem more like a joke than anything. Plus, they made him sing and dance.
Then something clicked in HHN5. Last year, RWS dumped a huge part of its Western themes for some amazing local ones. Siloso Gateway Block 50 was a neat reference to SG50, and the HDB themed environment resonated with the audience, because most of us, even if we did not live in a HDB apartment, have been to one. And we’ve all heard the haunted HDB stories.
And we have all heard about taking the MRT train close to midnight at Bishan, because Bishan used to be a cemetery. RWS must know the story because they came up with True Singapore Ghost Stories: The MRT. Of course, it helped that the constant MRT breakdowns made our feelings for the train system very negative to begin with.
If those two were nods to Singapore’s culture and heritage, Hell House was a full on embracing of our Chinese roots. Sure, Asia does not celebrate the 7th Month as the American do Halloween, but the burning of hell notes, and the many levels of hell are things we have grown up with. And all of it was supported by the Hungry Ghosts scare zone along the park grounds.
This year’s HHN6 gave us a recreation of the old Changi Hospital and the Hawker Centre Massacre, both of which are familiar institutions. And yes, we all know the stories as well. The Hu Li Inn, based on the Chinese folklore, reminds us that while Chinese horror stories have not been made into blockbuster movies, they have haunted us since we were young. And while the outdoor Suicide Forest might seem like a Western themed walk in the park, the contest (and spilled blood) are all Asian.
And there is nothing quite like Halloween Horror Nights anywhere else in the world. The use of Asian horror is now the main draw to the weekend event. These days, the horror nights at Universal Studios, and most of America, have been dominated with zombies. World War Z. The Walking Dead. Night of the Living Dead. Resorts World Sentosa still uses some aspects of Western horror, which is through no fault of their own, because Halloween is a Western celebration.
But in the middle of all of that, it has allowed Asian, and Singapore horror, to take centrestage. There is nowhere in Asia, short of an actual visit to Changi Beach or Pulau Tekong, where one can experience the scares, blood and chills told to us as folklore when we were young. HHN has carved out its own identity, by discarding the remnant pieces of scares that make no sense in this country, to develop a premiere horror themed event built on the undead legacy of Singapore.
After HHN6, I am looking forward to HHN7 and beyond, because I know there are more local horror stories that have yet to surface. Charlie Three Door? The East Coast Yellow Tower? The smell of frangipani flowers? Bedok Reservoir? What more could we want?
That’s not to say that the event is perfect. USS is pretty big, but RWS tends to keep to the same areas, and unfortunately, the growing crowds mean that they need better crowd control and organisation. There’s really no harm in opening the park, and making the entire USS one gruesome place for a few weekends, instead of making paying folks wait in lines after lines after lines.
So if you have tickets to HHN6, be prepared. Be prepared to revisit an old childhood friend that you thought you had trapped in the dark corners of your mind. Look at the fox vixen with spider legs and wonder why she looks so familiar, even though you have never seen her, or her ilk before. And as you wander into the Ulu Pandan Hawker Centre, question why the stalls and layout look so much like where you last had lunch or dinner. And the smell. It might smell gross but you know it’s not the first time your nostrils have been bombarded by this stench of home.
And if you have not done so, then what are you still waiting for? There are only 14 nights left.