Screams echoed through the street, coming from both demented trick-or-treaters and the people they were terrorizing. There were dead bodies all around, some still intact, some with their heads torn from their necks. I stood there, calmly snacking on blood-spattered popcorn, knowing that in no time at all, I would be next.
It takes a certain kind of person to subject yourself to the absolute terror of Halloween Horror Nights, the annual Halloween event at Universal Studios. The nighttime horror show is so scary it comes with a warnings all over the website not to bring young kids. But if you’ve got the kind of constitution that allows you to find joy in walking through a cemetery filled with the undead, presided over by a grim reaper who wants your soul, there’s no better Halloween event in the country for you.
A lot of the focus on Halloween Horror Nights rightly goes to the haunted houses. There are 10 such attractions at the Orlando event this year, ranging in theme from the truly terrifying 1978 Halloween and one based on The Weeknd’s After Hours music videos to original Universal IP concepts like “Bugs: Eaten Alive” and Fiesta de Chupacabras.
On your walk in between those houses, there are five so-called scare zones. Depending on the theme of the area, you might run into a demonic scarecrow from a blighted farm menacing you with a pitchfork, or those aforementioned evil trick-or-treaters, who reportedly ate cursed candy and became murderous monsters destroying their small town’s Halloween carnival.
I’ve been going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Universal Hollywood for years, and I can tell you with total certainty that, as much as the scares are top-notch, there’s a part of HHN that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves: the food. And especially this year, the food is absolutely, grotesquely delicious.
What makes the food such an important element of Horror Nights is that the epicurean team responsible for developing the seasonal menu, which is only offered during the special ticketed event, works closely with the creative team that designs and builds the haunted houses.
For example, you might start off the night by walking through the Bugs: Eaten Alive haunted house, whose storyline is that a 1950s “technology of the future” pest control innovation has gone horribly wrong, causing the bugs to burrow into people’s skin, grow inside their corpses, and become human-sized nightmare creatures. Even though the house is deeply disgusting (trust me, I did it twice, it’s gross), your adrenaline is pumping and you’re feeling, against all odds, hungry. So you head to the food kiosk inspired by Bugs: Eaten Alive, and you order a Maggot-Covered Cheese Dog. It’s actually a Korean-style hot dog with fresh mozzarella, rolled in puffed rice, then topped with gochujang and black sesame seeds.
You could do the same at Universal Monsters: Legends Collide, a maze based on the classic characters featured in Universal’s original monster movies. You make your way through an Egyptian tomb while Dracula and the Wolfman fight the Mummy for his life-giving amulet. Depending on when you go, the storyline changes: You find out who won because at the end, someone is proudly hoisting someone else’s severed head. (I’ve seen it where the Wolfman wins and where Dracula wins.) “Wow, that looked dangerous,” you might think, “I need to protect myself.” Thus you order a vampire-repelling Garlic Philly Cheese “Stake,” a shaved cheesesteak on a black roll with caramelized onions, peppers, sautéed mushrooms, muenster cheese, and roasted garlic aioli—all held together by a wooden stake.
Think of the food at HHN sort of like Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival, but in The Upside Down. There are kiosks all over the park, some themed to the haunted houses, some themed to the scare zones, and some just generally Halloween themed—but none of them let you forget where you are. At the Chucky-inspired kiosk, for for instance, you can buy a Good Guys Burger topped with crispy pork belly and pickled jalapeños on a doughnut bun, then covered in blood-red icing and sprinkled with kids’ cereal on top for an extra dose of Child’s Play vibes.
The blood-spattered popcorn I enjoyed in the trick-or-treat scare zone was actually Killer Stove-Top Popcorn Custard, which featured popcorn-infused custard topped with kettle corn speckled with sweet “blood” sauce. If custard’s not your thing, maybe you’ll opt for the more savory Petrified Rat Tails, aka funnel fries with creamy crab dip and scallions. Looking for something a little less revolting? Pepperoni pizza-stuffed skulls and deep-fried twisted taters are also on offer. I got the “fiery” version of the latter, with queso, ghost pepper seasoning, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. If I could eat it every day, I would.
At Halloween Horror Nights, not all surprises are scares. You might order something that looks wholly repugnant, like a big, slimy, bloodshot eyeball, only to realize it has a tasty coconut yuzu mousse inside. I ate it, and I loved what I was tasting, but I couldn’t get past the visual cues that I was actually eating something gross. If Wolfgang Puck popularized “California fusion” by putting avocado on everything, Universal Studios’ contributions to the culinary world might be called something like “epicurean disgust.” The food tastes great. It looks truly horrifying. (If you’re curious, I didn’t make it through that whole eyeball dessert.)
My favorite of all of the food this year came from Meetz Meats, a butcher shop from hell that serves grotesqueries from a counter hung with parts of human corpses, inspired by one of last year’s haunted houses. The excellent “zombie brains” were actually deep-fried cauliflower in a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce. But the one that has stuck with me, if only for sheer cleverness alone, is the “100% fresh-ground princess”: a raspberry rice krispie treat smushed into a patty that looked like raw ground beef, served in the same styrofoam and shrink wrap packaging in which you’d find hamburger meat at the grocery store.
“To destroy any spirits, cook to 1031 degrees minimum,” the label said. “Total price: an arm and a leg.” I was so amused I could barely eat it—but when I could finally take a bite of the “flesh,” I was glad I did.