Anyone who’s ever talked to me knows that I grew up in Central Florida. And aside from the blistering heat, tea-colored lakes and ever-present toothy reptiles, I’m also about 20 minutes away from some of the world’s most famous theme parks. I got even closer to them during my high school years in Orlando; Universal Studios was just across the street. You could see the Hogwarts Castle from the school parking lot, hear the tourists screaming as they rode Dueling Dragons (R.I.P.). And if you had to stand in the football field for hours on end for marching band practice, you could also listen to the faint, repetitive theme music from the end of the Jurassic Park ride.
While the overbearing influence of our local tourist attractions may evoke a certain level of distaste for them over time, Universal Studios has never had that effect on me. Despite its somewhat annoying proximity to my school, it never stopped being fun. In particular, I’ve visited their spectacularly spooky Halloween event, “Halloween Horror Nights” almost every year since I was on the younger side of teenagerhood. For Virginian context, it’s a lot like Busch Gardens’s “Howl-O-Scream” event; there are haunted houses with obscenely long wait times, scareactors walking around in costume (and in character) and a tremendous amount of fake fog to set the mood. It’s probably one of my favorite things about living in Orlando; as a kid, I dreamed of becoming a scareactor. Nowadays, I just enjoy the spooky atmosphere.
So of course, when I chose to study abroad in Tokyo, I was always planning to make the trip out west to Osaka in October and experience Universal Studios Japan (and Halloween Horror Nights, in whatever new form it took on) for myself.
Shin Osaka was about a two and a half hour shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) ride from Tokyo Station. I traveled with a friend, enjoying bento box dinners at the station before making our way to the hotel, which was situated in CityWalk Osaka, a strip of shops and restaurants lining the path to the USJ entryway. At home, we’ve got one of those too, and it’s a popular teen hangout, with a theater, minigolf courses and plenty of great restaurants. Finding myself in this alternate-dimension CityWalk after a month and a half of living thousands of miles from home was pretty incredible. Despite the string of familiar restaurants being replaced by Osaka’s famous takoyaki and ramen shops, being there made me feel right at home.
After our first night at the hotel, we were ready to explore USJ. I spent around seven or eight hours inside the park in all, and emerged with a strong conclusion: Universal Studios Japan was pretty similar in layout to Orlando — there was a “Mel’s Drive-in,” a large Hollywood-themed rollercoaster, a Hogsmeade with a forced-perspective Hogwarts castle — and yet, my experience there was astronomically different. This was especially true when it came to the Halloween events. I think I can sum up my experiences in the five major changes I noticed between USJ Horror Nights and the one in my hometown. Ikouze (let’s go).
- You can wear a costume inside the park.
Undoubtedly to prevent rowdy, drunken tourists and local teens alike from pretending to be scareactors, Universal Studios Orlando has long banned the donning of costumes and masks at its Halloween Horror Nights event. Imagine my surprise when I rolled up to USJ to find hundreds of people dressed up (the Japanese culture of politeness has had its effect here, it seems, and staff find no need to ban park guests from wearing costumes). Dismayed at the thought of missing out on an opportunity to get dressed up, my travel companion and I managed to find a Claire’s hidden deep in the CityWalk outlets. Donning matching black angel wings, silver eyeliner and chokers, we had the chance to participate in a popular aspect of the culture of Japanese young people: coordinating outfits. Even outside of Halloween time, it is extremely common to see groups of friends or couples dressed exactly alike when they go out on the town. It’s probably my favorite thing about Japanese wakamonobunka (young people culture). For Halloween Horror Nights, the trend reaches a new level, as these friend groups trade their matching streetwear for matching costumes. Over the course of our night at the park, we saw the usual bananas, Waldos, Pennywises and Jokers, but also a handful of creatures that you wouldn’t normally find in the West, such as jiangshi (Chinese “hopping” zombies) or kuchi-sake onna (slit-mouthed women).
2. The houses aren’t all traditional.
At Halloween Horror Nights Orlando, you can expect to find eight to 10 haunted houses, with themes ranging from lighter supernatural pop culture (“Ghostbusters,” “Stranger Things”) to classic slashers (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Halloween”) to its own original houses (“Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After,” “Nevermore: The Madness of Poe”). While they all may feature vastly different content, their layouts remain quite similar. Because it’s so hard to escape the feeling of being herded through the house in one great unbroken line of park guests, achieving immersion is a challenge that the creative directors work hard to overcome, with various elements of sound, touch and smell.
In Japan, they have a very different approach. Over the course of the night, I visited five horror attractions. Only one of them (“Cult of Chucky”) was a haunted house in the traditional sense. In the “Area 51: Unidentified Encounter” house, we were briefed on our “mission” as a large group, before being released into a maze we had to find the way through ourselves. Once we reached the exit, forming small groups of about seven people, a park employee ran us from room to room of the next indoor portion, cutting off our view of the other tourists and making me feel a real sense of urgency. We had to remember a string of numbers, navigate outside on our own, shoot alien spacecraft; We were not passive scare victims — ‘Area 51’ gave us agency, and that responsibility made it much scarier.
Not only did USJ create elaborate and strictly scheduled house layouts, but they also utilized a lot of the park attractions to create scary experiences (there was even one instance where the storyline of an entire rollercoaster was altered to fit the theme). In “Sadako: The Cursed Attraction” (based on the famous Japanese horror movie “Ring”), we sat (unbeknownst to me, a first-time park guest) in one of the park’s 4D theaters. Under the pretense that we were there for some kind of business conference (my Japanese is far from perfect, so many of the attraction storylines ended up falling through the cracks), we listened to the presenter for a moment before fog swept over the audience, and then Sadako was upon us. Distracted by the scary women lurching through the aisles, I was caught completely off guard when my seat suddenly dropped by an inch.
3. The scareactors are a variety of shapes and sizes.
Being in another country with a vastly different range of horror content, I didn’t expect the scareactors walking the streets of USJ to be the same type I’d witness at Universal Studios Orlando or Howl-O-Scream. Although the houses and other various spooky attractions open much earlier than I’m used to, the actors start to come out at about 6:30 p.m., as it’s getting dark, which is similar to the way it is back home. The first scareactors we encountered were in the clearly labeled “CUTIE ZONE,” which was one of the only scare zones (MUMMY, ZOMBIE, PIRATE, CLOWN, etc.) that wasn’t immediately self-explanatory. Here, we were met with cyborg catgirls, chainsaw Lolitas and the zombie police trying to reign them in — which was great, because it felt very much like the kind of scare zone you’d encounter in Japan.
But the uniqueness of the scareactors was not just on the basis of pop cultural differences. I could tell that the creative team wanted to give us scares that extended beyond the limits of a normal average humanoid silhouette. There were two scare zones that exemplified that, and the first was the Giant Clowns. Universal Studios Orlando has been known in the past to put scareactors on stilts, but it doesn’t exactly up the scary factor, as with those unwieldy legs, they are quite easy to run away from. At USJ, there were giant clowns; not with ridiculously long legs, but disturbingly proportioned in a different way. Each (likely inflatable) costume was around seven feet tall, and incredibly bulky and fat. They made me feel quite tiny and crushable, which isn’t something I was used to (I’m above the average height in Japan, so I’m no stranger to being one of the bigger people in the room). I found them to be scarier than the others, because unlike normal scareactors, I couldn’t see the person under the costume. I couldn’t even be certain that one was there.
The other flavor of abnormal scareactor were what I’ll refer to as The Dogs — that’s not what they were, but I’m really not sure what else to call them. Even after the surprise of the Giant Clowns, it was shocking to turn around and watch such a large, dark, animalistic shape pass by before my eyes. Each Dog was an enormous puppet that required two pairs of human legs to operate, and was accompanied by at least four handlers, probably to make sure no one got too close to the puppet itself. Although it seemed to be made of foam, it had a nice range of motion (it could even open and close its mouth), and in the dark foam and flesh look about the same.
In the wake of Universal Studios’ increase of disappointingly interchangeable CGI rides, it was incredible to see such a fun use of practical effects at this park.
4. You can bring the kids!
USJ’s Halloween Horror Nights event is noticeably more family friendly than the one in Orlando. At the same time as the more adult HHN, on the other side of the park they hold a Kowa-Kawa Halloween (“scary-cute” Halloween) event for kids, starring the minions, Snoopy and all of your favorite Sanrio characters. I kind of liked how these two events mixed with each other. In fact, unlike Halloween Horror Nights Orlando’s generally terrifying horror-themed merch that used to give me clout as an edgy teenager, at USJ, the mascot of Halloween Horror Nights is a baby-blue pirate Snoopy.
I think I knew going into it that Halloween Horror Nights Japan wasn’t going to be as scary as what I was used to. Knowing that, I kind of really enjoyed the more kid-friendly aspects of the event; I was able to experience the evening character parade on my way from house to house, see the Sesame Street squad dressed up in Halloween costumes, and I even purchased a hoodie featuring a Chucky-themed Hello Kitty.
Also important to note, at certain times throughout the night, the scareactors stop what they’re doing and DANCE. The park increases the lights (very considerate of them) so you can film it. Even the giant Dog puppets shake their heads, stomp, and open and close their creepy mouths to the beat. I found that to be one of the most unique experiences I had at the park, and even though I wasn’t scared, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
5. The park closes at the normal time.
Unlike in America, where Halloween Horror Nights will continue for hours after the park has closed and the rides have shut down (usually until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.), in Osaka, everyone is out the door by 10:00 p.m. Although the scareactors don’t emerge until nightfall, the event (including most of the houses and horror attractions) runs all day long. My feelings on this change are pretty conflicted. On one hand, it’s a little weird to emerge from a haunted house into broad daylight. But as we had a full day of shrine hopping planned ahead of us, I really appreciated the full night’s rest I got as a result of the park’s timely closure.
Regarding the rows of commemorative cookies, house slippers, scarf towels and countless varieties of character headbands on display, we collected our merch and exited through CityWalk. The whole time we were raving about the fun night we’d had, I was jotting down notes of comparison. There were plenty of other things I noticed during the day. For example, a lot of the park actors and dancers were non-Japanese; during the shows in Hogsmeade, half of the actors spoke British English, the other half Japanese, and all of them seemed to understand each other (a little similar to my experience at the college of international studies where I am studying this semester, now that I think about it). On top of that, Osaka’s Amity Land is a lot livelier, since the Jaws ride (long abandoned/shut down in America) is still up, running and absolutely fantastic here.
But all of these fun little details were unrelated to my original purpose, which was to evaluate Osaka’s Halloween event against the one from home. And to those ends, I honestly can’t say whether one is better than the other. As far as scare factor goes, I get quite a bit more shaken up in Orlando, and generally find their house themes to be creepier and their interiors more detail oriented. But in Osaka, the house layouts are much more creative, their guests can experience a broader range of Halloween fun, and their use of practical effects is seriously impressive. All in all, if you find yourself in either city during Spooky Season, both parks are well worth a visit.