LOS ANGELES – Ozzy Osbourne can't help himself.
While on a behind-the-scenes trek through a Universal Studios Hollywood attraction based on the recently released Black Sabbath album “13,” Osbourne spots a bloody mannequin corpse reclining on a phony altar. Without hesitating, the gruesomely theatrical Sabbath frontman leans down and acts like he's devouring the blood from the decapitated body with his tongue.
Faced with increasingly hard-core rivals and savvy visitors, organizers of such Halloween attractions this year have conjured up several new theatrical and technological innovations in hopes of licking the competition, as well as promoting entertainment fare like horror films and records. For Sabbath, it marks the first time their tunes have been turned into a maze.
“It adds another dimension to what we do, which is incredible because we've been doing it for 45 years,” said Osbourne while standing inside the attraction. “It's been a remarkable year because we had our first No. 1 album in America – believe it or not – and now this. I've never seen anything like it. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up.”
“Well, don't wake up in here,” joked Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler next to him.
For the first time since Halloween Horror Nights returned to the Universal Studios backlot in 2007, creative director John Murdy has incorporated video effects into a maze. In a room inspired by the song “Electric Funeral” within Sabbath's colorful 3-D realm, monitors made to look like windows broadcast explosive 3-D visuals in tandem with a wind machine.
In recent years, Halloween Horror Nights traded warrens based on long-running slash-'em-up franchises like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” for attractions inspired by more contemporary properties, such as the “Hostel” movies, “Silent Hill” video games and “The Walking Dead” television series.
The biggest challenges for Murdy and his team for this year's six Universal mazes included figuring out how to depict the freaked-out kid from “Insidious” constantly shivering in his bed while toy rocking horses galloped by themselves. Also troublesome was how hordes of guests could be vomited on all night by an “Evil Dead” demon.
“They're all like little science projects,” said Murdy. “No matter how successful we were the previous year, our philosophy is to always treat it like it's the first year we're back in business.”
Beyond the rotating attractions at Halloween Horror Nights, a few celebrities have invested in their own haunted attractions.
“Hostel” filmmaker Eli Roth opened his year-round maze Goretorium in Las Vegas last year, and Neil Patrick Harris serves as one of the producers of Delusion, an annual theatrical Halloween experience taking place this year in an old Los Angeles church.
At Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., the 10 mazes that comprise the 41-year-old Knott's Scary Farm haunt are based on original storylines, not established franchises. Without such brand equity, the organizers are hoping some new tricks — such as suspending “scare-actors” from the ceiling of a magical maze — will attract victims.
For the second year, Knott's will also feature a special attraction called “Trapped,” which requires advanced reservations and costs an extra $60 on top of a regular ticket.
Unlike the conga-line labyrinth structure of most haunts, “Trapped” strands no more than six visitors inside fear-inducing environments where they must overcome phobias or solve puzzles, such as eating bugs or escaping a giant rat cage, to progress through the attraction.
“It's an opportunity to do what we've never been able to do in our other mazes,” said Lara Hanneman, director of technical entertainment for the theme park. “We're able to have many more interactions with our guests that go beyond just jumping out and scaring them.”