“Follow me....” A robed figure with a skeletal face guides you through a dark castle. Dracula sends you screaming into Doctor Frankenstein's lab. From the darkness beyond, a screeching horn and headlights stop you in your tracks. Nearby, a possessed child levitates above her bed, as The Devil himself manifests in the flesh. This isn't Universal's Halloween Horror Nights™... it's Universal CityWalk™ Hollywood.
Southern California is home to several big-budget Halloween events and haunted attractions, with at least four major theme parks presenting events annually. This was not always the case, however, with key turning points occurring throughout the 1990s. Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt was already well-established as a cornerstone in the haunted attraction industry, prompting new seasonal ventures from neighbors and competitors. The Queen Mary tested the waters with Shipwreck in 1995; the event was successful, as was its eventual replacement with Dark Harbor in 2010. Six Flags began presenting Fright Fest events at their parks nationwide throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including Southern California's Six Flags Magic Mountain in 1993. One high-profile theme park in the area, however, was noticeably silent during the month of October.
Unlike Universal Studios Florida™, Universal Studios Hollywood™ had only produced two Halloween Horror Nights™ events, in 1986 and 1992. Not wanting to be left out of the newly blossoming Southern California Halloween market, but wary about maintaining a costly Halloween Horror Nights™ event, Universal's then-parent company MCA began exploring more cost-effective options to stay competitive. Discussions turned to utilizing the CityWalk retail district, which was still considered a fairly recent addition to the company's entertainment ventures. Having observed success in the motion picture field, new management at MCA looked to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment Inc. for “broader diversification” (as Howard described it to the Los Angeles Times).
This diversification included developing the proposed new Halloween entertainment offering, in a joint partnership with novelty retail giant Spencer Gifts Inc. In April of 1996, Spencer Gifts filed for a trademark to execute the new project: Chamber of Chills. In addition to a singular walkthrough maze created for Universal CityWalk, ten other pop-up Chamber of Chills attractions were planned to be built in shopping malls throughout the country. These locations included malls in Buffalo, NY; Grand Rapids, MI; Niagara Falls, NY; Philadelphia, PA; and Tacoma, WA. Locations were carefully chosen with marketing strategies in mind; for example, a location must have a large enough regional population to sell tickets, but a small enough entertainment market to avoid competition. At the time of this writing, however, insufficient coverage remains to confirm the eventual existence of any planned Chamber of Chills attractions, aside from CityWalk's Chamber.
Seemingly unrelated from two 1950s and 1970s horror comics of the same name, the Chamber of Chills title may have been derived from Aurora Plastics Corporation's Universal Monsters model kit advertising. One 1967 print ad suggested, “Build your own CHAMBER OF CHILLS piece by pulsating piece!” Whether by coincidence or otherwise, Universal's use of the “Chamber of Chills” name for a Halloween attraction circled back to the studio's classic monster legacy. With several decades of proven profitable horror icons at their disposal, Universal's partnership with Imagine Entertainment and Spencer Gifts spelled a perfect marriage of creativity and IP-driven sales appeal.
Auditions for CityWalk's Chamber of Chills were held in CityWalk itself, throughout the prominent outdoor courtyard where the 5 Towers Stage now stands. The audition process was heavily promoted as an event of its own; members of the press were invited to cover the horrifying hopefuls' performances. In direct contrast to modern casting practices, several attendees arrived in their own costumes and makeup to impress the casting team. This is strongly discouraged in today's audition protocol, but certainly gave the press a show to cover in 1996.
An orange and black banner proudly advertised “Universal Studios Chamber of Chills” across the casting table. The seated panel was comprised of three casting directors and entertainment professionals, alongside Frankenstein's Monster. Dracula, with a microphone of his own, paced behind the panel, helping direct the wannabe werewolves and ghouls scurrying across the adjacent audition stage. An elaborate merchandise setup attracted audition candidates and spectators alike, with a sampling of Spencer Gifts Halloween items on display. These included a life-size Cryptkeeper figure, inspired by HBO's Tales from the Crypt television series, and a Bates Motel sign inspired by Psycho.
With such extravagant Halloween thematic elements integrated as early as audition day, Universal was clear in their intention to fulfill the Chamber's tagline: “It's the FRIGHT of the CENTURY...”. In the coming days, monsters were hired, decorations were placed, and signage appeared. A total of 103 actors filled the cast, ready to rotate roles as multiple monsters. Eleven themed rooms were assembled into a 6,480-square-foot maze. A long banner, featuring the Universal Monsters alongside a “drippy” green Chamber of Chills logo, stretched high above CityWalk. The stage was set for a Friday, September 13th opening night.
An old-time ticket booth, complete with retro signage and flashing bulbs, served as the Chamber of Chills box office. The pop-up ticket booth was located in front of CityWalk's Showscan CineMania simulator attraction, adjacent to the Universal City Cinemas. As for the exact CityWalk location of the Chamber of Chills maze itself, the subject is still up for debate. It is well-recorded that the maze was built in a parking structure; however, additional details are scarce, leaving remaining memories to suggest a variety of locations.
One performer recalled connections to a possible Spencer's retail location near the now-closed Wizardz magic club and bar. A theme park blogger suggested the Terrace Parking Structure, later known as Frankenstein Parking. Considering the proximity of the Chamber's ticket booth to the CineMania attraction, however, and a Universal Studios Hollywood “Studio Guide” from 1995 indicating Universal City Cinemas and Cinema Parking Structure as nearby landmarks, I theorize the Chamber of Chills maze was most likely built in the Cinema Parking Structure. (For further evidence to suggest this theory, the word “cinema” can be seen above guests in photos of the Chamber's facade and queue.)
In addition to the maze's unconventional location, there were several other operational differences between the Chamber of Chills and modern Halloween Horror Nights attractions. Instead of navigating the maze alone, each group of (up to 8) guests would be escorted by a “Rover.” The Rovers acted as tour guides, dressed in black robes and glow-in-the-dark skull masks. The Rovers also carried radios, to use in the case of an emergency. In many of the maze's rooms, protective railing separated guests from performers and show scenes. This helped discourage, but not entirely alleviate, the ongoing issues of abuse and harassment from guests visiting haunted attractions.
Perhaps the most intriguing difference established by the Chamber of Chills, however, was the operation of a “Kid's Chamber.” From noon to 5PM on weekends, the maze opened for business with “clowns and non-horrific effects” deemed suitable for children. A child ticket to the Kid's Chamber cost $6, and included one free adult ticket, so a parent or guardian could accompany their little one through the family-friendly maze. Come nighttime, the frightening adult Chamber of Chills experience promised 15 minutes of thrills and chills, for only $8 per ticket. (Management hoped to secure the teen and young adult demographics by charging a fraction of local competitors' event prices.)
Although the exact chronological sequence of the Chamber's rooms is unconfirmed, I have assembled details from remaining media and exclusive personal interviews to bring you a reconstructed walkthrough. Won't you please join me? Let's explore Universal CityWalk's Chamber of Chills....
We've made our way to the bottom floor of a parking structure. A line snakes through the area, leading us through a set of mandatory metal detectors. Up ahead, a stone-gray castle facade waits to engulf us. A television screen mounted above the red-curtained gothic entryway broadcasts the logos for Universal Monsters, Chamber of Chills, Imagine Entertainment, and Spencer Gifts. Gazing higher still, a long black banner reads, “Maze Entrance – Chamber of Chills,” with the maze name appearing in its aforementioned “drippy” font. From an overhead level of the parking structure, a gaggle of curious spectators peer down at the action.
Making our way toward the small castle exterior, we are met by a skeletal Rover, preparing to accompany our group through the attraction. Our time has come. Entering through the curtains, we find ourselves in a dimly-lit foyer. The red flicker of a skull-themed candelabra reveals more dark curtains around us. One of the “barker” characters, of which there were several variations, encourages us to gather inside. The man we meet somewhat resembles a “used car salesman” type, complete with large wire-frame glasses, a checkered green blazer, a dress shirt, and a striped tie. He wears a baseball cap, which reads “USH” (for Universal Studios Hollywood). His face is painted in ghoulish grays. He speaks in a thick, exaggerated accent, which sounds like a mix of Irish and Transylvanian:
“All right, come on, will ya? Let's go! This way! Step into the Chamber, please! First of all, I'd like to welcome ya inside the Chamber. Beyond that curtain... I don't even like to think about it! All kinds o' grizzlies and beasties back there. Each room has been especially designed to scare ya... to death!”
One theory suggests this particular barker character was portrayed by future Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood creative director John Murdy. The likeness is rather striking; however, Mr. Murdy has since denied the claim. Still, not one to ignore the Chamber's place in history, Mr. Murdy elaborated that the CityWalk maze contained at least one element which directly influenced his own designs, and went on to be integrated in future Halloween Horror Nights attractions. (The element referenced was the Car Room, variations of which recently appeared in 2019's Killer Klowns from Outer Space maze, and 2011's The Thing maze.)
Ignoring the barker's warnings, we push through the curtains, and enter a brightly colored circus room. Thick red and white vertical stripes line the walls. A player piano, themed as a calliope with golden pipes, cranks out a tune. At the bench, a tuxedo-wearing, top hat-clad mannequin is poised to play. Atop a nearby narrow vertical box, a large vintage clown head prop smiles with glee. Baggy yellow tubes appear to suggest arms on both sides of the box. The front of the box drops forward, revealing a live crazed clown inside.
Strobe lights flash as the clown leaps forward, twirling a noisemaker. He is dressed in a traditional bright green and purple clown outfit, with a rainbow wig. The radiant colors offset his white and blue painted face. (Then again, so do his grimy yellow teeth.) A nearby over-sized Jack-in-the-Box springs to life, revealing a frightening clown figure inside. The deep voice of our Rover signals it is time to leave the circus: “Follow me....”
Our next destination is the Trophy Room; here, a series of famous monster heads are mounted along the walls, appearing like hunters' trophies. Frankenstein's Monster's head looks down at us with sad eyes. The Mummy's head is covered in spider webs. Dracula's eyes follow our every move. Having apparently escaped decapitation, the now-full-bodied vampire emerges from a hidden door, just in time to scare us away.
Next, a medieval dungeon comes into view. Two torture racks still hold bodies – or, the bloody remains of them. One rack features a spinning buzzsaw blade, tearing through a skinned mannequin with curly black hair. The other rack holds a stretched body with a bloody t-shirt and skinned arms, complete with an agonizing expression of terror frozen upon its face. The tortured bodies are joined by a live victim in the dungeon; dead ahead, a guillotine restrains a panicked young woman. Not yet executed, the victim cries out to us.
Her words of warning indicate that “he” may return any moment. Before we have a chance to escape, the person in question (a demented “Torturer” character) returns with ferocious energy. He brandishes a knife in one hand, and a severed head in the other. The man's appearance could match Jack the Ripper; he wears a heavy wool coat, with a brown top hat over long hair. His dark eyes appear sunken-in. Making his way to the guillotine, the Torturer mocks the screaming victim. His demeaning dialogue drags on, building suspense for the soon-to-come beheading.
According to Chamber of Chills performer Thomas M. Sipos, dialogue varied between each performer. At the time, team members were given the freedom to improvise, thus building their own distinct characters. Some exhibited more humor than others. “If you want to get ahead, you gotta get a head!”
The Torturer releases the blood-spattered guillotine blade, severing the victim's head. Her screaming face drops into the basket below. The illusion is rather impressive, achieving a gruesome practical effect for the crowd. Fleeing the scene, we proceed beyond the Torturer's sick playground. Our Rover leads us deeper into the castle, as we are surrounded by painted stone walls. The simulated bricks glow with an eerie blue ambiance, under UV lighting.
At the end of the twisting and turning passageway, we find ourselves in a mad scientist's sprawling laboratory. The previous hallway's blue color scheme carries over to the laboratory's brickwork. A lifesize figure of The Cryptkeeper grins from a nearby corner, surrounded by laboratory equipment, skeletons, and spider webs. The equipment flashes and pulsates with electricity; nearby experiments in chemistry flasks glow a fluorescent green. Perhaps the most notable experiment is the human-sized figure strapped to a nearby table: the Bride of Frankenstein. In an effort to awaken the female monster, performers portraying Ygor and his mad scientist master frantically operate various levers and buttons throughout the laboratory.
The scientist is a stout man in a white lab coat; his face is painted mint-green, with dark circles around his eyes. He maniacally shoves his fingers through his thinning hair, creating a disheveled look fit for a madman. Shuffling over to a large wall of rusty pressure gauges, the scientist dramatically flips a large switch. He cries out in victory. Ygor limps toward the female monster figure, inspecting the various tubes and cables running across her body. However, the female monster is not alone. With unrestrained limbs flailing, a headless Frankenstein's Monster character lumbers toward our group. He appears to have lost his head in the Torture Room – providing the Trophy Room with a new decoration.
Just beyond the lab, we embark down another stone hallway; one side is lined with cells and thick black bars. From the dark confines within, The Wolf Man leaps toward us at full speed. The cell bars bend under his ferocious strength! (In reality, the bars are made of rubber.) The monstrous half-man/half-beast has shoulder-length dark hair, and dark makeup applied to accentuate his eyebrows and nose. The Chamber's Wolf Man does not resemble Lon Chaney Jr.'s famous 1941 character, perhaps due to Chaney's Wolf Man likeness being a trademark and copyright of Chaney Entertainment Inc.
As we pass the Wolf Man's cage, our Rover leads us down an exceedingly-surreal hallway, with black and white stripes cascading across the walls. A giant eyeball design also graces the set, surrounded by polka dots. As we turn a corner, the black-and-white theme continues; this dark hallway features white painted-on hand prints, white-gloved mannequin hands, and similarly-gloved performer hands. Under the purple tint of a blacklight, it is difficult to discern which set of glowing hands are real... until they reach out for you! Thankfully, none of the hands successfully grabbed us (per maze safety policy), so we continue toward the darkness beyond.
Black curtains shroud our path. From seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of blinding headlights push forward, accompanied by the resonating sound of a car horn. Per the recollections of Sipos, if one particularly enthusiastic performer were operating this effect, we may have heard the unseen driver call out to us, “Can anyone direct me to the 405?” Leaving the near-accident behind, we feel a slight change under our feet; transitioning to the next tableau requires an elevated floor.
Everything around us is pink. We are in a child's bedroom. Keeping to the perimeter, we stand across from the child's bed. There is a stir under the covers, as a little girl's head peeks out. She speaks directly to us: “Mommy, please help me. He wants to take my soul. Mommy, what's happening?” The room goes dark, with the exception of strobe lights illuminating the girl. By way of a plaster body cast strapped to the performer's chest under the covers, the girl appears to levitate above the bed. “What's happening, Mommy?” Her innocent voice dissipates, giving way to a demonic growl: “I'm happening, Mommy! Her soul is mine, and YOU'RE NEXT!”
The girl chokes out a cackle, as her body descends. The evil spirit has been cast out... unto us! Beneath our feet, the floor trembles and shifts. The child's bedside mirror quakes and cracks open, revealing a physical manifestation of The Devil. He charges toward the railing. His black beard and red face are unmistakable; thick red horns protrude from his forehead, stained with blood. Behind his long dark hair, a red-and-black cape calls to mind a traditional folkloric Halloween Devil illustration. This is not the white-faced demon character Pazuzu from The Exorcist (1973), likely to avoid licensing conflicts.
Nevertheless, the intimidating Red Devil bellows, “Your soul is mine! Go... the worst is yet to come.” Proceeding around the bed, we exit the suburban house, and enter a gloomy farm-themed room. There are grey clouds and dead trees painted across the walls, to simulate an outdoor setting. The physical set integrates hay bales, a dirt floor, and several hearty jack-o-lantern props. Atop a group of hay bales, in the corner of the room, a live performer portrays “the farmer's daughter.” The woman is dressed in a tattered red flannel shirt, and a torn skirt. She is bruised, bloody, and tied to a scarecrow's wooden post.
Her arms are outstretched across the post. From across the room, an evil scarecrow comes barreling toward us with a chainsaw. The scarecrow is dressed in flannel and overalls, with straw for hair. His face is painted, in lieu of a burlap mask. He swings the chainsaw high above his head. But this isn't the type of chainsaw you would typically see at outdoor Halloween events. Considering the Chamber of Chills' unique location, the scarecrow's chainsaw is electric, with an attached chord. According to Sipos, prolonged use of the attraction's original gas chainsaw posed a dangerous inhalation risk, as the accompanying fumes lingered within the confined parking structure.
The scarecrow trudges forward still, eyeing the farmer's daughter character, who is still tied against the post. The captive daughter writhes and kicks, unable to move her bound arms. With gruesome gusto, the scarecrow swings his saw through the air... and slices straight through the farmer's daughter's arm!
She screams in pain, as her sleeve falls limp at her side. A severed hand prop remains tied to the post. Without hesitation, the scarecrow decides we are his next victims, as he chases us off the farm. Having narrowly escaped the shrill electric chainsaw's blade, we are given a moment to catch our breath in a quaint living room set. Our Rover remains silent in this well-lit mundane room. Has the tour ended? Our casual surroundings include a thriving potted plant, a mirror, a coat rack with clothes, and a bulletin board with pinned-up photos. We are quickly reminded, however, that the nightmare isn't over, as “Freddy Krueger” pounces from behind a hidden door. This variation of “Freddy” appears in the Chamber of Chills as an unlicensed character, with thick red makeup in place of a detailed likeness mask. His razor-fingered glove appears the same, as he swipes his right hand across our group.
Our journey through the Chamber of Chills has come to an end, as “Freddy's” parting words echo: “Sweet dreams....”
For guests looking to take home more than memories, the Chamber of Chills maze exited into a pop-up Spencer Gifts shop. Here, guests could peruse a wide variety of Halloween novelty tricks and treats, including detachable heads and fake spiders. Another selling point included classic Universal horror films on VHS; presumably, this included entries from the Universal Studios Monsters: The Classic Collection video series, which continue to remain sought-after for their unique box artwork.
By the time the CityWalk maze finished its run on November 3rd, 1996, discussions to expand the Chamber of Chills brand were well underway. According to an October 1996 Los Angeles Times article, developing live haunted attractions was only the beginning of MCA and Imagine Entertainment's planned joint ventures. One such plan encompassed restarting Imagine's television division with a Chamber of Chills television series, as well as publishing a number of Chamber of Chills children's/teen books for the company's then-under-consideration Imagine Books label. Considering the popularity of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps empire (with its similar “oozing green slime” logo), as well as numerous Universal Monsters brand tie-ins throughout the 1990s, MCA and Imagine's plans to expand the Chamber of Chills brand throughout mass media markets appeared promising.
So, what happened?
By the year 2000, Universal had abandoned the famous “classic characters” Universal Studios Monsters logo synonymous with 1990s branding. The widespread imagery once seen across early Halloween Horror Nights™ events in Orlando, the Chamber of Chills advertising, Doritos and Pepsi tieins, as well as countless other products, was discontinued. This separated the Universal Monsters brand from their well-known 1990s affiliations, thus also scrubbing any remnants of the Chamber of Chills brand. Under a new Monsters logo, Universal Studios did eventually publish a series of books for teens, written by Larry Mike Garmon. Whether these books were spawned from the Chamber of Chills idea remains unclear, and offers no further explanation as to why MCA and Imagine's plans seemingly did not materialize.
In addressing that aspect, one clue may be the ambitious slate of other MCA/Imagine collaborations that were similarly shelved. According to the aforementioned 1996 Los Angeles Times article, Imagine was also looking to develop television series spin-offs from box office hit The Nutty Professor and then-upcoming big screen comedy Liar, Liar. The former was also in the mix for receiving the theme park attraction treatment, to appear at an undisclosed number of Universal Studios parks, alongside similar attractions inspired by the film Apollo 13. For one reason or another, none of those four plans were ever produced (except for minor appearances, such as a brief segment in the Special Effects Stages show inspired by The Nutty Professor), thus placing them alongside the unrealized Chamber of Chills multimedia concepts.
In 1997, Imagine followed through on the plan to restart their television division, albeit with different content. Shortly before the appointment of CEO Tony Krantz, Imagine Television signed a multiyear deal with Walt Disney Television – perhaps serving as another clue as to why a possible Universal Monsters-centric Chamber of Chills television series was removed from the equation. In addition to the possible conflict with Universal's iconic brands, Disney also had ties to the Goosebumps brand, including experiences found at the company's Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando. If the Chamber of Chills television or book concepts were intended to compete with Goosebumps, a conflict of interest would be unavoidable. To cap things off, a series of complicated transactions surrounding MCA and its ownership may have seen the cancellation of an unknown number of projects.
In the years that followed, Imagine Entertainment would see a continued relationship with Universal Studios, including producing notable films How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), 8 Mile (2002), and the often-criticized remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1998. The varied and fruitful creative partnership continued to cultivate hits for Universal's studio division, and indirectly spawned a theme park event (Grinchmas) based on one particularly enduring Imagine film.
Though the plan to launch Chamber of Chills as a popular horror brand may have collapsed, a different fate was just around the corner. The following year (1997) saw the growing Halloween Horror Nights™ brand return to Universal Studios Hollywood™, where it has since grown far beyond the Chamber's singular parking structure scale.
Yet, there is still an appeal felt by those who discover the Chamber of Chills. If you were lucky enough to experience any Halloween celebrations in the 1990s and early 2000s, there is a chance you, too, still hold a fondness for plastic skeleton masks, the colorful Universal Monsters branding, and characters like The Cryptkeeper. It is possible for one to enjoy and fully appreciate how Halloween Horror Nights™ has evolved over the years, and to also admire the nostalgic and simple concepts epitomized by the Chamber of Chills maze. Perhaps you will enjoy theorizing what could have been, as you imagine your younger self reading a monster-filled 1990s Chamber of Chills paperback in your family home. The best way to keep the spooky fun of yesteryear alive is to create it yourself.
I hope you enjoyed exploring this little-known piece of Universal Studios/haunted attraction industry history. If you would like to see fragments of video footage from the CityWalk Chamber of Chills maze, I recommend seeking out Daniel Roebuck's entertaining documentary Halloween... The Happy Haunting of America (1997). Additionally, aforementioned scareactor Thomas M. Sipos, who often performed as The Red Devil in The Exorcist-inspired room, has published an anthology book titled Halloween Candy. The book features firsthand accounts of performing in the CityWalk maze, and proved very helpful in researching for this article. I am grateful for access to both creators' products, and their crystal ball to a bygone era.
Who knows... maybe the experiences you are living, photographing, and writing about today will someday be considered significant haunt history. Enjoy every moment! When the present becomes the past, The VAULT will be waiting.