During my freshman year at Miami University, I gathered all my friends in the projection room of Thomson Hall and forced them to watch the season premiere of my favorite show, “Halloween Wars.”
The show, a seasonal competition special on Food Network, featured teams made up of a pumpkin carver, cake sculptor and sugar artist. The teams worked together to create spooky displays that seamlessly combine their three mediums.
In each episode, there were two rounds: the Small Scare and the Spine Chiller. For the Small Scare, teams created smaller displays to compete for an advantage in the second round. In the Spine Chiller, they created larger-than-life displays.
All the rounds had a spooky theme, such as “Monster Road Trip,” “Trapped in a Nightmare” or “Outbreak.” Along with the Spine Chiller, teams were required to make a small tasting element, usually making small desserts like bonbons and cream puffs.
At the end of every episode, the team who performed the worst in the Spine Chiller was eliminated, until only one team was left standing.
“Halloween Wars” was my favorite show … until they changed just about everything.
In 2021, the show didn’t feature pumpkin carvers at all, due to the COVID-19 pandemic which forced them to film earlier in the year, when pumpkins weren’t in season. “Halloween Wars” had become all cake, which seemed redundant when Food Network already had “Halloween Baking Championship.”
That wasn’t the only change the show went through last year, though. It also got a new host, complete with a whole rebrand of the show. Suddenly, it was “Zak Bagans’ Halloween Wars.”
The lack of pumpkins last year disinterested me, so I didn’t watch past the first two episodes, despite my weekly watch parties in my residence hall just a couple years earlier. I’ve been watching this year’s season, though, and although the pumpkins and sugar are back, it’s still disappointing.
First, there’s no longer two rounds, just one. Not only does this take away the opportunity for a team to win an advantage, it significantly slows down the pace. I’m sure the intensity and urgency of past seasons is still present for the competitors, but it doesn’t come through on screen.
The pacing issue is also highlighted by a lack of “confessional interviews,” as the show instead opts for the contestants explaining things as they work, as well as the judges going around and talking to the contestants during competition. While this works for some shows, it doesn’t work here.
Along with longtime “Halloween Wars” judge Shinmin Li, Food Network legends Aarti Sequiera and Eddie Jackson have been the judges for the show the last two seasons. Although I love both Sequiera and Jackson on other shows, here they feel out of place. Plus, one of the most fun parts of “Halloween Wars” was the iconic guest judges in each episode, often horror/Halloween icons like Elvira and some of the stars of “Stranger Things.”
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From season six to season 10, “Halloween Wars” was hosted by Jonathan Bennett (aka Aaron Samuels from “Mean Girls”). Before that, the host was Justin Willman. They were both great hosts, full of charisma and corny puns, always bringing fun to the show.
The show’s new host, Bagans of “Ghost Adventures” fame, lacks the charm required to be a host, and he’s not even there in person with the contestants and judges. He pops up in projections to give the teams their themes, which are based off his previous ghost adventures.
Some of the themes this season have included New Orleans voodoo, London’s Hellfire Caves and Alcatraz, which are so specific they stifle the team’s creativity. Personally, I’m just not interested in Bagans’ ghost stories, and I much prefer previous years’ unique, sometimes spooky, sometimes kooky themes.
My biggest qualm with the new “Halloween Wars” format, however, is its focus on cake that has carried over from last year when there were no pumpkins.
In the past, the cake sculptor’s job wasn’t necessarily to bake a good-tasting cake, or even to bake at all. Their job was to sculpt with pre-made cakes, rice cereal treats or modeling chocolate. This year, however, teams are required to bake their own cakes, with specific flavor profiles based on the challenge.
Although the teams have seven hours to complete their displays, more than the five hours allotted to teams in the past, the focus on the cake itself has led to far smaller and less impressive displays. As I watched through “Halloween Wars,” I noticed the displays becoming more impressive as the show progressed, but this season feels like a step back.
The most important part of the show is the displays, and the displays this season are not on par with what I expect from “Halloween Wars.”
Another change I dislike is the show’s new set. Previously, the show was filmed in the same iconic kitchen as “Cake Wars” and “Cupcake Wars,” decked out with Halloween decorations. This, along with Bennett’s antics, gave the show an air of humility.
The new “Halloween Wars” instead opted for a darker, spookier set. While I understand the change, combined with Bagans’ hosting and ghost story themes, the show seems to take itself too seriously now. It just doesn’t feel fun anymore.
There was one change that I did like, however: the inclusion of a mid-competition twist. As a fan of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” I really do love a twist, and this is the one change that fits with “Halloween Wars.”
About halfway through the competition, the judges announce a new element the contestants must include in their display. In one episode, they had to include a mask, and in another, they had to make a spooky cocktail. This is fun, unexpected and makes the teams scramble to figure out how to fit a new element into their plans.
But overall, with its slow pace, focus on cake, half-host and too specific themes, “Halloween Wars,” a show I was once extremely excited for, has lost my interest.
Maybe “Halloween Wars” has just been my favorite show for years, and maybe I’m just scared of change, but multiple other fans of the show agree with me. We don’t care about the cake (like I said, there’s “Halloween Baking Championship” for that), we don’t particularly enjoy Bagans as a host and we want the old “Halloween Wars” back.