BEWARE: This article contains spoilers for 2017’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood!
SoCal horror fans know that one man works harder than anyone else to make sure each Halloween is filled with screams, nightmares and pulse-pounding scares: John Murdy, Creative Director for Universal Studios Hollywood‘s ever popular Halloween Horror Nights.
The huge annual event just kicked off this weekend, and last month Universal invited us to join Murdy on a personal tour of two haunted mazes while they were still being completed. We joined him on a behind the scenes look at new mazes for this year’s event, THE SHINING and INSIDIOUS.
Murdy explained that Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is a year round job for him. As soon as the event ends, Murdy goes to work dreaming up scares for the next year. Since Universal often licenses IPs from other studios, it behooves Murdy to be ahead of the game so that there’s plenty of time to work out deals. He writes treatments for each maze – long documents describing the experience in detail – sometimes dozens of pages per maze. He works with park and studio executives, as well as the creative teams from the films involved, to ensure everything is just as a true horror fan would expect.
THE SHINING had long been on Murdy’s wishlist for HHN. When the opportunity finally presented itself, he realized the source material presented a challenge. The film doesn’t rely on jump scares as most mazes do, but slow simmering madness and foreboding. Add to that high expectations for detail from the film’s legion of fans, and putting it together proved to be tougher than he’d originally envisioned.
The work paid off – carpets and duvets were ordered to match the iconic patterns of the Overlook Hotel. During our behind the scenes tour, the carpets were covered to ensure they’d be in good shape for the event’s guests.
INSIDIOUS draws from all four films in the franchise, including the newest one which won’t be released until January 2018. Creating a maze based on an unreleased film is its own mountain to climb.
Murdy explained that it’s a guessing game. While he’s given access to the script and over 30,000 production photos to pore over, the thing about films is that they often change (and sometimes drastically) between the script stage and the release. In 2014, Murdy and his team created a maze based on Universal’s now forgotten DRACULA UNTOLD. The film was released during the event, and shortly before HHN kicked off they found out that a big chunk of the maze was based on a character and sequence that ending up being cut. They set about quickly to rework the maze, but that’s Hollywood!
The mazes make use of several different elements to scare guests, not just pop-out scareactors, but dummies, animatronics, lighting, faux picture frames, sound effects and projections. Some performers time their scares using surveillance cameras to see guests before they can see them, ensuring a perfect scare. Others trigger lighting and sound effects to match their big moments. This is no mom-and-pop haunted house!
The INSIDIOUS films tell the story of Elise Rainier, and the new maze features the spirits from the Further that have haunted her throughout the series. The maze begins in her childhood home, where Duck Boy lurks at the top of the stairs. Each portal to the Further takes mazegoers further into the abyss. Just like with THE SHINING, Murdy went to painstaking lengths to recreate props and sets from the films.
A big thank you to the great team at Universal Studios Hollywood for inviting us, and John Murdy for sharing his incredible passion with us. Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights through November 4. Get your tickets here and get ready to scream!