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Theme Park Insider interview with John Murdy: Horror never dies

Jacob Sundstrom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 19, 2014 at 1:06 PM

John Murdy took over Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood in 2006 with one goal in mind: Proving it could work.

Mission accomplished.

John Murdy
Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights Creative Director John Murdy at a media preview of The Walking Dead maze last week

The event has grown from two mazes in 2006 to seven this year, enough to rival its sister event in Orlando (Universal Studios Florida has eight in its 24th season). While Hollywood can’t compete with Orlando’s longevity, Murdy’s focus on “branded horror” is what makes his event stand out.

“The event has expanded dramatically since the first year I did it,” said Murdy. “We’ve expanded to seven mazes now, including taking up space on the Hollywood backlot which is extremely cool for our guests.”

Three mazes (Alien Vs. Predator, The Walking Dead and From Dusk Till Dawn) occupy space on the historic backlot, giving guests an opportunity to walk around iconic sets that have been used in hundreds of movies over the years. It also gives Murdy the opportunity to use the 747 soundstage for one of his mazes, a luxury given to several mazes in Orlando every year.

Last year, Black Sabbath got the honor of existing in a permanent structure -- this year, it’s AVP. The story for that maze goes back to 2011. According to Murdy, he and Chris Williams (his design counterpart) parked their cars out on the backlot after opening night and talked about the event and its future.

“[Williams] said ‘I think we can do Alien’,” said Murdy.

The duo had just pulled off The Thing: Assimilation, which used massive puppets to convey the terror of a shape-shifting alien in the Antarctic. Sound familiar?

Alien alone would make this maze one of the most anticipated -- and complicated -- that Murdy has tried to created for Horror Nights; throwing in Predator all but clinches it. It’s not just the xenomorphs that need to be worried about now, it’s the Predators that need to be cast as well.

“When it came to Predator, [designer Patrick McGee] needed to sculpt everything,” said Murdy. “Because when they made the movies, the guys playing the Predators were all about seven feet tall.”

No such complications with Alien, as McGee and Murdy were given full access to the casts and molds from the films, which means what you see in the park this season is exactly like what you saw in the films. This isn’t particularly novel for Halloween Horror Nights, which has prided itself on its movie quality sets from the rebirth of the event in 2006.

Lately, many of those movie quality sets have come from television.

“I think it’s interesting to note where the properties are coming from now,” said Murdy. “That first year we did movies, we did Freddy and Jason and Leatherface, but now so many of our properties come from television. The Walking Dead, Face Off, From Dusk Till Dawn … I think that speaks to the changing landscape of the horror industry.”

Murdy has been a Halloween junkie since the 70s, so he’s been around for all the peaks and valleys of the industry over the past few decades. The genre’s expansion to television (thanks in large part to the popularity of The Walking Dead) is something very exciting for Murdy, who takes pride in the growth of his favorite holiday.

The growth of his event has naturally allowed him to collaborate with many icons in the horror industry -- but you probably wouldn’t guess that it’s also allowed him to work with icons of rock n’ roll.

“I love rock n’ roll and I love horror,” said Murdy. “I love combining them.”

This year’s collaboration is with Slash, of Guns N’ Roses fame. How this partnership started is a little more convoluted than in years past. When The Suits decided Horror Nights needed a 3D maze (god only knows why), Murdy started to brainstorm.

“I didn’t have anything in mind that would lend itself to being a 3D maze,” said Murdy. “The palette that has to be used is very specific and won’t work with every property.”

In what I assume is a horror first, Murdy’s inspiration for Clowns 3D came from NPR. Right, that NPR.

“There was a story about clowns and how no one wanted to be a clown anymore because of the stigma,” said Murdy.

And from that, an idea was born. A family fun center with a funhouse and ice cream -- and filled with clowns, of course -- has run on hard times. No one wants to see clowns anymore, and certainly no one wants to be a clown these days. Drastic measures have been taken by the patriarch of the family, who is offering free ice cream for one day only as a way to lure customers victims into the fun center.

Guests won’t find any free ice cream inside the maze, but they will find clowns bent on death and destruction -- oh, and a score created by Slash himself.

“He told me that this is the most excited he has been about a project in years,” said Murdy. “Coming from a guy that has done what he’s done and played with who he’s played with, it’s awesome to see a guy so energized by our event.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Halloween Horror Nights it’s that this industry is home to people from all walks of life.

“We’ve got doctors and lawyers (working at our event),” said Murdy. “We have grandmothers, fathers and daughters, sons and mothers, you name it.”

Halloween becomes more of a global holiday every year, and its reach in North America has long gone beyond the 16-year-old boys that movie studios incessantly market their films towards.

For Murdy, the cast of characters that work at Horror Nights are what makes it special. He hasn’t missed a single night in his nine-year run, and that’s largely because he wants to be there for his cast. When he took the job in 2006 he had a number in his head -- how many years he would do Horror Nights before hanging up the chainsaw.

He’s getting close, though naturally he’s not willing to divulge that number with anyone -- much less a member of the media. When Murdy thinks of the future of the event, and of the industry, he thinks about the kids he has seen grow up at the event.

“I would have kids come up to me and say that this is what they want to do,” said Murdy. “And now six, seven years later they’re here working at the event and some of them are trying to pursue a career in horror.”

If there’s one thing horror films have taught us over the year, it’s that while the cast of characters may change, horror never dies.

Halloween Horror Nights opens tonight at 7 p.m.

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An aside: If you’re going to Halloween Horror Nights (or any other event) please share your pictures and trip reports with me on my Twitter account @jakesundstrom or Theme Park Insider's account @themepark. We’d love to hear from you!

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Vote of the Week: Do you eat more or less than usual when you visit a theme park?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 19, 2014 at 11:02 AM

The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival kicks off today at the Walt Disney World Resort. So let's take this as an excuse to talk about eating in theme parks.

How much do you eat when you visit a theme park? Obviously, something like the Food & Wine Festival is a special occasion, when the whole point of the event is to eat and drink. But what about on a "normal" theme park visit?

Blueberry-peach pie
Blueberry-peach pie at Flo's V-8 Cafe in Disney California Adventure

Even on those days, parks try to tempt you to indulge. Whether it's old favorites such as funnel cakes, churros, turkey legs, and hand-dipped corn dogs, or more unique theme park treats such as Dole Whip floats, Mickey bars, school bread, and Butterbeer, theme parks are trying to make eating as much a part of the experience of visiting as going on rides and seeing characters.

Dole Whips
Dole Whips from Adventureland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

If you ever get the chance to walk the show floor at the annual IAAPA Expo in Orlando (which we will be doing again this November), you find dozens of vendors offering samples of their new concoctions, trying to persuade buyers to sell these new twists on ice cream, fried potatoes, popcorn, pizzas, and sweets in their parks next season. On the other side of the market, many parks now offer one-price dining plans to consumers, which lock visitors into paying at least a certain amount for food during their visit. (Which, of course, leads those visitors to try to eat even more food, to get their money's worth.)

Vector's Grilled Cheese with Pulled Pork
Vector's Grilled Cheese with Pulled Pork at Gru's Lab Cafe in Universal Studios Hollywood

Not every visitor goes for this. At some regional parks, the selection of food looks no more appetizing than an overpriced mall food court. If you're visiting such a park, you might be tempted to just power through the day with little or nothing to eat, before feasting at an off-site restaurant or back at home. Time waiting for and eating food is time not waiting for or riding rides, after all.

Fish and chips, with Butterbeer
Fish and chips with a Butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron in Universal Studios Florida

At the world's most popular theme parks however, food becomes part of the theme experience. On a multi-day theme park vacation, eating meals in the park is inevitable, and all the multi-park resorts around the world cater to that, offering mid-range to high-end table-service restaurants that can make a theme park meal an even more unique experience than dining at the finest restaurants back home.

Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce
Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room in Tokyo DisneySea

So which is it for you, when you visit a theme park? Do you splurge and chow down on everything you can? Or do you make trade-offs? Perhaps you go light on the meals to load up on the special snacks. Or you resist the in-between-meal temptations to indulge at themed or character meals. Maybe you just power through on less food to enjoy more time riding. Or, finally, you're one of those unshakable souls who keeps to your normal eating habits even when on vacation. If you're not consistent with any of these options, go with the one you end up doing most often on theme park trips.


What's the best thing you've ever eaten in a theme park? And what is the worst thing you've ever had the misfortune of trying to consume in a park? Tell us your answers in the comments!

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