"The Shining" — based on the Stanley Kubrick film — gives Universal's creative team the challenge of bringing fans into one of the most popular horror films of all time. To see how Universal would handle this task, I walked through the Hollywood version of the maze, still under construction, with creative director John Murdy last month.
"Like The Exorcist, this is one of those properties that I've been wanting to do for over a decade," Murdy said. "And like The Exorcist, it's one those properties that is very difficult to translate into a live, walk through, haunted experience. Like a lot of the films of its era, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is very much a slow burn. It takes a long time to build up to what's going to take place."
"As a designer of these things, it's hard to resist the temptation of the minute you step inside there's somebody with an axe, jumping out trying to chop off your head - those visceral scares," Murdy said. "Because that's what works in haunted attractions. But that isn't in the spirit of 'The Shining.'"
"When I look at the whole film, if there's an emotion that I associate with it, it's this impending sense of dread," Murdy said. "It's difficult to communicate in a walk through attraction: a guy who's going crazy and what the kid [with "The Shining," the ability to see the future and communicate with the dead] is seeing. You have to resist that temptation and spend a little bit of time on the front end to get that impending sense of doom... and because this is such a masterpiece of modern horror - people are obsessed with it - there are all these details we want to make sure we get right for the fans."
Murdy walked me through maze to show me these details, including the font face of the room numbers in the Overlook Hotel, the historic photographs that line its walls, and even the very particular patterns of carpet in its halls.
"When you look at the hallway leading up to room 237 in the film, everyone remembers it as visually arresting - typical Kubrickian style - it has 99 percent to do with the carpet," Murdy said. "The walls are stark white. The doors are just brown. If we would have built that and not done the carpet, it would be a totally different scene."
So how did Universal recreate this, since no one has sold that garish design in 40 years — if it ever publicly was available for sale?
"We decided we needed to make our own carpet," Murdy said. We designed it in a computer, so we found a carpet company that would print our own custom carpet for us."
Universal is using more and more 3D and dye sublimation printing to create props, decorations and costumes for Halloween Horror Nights, Murdy said, taking advantage of technological advances to recreate the specific look of classic horror films whose props and decor are lost to time or not available for the event.
But Universal also employs some classic techniques along with modern technology in its mazes. Consider The Shining's iconic Grady twins, who will be recreated via an 19th century theater trick — Pepper's Ghost.
"It's a classic projection technique, used in Disney's Haunted Mansion and elsewhere," Murdy said. "But it's all about the math."
Murdy said that Universal needed three tries to get that math exactly right, so that projections of the Grady Twins — both before and after their murder — would appear in the correct places within the maze.
Even though the scenes with the Grady Twins will not include scareactors popping out to frighten guests, fans should not expect to escape jump scares entirely in this maze. Murdy explained that some of personnel in Universal's Halloween Horror Nights mazes have video monitors of cameras focused on approaching guests, allowing them to trigger audio and lighting effects at just the right moment to perfectly time their scares — The Shining included.
The maze begins by depicting Jack Nicholson's characters descent into madness, using video projections to show a silhouette of the aspiring writer typing... before he bolts up from his desk to grab the axe that will become his preferred tool for driving the narrative of this story.
From there, it's on through a tour of the Overlook Hotel where Jack has hired on for the winter as caretaker with the rest of his doomed family. Visitors will walk through many iconic scenes from the film, including the bloody elevator, the ballroom, Room 237, and, yes, the "Here's Johnny" axe attack scene.
Throughout, Murdy and his team have tried to balance the practical need to create a workable walk-through attraction with a reverence for the beloved source material that defies such practicality.
"If you try to draw The Overlook - where the elevator is, where room 237 is - it doesn't make any sense," Murdy said. "And I think that's intentional. Obviously, I can't talk with Stanley Kubrick, but part of what I think he tried to do with that movie is to make you very disoriented as a viewer."
"It's like the final shot in the movie," Murdy said. [Spoiler alert?] "Jack Nicholson has always been here. He's always been the caretaker. It's part of this weird aesthetic that permeates 'The Shining.'"
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