Theme Park Insider interview with John Murdy, on Universal Studios Hollywood's 2013 Halloween Horror Nights

September 3, 2013, 1:51 PM · This week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, our Southern California horror expert, Jacob Sundstrom, steps in to interview John Murdy, the creative director for Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights. Jacob and John talk about the great stuff that John's team has put together for this year's event, then get into some of the insider details on why and how John and his crew have done that. The major construction at Universal Studios Hollywood this year has forced some logistical changes that fans should know about before they go, and Jacob and John cover those.

John Murdy

You can hear the entire conversation by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, or by downloading the audio file directly. A partial, edited transcript follows:

Jacob: What was your vision for Halloween Horror Nights?

John: I kinda looked around the haunt industry in America and the one thing I really didn't see anyone doing or attempting to do was to create what I called branded horror, which was to actually go out and license horror movies and to bring those to life as living horror movies, with a movie-quality attention to detail. We didn't that exactly in 2006 [when Universal Studios Hollywood revived the event] -- it was kind of a baby-step year, just to get back in the business. In 2007, that was the first time we did that, with New Line Cinema doing Freddy, Jason and Leatherface. That really proved to be the difference in putting Halloween Horror Nights on the map.

Jacob: Back before the hiatus, there'd been a Rob Zombie maze. So when you went in to choose to do this branded horror, how much did you look at the past at what had been done, versus just making it up as you went along?

John: I didn't really look back at all. I knew that fans of horror movies just absolutely loved the brands that they were into and I thought that the ultimate wish fulfillment for those fans would be to get to live their favorite horror movies. Having been someone who went to high school in the 80s, certainly with Freddy and Jason and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, even though the first one came out in the 70s, I was real familiar with those properties. They were icons of horror. I wanted to hit all the details that fans of those movies would want to see. We figured if we targeted the uber-fan, that if we got the details right for them, then everyone else would dig it. [Editor's note: If that sentence right there doesn't turn you into a John Murdy fan, I don't know what will. That's exactly the attitude I wish every designer in the theme park business brought to the challenge of creating immersive environments.]

Jacob: How do you decide which properties to work with? How much is driven by people coming to you, versus you having a wish list?

John: Our ideal always is to work directly with the creative individuals, whether it's a movie, or a TV show, or music, or a video game. We want to work with the people who had the original vision for those franchises, so we can work hand-in-hand to bring them to life. Sometimes it's just a chance encounter. And at lot of time it happens during the event. With Eli Roth, when we did Hostel, I met him at the Eyegore Awards, which is our opening night awards ceremony that kicks off Halloween Horror Nights. Right after the awards ceremony, he just came running up to me and was, like, 'We gotta work together!' Luckily, a lot of [horror directors] are fans of the event. A more recent example would be James Wan, with the Insidious films. James was at the event last year, and he was calling me. He'd just gone through the La Llorona maze, and I was in the middle of the chainsaw area -- I couldn't hear a word he was saying! But eventually James and I hooked up and right from the start, James let me know that he really wanted to be creatively involved. Whenever we get the opportunity to work with the filmmakers, that's the best-case scenario.

In regard to everything else, we have very specific criteria that we filter all potential properties through. We sometimes bend the rules, but we never break them. Awareness is the first thing. Quite simply, how popular is the franchise, and more importantly, how much do fans of Halloween Horror Nights want to see that franchise? Ultimately, we want to do mazes based on films, or TV shows, or music, or video games that people want to see.

The second thing is environments. We put an enormous amount of attention into the sets and the prop dressing of what we create. We always feel that there has to be enough unique environments in that film or series of films that we can draw from. We go on all the boards on the Internet and look at what were the fans' favorite scenes.

When it comes to a single film, though, that's when it gets a bit tricky. Even if it's a great horror movie, it might not lend itself to being a great maze. The example I always use for that is Saw. If it'd only been the first movie, we wouldn't have done it. The vast, vast majority of that first movie takes place in the bathroom, and that's it. It wouldn't make a great maze. We look for at least a dozen iconic environments.

The last one is characters. This is a live event. It's not a film; it's not a TV show. It's live theater -- a very strange, twisted form of live theater, but that's what it is. That means live actors. You have to think about the fact that there's going to be a live actor playing this role. Will people recognize what this character is? I love The Shining, it's one of my favorite movies, but I can't imagine trying to cast 15 Jack Nicholsons.

Jacob: The Terror Tram is a unique experience, something that's not being offered anywhere else. How would you describe that for someone who's never been on that before?

John: It's 124 actors -- it's a massive cast. The first thing I do with them every year is tell them, 'You are standing right now on the very ground where the horror movie was invented.' When you talk about the horror movie genre as we know it today, and particularly the monster movie genre, that all started here at Universal. I started coming here as a guest in the 70s, and started working here in 1989 as a tour guide. I've grown up on this lot and the specialness of this place never leaves me. It's trip to ride around this backlot and be able to say, look that's where Frankenstein was filmed, or to walk into the soundstage where Phantom of the Opera was filmed. Over the years, certain studios are associated with a certain type of films. MGM was known for its musicals. Disney, obviously, is animation. With Universal, from the very beginning, it's always been associated with horror. For someone who's never experienced Terror Tram, to be able to get off the tram and walk past the Bates Motel and the real Psycho house -- that's the house from the original Hitchcock film -- there is nothing like that in the world.

On the normal studio tour, you don't get to get off the tram. This is the only time of the year we do it -- you get to get off the tram and walk through Hollywood history. Of course, we're "Halloween Horror Nights"-izing it, so it's a massive area, more than the size of a football field, populated by more than 120 actors. It's not a maze. It's not a scare zone. It's its own, unique thing. Getting the opportunity this year to go into another section of the backlot is huge. We're really lucky that, working with our partners in the movie studio, we were able to work this out.

Jacob: How did that come into being?

John: Out of necessity, really. [Laughs] If you've been in our park recently, you know that we're in the midst of a major expansion. Over the next three years, it's going to be radically, radically, different. So that means there's a lot of construction going on. For us at Horror Nights, that meant there were three maze locations that we had to replace. We used to have a maze behind Shrek and that area -- not Shrek itself, but where we built our maze -- is about to go under construction. We built a maze for years in the old Wild West venue, and that's getting turned into the new Universal Plaza. Over by T2, where we had built mazes in recent years, like Alice Cooper Goes to Hell and before that, the Rob Zombie maze, that's being turned into Despicable Me, so that's off the table. We knew this was coming, so during the event last year I was already going, 'Where are we going to go?' [Laughs]

The evolution of Universal Studios Hollywood wasn't like the theme parks in Orlando, that were always intended to be theme parks and were master-planned as such. This park started in 1915 as a movie studio and in 1964 when they started doing the Studio Tour, it was just a trailer on Lankershim Blvd., I think it was two trams and three tour guides. The park just gradually evolved out of what was originally just a movie studio. That means we have to find very unique ways and places and locations to build what we do for Halloween Horror Nights.

There's two separate tram operations this year. Terror Tram will depart from the same place it's always departed from, up at the Studio Tour plaza on the top deck of the theme park. Then on the lower lot, it'll be down by where Transformers is, there will be another tram to take you out to the metro sets, and that area's going to include a scarezone themed to The Walking Dead, and there's a general area we call The Hub, which is right smack in the middle of these amazing sets, where there will be food and bathrooms and amenities for the guests. There are [also] two mazes to experience down there: Walking Dead, our brand new maze which is based on season three, and in what I still refer to as the 747 stage, because it originally housed a full-sized airplane that was used for the Airport disaster movies -- and this is the first time in my tenure with Halloween Horror Nights that I've had a soundstage to work inside -- that's going to house Black Sabbath 13: 3D. After you've experienced that, you can get back on the tram and that will take you back to the park, where you can experience all the other mazes and scarezones and shows and rides at Halloween Horror Nights.

Jacob: This is going to be fundamentally changing the way that guests go through and experience the event. For years, you've said that the best way to do the event to avoid lines is to start in the Lower Lot. What would you recommend now for people to get through with as little line waiting as possible?

John: I think the same philosophy still applies. It's not unique to Universal. This is probably the best-kept secret in theme parks, as far as how to navigate them: You start at the back, and you work your way forward. The reason for that is, people tend to navigate theme parks in a very linear fashion. You come through the main gate, and if something is compelling, [you] get in line. And let's face it, we're in Los Angeles. It doesn't matter if the Lakers are in the playoffs, in the first quarter not everybody's going to be at Staples Center. It's just the way Los Angelenos are. [Laughs] They never arrive on time for anything. I think the real trick is to get there early; we open at 7:00, but a lot of times we pre-stage people earlier than that. We'll let people in early, and they can get in line to see Bill & Ted, or the Terror Tram. We try to give you a heads-up on Twitter. If you get there early, I still think the best thing to do is to the farthest point and work your way backwards.

In previous years, I would notice that the wait times would always be like five minutes for any wait time down there [on the Lower Lot]. While it is a new dynamic, and we'll have to see how to works out, I still think that you should head downstairs and get on the tram and head out to the metro sets first.

Jacob: You do an opening and a closing ceremony. They're a tradition at Horror Nights. Why don't you talk about that, and tell us why people should stick around for the closing of the event at 1 or 2 in the morning?

John: Yeah, I think these are both secrets of Halloween Horror Nights. I don't think everybody knows about it, but it's one of the cool things about it. We've always done this thing we call the Opening Scare-amony, and that kind of kicks off the night. It's like a battle scene in Braveheart -- it's just insane, it's like the most dangerous form of theater on Earth. It always involves our chainsaw guys. There's a rope drop and where all the guests are pre-staged in an area and once they go, it's characters running one direction and guests running the other direction and then meeting in the middle. Now while I call that the most dangerous form of theater on Earth, it's very carefully choreographed chaos. It's designed to look chaotic and insane, but it's all very carefully rehearsed.

Then at the end of the night, we always do this thing we call Chainsaw Chase-out. There's only one way out of the theme park -- it's one street. So we line that street, kind of like the formation of bowling pins, with our chainsaw performers. You'll see one, then two, then three, then four. And they're basically trained to act like Buckingham Palace guards. They will just stand there and they won't really interact with the guests, but they will make the guests walk around them. It's really off-putting. It's incredibly fun to watch. People will be coming out of the park, thinking, oh, it's done, there's nothing else. Then they can't get out of the park without going through the gauntlet of chainsaw performers. There's always this guy who's designated to be the captain, and when he gives the signal, all 20 or so chainsaws go at once. It ends the night on such a high note. We literally send them screaming for the turnstiles.

* * *

Listen to the podcast for more from John, including his tips on insider details to look for in this year's mazes, as well as some background on how he and his team approached some of the myths and legends that have inspired Halloween Horror Nights mazes, such as La Llorona and El Cucuy.

Tickets are on sale now for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, with prices starting at $44 a night.

Replies (1)

September 3, 2013 at 2:29 PM · Some of what he said about the construction projects are more interesting than the Halloween events. A 2 phased tram ride is should replace the regular tram ride, which I think is much too long at 1 hour long. Besides, there isn't much to do at the lower lot so another tram ride at the bottom is needed.

I do think a year round Haunt attraction is needed at Universal and Knott's.

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