An Insider's preview of El Cucuy maze at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

September 13, 2013, 8:13 AM · Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood has branded itself with brands, so to speak. They are the unquestionable leader in making mazes based on horror movies — it's kind of their thing, if you will.

Three years ago they began a journey that started with a La Llorona scare zone and has now evolved into El Cucuy: The Bogeyman, a maze I toured with a group of journalists Thursday afternoon. La Llorona is a popular Mexican myth about the ghost of a mother who drowned her children in a river to be with a wealthy man. After the man rejected her, La Llorona drowned herself in the same river she drowned her children in.

Now, the story goes, she wanders the forest at night looking for her children; of course, she will never find them (it is no fun to be a ghost, as it turns out) and is willing to kidnap disobedient children to replace them. Fast-forward to 2013: La Llorona was a hit as a maze in 2012, but Horror Nights creative director John Murdy felt he had done all he could do with the concept. So what's next?

Enter El Cucuy.

Murdy stumbled upon the myth while doing research for the 2013 event and immediately saw its potential as a maze. He and his counterpart Chris Williams began the brainstorming process which resulted in two wildly different takes on the maze. Murdy won't divulge the details of who designed what half of the maze, but confirmed that they found a way to mesh their two designs together.

El Cucuy is a lot like most horrific myths: A mythical creature hunts and eats disobedient children. This is a common trope in many myths across many cultures because parents can't seem to get their kids to eat their vegetables without threatening death at the hands of a hungry monster.

In the El Cucuy maze

It's a broad concept, so Murdy and Williams had to find a way to turn this myth into a narrative. The solution starts in a movie theater — fitting, given the mantra of this event since its return in 2006.

Your path through the maze follows the journey of a young boy and starts with him and his uncle attending a luchador horror film. Yes, a luchador horror film is a part of a genre of Mexican films that pits a famous Mexican wrestler against an evil being. The genre was most popular during the sixties and seventies and has to be experienced to be believed. If you're a horror fan, I highly recommend searching out one of these films.

This story will be narrated to guests in line outside the maze by actor Danny Trejo. Murdy said he envisioned Trejo's unique voice while writing the narration for the maze and Trejo was willing to come on board. Trejo's voice will also be heard as the narrator (and the voice of El Cucuy) inside of the maze.

Guests will enter the movie theater where something horrible has happened; namely, everyone in the theater is dead and El Cucuy, a shapeshifter, is on the prowl. You journey through the theater to the boy's home and eventually in to the layer of El Cucuy.

As Murdy led us through the maze, I could not help but be thoroughly impressed with the amount of detail that goes in to every thing they do at Halloween Horror Nights. Most of these nuggets will not be noticeable when there is nothing to light your way but black lights and the screams of those ahead of you, but that has not stopped the creative team from pulling out all the stops.

In the El Cucuy maze

Movie quality sets in a maze not inspired by a movie? You better believe it.

El Cucy's lair is sure to be the hit of the maze if for no other reason than the shock value. I won't spoil the surprises, but Murdy made a point to say that this maze in particular crosses the line of what is allowed in a maze like that.

A little hyperbole? Sure. Murdy is nothing if not a great showman; and he has a point. Horror is supposed to cross the line, right? That's what makes it horrifying, after all.

While IPs will always be the butter on the bread of Hollywood's Horror Nights, it is fun to see what Murdy and Williams come up with when left to their own devices. The research they did for El Cucuy and La Llorona is remarkable — Murdy did not want to take any chances when playing with another culture's story.

Still, the broad nature of myths allowed Murdy to pull from sources ranging from personal contact to the good ole' Internet for answers. The result? An especially horrifying soup.

El Cucuy: The Bogeyman (theme parks love colons followed by an article) will feature a shape-shifting monster, a terrifying journey through a child's worst nightmare and a truly sick twist with pumpkins.

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die — Murdy hopes the legend of El Cucuy will be an especially memorable part of Halloween Horror Nights 2013.

Replies (2)

September 13, 2013 at 5:32 PM · In my experience, HHN houses not based on existing properties tend to be better. While they seem more generic on the surface, I have found that they are far more intricate, because they have to tell a story instead of relying on guests' previous knowledge of the property. Sometimes it does come down to that unique scare, and I have found that maze designers typically use more interesting effects and scare techniques in those generic houses.
September 13, 2013 at 6:31 PM · I wouldn't go that far -- at least, not in Hollywood. However, I have never been to the Orlando event so I don't have as strong a sample size as others might.

My favorite maze last year was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- it was terrifying, atmospheric and got me every time I experienced it (a dozen or so). La Llorona was great last year, probably a top two or three maze at the event, but not better than all of the branded mazes by any means.

It's a case-by-case basis for me.

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