An Insider's tour of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights with John Murdy

September 11, 2016, 3:51 PM · On Friday, Creative Director John Murdy walked me through two mazes under construction for this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. This is the 11th year that Murdy has overseen Hollywood's version of Universal's wildly popular after-hours, hard-ticket Halloween event, and each year presents new creative challenges to satisfy visitors.

"Our fans are a lot more demanding these days. In the old days, if a maze was really successful, we could bring it back and say 'hey, back by popular demand.' But that doesn't really work anymore. They just demand us to do new stuff."

And topping that list of demands has been a maze based on the hit TV series, American Horror Story. HHN's American Horror Story house occupies the same footprint as last year's Walking Dead maze, which was the largest ever developed for Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights.

As we waited for workers to clear the entrance of the maze for us, Murdy talked about the challenges of developing a Halloween Horror Nights attraction for American Horror Story, which each season tells a completely different story, in a different setting. Not only that, one of the seasons featured in the Halloween Horror Nights house — Murder House — takes place across multiple time periods, too. Murdy and his team looked to the opening titles of each season for common themes that they could use throughout the maze.

"The other thematic thread we used to tie it all together was... since they always have a Halloween episode for every season we're dealing with, there are callbacks [in the maze] to the Halloween episode that season."

American Horror Story
The burned nursery from Murder House

As always with Halloween Horror Nights, fans should be looking for Easter eggs in the mazes, too — little details aimed at devoted fans that casual fans might miss. Murdy revealed one such detail for the American Horror Story house, which was suggested by series creator Ryan Murphy.

"In the show, Jessica Lange, early in the season, she's talking with another character and she makes reference to the fact that she has four children. And if you watch the show, she has three. So the fans, ever since Murder House came out, have been speculating and wondering and chattering about, well, who was the fourth kid?

"So [Murphy] asked me if we could bring that character to life in the maze, and this would be the only place where you could actually see it."

And for theme park history geeks, your Easter egg awaits in the next series of scenes, which are based on the Freak Show season. One of the trees in the woods scene is Universal's last remaining tree from the old ET ride, Murdy said. Fans of Universal's newest attraction - The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - might also be interested to learn that Twisty the Clown's bus in that same was carved by the same type of Kuka robots that move the flying benches on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Murdy also said.

American Horror Story Freak Show
From the Freak Show section of the maze

As for the third section, based on the Hotel season? Well, don't cozy up to the curtains at the edges of the room in the final scene if you're looking to avoid the scare.

"In the opening title sequence, there's that really cool shot where the girl's on the bed and hands that look like the sheets attack her," Murdy said. "We thought that was a really cool visual. It looks like the bed is coming to life and attacking her. Obviously, our guests aren't going to be lying in a bed where we could do that to them, so we translated that idea to the curtains."

The lesson? No place is safe from scares in a HHN maze.

Next we toured the Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield house. Located in the Jurassic Park queue, the house recreates iconic scenes from the 1981 sequel before offering its own, unique twist at the end. Murdy pointed out an Easter egg detail for fans — the child in a pirate costume, waiting outside the Haddonfield Hospital with his mouth cut by a razor blade in his Halloween candy.

Halloween 2
Murdy, with the poor, bleeding pirate boy

"This scene in this movie caused more damage to the holiday of Halloween than probably anything," Murdy said. "This started that whole rumor about putting razor blades in apples and candy. When I was a kid and went trick or treating, you took a pillow case and your parents would say 'Bye!' and you'd go out of the house and just disappear for hours. And you'd come back with a bunch of candy and maybe your parents would look at it but maybe they wouldn't.

'Because of this scene, it restarted the rumor that people were putting razor blades in candy and apples and actually it wasn't true... but it kind of killed Halloween for a while. I remember that after that, kids weren't going trick or treating anymore. They'd go the mall."

If you've ever wanted to hear from Murdy like this while you walk through a Halloween Horror Nights house, you'll actually get that chance in Halloween. Murdy appears in a few videotaped sequences that play on televisions in the maze, including one turn as a mustachioed 1970s TV news reporter.

Of course, all along the way you'll get to see many of the iconic kills from the film, but there's just no way to faithfully recreate the movie's, uh, explosive finale. So Murdy and his team looked to the movie's iconic poster to inspire the house's climax.

"We wanted to do something evocative of what we did last year," Murdy said. "Last year, we took the end of Halloween and added our own little original spin on it which was that crazy mirror scene with Michael Myers everywhere."

This year, visitors will be overwhelmed by a room filled with pumpkin/skull hybrid heads from the movie poster before entering into the pumpkin head itself (complete with pumpkin smell!)

"We wanted to do something evocative of the opening title," Murdy said. And the effect does, literally pulling you into that moment from the movie.

In addition to the American Horror Story and Halloween houses, this year's HHN at USH will feature houses based on The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Freddy vs. Jason, and Krampus, as well as a plussed version of the year-round The Walking Dead house. Halloween Horror Nights opens this Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, which will feature a slightly different line-up of properties in completely different houses. We will have full coverage from both coasts, next weekend here on Theme Park Insider.

Replies (1)

September 11, 2016 at 6:53 PM · This will be my first year attending HHN. I'm looking forward to the Terror Tram and the Krampus and The Exorcist mazes. Can't wait!

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