An Insider's look at 'The Shining' maze for Halloween Horror Nights

September 11, 2017, 2:16 PM · Halloween Horror Nights returns at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida this Friday, Sept. 15. Universal has been creating these wildly popular hard-ticket scare events for years, but one of the things that both events will include for the first time this year is a house based on a property from horror legend Stephen King.

"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.'"

For the complete HHN line-up:

Replies (3)

September 12, 2017 at 8:22 AM · Is Shining that scary? So a family goes crazy and everyone gets murdered by the father. No one will notice the rug. The twins are easily portrayed by identical masks, but unless you know the story, matter little. I can barely sit through that movie today.
September 12, 2017 at 9:06 AM · The whole point of Universal using IPs in their mazes is to bring a sense of relatability for guests. They want you to re-watch movies and TV shows the mazes are based upon so you know what's happening. They deliberately and exactingly recreate scenes to reward those guests who take the time to familiarize themselves with the IPs before attending HHN (Easter eggs). Universal has a long track record of applying IPs in interesting and unique ways during HHN (I still think The Purge scare zones have been among the most ingenious).

"The twins are easily portrayed by identical masks"

Sure, but that would be expected. Using technology and different ways of surprising guests is what sets HHN apart from all other Halloween events. I'll never forget the Ghost Hunters maze from about 10 years ago where they had actors on dollies and wires all through the house flying by windows and doorways, including one that you could see through the Plexiglas floor beneath your feet that was simply amazing! Maybe the Pepper's Ghost falls flat on its face because of the "conga line" way guests go through the maze (the first time I went through the Hogwart's Express queue, I walked right through to 9 3/4 without realizing I had done it), but I'll take a risky effect over a couple of actors with a 1-line script any day. That's probably my biggest complaint about HHN is that the maze actors are not given very much freedom at all to tailor their characters to the guests and flow of the maze on a given evening.

To be honest, it's been a really really long time since I've sat down and watched The Shinning all the way through (I think I've seen The Simpson's Treehouse of Horror version more times than Kubrick's masterpiece), but I do have it on my shelf ready to watch in the coming weeks before I go to HHN (as well as AHS and Ash Vs. the Evil Dead ready to roll on my Amazon Prime). If you don't want to take the time to brush up on the IPs, you can still get a lot of enjoyment from the IP houses. I'm not much of a Walking Dead fan, and watched just a handful of episodes ahead of time in recent years. I didn't get a lot of the inside jokes and intricacies of the mazes (readily apparent after reading reviews), but I could tell that a lot of work and effort went into the creation, and it was still quite scary. Also, there's always the original content mazes that you can enjoy. There are more original mazes this year than in year's past.

September 13, 2017 at 12:41 AM · In all honesty, I'm not a fan of most Halloween Horror Nights mazes.

I say this as someone who used to work at Universal after my days with Disney, and I usually eschewed my free tickets to a Halloween Horror Night because it didn't interest me.

Even without the mazes (which I did go through once, and didn't enjoy; jump-scares just aren't my thing), I saw enough just out and about in the park, walking from one of the locations I managed to others (and escorting guests to the exit who decided it was too much for them -- I had to work out a deal with the scare actors that, if I was waving a flashlight back and forth, they would leave the people huddled close to me alone because they were already scared out of their wits and just wanted to leave without any other scare actors being very good at their jobs in these peoples' general direction) to know that it wasn't really my scene -- except for the merch sales, which I was very good at.

I will say that the one year I attended, I did enjoy the Bill & Ted show, but that was about it. The magician at the Animal Actor's Stage was unimpressive (at first I thought maybe it was because I used to perform magic myself, and could figure out his tricks, but then a lot of people started walking out on the show), and the smell of the synthetic fog pumped onto the walkways just isn't my thing.

But The Shining? This is one maze I wouldn't miss if I still worked there. I don't know that it alone is worth buying a ticket for someone like me, but if I had a free ticket, I would definitely check this maze out (and then probably leave, since most of the jump-scare mazes do nothing for me; even if The Shining does have some jump-scares, it sounds interesting enough that I would want to see it).

Since I don't live near either Universal park now, though, I'll just hope that video pops up on YouTube.

And I 100% believe the carpet is important to this maze. It's like the wallpaper in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion -- you may not necessarily notice that it's there, but you would ABSOLUTELY notice if it wasn't. It's one of those little touches that adds immensely to the theme and takes it from "plywood maze" to "The Overlook Hotel."

The Shining is iconic enough that a LOT of people attending an event based on horror movies know the story. Hopefully they saw the Jack Nicholson version and not the lackluster 1997 miniseries remake with that guy from the sitcom "Wings" (Steven Weber).

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