The return of Halloween Horror Nights brings many familiar names back to Universal Studios Hollywood.
"That's by design, because people didn't have Halloween at all in 2020," Creative Director John Murdy said. "So as we start doing this again, it's almost like you have to serve comfort food. Here's Michael Myers, with a side of Leatherface."
"For people who haven't had Halloween, they want to come home and experience the things that they love and remember."
That's led Universal to serve a line-up of seven mazes, including the return of The Walking Dead, The Exorcist, and The Curse of Pandora's Box. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers also join the menu, along with the return of Terror Tram, this year with a Purge theme.
But two new concepts round out the horror smorgasbord this year in Hollywood, and Murdy led me and a few other invited reporters on a backstage tour of them yesterday. Let's start with Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House.
Universal Studios Hollywood has caught some grief online for this flat facade, while Universal Studios Florida in Orlando has built a textured entrance that looks more like the decaying mansion from the streaming service's hit series. But, having walked through the maze now, I can assure you that Hollywood's maze feels like you are walking through Hill House, with not a blackout corridor in sight.
Murdy said that Haunting of The Haunting of Hill House creator Mike Flanagan endorsed the look of the Hollywood maze when he toured it earlier this summer - the latest example in a long history of Murdy and his team working with filmmakers to bring their productions to life at the event.
"When you're making a television show or a movie, you're so much in isolation," Murdy said. "You're on a set somewhere. You're surrounded only by the people you're making it with. Maybe when you get to premiere, you get that communal experience, but a premiere audience is pretty much the people that worked on the show and all the people associated with whatever the studio was. So it's not often that they get to experience their properties in a live setting where they can see real-time reactions of people reacting to what they created. That's what they get in Horror Nights, so I think that's why it's so attractive."
Murdy and his team start with thousands of on-set photos from the original production, which guide the product design of the maze. Occasionally elements are repurposed from the original set, but more often elements are obtained from the original source that provided the on-set version or they are recreated by Universal's team. At this point, we enter spoiler territory, so be warned.
Thanks to all that design cooperation, those Hill House walls look real - even displaying the same wallpaper pattern used in the show - don't believe all you see in a Horror Nights maze. Many walls within Hill House are actually scrims, allowing the walls to disappear under show lighting. The first such effect will provide visitors' first look at the Bent-Neck Lady.
"We kind of did a science project to figure out how can we get that look of that extreme broken neck, but still have it be a live performer," Murdy said. "So our makeup artist invented this figure that the actress actually wears, so it's like a hybrid costume mask, but also has an artificial head. The actress herself is actually wearing like a black hood that's made of the exact same material is what's behind her. So, when we reveal her, that black hood disappears into the set and the way you light it, we can get that extreme bent-neck look."
Keep in mind that this was a construction walk-through, without scareactors, show lighting, audio, and all decorative effects. But a daylight tour reveals the level of production detail that goes into a scene such as the twins' room.
Following that scene comes what might be the most extensive example of a disappearing wall in the maze - an entire disappearing hallway that reveals a scene from another time.
"What I really loved about what Mike did in his direction is that you can be in the scene in the past, and they're walking down a hallway in this continuous camera shot, and then they turn the corner, and then suddenly you're in the present. You just flip times. So we wanted to somehow replicate that."
A trip to the Hill House basement will reveal another surprise, this one driven by puppetry that visitors sometime mistake for animatronics, but whose blackout performer can be seen more easily in the daylight.
Then the maze brings us back to the Red Room for the deadly finale.
Yet behind those moldy walls hide more hidden ghosts, waiting to be revealed by a dramatic lighting switch.
"With Horror Nights over the years, we've discovered that if you make the guests think, 'Oh, it's over,' that's when they're most vulnerable and the most fun to mess with," Murdy said. "So this maze has what we call the final scare, then it has a final final scare, then it has a final final final scare, and then a final final final final scare."
One of those post-finale scares will involve a Pepper's Ghost illusion. If you've ever wanted to see how one of those works, I snapped a photo of the mirror that reveals both the source and the illusion.
Of all the things I saw inside USH's The Haunting of Hill House maze, one thing I saw no sign of was the clear vinyl dividers that Orlando is installing as Covid mitigation. In Hollywood, however, all guests will have to wear masks while inside the mazes, in compliance with Los Angeles County rules on wearing masks indoors. Park officials would offer nothing more than a boilerplate "we are complying with all L.A. County Health guidelines" when asked about specific Covid mitigation efforts at Halloween Horror Nights.
Murdy also walked us through The Bride of Frankenstein Lives maze, which he detailed earlier at the Midsummer Scream Presents Awaken the Spirits event, so check out that post for the full run-down.
Guests will find some blackout corridors here, used to divide the "chapters" in this Gothic storybook come to life. The maze also will feature a vortex lighting effect in one of those corridors. But the chapters scenes themselves are richly detailed, starting with depictions of the injured monster.
Murdy even reenacted a moment where the Bride will harvest the blood of one of Dracula's brides.
And here is where the Bride will assume the role of the doctor as she works to bring her monster back to life.
Again, there's lots more on this maze - and its adjacent scare zone themed to additional female Universal horror icons - in our Midsummer Scream coverage.
Halloween Horror Nights starts September 9 at Universal Studios Hollywood, running select nights through October 31. Stay tuned for coverage of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights this Friday, followed by an opening night review of the Hollywood event next week.
To buy discounted tickets to Halloween Horror Nights, please visit our authorized partner's Universal Studios Hollywood tickets page.
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