Behind The Scenes Of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights 2017

For the past 13 years, John Murdy has acted as the Director of Creative Development for Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. And while that title comes with a ton of responsibilities within the park, his main claim to fame is the revitalization and continued success of Universal's huge Halloween-themed event, Halloween Horror Nights.

Each year in Los Angeles, a bevy of haunts vie for the public's attention during the Halloween season. While Knott's Scary Farm boasts grandiose attractions, Universal's Halloween Horror Nights consecutively brings to life the unique and familiar scares inspired by some of the biggest movie and TV franchises audiences have grown to love. This year is no exception, as one of the biggest draws for the event is the premiere of a maze based on Stanley Kubrick's horror classic, The Shining.

All work and no play and what not...

"[The Shining] is a property we've been wanting to do a maze of for over ten years...pretty much as long as we've been doing Horror Nights," Murdy explained during a behind-the-scenes walk-through. "Much like The Exorcist, it's an incredibly difficult property to translate into what we do."

When pressed for an explanation, Murdy pointed to the slower pacing of Kubrick's classic as the main culprit: "It's a slow burn. It starts off slow, and the action builds in intensity." While you would think pacing shouldn't be an issue, Murdy gave an estimate that roughly 75% of the event's younger attendees won't recognize references from the movie because older movies often don't pack the same type of punch as genre films do today. 

Murdy points to two specific components that makes The Shining such a challenge to bring to life as a maze. First, conveying the mental instability of Jack Torrance is an issue – we have to, in a way, experience what he's experiencing. And then there's his son, Danny. "[He] has the Shining – the ability to telepathically communicate and see events before they happen," Murdy explains.  Bringing both of these aspects to life may be more challenging for Murdy than the Exorcist maze he did in 2016 – and that, too, was a challenge.

For Murdy and his team, bringing The Exorcist to Halloween Horror Nights was a mission from the earliest days of Universal's event. But once they secured the rights to William Friedkin's classic film, they quickly realized that, for the most part, the movie is about a little girl locked away in a bedroom. How does one make that into a compelling attraction while also maintaining the integrity of the film? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Beginning with a hedge maze entrance, the Shining maze includes all the goodies any die-hard movie fan would expect: the creepy old woman in Room 237 and Danny's vision of the Grady girls in the Overlook Hotel's hallway and Jack's ax-wielding rampage. Attendees can expect it all, right down to that infamous carpet and the blood-spewing elevator.

The second maze on our tour was Insidious: Beyond the Further, based on all four installments in the popular Blumhouse franchise. Murdy's team was presented with a few unique challenges in bringing this maze to life. Specifically, the new movie doesn't even come out until January 2018.

"In the words of my longtime collaborator on a lot of mazes [producer] Jason Blum," Murdy joked, "this is the ultimate trailer for his movie." 

Just how can you successfully bring to life a movie that's not been released to the public, yet? Sometimes, you just have to take creative license with the cards you're dealt. Thankfully, Insidious franchise writer Leigh Whanell provided Murdy's team with the shooting script for Insidious: The Last Key. Using the screenplay as a blueprint can be a tricky thing, as details on the page may end up on the cutting room floor. Sometimes you just have to keep specific details in the mazes, you know, "for the sake of the scare."

According to Murdy, Insidious: Beyond the Further will follow Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) as they "...get a call to investigate a paranormal case like they often do. When they tell Elise [Lynn Shae's psychic character from the movies] the address, she realizes that's her childhood home." Basically, we're going back to where her history with the paranormal began. And as you can probably expect, things weren't great for Elise growing up in this house. "When I read the script," Murdy told the group touring the maze, "I immediately responded to the new movie and the new characters that were going to be in it – particularly the new demonic characters and ghost characters." While a maze inspired by Insidious is nothing new to Halloween Horror Nights, the new setting for this sequel gave Murdy and his team "a leaping-off point" to create something both familiar and unique.

Just how much work goes into designing these mazes? A lot. Heck, as we're writing this, John Murdy is already in meetings planning out next year's event. There's a huge amount of creative ingenuity that keeps Horror Nights on the cutting edge in the immersive world of Halloween-themed haunts. Take the Grady girls scene from The Shining, for instance. During our walk-through, Murdy's team was hard-at-work bringing the iconic scene to life using an illusion technique known as "Pepper's Ghost," implementing some specifically positioned mirrors to bring the imagery to life.

It's clear there's something for every type of horror fan at Halloween Horror Nights. From the gory deadite-killing fun of Ash vs. Evil Dead and blood moon horrors of American Horror Story: Roanoke to the Horrors of Blumhouse maze and the psychological dread of The Shining, it's possible this may be the biggest year yet for John Murdy and Universal Studios. And that's before you even mention the Saw maze, the Walking Dead attraction, the terror tram, or the multiple scare zones! Prepare yourselves for one jam-packed night of frights.

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 begins Friday, September 15 and runs on select nights through to Saturday, November 4. Take a look at the official website for more information.