by: The HORROR Man
John Murdy has scared the daylights out of thousands. Now he sits down and chats with The Horror Man about this years Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Ready to see who scares who?
Wow, I thought I knew what scared people, boy was I wrong. Creative Director, John Murdy has been the driving force behind the scariest event in Hollywood for the past five years, Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. I finally talk his head off about what works to scare people, what is the process in choosing the mazes that are made, and just get to geek out with this man of horror. As Otis says in House of 1000 Corpses, “Hope you like what you see!”
Horror Man: Hows the reaction been for this years event so far?
John Murdy: “Its been pretty incredible, were selling out every single night. Last week we didn’t even open our ticket booths it was sold out before we could even open them.”
HM: Wow that is pretty awesome. What would you say is the fan favorite maze this year?
JM: “I think the fan favorite is Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses 3D. Its just blowing peoples mind, all the comments from the guests I read have made that maze the overall winner this year.”
HM: You spent a good amount of time working to create Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. Was this a meticulous process for you to get everything just right?
JM: “Ya you know House of 1000 Corpses, to be honest, was a giant science project. Traditionally 3D mazes were just black light and ultra violet paint. What we really pride ourselves on is creating movie quality haunted attractions, so it looks and feels like the films you guys love. My art director Chris Williams and I, from the get go didn’t want that day-glow look for the maze so we had to develop our own way of doing 3D. This made it one big science project. So we had a lot to experiment with and try. Especially toward the end of the project, myself, Chris Williams, and our lighting company Radiance, we were in there every night till about four in the morning. I would say probably the last week was when it all came together for us.”
HM: When we talked briefly before you said that House of A 1000 Corpses was at a 9 and you went and tweaked it before the opening night to 11!
JM: “What I was referring to was we usually do a employee preview night which is essentially a dress rehearsal for our scare actors. Its the first time there in costume and make up and the first time anyone is actually walking threw the mazes. Everyone loved it on employee night but we weren’t one hundred percent satisfied, so we took it a little bit further. We did like eighteen hour days before the park opened to the public and really bumped things up and working with our props and dressing crew. We just like to keep pushing it until we knocked it out of the park.”
HM: I was actually in attendance for employee preview night as well as opening night on September 24th. The tweaking you guys did was subtle but really added to the maze I felt.
JM: “Ya a lot of the tweaking had to do with the color pallet we were working with. The way the 3D technology works is it separates out the color spectrum. If its a warm color like red it appears to be coming off the walls at you but if its a cool color like blue it reseeds away from you, but we didn’t want everything to be red and blue. At one point my art director Chris, while trying to figure out how to make the exterior of the Firefly house pop out turned to me and said, I don’t wanna paint it blue or red. We really wanted it to look like the film so it ended up being a fluke how we worked out that particular problem with just tweaking the lighting a bit instead of painting the whole house. A lot of passion and determination to get things right was the bottom line in getting things perfect for those die-hard fans of the film.”
HM: How in depth did Rob Zombie interact with you in creating the maze and did you get a chance to walk threw the maze with him?
JM: “Ya we got a chance to walk threw the maze on opening night. He’s a busy guy and was on tour with Alice Cooper. But we have been working with Rob on this maze since this whole idea came to fruition. Rob is a fan first an foremost of Universal Halloween Horror Nights, he’s here every year. It just came down to us talking and me asking him what he wanted to do for this years event. He expressed he had some ideas for a House of 1000 Corpses so we ran with that. Many people don’t realize that Rob, before becoming a musician and a director, he was an artist. That really helped with the creative aspect because he understood what was needed and we could correspond a lot.”
HM: Will there be more work with directors if this venture with Rob Zombie is a success?
JM: Well I always collaborate with the film makers that’s nothing new. I’ve been working with film makers since we started this up again in 2006. We love to work with them. Our mazes take you into the film and so the experience isn’t a passive one unlike watching a film where your safe inside the theater. We want to bring the horror to you and in your face. I’m really looking forward to working with Eli Roth actually.”
HM: Back in 2000 Universal did a maze with Clive Barker for Clive Barker’s Hell.
JM: “Ya my art director Chris Williams is a twenty year veteran of horror attractions and he worked on that directly with Clive back in the day.”
HM: Would there be any chance for a Hellraiser maze in the future? I know that there’s a lot that goes into picking which films you transform into mazes can you go into that a little as well?
JM: “A lot of times people don’t understand that film makers don’t necessarily own the rights to there films. Clive does not own Hellraiser. I’ve talked to his people a few times and I think Hellraiser would be a great property to do. It just depends on what we can do. There are three factors that go into play in picking which films we do make into mazes. One is public awareness, box office, is it a franchise, and does it have a strong fan base. Second thing we look at is environments. Like if the Saw films ended with part one you would be in a maze that was only that restroom from the film and that’s it. I would never touch it. Multiple environments mean more things we can choose from to put into our mazes. The third thing is the ability to replicate characters from the films with live actors. Many people have said oh do Aliens, but with that you have to step back and see if it could be done. It could be done…if you had an unlimited budget. So you have to see how it would translate to a live experience.”
HM: How is the Friday The 13th maze doing with the fans this year?
JM: ” Friday the 13th, in my book at least, is running neck and neck with House of 1000 Corpses. This is the third time we did it. Scenically in the past those attractions for Friday The 13th were good but never got to that one hundred percent satisfaction mark with me. Theirs a valid reason for that, what I have found is that many times in the past, the actors when they put on the hockey mask, think there scary…and there not. It sounds mean but its true. In the new film Jason is more aggressive and just doesn’t stalk you, he literally chases you and runs after you now. The way Derek Mears portrayed Jason in the remake we based the maze on was incredibly appealing. The people who run the attraction for me have really nailed it this year.”
HM: Many people didn’t want to see a remake for Nightmare On Elm Street. How has the fan reaction for that maze been?
JM: “It was actually number one with our guests the first weekend we opened and now it is neck an neck with Friday The 13th. People love Freddy and he is super popular. ”
HM: This is the second time around that you tackled Saw for Halloween Horror Nights. What was different this time around?
JM: “Well this year we included from Saw III the trap called the rack. We planned to do it in 2009 but couldn’t really figure it out. This year we got it down and its all animated and is controlled by the actor inside of it.”
HM: Speaking of the lower lot area, this year there is an express tram going to the new King Kong 3D attraction.
JM: “When the attraction came out this summer it was such a hit that we had to include it into our Halloween Horror Nights event.”
HM: You mentioned that there is a exclusive clip to Universals upcoming prequel to The Thing on the express tram to King Kong 3D.
JM: “Well every year we ask our movie studios if there is any exclusives we can show and this year just happened to have the Thing prequel sneak peak”
HM: Getting back to the mazes, this year you have an original maze, Vampyres: Castle of The Undead. Was the maze first or the graphic novel?
JM: “The maze came first. Since Vampires are all the rage right now in Hollywood, we decided to tackle that mythos and add a bit of our own twist to it.”
HM: There was a survey being passed around to guests on the opening night as you exited the Terror Tram. Was there any changes made because of that guest survey to the event?
JM: “Not a whole lot. It was interesting because in years past we changed certain things drastically but this year it seems we really nailed it. I have to give credit to the crew involved with this years event.We start this whole thing with scare academy which is basically me doing a power-point presentation and mixing it in with a Baptist revival, to sort of get everyone hyped up and ready for the event.”
HM: We see that many of the staples of Universal Horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc) are not present during Halloween Horror Nights, why is that?
JM: “Well of all people, I’m a huge fan of the original Universal Monsters. My entire attic is called the monster room and it contains thousands of pieces of Universal Horror memorabilia. I’ve been a fan of classic horror since I first saw Frankenstein when I was four years old. They are the movies I love more than any others. But in saying that I have to control my own passion for these films when creating this event. Our number one goal is to scare people, and as much as I love these classic films and would love to do attractions based on them, a vast amount of our audience would not find them scary. I would hope one day to make attractions of these films but the guests come first. Those films are products of there time tho and we really want to create a truly terrifying event for audiences today. We give nods to classic horror in almost all of our attractions, if you notice we never put a scare actor in the very beginning of the maze, we do this to build the tension for the guest just as Alfred Hitchcock would do for his films by not revealing the horror aspect until the appropriate time.”
HM: What other techniques do you employ in the mazes?
JM: “If you notice also in all of our mazes we start off in a big open room, then slowly start to narrow the walkways down to a bottleneck. This creates even more tension and claustrophobia sets in.”
HM: A maze I loved from last year was your Halloween attraction. You implemented the claustrophobia technique amazingly for that maze.
JM: “Of all the attractions I’ve done, that was one of the films that I had been going after for years to get a attraction made for it. To finally get to do it was a dream come true. The hard part about doing Halloween is its majorly a bloodless horror film. There is not a lot of gore and blood in Halloween, so the scare actors had to be really on there A game. That cast was amazing in the long run. From employee preview night to closing night there was a ton of progress made by the cast, and I was very proud of them.”
HM: Going back to this years events. Have you received any negativity in the sense of someone saying “This is too scary or gory”.
JM: “You do have people freak out and that happens every night….good!”
HM: This year the Terror Tram route is a bit different, instead of being allowed to walk on the street you made people go around the War of The Worlds set.
JM: “That has sort of been the evolution of that set. In 2006 we were way too conservative. All the guests did was follow the tram route and to be honest it sort of sucked. Each year we changed things with that War of The World set. With this year we put you right in the middle of the set. This set is super dangerous, the plane crash is a real 747 plane that is torn apart. We wanted to get the guests as close as possible. You also get closer to the Bates Motel than you ever were allowed before.”
HM: Speaking of the Bates Motel, I noticed the sheet maze you have next to the Psycho house was not used at all this year. Whats the reason for this?
JM: “In order to do certain effects out there for the Terror Tram, which the main one is fire!, it’s pretty crazy. We have that going on and well its very expensive, so some things had to be sacrificed and sadly the sheet maze was one thing that had to go. I would have loved to have it but again this is a business and certain things couldn’t be done this year. I was sad that it had to go though because originally I had expanded it and was going to make it all Psycho related but we just couldn’t do it.”
HM: Speaking about fire, we see on the Terror Tram that the infamous Universal backlot fire was caused by a short evil doll.
JM: (Laughs) “Ya I rolled the dice on that one and just went out an shoot the footage and waited to see what my bosses would say. They loved it so it worked out great. Come on, of course Chucky would burn down the backlot, he’s pissed off at us.”
HM: Ya it was pretty funny to see that.
JM: “When I came up with this idea I thought, oh this is pretty dicey. I wondered if I would get in trouble for it but my bosses understood that Halloween is an irreverent time so we could be a little more risky. Its all in the spirit of good fun though.”
HM: Will we ever see the inclusion of live performances from bands in the future like you did in the past?
JM: “The thing with that is, we learned it doesn’t really work. Some people love it others hate it but as a whole we just felt it took away from the atmosphere. Its cool visually but it just didn’t work, I’m quoting from the guest surveys themselves regarding this.”
HM: Well as a fan sir, I would like to say thank you for doing this event. Is there anything you would like to add before we call it a day?
JM: ” Ya if I could say one thing its thank the fans, We brought Halloween Horror Nights back from the dead literally in 2006, we only did like 7 or 8 days that year and now were doing multiple weeks. I’m super grateful to all the fans. There the reason I have a pretty cool job and I will try my best to keep giving them what they deserve.”
Well there you have it folks, I hope you enjoyed my chat with Creative Director John Murdy of Universal Halloween Horror Nights. I would like to say thanks a lot to John and also that this guy is a true horror fan. If you haven’t already checked out Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, you are no friend of mine. Seriously this is the event of the year that is a must for horror fans.
For all news about this event visit the official “Halloween Horror Nights” website and also on Twitter and Facebook, as Creative Director John Murdy reveals a running chronicle of exclusive information. Fans are invited to follow John Murdy on Twitter or via Facebook.