A Ticket to Scare: Behind the Scenes of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights with Creative Director John Murdy

It’s September and the HorrorDay season is upon us! That means the return of Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights is near. The event happens annually and features hair-raising mazes that are a must for lovers of all things spooky.

Last week, Creative Director John Murdy took us behind the scenes of two mazes featured this year, Ghostbusters and Us.

“I kind of started doing this when I was 10 years old,” Murdy explains. “I started building haunted houses in my parents’ garage. Then I kept doing them and they kept getting more and more elaborate.”

Fast forward to the present where Murdy stands in front of the Ghostbusters maze. In the daylight, it looks like the bustling set of a movie. There are workers talking, the sound of tools falling, black plastic and wood here and there. Also, it is hot – extremely hot; no darkness from the night to cool the senses. Parked outside of the maze is a taxi cab, which will provide a photo opportunity with the “taxi cab ghost” for attendees while they wait in line.

A mix of old and new, funny and scary

Inspiration stems mainly from the original 1984 film, but expect “easter eggs” from Ghostbusters 2 and Ghostbusters 2016 to make their appearance. One highlight worth mentioning is the Containment Chamber’s Spirit Realm, which maze-goers will get to walk through.

Photo by Jesus Manriquez
We Got One! Ghosts, new and old, hanging around The Spirit Realm.

“In the original screenplay, there was the idea that they can look inside the Containment Chamber and they could see what was going on,” Murdy explains while standing next to a replica of the film’s Containment Unit. “We liked that idea, so I took it to the director of Ghostbusters and I said, ‘If I was a fan, I would want to go inside the Containment Chamber, I wouldn’t just want to see it,’ So that’s what we’re doing.”

The movie, unlike the others the attractions are based on, is “a comedy with horror elements,” as Murdy described. This made deciding what scenes to feature in the maze difficult. To evoke terror, Murdy and his team had to find the balance between iconic, memorable and funny scenes with those that scare at the same time. After re-watching and thoroughly dissecting the films, the mission was accomplished.

“When you break Ghostbusters down, there are so many characters, especially when you bring them in from all three films in the franchise… We thought it had the opportunity to be both true to Ghostbusters and a fun, scary experience.”

Jesus Manriquez
Who You Gonna Call? Creative Director John Murdy explains the use of embedded LED lights used to creative Proton Pack streams inside the Ghostbusters maze.

Many of the scares are successful due to their practicality. Old illusions like the Pepper Ghost trick, puppeteers, LED lights and fluorescent paints, are highly effective. Even Slimer, also featured in the maze, will come to life through optical illusions similar to those used in the Ghostbusters film. So Ray Stantz’s Proton Pack will seem like a real device and not a prop – don’t cross the streams!

Face-to-face with “The Tethered”

When it came to creating the Us maze, based on Jordan Peele’s 2019 film, extreme detail was the key to scare-success. The attraction looks like it was pulled directly from the screen and placed onto Universal’s lot. Peele’s company, Monkeypaw Productions, worked closely with Murdy and his team to ensure perfection.

“[Us is] primarily a psychological horror. It’s a challenging property to translate into a live experience because there’s so many layers to it. Every time you go back and watch [the film], you see different stuff.”

At one point, Murdy went through 40,000 pictures from the movie to gather reference for costumes, the set and characters.

“This is pretty darn spot-on to the movie,” Murdy says. “Our props and dressing team…they had to go out and find all this stuff. We have a massive warehouse off-site that’s kind of like a big prop department.”

One of the areas haunt-goers will walk through is the Tyler Family’s home. In the film, the family ends up murdered and sprawled out on the floor. The way the prop bodies are placed in the maze, particularly the twins, is identical to the actors in the film.

“Lots of things in Jordan’s movie are referencing other horror movies,” Murdy states. “This particular scene he’s referencing The Shining, it’s the twins from [the film]. They’re actually posed identical to the twins in The Shining. So that was really important to Jordan, we had to make sure they were posed exactly the same.”

The prop twin faces are also sculpted to match the real-life actors. In addition, the team also choreographed scenes so their scare-actors match the movements of the actors in the film.

Spooks all year round

While this year’s Horror Night fun is just about to begin, Murdy is already in the early stages of planning for next year.

“We’ve already kind of figured out our slate for next year,” he says.

Do we get a little taste of what to expect?

“No,” Murdy says in true scare-actor fashion, “I’d have to kill you.”

Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights officially opens September 13 and runs until November 3.