Chris Williams, left and John Murdy, right at the Monsterpalooza panel about the making of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights.
Sunday afternoon, Monsterpalooza hosted a special behind the scenes panel about Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights called Behind the Screams. The event creator, John Murdy, and the Art Director, Chris Williams, discussed how they build the seasonal attraction from the ground up. They have the COOLEST job on the planet!!!
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing the Universal Halloween attraction three times. (See links to my posts about those adventures at the bottom of this post). Every year I say that I’m hoarse from screaming (and maniacally laughing nonstop because I’m so thrilled with the carnage). I also say that I want to move into the micro-horror universes or kidnap the creators and have them install a similar set in my apartment. It is far and away the best haunt I’ve ever been to and I eagerly wait for the announcements about what films and shows have been chosen or who they’re collaborating with (like Rob Zombie or Alice Cooper).
The sets are so incredible. Walking through a maze is the closest thing to jumping into the screen. I’m always trying to slow down my time in each maze so that I can fully absorb each room and the effects. Usually someone with a chainsaw or a butcher knife moves me along.
I have to be honest, before this panel, I’d never given much thought to how the mazes were built. If you’d asked me to guess, I would’ve said there was a huge team of art directors, each responsible for a different maze, and that the whole timeline was much shorter. Now that I know that the creator and art director work together all year and oversee every aspect of every maze, the cohesiveness and grandness of the whole thing makes a lot more sense. I appreciated the peak behind the curtain.
The panel began with a brief look into how Chris and John found themselves in the horror industry. Chris grew up in a ranch in Northern California next to a cemetery. Not only was a member of the infamous Donner Party, Mary Murphy, buried in that cemetery, but the town he lived in, Marysville was named after her. So Chris grew up acutely aware of horrific surroundings. He was also a fine arts major at a Christian college. His final project was an installation of a Hell set which featured Christ losing a boxing match to Satan. His statement that he’s struggled throughout his life balancing his obsession with horror with his faith, caught my interest. John was also a lifelong fan of horror. Once he saw Frankenstein at age four, his path was set.
John and Chris explained that there are three main considerations when they develop any maze: awareness, environments and characters. Awareness is evaluated by how many people recognize and appreciate a given brand. For instance, last year’s Walking Dead maze celebrated the most popular horror series on TV. Six of the top ten horror movie franchises of all time have been realized as mazes in the theme park attraction so far. When they think about environments, they look for shows and films that feature several iconic sets and props that can be incorporated in a maze. Finally, will they be able to replicate the iconic roles with live actors playing characters from the story inside the maze?
Once the concept is set, it takes anywhere from three weeks to several months to flesh it out to where it’s ready for construction. During the development process, they go through stacks of post it notes and in-depth visual research. They’ll watch films over and over, sometimes frame by frame so that they can replicate sets down to the tiniest detail.
One of the presentation slides showed some of the early brainstorming on post-it notes that goes into constructing each maze.
After the brainstorming and research period, a fifty page treatment, basically a script detailing everything happening in each room, is solidified. Then Chris creates booklets of concept sketches — sketch being the operative word — there simply isn’t time to invest in elaborate concept art.
This presentation slide showed an early concept sketch for the entrance to the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell maze from 2012, one of my all-time favorite mazes by the way. The maze was based on the idea of Alice Cooper meets Dante’s Inferno.
Construction of the mazes begins in June. The team’s goal is to build cinematic quality sets. Lighting is one of the more time consuming and complex stages of the build. ”We always crack somewhere during this process,” John said about lighting. ”There’s always a night where I go, I can’t go anymore dude. It’s like 2, 3 in the morning, and Chris and I are out there with the lighting designers, you know, working endlessly, especially for a 3d maze.”
Aside from John and Chris’ creativity and expertise, another reason the mazes are so successful at recreating the worlds of cinematic horror is that they are able to take advantage of their proximity to the studios and people responsible for creating these properties. For example, when they were building The Thing maze in 2011, they were able to work with the makeup company who did the film. They had access to the actual molds so what was put in the maze was exactly what you saw on screen.
The people who bring the characters to life each night, the scareactors, are auditioned in July. They are cast to look as much like the characters we know from the screen as possible. And then John and Chris train them. John explained that he’ll even put on the masks and run through the maze himself to make sure they’ve covered safety concerns and that he can best direct the actors. By the time the season ends, each scareactor has performed his or her role about 40,000 times!
As they were wrapping up their presentation, John and Chris made a surprise announcement. This year, the attraction is holding a contest for a new character design. People will have the opportunity to submit an original design, John and Chris will pick their favorite, and then that character will be brought to life for Halloween Horror Nights. A lot more details about this contest are coming. It’s such a great way for aspiring haunters to get involved. (Perhaps they are looking for a feisty female homicidal maniac with a predilection for black and white stripey tights and stabbing).
I may not look especially excited in the picture, I think I’ve been channeling grumpy cat too much in photos lately, but on the inside I’m doing backflips and handstands because I can’t believe I’m meeting the geniuses behind the Universal Horror Nights mazes! John Murdy, left, Dahlia Jane, middle, and Chris Williams, right
The main thing that came across from this panel is that John Murdy and Chris Williams eat, sleep and breathe Universal Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights. They are obsessed. They might even need serious psychiatric help. Then again, I would never want to be deprived of the fantastic fun of being able to enter otherwise inaccessible worlds, so I hope their sickness is incurable.
For more information you should follow Halloween Horror Nights on Twitter and like their Facebook page. You can also see some of my past adventures at HHN in 2009, 2011 and 2012 on this blog. My all-time favorite maze has to be La Llorona, which was John and Chris’ original idea about a Mexican murderess of children (in other words, a lady after my own heart).
Incidentally, I also learned this weekend that my friend, artist Todd Robey, worked as a Rob Zombie scare-actor (I think in 2000 when they first did a House of 1000 corpses maze). He said that it was really fun and that he even had the opportunity to jump out and scare real Rob Zombie. Apparently Rob Zombie and his band members dressed up in the maze and scared people every single night, though most people didn’t know they were in there. Next time he is on the podcast we will definitely have to discuss this!