You might think that John Murdy would lose some of his enthusiasm for creating Universal's Halloween Horror Nights mazes, having been in the job since 2004, when he was called upon to revitalize the live scare events. But new shows lead to new creative opportunities, and as Murdy led SYFY WIRE (along with other sites) around the team's first Stranger Things maze, the Director of Creative Development & Exec Show Producer at the theme park seemed downright giddy about the prospect of scaring a whole new audience.
"It's one of those rare properties, there's not a lot of them in this genre, that transcend the confines of the genre and become a pop culture phenomenon," said Murdy about the Netflix show. "It's great because it brings a whole new audience to Horror Nights for us. Because I'm sure there's a lot of people that are going to come see this just because they're fans of the show, and maybe have never been to Horror Nights before. And then…," he laughs inimically, like one of the characters glorified in one of his mazes, "…we'll see how they deal with that."
When asked if he'd consider scaling back on the scares for the new audience, he sounds genuinely offended: "No way! This is what we do!" His eyes narrow, glimmering with a touch of evil. "Our primary goal is to scare you."
As far as seeing how that will actually happen on opening night, there's quite a bit left to our imagination, since the maze is still in the finishing stages during our tour. One of the last things scheduled to be added will be the "exceedingly messy" Upside Down, the supernatural centerpiece of Stranger Things. None of the ten live Demogorgons destined for the maze is on hand during our well-lit tour, but even in its current disrepair, Murdy makes sure we can see where all the scares are coming from.
They had to make some concessions to reality, if not audience chasteness. Murdy and his team initially set their eyes on bringing both Stranger Things' seasons to life, but soon realized focusing on the hit-making first season would make for a better immersive experience. "It just felt really jumpy and it felt discombobulated and the show's so good that we didn't want to just kind of blow through things that were important to the fans of the show, so we took a step back and tried to hit all the beats that are important to fans of the show."
As such, the maze, the first created in a Universal soundstage (where Family Feud just wrapped) follows Will Byers' journey. It starts with his friends looking for Will in the woods after finding his bicycle, which utilizes a special effect to keep the tire spinning and the light flashing on and off.
Of course, the Demogorgon will feature prominently, but will be strategically teased along the way for maximum scares — sometimes you'll just see a grasping hand coming through the wall, sometimes a mere glimpse in shadow. "The first time you see him, he's pretty much backlit just like Will sees him when he steps out into the middle of the road," said Murdy. And then, using a variety of special effects, they'll hint at the monster until the "full reveal."
Outside the Byers house, the first thing you notice is the amazing attention to detail. Seemingly every Christmas light is in the right place for communicating with Will in the Upside Down; his room is plastered with the exact wallpaper from the show. There's a reason for that verisimilitude; Murdy went through some 40,000 photos worth of location photography, seeking out important Stranger Things details for the art department and production designer to build upon, and the props crew to track down.
That attention to detail also extends to the technology needed to adapt a TV show into a live experience. For example, in order to get the lights to communicate with Will, Murdy and his team rigged each light to be controlled individually. And the same goes for the audio: "Everything is point-source audio, like when we're out in the woods, that's a 5.1 surround sound system. That's so we can hear the Demogorgon moving around us," said Murdy. "I get access to every single sound effect, piece of dialogue, music on the show, and then we put it together in the studio. So everything you hear in the maze is sourced directly from the show."
Obviously, the show's creators, the Duffer brothers, knew they're property was in good hands. "They didn't give me one note… not a single note on the treatment. The treatment's usually about a hundred pages," said Murdy. "We usually don't get a lot of notes, but usually there's something. But they just fell in love with it. They just thought it was incredible from the minute they read it. And then you find out, 'Oh, they're just huge fans of Horror Nights and they come every year!' So that kind of explains it."
As we moved into the Upside Down, Murdy explained why it was such a challenge to recreate the otherworldly space. For one thing, the team had no idea how to achieve the effect of the spores floating around, as it was all computer animated in the show. So they tried a number of experiments, like a snow machine, "which just looked weird and it made everybody choke" and "a hazer with projection," though the cone of light from the project just about "gave away the gag."
So they settled on a multi-plane approach, which involves raw foam, a material called "chaos" dipped in silicon, a giant digital print from the show, short-throw projectors, and a bunch of fiber optics "shrouded in cotton by hand" — hundreds of them, bobbing around like a snowstorm.
After making your way in, out, upside down, and around Hawkins, you end up in the science classroom, complete with the Rube-Goldberg board and an actual T-bar ceiling, just like in the Season 1 finale, when Eleven confronts the Demogorgon, "sending him back from whence he came," said Murdy. But that's not it; the scare-whisperer has found over the years that when guests think they've come to the end, they kind of let their guard down, "and that's the perfect opportunity to prey upon them." So there's a couple of bonus Demogorgons on the way out.
Though Murdy lives to terrify others, he's not above being scared himself. In fact, that's how he knows his team is doing it right. "Our performers, they kind of take personal pride in that. They always seem to know when I'm coming through, or my partner's coming through — Chris [Williams], my art director — and it's like they have an antenna for it, I don't even know how they recognize me amongst all these other people. But if they can scare me, they know that they're doing they're job, so they go out of their way to do that. And they always do too."
You can see all the scares yourself when the Hollywood Horror Nights Stranger Things haunted maze debuts — alongside a slew of other genre-inspired haunted live events — at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort on Friday, September 14, and at Universal Studios Singapore on Thursday, September 27.