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Behind the Scenes of Halloween Horror Nights with John Murdy

Last night, Universal Studios launched the 2007 version of Halloween Horror Nights. The company – which has a long horror tradition that extends back to black-and-white thrillers like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931) – had resumed their Halloween attraction in 2006, after a six-year hiatus. The haunt (which we reviewed here) was short on the number of special attractions, even if those attractions were impressive in scale. 2007 promises to up the ante, including new mazes based on Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface, in addition to the classic Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man) who will be haunting the House of Horrors maze.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Universal creative director John Murdy, the mastermind behind the Halloween presentation. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Universal has had an erratic history with Halloween, which is odd considering their connection with the horror genre, going back to classic movies in the 1930s. Why have they been off the Halloween band wagon for so long?

JOHN MURDY: We’re the studio that invented horror movies, pretty much. Sure, you can point to the German Expressionist films in the [1920 and 1920s], but really it starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925 and the Golden Age of Universal horror films, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE WOLFMAN, etc. So that stuff is in our blood; I mean, this is a studio founded on horror. We did stop doing Halloween Horror Nights for a number of years. I wasn’t actually involved in those earlier events, so I don’t really know why they stopped, except that it’s a major, huge, incredibly expensive production.

But last year…I came back to Hollywood – because I had been based in Florida – with one goal: to bring Halloween back. Because I love Halloween, and I grew up in this movie studio. Last year, was basically a baby step to get us back in the business, like putting your toe in the water to see if it would work. The good news for us was we exceeded our wildest dreams attendance-wise, so now it’s time to step it up and take it to an entirely new level. That’s what we’re doing with the relationship with New Line Cinema, having these attractions for NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Considering the legacy that Universal has in the realm of classic movie monsters, why did you go outside the studio vault to subcontract other monsters?

JOHN MURDY: I like the term “subcontract other monsters”! Well, like I said, Universal is the studio that horror movies, and we own classic horror – that’s just a given. I think of New Line Cinema, say from – well, depending on whether you’re talking about TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but really NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, because they call New Line “the House that Freddy Built” – from that point on, they really had a handle on the slasher film era of modern horror icons. We and our sister park in Florida had been talking about this for a long time, that while we have all these great horror movie brands, and we certainly use them and will continue to use them – we use them this year in Halloween Horror Nights – there was something very attractive to us about these three films in particular: FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. They fit in well with our horror legacy. They are monsters. They kind of are the modern-day equivalent of [our] characters.

New Line up to this year has never allowed that; they have never licensed their characters to something in the Halloween industry. There’s a reason for that: they’re very protective of their characters. There’s a reason there’s eleven FRIDAY THE 13TH movies – you know, they’ve been around so long, and they’re very successful and have a rabid fan base, a very protective fan base. So we needed to convince New Line that, if anybody was going to do this, we could do this, and we could do it movie-quality, because we’re Universal. That’s exactly what we’ve done.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: You said you were more than satisfied with the attendance for the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights. Were there things about the presentation that did not satisfy you – areas where you saw room for improvement?

JOHN MURDY: Absolutely lessons learned. People coming Halloween, they want to go to mazes; they want to go to haunted attractions. I don’t think we had enough last year, so that’s one of the major deals with this year. Each of these New Line properties have their own attraction. We also have a new attraction called Universal’s House of Horrors, which is about an eleven-minute walk-through that encompasses the entire world of Universal Horror movies from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA up through PSYCHO to CHILD’s PLAY.

And of course we have the Terror Tram. When you talk about lessons learned, I look back on the Terror Tram as a great example of that. The truth is we had never done that before. We had never let 175 people every two minutes get off the tram and walk through our movie studio – through our famed back lot. We were probably a little conservative in terms of the path, of the barricades, because we really didn’t know what people would do, in all honesty. Would they go crazy and try to run all over the back lot. What we saw – and we adjusted last year, from week to week, on the fly – is if you take alcohol out of the equation (we don’t serve alcohol during Halloween, and that was a conscious decision), it’s a much safer and more enjoyable experience for everybody. The guests were actually really cool and really respective of the Bates Motel and the Psycho House, so this year we said, “Okay, what can we do to step it up? This is no walk-by the War of the Worlds plane crash set. Let’s take them into it. Let’s take them into the set itself. Let’s go in between the plane and the wing. Let’s find a way to do that.”

So absolutely there were lessons learned from doing it last year and getting back into the industry, and you apply them. Also, there’s a million websites out there; there’s a lot of blogs. We read all of that. As designers, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, we read it all, and then we try to give our fans what they want.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: I enjoyed the Halloween Horror Nights presentation last year, but I had not been on the Universal Studios tour for a long time. The scale of something like the back lot tour, with zombies lurking amidst the plane crash, was just something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. I got the impression from other people that what they saw at Halloween was not that different from what they had seen when visiting the park earlier in the year. You know, “the plane crash from WAR OF THE WORLDS is there all year, and they just added some zombies.” And the House of Horrors was basically Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula.

JOHN MURDY: In the case of Van Helsing, that’s a very legitimate criticism. What’s different this year with that attraction is I changed that to Universal’s House of Horrors back in April. I designed it with an eye toward Halloween. As a baseline, on a normal day, we have anywhere from eight to ten characters in that attraction. There are twenty-five – at a minimum – for Halloween. That attraction was designed, whereas Van Helsing wasn’t, to go from scene to scene of different movies. That was done not only for the enjoyment of our day guests (and it has gotten incredible ratings from our day guests – they love it), but we were also thinking about Halloween while we were designing it, so we could create opportunities to dramatically amp it up for Halloween.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: So it’s now a year-round attraction with the capacity to expand for Halloween.

JOHN MURDY: Absolutely. And then of course, the big event is the New Line characters, and each one has their own attraction. Those you can only see during Halloween.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: So how different will House of Horrors be from what we saw last year at Halloween?

best los angeles halloween theme parks: Halloween Horror Nights
House of Horrors at Halloween Horror Nights

JOHN MURDY: Well, you wouldn’t have walked through it last year; you would have walked through Van Helsing. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Technically, during the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights, a temporary banner was hanging up over the Van Helsing entrance that identified the attraction as “Universal’s House of Horrors.] Dramatically different. With House of Horrors, what I wanted to do was – I’m a huge fan of our horror franchise here at Universal, particularly our classic horror films, and I felt we had never really given them their fair shake. Sure, we have Frankenstein as a character in the park, but these movies – there’s a reason they’ve been around seventy-five, seventy-six years and are still pop culture icons. That’s because they’re classic, and classic is timeless. I’m amazed all the time at how well-known these films are. Sometimes people think, “Oh, it’s an old movie from the ’30s!” I was in the park only two days ago, and this little six-year-old kid came up to me with her dad and said, “Where’s Dracula? I want to meet Dracula!” I looked at her dad and said, “Dracula?” Her dad said, “Yeah, it’s her favorite movie.” I said, “Bela Lugosi, 1931, right?” He said, “Right, she must meet Dracula.” So these things have transcended being mere movies; they are part of the culture.

What was exciting about House of Horrors was: in the past, we’ve taken those things, and [emphasized] just one movie – whatever the flavor of the month is. What I wanted to do was take the entire brand of Universal Horror and do an homage to everything: Dracula, Frankenstein, the fruit cellar from PSYCHO, Chucky’s toy factory from CHILD’S PLAY. So modern and classic are all together, and each room you go into a different movie basically. So it’s not just one thing. And like I said, it was designed so that we could bring in additional characters for Halloween that you haven’t seen in House of Horrors before. That’s really cool; that’s been the fun part of the project.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: That’s interesting. If you go to (I’ll mention the competition) Knott’s Scary Farm, they’ll do a maze devoted to a single movie, like THE GRUDGE or BEOWULF. Because they’re movie-based, they seem more appropriate to Universal, but you’re not doing mazes devoted to a single film; you’re doing the History of Universal Horror. And the Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface mazes are about the characters, not individuals films.

JOHN MURDY: No, particularly with New Line, the beautiful thing about that is that you have so much to draw from. Think of how many FRIDAY THE 13TH movies there have been. You distill that down to the greatest scenes, the greatest kills, and you have so much to draw from. The same thing with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: how many dream sequences and nightmares have there been in those films? So you really get to pick and choose the best of the best, and it all basically comes down to the fans. We spend an awful lot of time looking at the fan websites, asking “What is their favorite scene from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or what is their favorite kill from FRIDAY THE 13TH,” and then we give it to them, straight up!

The environments are a huge part of it. With Jason, the idea of going through the woods at night to Camp Crystal Lake – that’s what we’ve done; we’ve created that. We created the camp; we created the woods. You’re going to go back and forth, outside and inside. It’s incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is the same thing. We set that in the asylum where Freddy was born, but we venture out of that into the dream world, so we hit the Roach Motel, that classic scene from the series that fans always talk about. And of course we have the Boiler Room and the baby carriage from [A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE] DREAM CHILD. All those things are there.

For THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you look at that house from the recent films that New Line has done, the Hewitt House – that big, horribly decayed mansion, and we’re like, “Okay, let’s build it; let’s build the whole house! Let’s take you through the whole damn house and then take you through the meat factory!”

So we really try to hit all those environments that people love on the silver screen, but they’ve only seen it on the silver screen; they’ve never walked through it. The sets alone for these attractions are just breath-taking, because it’s movie-quality. That’s what we strive for – everything down to the tiniest prop and piece of set decor. We have thousands of pictures of these films, and working hand in hand with New Line, who are very, very into their franchises – and so are we. We were fans before we ever had this arrangement; I was going to their films when I was in high school, and beyond. So we paid enormous attention to detail, special effects, full sensory experience, preying on everything psychologically we could prey on – from sense of smell to things touching you – we tried to hit it all.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Being Universal Studios, you’re obviously bringing that level of film craftsmanship to Halloween Horror Nights, but one way in which it is radically different is that movies can be controlled down to the tiniest detail with retakes.

JOHN MURDY: Yeah, there’s no retakes!

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Not just no retakes. You have a lot of actors out there, and at some point you have to turn them loose.

JOHN MURDY: Hundreds of them! I personally train every single one. I’m not kidding! There’s a reason for that. The vision obviously comes from the Creative Director, but that is… I always start my speech to the actors the same way: “Up to the point we bring you in, we’ve created the back drop, but you are the show; you have to bring it to life.” I think the best way to do that is let them hear it from the horse’s mouth and let me show them every step of the way. You know: “Jason leads with his head. That’s the way he moves – his head first and then the body.” There are certain things about these characters that you learn by reading interviews with the actors who played them. Jason never runs. There’s no reason for him to run; he’s going to catch up with whoever he’s after. So we take this wealth of knowledge from the films and the people who have played them previously, and try to translate that to the actors.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How scripted is it, and how much leeway do the actors have?

JOHN MURDY: You know, we try to listen… It’s all figured out down to the tiniest detail, but once you get that down, we do listen to our actors, and sometimes they come up with great ideas. There was one the other night on FRIDAY THE 13TH that I did not write. I came through as the Creative Director and thought, “What’s that? Somebody being creative!” But it was good creative. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t think of that, but that’s bitchin’!” Actors will always have comments, because that’s the nature of being an actor. You’re constantly on the quest to find your – it’s funny to say – you motivation. While your motivation on Halloween might be very simply – to scare people – there are a million ways to do it. Hopefully, we have that variety. Working with these people and spending that much time with them, you get to know every single one of them. When you have that many creative people in one spot, ideas inevitably come up, and it would be really arrogant for us not to listen to them. So we really do try to listen to our actors. There’s a scene I’m going to change tonight because an actor had a really cool idea.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: What’s the supply of actors like for Halloween? There is such a proliferation of these haunts that it seems a lot of these people would get snapped up by the competition.

JOHN MURDY: We’re doing great! Actually, it was a big concern going in: could we find all these actors? But we have a wait list right now – a fairly extensive one, actually – because as word’s gotten out…I think for people who are fans of these films the chance to play Jason or Freddy or Leatherface is a dream come true. So we have a list of people waiting in the wings in case somebody decides they don’t want to do it, so we’re in a good position that way. Plus, we pay better than anyone else!

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: The Halloween Season is becoming bigger and bigger…

JOHN MURDY: Second only to Christmas in retail sales.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: With all the competition out there from places like Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest, the Queen Mary Shipwreck, and the Knott’s Halloween Haunt, what can Universal offer these other places can’t?

JOHN MURDY: Movie quality. It’s pretty simple. We’re the studio that invented horror movies; we do horror better than anybody else. The fact that there’s all these other events out there – I think it’s great. I love Halloween; I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, going trick-or-treating for the very first time. The fact that there is so much competition is good for Halloween in general. I’m glad there’s all that competition out there, because there should be. It’s a unique, mostly American phenomenon, even though it’s roots are in the old world. I think it’s wonderful how it’s grown year after year.

The two thing that we do differently… Nobody goes to the pains of detail that we do to deliver on a movie-quality experience to our guests – it really is like living a horror movie when you walk through these attractions. The other thing is our back lot. Aside from Halloween in general, back lots are pretty rare these days. The Universal back lot that has been there since 1915, where all of these famous horror movies have been filmed, is just something that nobody else has. To be able to take our guests down there at night, and let them get off [the tram], and walk through the most famous horror movie sets in history, that are still standing, that are the originals… you know, when we were lighting the Psycho House last night, there’s a moment when you go, “Oh my god! This is the Psycho House – and it’s the same one from 1960 when the film came out but 1959 when they filmed it.” To be able to bring that to life – nobody can do that. Only Universal can do that, and that’s what makes us different.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: This may be premature, but as deadlines arrive, ideas probably fall by the wayside – things you just don’t have time to get done this year. So I’m wondering: in your mind, are you already looking toward next year, to do the things you couldn’t do this year?

JOHN MURDY: Oh yeah. I walked past something yesterday. It was a character idea, and I thought, “Oh, I gotta do that next year!” Your mind is constantly going, and you think of things – “God, that’s a great idea!” – but at some point you have to say, “I’ll save that for next year; let’s just get this year done!” It’s just such a massive production; it’s ridiculous how much work is involved in bringing something like this to life. But yeah, you’re always thinking into the future; at some point you have to stop yourself and focus on right now. I’m really exciting to show the public what we got for them this year. I don’t think they’ve seen anything like these New Line attractions.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Hopefully, this means Universal will be in the Halloween business for years to come.

JOHN MURDY: I think so!