‘Behind the Screams’ of Universal Halloween Horror Nights

Photos by Charly SHELTON
John Murdy shows the replica of the alphabet wall from “Stranger Things.”


There are lots of Halloween events around LA. Home haunts, festivals, park haunts, haunted museums, etc. But the big budget, big name events are at the theme parks. And between Disneyland’s Not-So-Scary take on the season, Knott’s classic haunt approach, Six Flags’ more teen/adult focused horror and thrills and Universal’s IP-heavy tribute to the genre they created, there is something to fit everyone’s spooky taste.

The leader in the haunt industry right now is Universal with Halloween Horror Nights. This year’s lineup of mazes is set to be pretty impressive, with classics like Poltergeist and the Universal Monsters getting their own mazes, and new favorites like Stranger Things and Trick ‘r Treat being brought into the fold. CV Weekly had a “behind-the-screams” look at Universal Studios and two of its new mazes as they were under construction, led by Universal’s head of Creative Development, John Murdy.

Seasons Greetings is hidden in the maze and a reference to the original short film of the same name that would later inspire Trick ‘r Treat.

Trick ‘r Treat was one of the mazes on the tour. This is based on Michael Dougherty’s 2007 horror anthology film that sees five different storylines interweave as they interact with each other on Halloween night. It was supposed to receive a wide theater release but at the last moment was pulled and released straight to DVD. Nevertheless, word got out and it quickly became an iconic cult horror film for the ages. After years of trying, Universal finally got Trick ‘r Treat into the line-up for the HHN event as a maze.

“The main character is Sam, the spirit of Halloween, and he’s what weaves the multiple story lines together, so it’s very much in the spirit of Creepshow or some of those anthology horror movies from the ’80s,” Murdy said.

Hawkins Lab, with the entrance to the Upside Down.

The maze takes guests through locations from the film, like the bottom of the rock quarry where lies a sinking school bus, the principal’s house with a profusely vomiting child and, most impressively, Mr. Kreeg’s house decked out in pumpkins.

The set for Kreeg’s house stands nearly 20 feet tall and is an impressive frontispiece for the finale of the maze. Within Kreeg’s house, we see Sam in all his pumpkin glory as both a performer and as a puppet. In one scene, Sam has been shot by Kreeg and is oozing pumpkin guts and seeds all over. As guests walk down the hallways of the house, they see Sam hanging from the ceiling and looking down at them.

“And that’s actually controlled by a puppeteer who’s off-set, and he’s got a camera on the guests [with] a little monitor. He can blast what they think is pumpkin guts and juice all over them as they walk through the scene,” Murdy said.

The other maze on the tour was one of the most highly-anticipated mazes in the last few years – Stranger Things. Based on the Netflix series, the maze will take guests through the town of Hawkins, Indiana into the lab and through the upside-down. Guests will follow basically the same plot points as season one of the series, beginning in the forest where Eleven is hiding, with bikes lying against trees as the kids are looking for Will as the Demogorgon stalks guests.

“As we encounter the Demogorgon, we kind of slowly unfold him just as they did on the show,” Murdy said. “The first time you see him, he’s completely backlit and he comes out from between the trees. Then you see a shadow of him on a clothes line we’re setting up in front of the Byers house, and then you get little teases of him until you see the full costumed performer.”


The Demogorgon is the main antagonist monster and an impressive one at that. With a face that opens like the petals of a flower to reveal rows of teeth, the creature is now one of the most iconic monsters in today’s zeitgeist. But in the show, he is mostly CGI. The Universal performer had a green screen mask, rod-puppeted arms and false feet, all of which were replaced in post-production.

“That’s a huge challenge – how do you translate something that was a practical creature in some scenes on the show, but mostly CGI, into something you can do live in front of people, every 10 seconds, thousands of times a night?” Murdy said.

This was a challenge overcome by the sculptors at Universal, who made a practical costume and mask with replaceable teeth and petals, so if one breaks, it can be hot-swapped between groups on show night. And it looks identical to the digital one from the TV show.

These both promise to be very impressive mazes for the event and alongside other mazes based on “Halloween 4,” “The First Purge,” “Truth or Dare,” “Unfriended,” “The Walking Dead, “Poltergeist,” The Terror Tram: Hollywood Harry’s Dreadtime Storiez, and the Universal Monsters featuring music by Slash, this event is going to be bigger and badder then ever. The event starts tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 14 and runs select nights through Nov. 3.

Visit HalloweenHorrorNights.com for more info and tickets.