At this point in October, you’ve no doubt made your way into some kind of autumnal festivity, but none shakes up the West or East Coasts more than Universal Studios’ annual Halloween Horror Nights, a regional staple of classic-movie horror that, this year, expanded to include buzzy new titles like American Horror Story in its maze offerings.
While the annual attraction is underway both in Hollywood and Orlando, fans are returning to discover hidden secrets that, save for the eagle-eyed diehards, they may never notice unless given a heads up.
Well, consider this your heads up.
EW chatted with Halloween Horror Nights’ Hollywood creative director John Murdy for some deep intel on this year’s mazes:
AMERICAN HORROR STORY
“A specific idea that Ryan Murphy asked me to put into the maze… when I was pitching him the maze, we were talking about the first season of the show, Murder House, and Jessica Lange’s character early in the season mentions that she had four children, but you only see three of them on the show. Ever since that time, if you go on fan blogs, they’re always speculating on what happened to the fourth kid — why didn’t we see him? Is he going to show up later? The reality was, they did cast somebody and filmed scenes with him, but like a lot of things, it got edited out and ended up on the floor, and it wasn’t ultimately used. So when I was first meeting with Ryan, he said it would be great if you could have this character be in the maze and we could tell fans, if you ever wanted to know what this person looked like, you’ll see him in the maze. So the fourth Langdon child is in the very last section of the Murder House sequence, in the basement. And the way Ryan described him…he’s like this albino character that’s wearing a full length fur coat with a pearl necklace. And he’s got underwear on. He’s really strange-looking, but the performers have turned that into a really great scare. It’s really creepy and disturbing. That whole maze, they just have their own style. It’s different from any other maze we’re doing. It’s a little bit more theatrical, but it perfectly suits the brand from American Horror Story.”
THE WALKING DEAD
“The Walking Dead is filled with Easter eggs. A lot of the props that are associated with the human survivor characters on the show are hidden throughout the attraction, and you really have to be looking to find them. I’ve run into guests who’ve been to the attraction over 300 times, and go through over and over to try to find these things. Those would include Michonne’s sword, Rick’s sheriff badge, Beth’s guitar, Daryl’s crossbow… even down to semi-obscure things like Carl, there’s an episode where he finds this big tub of pudding and eats the whole can. That tub of pudding is in the prison.
“I love our human survivor character in the prison. He’s on an upper level, shooting at the walkers and yelling at you to keep moving. What’s cool about that is, all of the walkers are wearing these high-end masks we created, but we also did that with the survivors. We created a special kind of silicon mask that has this plastic core embedded in it that allows the performers to move their mouths. When you see them up there shooting at zombies and yelling at you, I would venture to say 99 percent of our guests think that guy isn’t wearing a mask.”
FREDDY VS. JASON
“We wanted to do something new for our fans, so again, much like Texas [Chainsaw Massacre], we approached the studio and said, ‘We’d like to do our own take on Freddy vs. Jason.’ So the maze is pretty much an original. For the uber fans, we lost Wes Craven last year, so there’s a very obvious Easter egg right at the beginning. The boiler factory where Freddy met his demise is called Craven Industries. It’s our way of paying homage to him. It’s our love letter to Wes Craven. And fans get a kick out of that.
“I also like the fact that’s this maze has different endings. Sometimes Freddy wins, sometimes Jason wins. There’s a little scenic piece the performer spins. If Jason is the loser, it’ll be the Camp Crystal Lake sign that says CLOSED in bloody letters. If Freddy’s the loser, it’s the headline from the Springwood Gazette that Freddy Krueger’s been captured. And it’ll be a headless body and Freddy’s holding Jason’s head, or vice versa. We wanted to give returning fans something cool if they come back.”
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
“One of the things I think is cool, and it’s a little different than what we’ve done historically, but we’ve basically made our own sequel that doesn’t exist. We set the maze five years after the events of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, and in doing that, it enabled us to bring our own creativity to it and create environments you don’t necessarily get to see in the film but know are there. An example: Leatherface’s room, where he lives. In the film, they’re always yelling at him to come downstairs; presumably, he’s got a room! But you never see it. In my mind when I was designing it, I thought his room should look like a 1950s-era kids’ room with a cowboys-and-Indians theme, because I thought that’d be really creepy. Another extra prop touch for the fans to look for when going through is that since Leatherface is always skinning people and wearing other people’s faces over his own, he has a collection of dollies in his room — and if you look closely, they all have skinned faces of other dollies.
“There’s also an effect we do in there, akin to a magic illusion, that we call the ‘body table’ effect. It looks like Leatherface is cutting a body in half, but in this case the body’s in pieces. You see the performer’s upper half, but the rest of the body’s hidden—and on the table is part of his leg and lower abdomen. When you walk in and see Leatherface doing that action, it’s incredible disturbing. And of course, we have a water spritz effect so you get showered with what you think is blood.”
“Halloween fans, like a lot of fans of classic horror franchises, are obsessed with the franchises. The movie that we’re doing in the maze is Halloween 2 from 1981. The third movie, which is called Season of the Witch, was a departure when they made it back in the ‘80s — and they didn’t think they needed Michael Myers in it, although they quickly realized that in the fourth movie — but the one thing from that third movie that fans all remember is the Silver Shamrock commercial. ‘Five more days to Halloween, Halloween’ — it’s this really annoying commercial. And there are these really iconic Halloween masks in that movie — a pumpkin, a witch, and a skull — and they look like those classic dime-store masks you would buy in the 1970s. We always plant references to Halloween 3 whenever we do a Halloween maze because fans are obsessed with those masks and that theme song, which plays on a TV when you’re going through a hospital.
“One thing that always me smile in that maze is the ending: It’s actually a riff on the opening titles of the Halloween movies. The opening titles was always a pumpkin and a camera slowly pushing in on it, so we actually based our finale on the opening title sequence. There’s also a room where it’s all dark, and there are pumpkin skulls everywhere; that’s actually inspired by the poster of the movie.”
“I think the thing most fans would completely geek out over is the spider walk. Everybody thinks that’s part of the movie these days; it was actually filmed for the movie and they couldn’t use it, because it was done with stunts and wires back in the day, and this is in pre-computer animation days, so they couldn’t remove the wires in a way that looked good back in the early 1970s. It was only added decades later for a director’s cut, but nowadays everybody remembers that scene as if it’s in the movie. I’d say it’s easily one of the top three most famous things they remember. But the fact that we actually pulled it off and did it in the maze is something fans of the franchise have freaked out about. The figure of Regan walking upside down on her hands is animated effect worked by a puppeteer in the attraction. Really, how do you do that? It’s a special effect you do with a stunt person in a movie, and we found a way to do it every 10 seconds.”
“The Gingerbread Men were a big part of the movie, when they attacked the character of Howard in the film. So we have this kitchen scene and all these tableaus with them. You’re hearing shotguns and seeing holes get blown open in the cabinets, and you see the Gingerbread Men all over the kitchen doing wacky things. Some have broken into sherry and are drinking sherry. Another has gotten into the sugar bowl and is laying there passed out in a sugar coma. Another one’s gotten into the cutlery, and they’re arming themselves with forks and knives. One in the toaster getting burned alive. There are all these fun little visual tableaus that we created to riff off what was already in the movie.
“I really like the snowmen, who arrive in the movie but don’t necessarily move or do anything. They just show up. It’s another case of talking to the director, Mike Dougherty, and saying, ‘God, if some of these guys came to life, it’d be really scary.’ I think we have six different snowmen, and three have performers inside puppeting them. It’s terrifying when you go through and you don’t expect these big huge giant things to start moving. It’s a totally different vibe. The movie Krampus is really in a lot of ways an homage to 1980s horror movies like Gremlins that were a little bit more PG-13 type movies.”
Universal Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights through Nov. 5.