American Horror Story: Inside Universal Halloween Horror Nights' new maze
Halloween is nothing without its ghosts, clowns, vampires, mutant babies, latex-bound men, and drug addicts sewn into mattresses.
Somewhere throughout the short yet already-iconic history of American Horror Story, a real-life interpretation was bound to happen—and it’s finally here thanks to the creative minds behind Universal Studios’ annual Halloween Horror Nights event.
This year, the centerpiece attraction is a mega-sized ode to three seasons of FX and Ryan Murphy’s anthology creation: Murder House, the kick-off installment that introduced viewers to Rubber Man and the spooky new digs of the cursed Harmon family; Freak Show, the fourth cycle which bore Twisty the Clown, Edward Mordrake, and a host of terrifying circus performers; and the latest concluded season, Hotel, which starred Lady Gaga as a bloodthirsty Countess and proprietor of the creepy Hotel Cortez.
Murphy has been along for the re-imagined ride with John Murdy and Michael Aiello, the creative directors and producers of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal’s Hollywood and Orlando theme parks, respectively. Both scare-masters have worked closely with Murphy’s design teams to do their best to replicate the genuine horror of AHS for fans and newbies alike who will encounter the mazes on both coasts. (The franchise will also join other familiar titles at Horror Nights this year including The Exorcist, Freddy vs. Jason, Krampus, and The Walking Dead.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: American Horror Story is such a beloved franchise now — is this something you’ve been trying to land for a while?
JOHN MURDY: We pay a lot of attention to what our fans want to see. Particularly on social media, both Mike and myself actually run our Twitter accounts for Horror Nights, specifically for that fan interaction. And over the years, there’s been this groundswell of, “We want to see American Horror Story.”
MICHAEL AIELLO: Absolutely. It’s the fans. And the other great thing about the job is that we are at our very core both horror fans as well, so we’re the same fans who are watching that series. So in looking at what’s out there for us to pull from and adapt, AHS was at the top of the list for many years, and the planets aligned this year very conveniently to allow us to be able to feature it both coasts.
What was the pitch to Ryan Murphy?
MURDY: When Mike and I first started talking about this show and how we wanted to tackle it, our opinions were very aligned as far as focus, so it was pretty fun to pitch it to Ryan. I think he got right away that both Mike and myself know the show really well, that we had done our homework, that we paid a lot of attention to the fan community. That’s one of the things we always do: You go online and read as much as you possibly can to know what your audience is wanting, and then you research the heck out of it and watch it endlessly. And being that Mike and I are people who scare people for a living, then we try to put it into our world.
AIELLO: The other really great thing about the pitch…that immediately became instantaneously apparent was how excited Ryan Murphy was that this was being done. We talked through the scenarios in both mazes, and he was immediately very engaged and very excited and had a lot of great input. Not only are we wanting him to understand how we want to adapt the themes, but also getting information from him on ideas and ways to be able to adapt. It was a very great back and forth conversation and that’s sometimes rare.
MURDY: The first question I always ask, whether it’s a director or producer or head of a network or whatever, is, ‘Have you been to Halloween Horror Nights?’ And luckily throughout the years, the answer is usually yes.
And was Ryan a fan?
MURDY: Oh, yeah. I was very happy to find that out.
How did you land on these three seasons?
AIELLO: It was an exercise in trying to really key into…some touchstones throughout the gamut of the series. Trying to do all of the seasons at once, in our opinion, would have been a disservice to each one of the installments, because there are so many characters and environments. To narrow it down to three on this occasion, to be able to give each season its worth, so to speak, was definitely a path we wanted to go down.
MURDY: When you think about it from a guest perspective, two of the choices were really obvious. You want to start at the beginning — Murder House, that’s where everything starts. And you want to end with the most recent season, which is Hotel.
What was the merit of Freak Show?
MURDY: Twisty. I mean, it’s convenient that ten percent of the American population has a phobia of clowns. As creators of this content, we study psychology and all of this stuff to find out what our guests are truly afraid of, and we know that a huge percentage of people coming to the event can’t deal with clowns. In my opinion, I think Twisty’s one of the scariest clowns I’ve ever seen.
AIELLO: Also, in looking at the three installments that we chose, you’ve got two primarily interior-based environments, and Freak Show was able to give us a different palette from a texture standpoint, knowing that there’s the potential for some outdoor-looking environments.
What are some of the key figures and scenes you knew fans needed to see?
MURDY: The basement in Murder House — that’s a must.
AIELLO: Doctor Charles Montgomery, being able to feature him and his experiments. The Infantata is another really dynamic and terrifying character from Murder House.
MURDY: I’m not even sure what it is, but it scares the heck out of me.
AIELLO: And also there’s so much visual content, not only what’s in the show but what’s in the marketing materials. In the Orlando maze, we feature Rubber Man and we recreated that key art for that season — that red room that he existed in. Guests are going to walk into that key art and encounter the Rubber Man. To be able to really dive into multiple avenues in which the show is translated for the viewer, not only the episodes themselves but also breaking down the marketing materials.
MURDY: The Red Room is unique to Orlando. Our version of that in Hollywood was to try to pick up on characters you see in the opening title sequence but don’t see on the show, which is a very fan thing to do. Just an example: I was watching Freak Show and I just kept looking at that crazy monkey with the cymbals. I thought, that’s really creepy. I want to see that thing when I go through our attraction.
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What elements from Hotel will we see?
MURDY: There’s obviously the Countess. Another thing that works in Hotel but also goes across the seasons, too, is there’s a paranormal quality. There’s a ghost element to the show — Murder House is haunted by the spirits of all these people that had tragic endings there. Freak Show has that element with Mordrake, who comes back with the dead freak show performers that are kind of his ghost entourage. And Hotel is the old Hotel Cortez haunted by all the things that happened there, whether it was the ‘20s or the current day. I like the specific rooms in Hotel. There’s Room 64, which is the first room where things started to go wrong. There’s the creepy nursery where the Countess’ baby is.
AIELLO: The bed reveal of the individual that was sewn into the bed. We’re creating that as a scare.
MURDY: Mattress Man!
What defines the overall aesthetic that links all these installments together?
MURDY: I kind of grasped onto the idea that every installment of AHS has a Halloween episode. It’s kind of a big deal. So that was one thematic overlay that we laid across all three installments — let’s ground it on Halloween. So when you go into Murder House, it looks like when they’re trick-or-treating. When you go into Freak Show, it’s the night Mordrake appears with his green fog. And when you go into the Hotel, it’s Devil’s Night.
AIELLO: One main thing when we began our creative was the phrase ‘fever dream.’ That is a palette in which we wanted to create how the guest moves through the environments that…are all housed within this fever dream that is AHS. That was just a phrase of an ideology that we placed on ourselves as a way to tackle at least our first step into how we wanted to create the maze.
The show’s music must also be a pretty helpful guide for you as well.
AIELLO: A lot of the performers in our mazes have triggers that they’ll push to elicit a sound effect that accompanies their scare. Being able to break the theme song down into parts and pieces to use as some of the startle moments has been a fun exercise.
MURDY: You also have to take a step back and say, ‘If somebody has never watched this show, how are they going to understand what’s going on?’ So I’m always mining for little bits of audio that can help tell the story concisely, and an example of that is, Murder House has the Eternal Darkness Bus Tour, where it’s this guy giving a tour of the dark side of L.A., and he conveniently pulls up and goes, ‘And next, Murder House!’ And he tells the brief history of why this house is notorious. That’s a little something I can latch onto right before you go into that section of the attraction. The same thing with Freak Show — there conveniently happens to be a scene early on where there’s a radio and you’re hearing somebody talk about these horrible murders that we know Twisty is committing.
Be honest: Is there a secret goal at play here to scare Ryan Murphy when he walks through the maze?
MURDY: [Laughs.] I’ve had this conversation with filmmakers for years. I remember talking to Sean Cunningham, who made the Friday the 13th movies, way back in maybe 2007 when he was going through our maze, and turning to him at the end and going, ‘This must be really surreal to have your creation attacking you.’
Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights in Hollywood and Orlando from September 16 through November 5 (9/16-17, 9/23-24, 9/29-30, 10/1-2, 10/6-9, 10/13-16, 10/20-23, 10/27-31, 11/4-5).
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.