How Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights brought The Shining to life
Some places are like people; some shine and some don’t. This Halloween, Universal Studios is going to shine.
Beloved seasonal scare-athon Halloween Horror Nights returns to Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort this weekend, and this year’s collection of frightening attractions includes, for the first time, a haunted maze inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Universal Studios Hollywood Creative Director John Murdy took EW on a tour of the new attraction — which, even when you have seen the entire maze in the light of day and have actually been informed in advance of exactly where all of the live scares will be located, is completely and utterly terrifying in action, we can confirm — and gave us a behind-the-scenes look at how his team brought Kubrick’s horror classic to life in California (the Florida incarnation of the maze is a different experience, though the two teams consult with each other).
For the uninitiated, Horror Nights is an annual event in which the entire park is transformed into a massive horror wonderland, where costumed “scare-actors” wander the streets and various haunted mazes, based on classic, contemporary, and original horror stories, are constructed all over the park. “We try to pick properties that our fans know and love, and then try to bring them to life, movie quality,” Murdy says of the mazes, “so at the end of the day, our guests feel like they’re living a horror movie.”
The Shining maze immerses guests in the world of Kubrick’s chilling Stephen King adaptation, which stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a writer who takes a job as the winter caretaker of an isolated old hotel with a dark history and a terrible kind of power. Consumed by the supernatural forces that live inside the Overlook Hotel, Jack loses his mind and attacks his wife and young son, the latter of whom has psychic abilities that have alerted him to the horror that exists in his new home.
While the transformation of a haunted hotel (which also happens to have its own hedge maze) into a haunted maze might seem like a natural fit, The Shining was “an incredibly difficult [film] to translate into our world,” Murdy says. The most efficient way to terrify people is to have actors physically jump out at them, but to rely too heavily on visceral scares wouldn’t properly reflect the more atmospheric and psychological elements of Kubrick’s film.
“Our job as haunt designers is to interpret his film very literally,” Murdy explains. “That often means recreating moments from the movie that are purely visual, and resisting the temptation to have Jack Nicholson jump out with an axe.” (But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that Jack Nicholson doesn’t jump out with an axe — he just does it in tasteful moderation.) “We have to balance all of that and, at the same time, scare the living daylights out of our guests. So that’s the creative challenge.”
The maze is a sort of greatest hits of the movie, stringing together recreations of its most iconic scenes. Murdy and his team began the task of transposing the film to the park by making a list of essential moments, some of which required a more artistic interpretation than others. For one, the section of the maze recalling Wendy Torrance’s discovery of her husband’s manuscript — pages and pages of “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — takes guests “into a more surreal kind of environment,” Murdy says. “Kind of like trying to make you feel what Jack is doing in his head.”
When guests encounter Jack’s writing themselves, the text has the same frequent typos and bizarre formatting that the pages have in the film — a testament to Murdy’s extreme attention to detail, which, he says, is all for Horror Nights’ devoted following. “The reason we go to such lengths and such detail is because [the fans] know these movies inside and out,” he says, “and The Shining is one of those movies where they’re just obsessed about every detail.”
Those true diehards, if they’re not too distracted by being scared half to death, should also look around them for the vintage photographs and Native American art decorating the walls, and beneath them for the Overlook’s iconic carpet. “It’s the carpet that brings it all to life,” Murdy says of the three areas — the hallway, the Gold Room, and Room 237 — that called for the movie’s groovy flooring. “We had to design all that on the computer, and then we found a company where we could print our own carpet.”
The rugs were made from cutting-edge technology, but the heroic props and dressing crew went old-school decorating the rest of the Overlook, searching Universal’s massive inventory, scouring flea markets, and building things from scratch to amass an entire ski resort’s worth of ‘70s furniture, textiles, and props. Graphics, like the various signs posted around the hotel, posed a particular difficulty. “Nowadays, when I go through a modern movie, I’m usually going through 30,000 to 40,000 images from the set to select the images that I’m going to use to give my art department,” Murdy says. “When you’re dealing with older movies like The Shining, you can’t usually go to an art department at a movie studio and go, ‘oh, I need the file,’ because they didn’t keep that stuff back then.” So the graphics team had only the movie itself to consult.
Scaring people is a serious business, and Murdy, who has been the lead on Horror Nights for 12 years now, knows all the tricks (or treats) of the trade. “We have lots of different ways of scaring people,” he says, rattling off charmingly nicknamed scare techniques like “watch the birdie,” “set ‘em up and knock ‘em down,” and “one of these things is not like the other.” We won’t spoil how all of these tricks are used in The Shining, but be prepared to not be prepared to find yourself face-to-face with a violent Jack Torrance or skeletal partygoer.
Murdy estimates that Hollywood’s Horror Nights employs around 700 performers in total, trained by Murdy himself at “Scare Academy” and outfitted by 20–25 makeup artists at “Scare Base,” which he describes as “an assembly line of horror,” every night. “What they’re doing is very physical, it’s very intense,” says Murdy, who makes a point of performing for one shift every year, to help him stay in touch with the fine art of scaring. “I always equate it to, like, training to run a marathon, because it’s so physically demanding.” Despite relying on psychologically disturbing set pieces more than other haunted labyrinths might, the Shining maze has about 25 scare-actors on set at all times.
“In the world of scaring people, it’s about confinement, being in tight spaces,” Murdy says — and The Shining is a movie that gets claustrophobia. The blizzard raging outside at the end of the film contributes to the impression that the Overlook is closing in on its inhabitants, and the maze doesn’t let its guests forget that if they try to escape, they’ll freeze to death. Its tricks of sensory storytelling include gusts of wintry air coming in from the bathroom window, and the final stretch — which takes the form of the Overlook’s snow-covered hedge maze — blasts guests with A/C.
“Along with all of the things we’re doing to scare them, we’ll prey on all their senses,” Murdy explains. “About the only thing we don’t do is the sense of taste.” (So, yes, that includes smell — The Exorcist maze reeked of vomit, for example, and Krampus had an aroma of gingerbread.) That said, we can assure you that the experience will not stain your clothes with gallons of blood, though Danny Torrance’s vision of the elevator is included.
As far as sound goes, the maze doesn’t have your run-of-the-mill shrieks and ghoulish laughter; audio from the film underscores guests’ screams throughout, from the jazz classic “Midnight, the Stars, and You” playing in the maze’s Gold Room to the childish croaking of “REDRUM” echoing through the halls.
The Horror Nights hype is real and the horror community is fiercely loyal — nobody in it more so, perhaps, than the filmmakers themselves. When Murdy develops a maze based on a more recent property, he will often collaborate with the producers, writers, and directors (Eli Roth once insisted on dressing up in his own costumes and performing in a maze himself), and even when they aren’t a part of the process, they’ll often come check it out — Murdy fondly remembers getting an unexpected phone call last year from an 81-year-old William Friedkin, who had heard about the Exorcist maze and wanted to see it.
“A lot of times, they’re as big a fan of our work as we are of theirs,” Murdy says. “When they get to come to our world, they get to see their movie brought to life in an entirely different way. They get to instantly see how people are responding to it, and it’s a real thrill for them.”
Murdy has been dealing directly with Kubrick’s estate in the development of the attraction, and while there have been museum exhibits and cinematic tributes dedicated to the film in the past, this is the first theatrical interpretation of this kind, to his knowledge. The filmmaker died in 1999, but “I’m very curious what he would think,” Murdy says.
What Kubrick might say if he were to walk through the Shining maze is as much of a mystery as the secrets of the Overlook Hotel. But I bet he’d be scared.
Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights Sept. 15 through Nov. 4 at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort.