How Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights brought Ghostbusters and Us to life
It may only be September, but it’s already Halloween in Hollywood. Universal Studios Hollywood’s fan-favorite Halloween Horror Nights kicked off Thursday and will continue to terrify fans throughout the spookiest season of the year.
The annual event, held on weekend nights from now through Nov. 3, features 10 all-new mazes inspired by beloved horror properties. The haunted attractions immerse fans in a totally authentic, movie-quality environment occupied by costumed performers skilled in the fine art of scaring the living daylights out of people. The fright master behind it all is John Murdy, the creative director of Horror Nights and a scary movie aficionado. Ahead of last night’s opening, Murdy took EW on a tour of two of this year’s most highly anticipated mazes, based on Ivan Reitman’s beloved Ghostbusters and this year’s new horror classic from Jordan Peele, Us.
The Ghostbusters experience begins in the line, where a performer playing the possessed Louis Tully paces, yelling at guests. (Check Murdy’s Horror Nights Twitter the day you go to the event, and you’ll find a daily password to give to a specific character — preview night’s was Tully — in exchange for a surprise.) Once guests get past the line, they’re whisked right into the chaotic Ghostbusters office, complete with nameplated lockers and framed newspaper cutouts, with a beleaguered Janine Melnitz answering phones and yelling at EPA agents.
After passing through the containment chamber, the maze transitions into a place fans might not recognize — a spirit world that Dan Aykroyd had written in an early draft of the script, which never actually made it to the screen. “He had this idea that in the containment chamber there’d be like a camera, and there was going to be a scene where they looked inside and saw what all the ghosts were doing, and they were all just like guys inside prison, leaning against the wall, playing cards,” Murdy says. “And I liked that idea, because as a fan of Ghostbusters I want to go in there, I want to see what’s inside this thing.”
Fans enter the spirit world more than once in the maze, and each portal in and out of the realm is covered with slime — a detail taken from the Ghostbusters videogame. In addition to unused scripts and games based on the movie, Murdy also incorporated some ghosts from Ghostbusters II and Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot in the spirit world of the maze, to honor the whole franchise.
It is grounded in the 1984 original, though, so outside the spirit world, guests face off with Slimer (and see him getting captured), the library ghost, Gozer the Gozerian, and finally the grand finale of an enormous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, opposite all four Ghostbusters blasting him with their proton packs. That roster of supernatural pests takes fans on a tour of the Sedgwick Hotel and Dana’s charming apartment at 55 Central Park West. “Pretty isn’t a word that I usually use for Horror Nights,” Murdy admits as he leads the way through Ghostbusters. “But this is a pretty maze.”
Funny isn’t a word necessarily associated with scary movies either, but that’s central to the 1984 comedy (and the growing franchise that it blossomed into) as well. While Horror Nights is designed to scare people, each individual attraction has to accurately capture the spirit of the property that inspired it too, so the blood-free Ghostbusters isn’t pure terror, with some elements serving as comic relief. “When you’re dealing with a comedy-horror film, you have to get both elements to work. I think the best-case scenario would be when people come out screaming and laughing,” Murdy says. “You should come out of this maze pumped up and wanting to watch Ghostbusters again.”
Conveniently, fans will get a chance to do that in 2020, when a new sequel directed by Reitman’s son, Jason Reitman, hits theaters. Murdy pitched the maze to the father-son pair, getting feedback from the filmmakers and working closely with their company on the final product; Jason especially wanted to embrace the whole franchise with the ghostly Easter eggs in the maze. “He was on the set when they were making [Ghostbusters] as a little boy, so it’s pretty exciting that they get to bring it back after all these years,” Murdy says. “It’s all coming full circle, from father to son.”
Picking up a different baton is Peele, whom Murdy identifies as the leader of a new era in the genre. “Horror very much goes through cycles. And [the films] are always commentary on fears that are going on in society at the time,” the designer says, identifying 1941’s The Wolf Man as representative of World War II fears of “men turning into beasts,” the nuclear-insect movies of the ’50s as expressions of Cold War anxieties, and the is-it-real trickery of The Blair Witch Project and its many found-footage copycats as specific to the dawn of the digital age.
“But when you get to the tail end of these cycles, it’s usually a period [where] horror doesn’t know where it’s going. And it always takes somebody new to come along and kick it into the new direction it’s going to go, and I think that was Jordan Peele with Get Out,” Murdy continues. “That was like a watershed moment in horror where everybody went, ‘Whoa, here’s something we’ve never seen before.’ It’s his first film, and out of the gate it’s a classic and wins the Oscar for screenplay. And then a year later here comes Us, and you go, ‘Okay, here it goes, horror is now moving in a different direction.’ And he’s on the leading edge of that.”
Horror Nights always tries to keep up with that “leading edge,” but the terror of Us isn’t so straightforward as man-beasts or radioactive bugs — so how to translate Peele’s disturbing parable about classism and oppression into a scream-inducing haunted maze? “I thought it was going to be challenging, honestly,” Murdy says. “There’s so many layers [to the film]. And he’s such a good writer, the dialogue’s so important, and you have to use dialogue judiciously in a maze because of just the environment you’re in. We had to really think of how we were going to visually tell that story with those big landmark moments in the film.”
The way to do it was the most direct; the final maze follows the plot fairly closely, with Michael Abels’ haunting score playing overhead. It starts in the hall of mirrors before entering the Wilsons’ beach house, mid-invasion. The living room set is an eerily accurate replica of the film’s, but with some extra space for a certain deranged doppelgänger. “We designed some of these scenes with more room than we would normally give a performer, and that’s to try to pay off specifically the way Red moves,” Murdy explains. “She moves almost like a modern ballet dancer. So she’s coming in with the scissors and doing all the creepy stuff she does.” Meanwhile, as the specially Red performer dances before you, her “Once upon a time…” monologue plays overhead.
For a property like Us, the maze comes together in the details. For the performers, there’s Red’s artful movement and Gabe’s (glasses-deprived) doppelgänger’s squinting. In design, there are elements like repeated mirrors, which are a motif in the film, and the colorful scarves some of the Tethered wear. When Murdy noticed those accessories in the film and asked Peele’s team about them, “They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, some of them take souvenirs’” — which is never explained in the movie, only subtly incorporated. (That wasn’t the only assist from the Us camp — all the red Tethered jumpsuits worn in the maze were screen-used, as were many of the scissors.)
Moving into Josh and Kitty’s bungalow, their Tethered doppelgängers offer fake-out handshakes and slice their faces, respectively, while the couple themselves lie dead on the floor. “This is a weird way we do blood now, to make it look like it’s wet and sticky and everything,” Murdy says, walking past the fake corpses. “We actually make it in our offsite facility and bring it in as units, because blood is very specific to Jordan, the way the blood is.” Also specific is the exact positioning of Josh and Kitty’s twin daughters, whose dead bodies Peele intentionally staged to resemble those of the slaughtered Grady twins in The Shining, so Murdy had to be careful arranging the maze’s teenage corpses in precisely the same way.
After encountering a frantic Adelaide, guests enter the classroom where she and Red have their “dance of death” in a choreographed sequence. And while the maze couldn’t end with a plane ride over the Hollywood Hills overlooking a human chain of the Tethered (alas), Murdy and his team pay homage to the film’s chilling finale in another way. The last room of the maze has lines of red-suited mannequins holding hands along either side of the guests walking through — with a few live performers snuck in there as well, jumping across the aisle to grab one another’s hands and block terrified visitors on their way out. No need to be too scared of them, though. They’re just Americans.
Halloween Horror Nights will take place at Universal Studios Hollywood on select nights from now until Sunday, Nov. 3. Tickets are on sale now.