How Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights brought Stranger Things to life
Leggo your Eggo and get ready to enter the Upside-Down: The Stranger Things maze at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights is now fully operational.
Netflix’s throwback sci-fi smash provided the inspiration for one of the legendary mazes (joining Poltergeist, The First Purge, and Universal Monsters, among others) at Universal’s annual haunted extravaganza, during which the park is filled with an assortment of pop-up haunted attractions that recreate beloved horror properties in stunning, screaming detail.
Halloween Horror Nights kicked off this weekend in Universal Studios’ Hollywood and Orlando parks (and will open Sept. 28 in Singapore). Members of the cast of Stranger Things attended opening night in California on Friday and checked out the maze (witness their terror for yourself in the video above), which steers guests through a host of Hawkins landmarks like the Byers home, the middle school, the laboratory, and, of course, the Upside-Down in all of its slime-covered glory.
Universal Studios Hollywood Creative Director John Murdy took EW on a tour of the maze and shared some of the stranger secrets about how he and his team worked their haunted magic to bring the show to life — and scare the crap out of the parks’ guests.
The maze begins in the forest, on the night when Will Byers goes missing. Guests encounter his bicycle, overturned, wheels still spinning and headlight blinking, and get a first brief glimpse of the hideous Demogorgon. “Like the show, we want to tease the Demogorgon — we don’t want to just have you walk into the maze and, ah, there it is,” Murdy explains. ‘We want to kind of build up the suspense of seeing him.”
They lead up to the full reveal of the monster throughout the maze, by showing it backlit behind a screen, projecting the sound of it roaring and stalking Will through the woods, and stretching out the walls of the Byers’ house as it reaches for a victim. Murdy estimates that there are about 10 fully costumed scare-actors playing Demogorgons throughout the maze, wearing state-of-the-art creature suits that required some movie magic to build.
First, Murdy reached out to the special effects house that made the original Demogorgon suit for Netflix, to see if he could use the exact same molds that were used for the show, but when he saw them, green-screen gaps at the face and feet revealed that Stranger Things partially relied on computer animation to bring its monster to life. “So instead, we had a positive made off of the mold for the show, and then our sculptor could literally sit there with it right in front of him and sculpt our version of it,” Murdy says.
There were more challenges in bringing other characters to life, the age of the stars being one of them. “It doesn’t really work to take a 20-something-year-old actor and go, ‘you’re playing a 12-year-old,’” Murdy says. So they brought the preteen protagonists into the action by positioning their walkie-talkies throughout the maze, using the audio straight from the show of all of them talking and trying to track down Will. They also relied on artists to bring versions of Dustin, Eleven, and Will to life with elaborately sculpted pieces that look just like the actors, dressed in their exact wardrobe. Fully costumed scare-actors playing Joyce having a breakdown, Nancy searching for Jonathan, Hopper saving the day, and Dr. Brenner calmly encouraging guests to enter the portal and meet their doom also appear in the haunted soundstage.
“It’s one of those rare properties that transcends the narrow confines of its genre and it becomes this huge pop culture phenomenon,” Murdy says of Stranger Things. “You have a fanbase that’s utterly obsessed with the show — so you have to hit all the details for them.” Nowhere is that attention to detail more evident than in the dressing of the Byers home, where Christmas lights blink over a carefully disheveled living room, with a rotary phone emitting sparks on the parquet floor and real vintage ‘80s newspapers covering up the hole Joyce chopped into the wall.
Will’s room includes exact replicas of his monster drawings from the show, science trophies engraved with his name, and a boombox which, at the time of EW’s tour with Murdy, still needed some tweaking. “I went and looked at the tape, and I’m like, ‘that’s the Carpenters,’” he says. “It’s not the Carpenters [on the show]. I have that album by the Clash, it’s called Combat Rock. I think I still have a cassette somewhere in my shed.”
Exiting Will’s room amid assurances that Murdy would track down his old Clash tape — “so that if anybody looks, it’s actually is the right cassette” — brings us to the portal that Nancy uses to enter the Upside-Down. Guests in the maze aren’t going to crawl like she did, of course, but other than that, the Horror Nights recreation is shockingly accurate, right down to the little glowing pieces that float in the air throughout. Some of them, sticking out from the walls, are “are individual strands of fiber optics that our special effects team had to painstakingly wrap in cotton, and that’s to diffuse the source of light,” Murdy explains. “In addition to that, we also have projectors all over the room, and that’s going to be projecting the floating particles as well, and then you put it all together and you get all these different layers.”
As you navigate the space in the dim light of the floating particles, the synthesizer Stranger Things score pressing you onward, try not to trip on the fake bloody deer, which definitely doesn’t look fake! “It’s the form of a taxidermied animal, it’s not a real animal,” Murdy assures us. “It’s fake. It’s all fake.”
After finally making it through the middle school — “the only thing scarier than the Upside-Down,” as Murdy rightly notes — guests can recover from their Demogorgon encounters with Stranger Things-themed food like the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto-encrusted Upside-Down Burger or the Eggo mountain called Eleven’s Waffle Extravaganza.
While the whole experience is a few minutes of screams for guests, the maze is the culmination of a year of work for Murdy and his team. They invited Netflix reps to Horror Nights last year to pitch the company on being part of the event, but the Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer required no convincing. “The Duffer Brothers are huge fans of Horror Nights,” Murdy says. “They keep reiterating, ‘you don’t understand how important this is to us.’ So that’s always kind of the creative ideal.” The Duffers have been champions of the maze ever since Murdy wrote his first treatment of it — way back in December.
“That’s kind of the cycle of Horror Nights now,” he says. “It never ends. I’m already making deals for next year.”
Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights beginning Sept. 14 at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort and Sept. 28 at Universal Studios Singapore. Tickets are available now.
Netflix’s hit sci-fi series follows a group of kids in the '80s battling supernatural forces in Hawkins, Ind.