Interview: Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy on how movies influence Halloween Horror Nights

in Events, Movies, Theme Parks

Each year since 2006, Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy and his team put together a younger version of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights that derives its scares from the movie history found around every corner of the lot on which the horror genre was essentially invented.

Murdy has worked with Universal Studios for years in a creative capacity. Formerly based out of Orlando, he worked on a popular ride based on The Mummy film series. When it was time for him to move to the original Universal Studios in Hollywood, he insisted that Halloween Horror Nights follow him there.

While the Halloween Horror Nights 2010 at Universal Orlando features nothing but 100% original haunted houses, scare zones, and characters, without relying on outside properties or film franchises, Murdy feels that it is only appropriate to base the Hollywood version almost exclusively on the familiar frights from famous horror films of the past and present.

In a recent interview, I asked Murdy how he and and his team bring films to life at Halloween Horror Nights each year:

RICKY BRIGANTE: Given that your Universal Studios out there is obviously THE Universal Studios for so many years, how do you tie in decades and decades of film history with this Horror Nights event?

JOHN MURDY: The horror movie was invented, literally, where we’re taking our guests, which is pretty cool. Universal’s horror history goes all the way back to the silent film era – 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame, and ’25 Phantom of the Opera, the great Lon Chaney silent films, but the of course Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, all the classic horror films from the ’30s, ’40s. But also Psycho was filmed on this lot. The house [seen on the backlot tram tour] is the house from Psycho and this year it’s the 50th anniversary of Psycho, so we’re doing a lot with Psycho this year. So every year we look to work with our own movie studio and our own horror history but also we work with a lot of other movie studios in town and use some of their film properties as well.

R: And, as such, do you feel obligated to go with the film route for your haunted houses or do you like to work in some new characters every once in a while?

J: I’m very much about movies because, again, this is the place where the American horror movie was born. Universal, since 1964 with the start of the studio tour – our brand has always been taking people inside the movies and bringing movies to life. So when we started to talk about Halloween and bring back Halloween Horror Nights way back before 2006, my hook was always the movies. I didn’t see anybody out in the landscape of haunted attractions that was trying to do movie-quality haunted attractions based on popular horror franchises. And that’s proved to be a huge hit for us because the horror movie fans are very, very rabid about the particular films that they love, so we always look to work with franchises that are iconic, that have great environments, that have great characters, that can be replicated in a live attraction. What we found over the years is that horror fans just love that. They love the ability to kind of step through the movie screen and find themselves inside a horror movie.

R: In building these environments, do you use movie-making techniques? Are you using movie professionals?

J: Yes, absolutely. One of the nice things about being here in Hollywood is — My team is very small. It’s about 10 people that produce all of Halloween Horror Nights internally, but we work with a lot of vendors and work with a lot of freelancers, with a lot of people that come from our scenic crews, our props and dressing crews, and folks who work in movies and television. They pretty much work with us every single year, kind of the same group of vendors and freelancers. We love having the ability to tap the movie industry and we work very closely with filmmakers. Working with Rob [Zombie on the House of 1,000 Corpses attraction] is fantastic because before Rob was a rock star or a filmmaker, he was an artist. That’s how he started out, so he absolutely understands the design process. So it’s very exciting for us to work with these people in bringing these things to life. Now, that being said, when you’re doing something in a movie, it only has to work once for the camera and then everything is good. But in our world it has to work every 10 seconds and thousands of times a night. so when you’re dealing with special effects, or make-up-related special effects, while it has the same disciplines as making a movie, a lot of times it’s very, very different.

R: And you have to put that on on a nightly basis, not only in the houses with the props but also the actors show up and go through all the make-up and costuming every single night.

J: Make-up is amazing to watch. We have this thing called “scare base,” and it’s basically like – when Henry Ford invented the assembly line, I don’t think would have ever envisioned how we would use it – but it’s very much an assembly line of gore. We have to get hundreds of actors into make-up every day and we spend a lot of time. Everything’s custom. Nothing’s off the shelf. So watching hundreds and hundreds of actors go through wardrobe and make-up every night is pretty amazing because you can’t really spend more than 20 minutes, 30 minutes maximum, in the chair for any particular make-up. So we work very closely with our make-up artists on devising make-ups that are very believable and very realistic but can be applied very fast.

R: Given that you’re in Hollywood, do you feel that the quality of the actors at your event are maybe higher than in other parts of the country?

J: I think scareactors, what we call our actors, are a very unique breed, and it’s not always actors that you see that show up. There’s kind of a subset of people that just love doing this. And I think that’s true of any haunted attraction. Anywhere in the country, I think you’d find that. But we do find a lot of actors as well. What we love is that we get the same people, kind of the core of the same people that have been around since 2006, coming back every single year because they literally live for this and they just absolutely love scaring people and it’s one of the things they look forward to every year. So when you see a lot of the same people coming back, you can sometimes design and create characters specifically for individuals, which is a lot of fun.

For more of my interview with Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy, listen to Show 290 of the Inside the Magic podcast, when it is available on Sunday, October 24, 2010.

And check back here to next week for a full report and review from Halloween Horror Nights 2010 at Universal Studios Hollywood.

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