Out of all of this year’s highly-anticipated walk-through mazes at Universal Studios Hollywood‘s Halloween Horror Nights seasonal event– not to mention at its sister Halloween haunt at Universal Orlando Resort– “Stranger Things” is easily the one that has fans buzzing the most. The hit Netflix hybrid sci-fi/drama has been thrilling audiences since 2016 with its nostalgic 1980s setting, its charming cast of small-town characters, and its eerie crossovers into the foreboding world of the Upside-Down.
But bringing “Stranger Things” to life at Halloween Horror Nights has been no simple task, as Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy told me (and a select group of other media) during a recent tour of the under-construction maze. While we weren’t permitted to take many photos during our visit, Murdy gave us plenty of juicy tidbits about the behind-the-scenes inception and assembly of this perfectly atmospheric– and probably terrifying– venture into the world of “Stranger Things.”
“In terms of Netflix and ‘Stranger Things,’ this actually started about a year ago,” began John Murdy before we entered the maze itself. “As we often do, we invite people to the event so that they can see the event up and running. I wrote this maze in December, so literally right after Horror Nights , we started working on it. One of the first questions I always ask anybody we work with is, ‘Have you ever been to Horror Nights?’ Usually when the answer is ‘Yes,’ I know that that’s a good thing, particularly when it comes to filmmakers, because I know that they already know our event, and they know what we do, which makes working together that much better.”
“In the case of the Duffer Brothers, they were huge fans of Horror Nights, and they’re thrilled to be a part of this, so that’s extremely exciting for us. I think this show is one of those rare properties that transcend the narrow confines of the genre that they’re assigned, and become pop culture phenomenons. I think that happened with ‘Walking Dead’ when that show first hit television, I think it’s definitely true of ‘Stranger Things.’ When you look at it, it’s not necessarily what you would call a horror property. It’s not. It’s horror, it’s sci-fi, it’s fantasy. It’s a lot of different things.”
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“That [genre-blending presented] an exciting challenge for us when we looked at how to approach ‘Stranger Things.’ As I started really doing my research and getting into the show, I [was] like everybody that fell in love with the show: I watched the pilot and I binge-watched the entire season in like two days. And then I went back and watched it over and over and over again. But the thing that struck me about the show is, I went to high school in the 80s. So of course there’s that connection, which instantly [pulled me] in. But the acting, the writing, the direction– everything is so good with this show. It’s really a treat to get to work on [its Horror Night maze].
“As we got into the creative side of it, we really decided that we would focus solely on season one, because there is so much content in the show, and we knew fans of the show would want us to hit every detail, as we’re known for. So this whole maze is focused on season one.”
Murdy then led under into the maze’s entrance, which replicates the woody outskirts of Hawkins, Indiana. “We’re in a Stage 29, which is fantastic. This is a real shooting soundstage that’s been on the Universal lot for decades. Lots of movies have been filmed inside here, which is great because it gives us two things: it gives us complete control of light, which is essential when you’re doing things like the Upside-Down. And also it gives us vertical height, which is fantastic.because we really used the height to our advantage.”
“We’re always building mazes in queue lines and all over the [Universal Studios Hollywood] property. This was first and foremost a movie studio, and then the theme park came along in the mid-60s. It’s a very busy movie studio. They’re constantly filming, but as the park started to expand this way, we did get access to this stage, which for us is just awesome, especially with a maze like this. This maze is bigger than a lot of our other mazes. It enabled us to really use the space to its full potential. And it’s air-conditioned, which is awesome!”
“Essentially, from a creative standpoint, what we decided to do was to mirror the show and make it all about Will’s journey. From the minute you come into the forest, you can hear the search party looking for Will, to get the presence of the kids into the show. You have to be 18 to work Horror Nights, [so] it doesn’t really work to have a 20-year-old Dustin in a wig. It just would look completely wrong. So the way we bring the kids’ presence in [is by using] the walkie-talkies, which are a huge thing on the show. So you’re gonna hear the kids talking to each other. They’re looking for their friend Will, who’s disappeared after the night of playing D&D.”
“You’ll see the bike, you’ll see the wheels spinning, you’ll see the lights starting to flicker on and off, just like Will’s bike did when he crashed. You’ll see the perimeter of Hawkins Lab, you’ll see the signs for it. But most importantly, you’ll start to hear and sense the presence of the Demogorgon. We’re going to do that with a 5.1 surround sound system. Audio is always something I get really, really involved in. I always insist on getting the actual production audio from the show. And when you’re dealing with a show like ‘Stranger Things,’ that’s a lot of episodes and a lot of audio.”
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“I wrote a 20-page, ten-point-font list of audio cues I needed from the show– between dialogue, effects, and music. The music is a huge part, too, because [it’s] so 80s. Of course we have access to all the music, but I have access to every single sound effect in the show [as well]. Netflix was gracious enough to pull all of those sound effects [for us]. It was terabytes of information. Then we take it and we make it work for an environment like this. You’re going to hear the Demogorgon moving around you. You’re going to hear his distinctive chittering, the sounds of him moving through the brush, and also again you’re going to hear the kids looking for their friend Will.”
“The first time you see the Demogorgon, you see it kind of backlit. It’s a full-bodied guy in a creature suit, but just like on the show he suddenly jumps into the path. It’s a startle scare, obviously, but also we’re trying to be true to the show in the way we tease the Demogorgon before we do the big full reveal.”
“The Demogorgon is a pretty crazy creature to have to do for Horror Nights, because not only do you have to think about the aesthetics, which in this case [is a] guy in a creature suit, head to toe. But you have to think of all the practical things, like they need to [be able to] see. They need to see where they’re going. What was a huge benefit is we’ve been around the horror industry for a long time. This is my thirteenth year doing Horror Nights. We pretty much know everybody in [the horror] world.”
“I knew the company that did the creature suit for the show, which is Spectral Motion. I worked with them on [the] ‘Walking Dead’ [attraction]. They did the ‘Dead Inside’ doors and some of the animated figures for us. I knew them working with Guillermo del Toro back in the day [as well]. So talking to Netflix, we were able to go back to Spectral Motion and say ‘Hey, can we have access to the molds from the show?’ and ‘Can we use what you did for the show as the basis for what we’re doing?’ That being said, how you do a television show is radically different from how you do something like Horror Nights.”
“The Demogorgon [on the TV show] was a combination of computer animation and a guy in a suit. If you see the behind-the-scenes pictures of the show, you’ll see whole sections of him are green, because they’re make him digitally disappear so they can add the computer-animated elements. Basically, we had the sculpt of the Demogorgon right in front of our sculptor, so that he could do everything to match the show perfectly, which he did.”
Our tour group then moved to the instantly-recognizable front porch of the Byers home, and on into the living room. “My props and dressing team tend to be a bunch of folks who work in movies and television who freelance for us during this time of year. We always give them assignments to find things, some of which, when you’re dealing with a period show like this, can be really challenging. The Byers family doesn’t have a lot of money. They’re kind of down on their luck at the beginning of the show. Their furniture is probably at least a decade old, even though the show takes place in the 1980s. So there’s a lot of set [decoration] they have to find that’s vintage.”
“The other thing that my production designer and art director Chris Williams really wanted to do was to [use] real floor surfaces. So when you walk in the Byers house, it’s linoleum, which is what you would have found on the floor back in the 70s and 80s. When you come into the Byers house, immediately you see all the Christmas tree lights that Joy strung all over the place.”
“Obviously Christmas lights do very specific things. They chase in certain patterns, and when it comes to the alphabet wall, they have to spell out the word ‘Run.’ R-U-N, R-U-N. They don’t really make Christmas lights to do that. So I was having this lengthy conversation with our poor lighting team last night, because my prop crew came in and they strung Christmas lights. And [the lighting team was] like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to break these all into separate circuits. Every single one of them. [We have to] rewire the whole place.’ Christmas lights, you just plug them in and they do what Christmas lights do. These all have to be treated like individual lighting elements.”
“We’re also doing the scorched telephone, which is a whole special effect unto itself– that phone that [Winona Ryder’s character] keeps having to buy, and it gets destroyed, then she buys it again. There [are] tiny little fiber optic lights embedded into the receiver, and then [synched] to audio so you can hear Will’s voice coming from the other side and then ‘Bzzzzz,’ as the Demogorgon gets him.”
“Another special effect is to get that moment where the Demogorgon starts to push himself through the wall. How we do that is we print the wallpaper pattern onto Spandex material, and then lighting-wise blend it with everything else. There’s a performer on the other side of the wall with the form of the Demogorgon’s hand, and that performer has monitors and a camera on you guys so he or she can see where the guest is, and then they [have] a foot-pedal switch that activates the sound effect and lighting cue. And then he or she is able to literally push the hand of the Demogorgon so it looks like it’s stretching through the wall.”
I won’t spoil the remainder of the “Stranger Things” maze here, but rest assured it contains all the expected iconic locations and elements found in the first season of the TV show. Before our tour ended, we were allowed a brief Q&A with Murdy.
I asked him about the medium of Halloween maze building and how it forces designers to use practical effects where a movie or TV show would simply use CGI. “We are the torch-bearers of practical effects in the world today,” he responded. “With the advent of computer animation back in the 90s with ‘Jurassic Park’ and all the movies and television shows that have come since, [that] industry leans on [CGI] quite a bit. But that doesn’t work for us.”
“I always say if you’re making a movie or a TV show, and you’re trying to shoot a sequence, if you get it right for the cameras once, it’s good forever and you never have to worry about it. And in our world, it has to look good every ten seconds, as new audience members are coming into the scene. [That] inevitably leads to practical effects.”
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“So whether it’s doing ‘The Exorcist’ and making the bed levitate or doing ‘Alien vs. Predator’ and bringing that giant Queen Alien to life, or something like the Demogorgon, that’s where Chris and I really have to rely on our childhoods, because we grew up in the golden age of practical effects with makeup artists who are friends of ours now, like Rick Baker and the late Stan Winston. We grew up going to see all those films, so we have a true love for practical effects, as does our lead makeup artist Patrick McGee.”
“We always collaborate with Patrick on figuring out how to bring these things to life, but whenever we bring people that did makeup in that era through [the mazes], they’re always smiling ear to ear because it’s what they knew from coming up.”
Halloween Horror Nights 2018 runs on select nights from Friday, September 14 through Sunday, November 4 at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, California. For more information on the event and for advance ticketing resources, be sure to visit the park’s official website.