Horror film icons haunt theme park’s fright maze

Horror movie villains are not real. Freddy can only harass Elm Street on the silver screen and Jason’s hunting grounds are limited to a fictional summer camp. Right?

Frightening sights · Creative director John Murdy creates the fright factor behind Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights. - Photo courtesy of Universal Studios Hollywood

John Murdy begs to differ. As creative director of Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, Murdy makes it his top priority to recreate iconic horror films as realistically as possible in maze form and to instill sheer terror within the souls of those who dare to enter these mazes.

“A maze is different from sitting in a movie theater — that’s boring,” Murdy said. “Here you’re walking right through a horror movie. You’re living it.”

At a media preview of “Friday the 13th: Kill, Jason, Kill,” one of the five featured mazes at this year’s Horror Nights, Murdy led the tour with an enthusiasm typically reserved for a kid in a candy store. His excitement was reasonable, since preparing the five-week event is a year-round commitment.

Separate rooms within the maze contain impressive detailed replicas from the Friday the 13th series. Vivid visual effects, however, are only a part of the experience. The Horror Nights team works directly with the creators of famous horror films to set up locations that are authentic in every way. The goal is to offer a frightening but fun experience for guests.

“The performers can’t physically touch the people walking through the maze, so we use a bunch of different things to psychologically prey on our guests,” Murdy said.

Each maze has its own thematic soundtrack, music and dialogue used in the films. While Jason attacks various victims, blood (distilled water) will spray onto those nearby. Guests are even exposed to potent scents during their visit: pine trees while walking through the forest, rotting food in the kitchen — even the stench of dead bodies.

“These things make people feel like their cone of safety is being violated,” Murdy said.

One important scare tactic employed by the maze actors is the distraction gag. Visitors of the “Friday the 13th” maze are instantly hit with one of these the moment they walk into the wooded Camp Crystal Lake. As all eyes are on the bloodied man in a bear trap calling for help, Jason sneaks up behind the unsuspecting guests.

Other mazes on the lineup for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights are “A Nightmare On Elm Street: Never Sleep Again,” “Saw: Game On,” “Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses in 3-D zombievision” and “Vampyre: Castle of the Undead.” These themes were chosen based off of fan input and Murdy’s personal recipe for maximum scares. The three things Mundy said he looks for in a potential maze are villains achievable with live actors, strong stories with a large fan base and extensive environments.

Over the past five years, Halloween Horror Nights has become such popular events that filmmakers have started to seek out Murdy and his team in hopes of adding their film to the lineup.

“It’s a trip for people who make these movies to come by,” Murdy said. “They get to see the characters that they created attack them.”

Casting the ones who do the actual scaring is a tall order. Murdy says working the maze is physically demanding because it produces a new scene every 10 seconds. The hundreds of actors had to endure a stringent audition process and a “Scare Academy,” where Murdy teaches them the proper way to elicit thrills and chills.

Halloween Horror Nights features many more attractions, such as six scare zones, a live show, the Terror Tram and a special chance to visit the Psycho house and Bates Motel in celebration of the iconic film’s 50th anniversary.

Murdy is rightfully satisfied with the high quality of the attractions this year and said he hopes the guests will be equally fulfilled.

“Horror fans are all the same  — they just want more, more, more,” Murdy said. “No matter how extreme we make it, they want it more extreme.”

Undoubtedly the mind of Murdy will churn out even scarier ideas for next year’s Halloween Horror Nights, but hopefully he won’t create a maze based on his own personal phobia — cotton balls.

“It’s something about the texture,” said Murdy with all seriousness. “I can’t even talk about it.”