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When it comes to haunted houses, I’m like a crack fiend who can’t get enough so it should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights. I’ve been coming out to Horror Nights for the past four years, even before I made the move to California, because when it comes to the “fright business,” no one can beat the efforts of HHN Creative Director John Murdy and his entire team that collaborates year-round in order to put on the best haunts that money can buy every Halloween season.
Being a haunted house junkie, I’m really looking forward to this year’s mazes at Universal Studios Hollywood. I love that they’re bringing back the Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses in 3D maze for a second year and can’t wait to see what they do with the rest of their other mazes this year including Hostel: Hunting Season (someone better get their Achilles tendon slashed!), The Thing: Assimilation, The Wolfman: The Curse of Talbot Hall (which is taking over in the House of Horrors for Chucky this year), Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare and La Llorona: Villa de Almas Perdidas.
Even though La Llorna was a scare zone at HHN last year, I really knew nothing about this year’s haunted house version. Luckily enough, Universal Studios and Murdy invited Dread Central on an intimate tour of the attraction along with a select few other journalists to give us the rundown on what to expect from the only Horror Nights maze this year that’s based on 500-year-old Mexican folklore:
According to the legend, a beautiful Mexican woman fell in love and married the most handsome man in the village. She bore two beautiful children, but her husband soon fell in love with another woman. Blinded by jealousy, the woman ran with her children to a river, where her faithless husband was courting his new love. Enraged, she threw her children into the river, where the current carried them away. When she realized what she had done, she threw herself into the river as well. But the woman did not leave this Earth. Late at night, in the deep woods, or by a small creek, children can hear her weeping, searching in vain for her lost children. “La Llorona” (“the crying woman”) they call her, for she frequently wails, “My children, where are my children?” Her frail, drenched body is a chilling sight; any child wandering alone is sure to be snatched as her newest victim…
At the start of our tour we are greeted by both Murdy and his right-hand man Chris Williams, who met us outside the exterior of the La Llorna maze, which eerily resembles a rather sad-looking face. According to Williams that was intentional on their part as he wants maze entrants to be consumed metaphorically by La Llorona as they enter inside.
Williams said, “While doing my research on the folklore, I came upon this image of a beautiful, but haunting-looking, mission- much like what you see here. As I was looking at it, it just sort of struck me how much the facade resembled a face, which then really creeped me out the more I kept looking at it. So I knew that ‘face’ would be great imagery to see when you’re waiting in line, approaching the entrance of the maze. It has become a really great metaphor for what’s in store for you when you enter La Llorona’s world and is a nice little spin on the idea that her ghost eats small children who are naughty.”
Murdy discussed the reasoning behind expanding La Llorna to a full-blown maze attraction for 2011. “Last year we offered La Llorona as a scare zone in the park and as part of the Terror Tram experience, but what we kept noticing from last year’s customer feedback was an overwhelming demand for us to make La Llorona a maze this year. It turns out that about 60 percent of our guests are familiar with this folklore so we knew if we did this right, we’d have something incredible here. The challenge for us was to come up with all of these concepts from scratch because unlike our other mazes where we get to collaborate with the filmmakers or musicians and expand on their source material, La Llorona is a completely original maze concept so we had to make sure we did our homework on this one to make the fans happy.”
“La Llorona herself will have several different looks throughout the maze, too. We did that because there are different versions of this story in different areas so each has their own unique twist so we wanted to pay homage to all of them. Having so many options for looks actually allowed for us to come up with so many different creepy and amazing tricks up our sleeves in this maze so we know we’re going to get the big scares we want out of fans,” added Murdy.
Upon entering the church’s foyer, we are greeted with a tribute erected in honor of La Llorna‘s three small children whom she drowned in a fit of rage, which sets the ominous mood from the start. As you head farther inside, you enter the funeral ceremony for the trio of tiny victims where you can’t help but notice that sitting throughout the pews are numerous unnatural-looking mourners swaddled in black. Murdy let us know that when you come through the room during HHN, you can expect a few live scare-actors planted alongside the fake mourners, basically hitting you with a huge scare right out of the gate.
After we finish in the church, Murdy and Williams take us through a hallway that will be filled with numerous foreboding statues (as well as a few live performers of course) leading down a corridor toward the cemetery portion of the maze. This is really where the money shots are, and while I don’t want to give some truly big stuff away for those of you who are planning on going to HHN this year, all I will say is that the statue work that was conceptualized and designed by Murdy and Williams is nothing short of shocking, especially the statue tribute to Santa Muerte, another iconic figure in Mexican folklore whose name translates to “Holy Death.”
The dynamic duo of Murdy and Williams are also incorporating the use of stilted performers in this maze (a first), which should have scare enthusiasts jumping out of their boots at the oversized scare-actors towering above them.
We then head through a crypt area (which features a few more “gotcha” moments as well that I don’t want to spoil), which pays homage to the iconic imagery of a weeping angel slumped over a tomb that may turn out to be far more sinister than she seems at first glance. As we continue on, we head farther and farther “underground” into the catacombs of the maze whose walls are filled with coffins and corpses busting out at every turn.
It’s here that Murdy reminds us that he’s once again planning on incorporating smells throughout all the mazes so fans get those clothespins and nostrils ready- in La Llorona alone you’ll experience the aromas of dirt and rotting pig meat, just to give you a tease of what to expect.
Around the corner you’re greeted with total darkness (“We just want to completely mess with your senses at this point,” exclaims Murdy) that eventually leads you to an “outside” area featuring a wooden bridge flanked by a fabricated pond, which will soon be home to three lifeless child dummy bodies floating face down around you. The bridge takes you toward the Carniceria, which will definitely be another heightened madness area of the maze. Inside you’ll be introduced to a cluster of fake swine hanging from the rafters, dangling about and hitting you in the ol’ kisser as you try and make your way through the maze and avoiding the wrath of La Llorona, who’s bound to be lurking about.
And nothing says “Happy Halloween” like getting slapped in the face with a gutted pig!
After you stumble your way out of the Carniceria, you then make your way through a small village (which was built to resemble the one featured in the folklore) and head down a long and winding hallway toward La Llorona‘s house, the final phase of the haunted attraction.
It’s here where Murdy broke down for us his and Williams’ approach toward conceptualizing and creating the numerous movie-quality haunted houses for Universal Studios so successfully, year after year. “The way our whole process works is that Chris and I basically sit down with a bunch of Post-It notes, and we start writing down concepts and ideas. Then we basically divide those into three different categories: environments, because environments are everything to us; characters, because that’s where the scares come into play with our audiences; and effects, because that’s how we really nail down the essence of the maze through our effects.”
“Then we’ll sit in my office for a couple of days straight, just going through notes and picking out concepts- there’s a lot of back and forth between us, but the way Chris and I work together is we give each other veto power so nothing goes in the maze unless we 100 percent agree with each other. That’s because both of us have different disciplines that we both excel in like where Chris is art direction and production design, I’m more focused when I’m on the writer, video and audio side of the things. Once we get everything squared away, that’s when I write a treatment, Chris starts his research, and we’re off from there. But Horror Nights is a year-round thing for us- there’s always work to do,” added Murdy.
At the end of the hall you make your way through the entry room of “Maria’s” house (Maria being another name La Llorona has been called in various incarnations of the tale) toward the family room, which hosts a mournful but foreboding funeral scene for the little girl featured in all the marketing campaigns associated with the La Llorona maze. What happened to her? How did she end up in a coffin? The answer to those questions, my friends, lies in the final room which awaits you now.
Of course, I wouldn’t dream of ruining what is in store for everyone at the end of the La Llorona maze so I’ll just put it this way: The jaw-dropping jump scare Murdy has cooked up here is the very thing your worst nightmares are made of. And that’s just the kind of fear the HHN Creative Director wants to prey upon.
“We wanted this scene to be a child’s worst nightmare come to life since it seems like La Llorona was crafted as a cautionary tale you’d tell children to get them to behave. So we’re taking that terror and multiplying it times ten to really end the maze with a bang,” declared Murdy. “Between what’s happening with the performers and the audio we have planned in this room, it’s going to seem like a cacophony of hell circling around you.”
As we exited the maze, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the time and energy put into La Llorona by Murdy, Williams and the countless members of their production team. If everything goes off without a hitch, this maze in particular is shaping up to be one helluva terrifying experience for those heading to Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights this fall.
To keep up to date on all aspects of the event, dig on the Halloween Horror Nights website, check out the Halloween Horror Nights Facebook page, and follow along on the official Halloween Horror Nights Twitter feed.
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