John Murdy Discusses Halloween Horror Night's The Thing: Assimilation Maze and Breaks Down 'The Art of the Scare' For Dread Central
As creative director for Universal Studios and Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights' producer, John Murdy knows a thing or two about giving a good scare. Since 2006 he's been concocting some of the most immersive and thrilling haunted attractions in the country, with this year's crop of frights continuing his Legacy of Fear. 2011 not only marks the return of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses in 3D maze but also celebrates several new mazes this year including Hostel: Hunting Season, The Wolfman: The Curse of Talbot Hall (which takes over the House of Horrors each night), Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare, La Llorona: Villa de Almas Perdidas and The Thing: Assimilation.
Over the past weekend Dread Central caught up with Murdy during the press junket for the upcoming Universal Studios flick The Thing to chat about his unique experiences creating one of his first-ever creature-heavy mazes based on Universal's upcoming prequel, why the Assimilation maze at Halloween Horror Nights should be considered the best trailer for a movie ever and the intricate art of scaring the pants off of people year after year.
Due to its extensive nature, Halloween Horror Nights (2011 event coverage here) is actually a year-round gig for Murdy, and to give you an idea of just how busy he is, he mentioned during this weekend's junket that he's already prepping for the 2012 season despite the fact that the 2011 haunting season is just getting under way. With long prep time being par for the course in Murdy's world, he talked about how his involvement with this year's The Thing: Assimilation maze came about and actually began even before a single frame was shot for the movie.
"One thing we had working in our favor in making sure we got permission to do the maze this year is that producer Eric Newman is a huge Halloween Horror Nights fan and comes out every year so he was absolutely excited for us to do a Thing maze, and he made sure to get us involved from the very beginning of the project," said Murdy. "So we actually began brainstorming for this maze back when the script was just being locked for The Thing, making it very early on in the process that I knew we'd be doing this- like maybe going back two years ago now. But we used that time wisely and were able to follow along with production from start to finish so being able to read the script early, seeing rough cuts of the film as they were coming in and studying the production stills definitely elevated what we were able to do with the Assimilation attraction."
"One huge advantage that worked in our favor on this maze in particular is that Amalgamated Dynamics, the effects company that created the creature effects for this movie, allowed me to move my make-up artists into their studio and use the actual molds from The Thing, which was great. What makes this movie a little bit different than a lot of other monster movies these days is that it utilizes a lot of practical effects and creatures throughout so for us doing the Thing: Assimilation maze was like a given homerun because everything you see in our attraction is straight out of the actual movie," added Murdy.
The haunted maze maestro went on to discuss how Assimilation set a new precedent in terms of what kind of scares Murdy cooks up for Horror Nights attendees each and every year. "In the past we've always had a very specific set of criteria when considering properties to base mazes on during Horror Nights, and it's basically these three things: awareness, environments and villainous characters that can be played by live actors. With The Thing, though, we're kind of bending that rule a bit with our scare actors being performers in alien suits. When I first saw the maquettes at Amalgamated, I immediately was trying to figure out how we were going to do it relying mostly on creatures instead of human beings."
Murdy added, "So for Assimilation we had to come up with different techniques to scare people with this maze because our actors are now having to try and scare people while only being able to peek out through the chests of these oversized creatures, which can definitely make it an awkward way to try and generate a scare, that's for sure. It's been interesting watching the actors find new ways to make the suits work in their favor, and the Assimilation maze has just been so much fun for me all around because Carpenter's original film had such a huge impact on me growing up as a horror fan."
With Halloween Horror Nights kicking off back on September 23rd (almost a month before the release of The Thing), we asked Murdy if anyone involved with production ever voiced any concerns with the maze being filled with spoiler after spoiler for the upcoming prequel.
"You know, the amazing thing is that you think they would give you limitations on spoilers in the maze, but that wasn't the case at all here," said Murdy. "Almost across the board most of the studios are very protective about giving away too much or revealing spoilers in our mazes so that's what I'm used to dealing with. But when I asked Eric (Newman) if there was anything we couldn't do, he said, 'No, go ahead and do it all.' So that was a really rare thing to happen in my experience, and this is the first time where we've ever been in advance of a movie's release date, making us the ultimate trailer for the thousands of fans who go through The Thing maze each night it's open."
"Because I've been involved in The Thing through its incarnations the last several years, I decided to use something in the maze that isn't being used anymore in the promotion for The Thing. Originally they used the sound of a heartbeat in the very first teaser trailer, and I just loved that sound because it really tapped into those feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia, and so I decided to use the heartbeat as a reoccurring audio theme throughout the attraction. Each turn you take, the heartbeat gets a little bit faster, and I think that gives the fan a really heightened experience inside the maze," added Murdy.
The creative director doesn't rely on just sights and sounds when crafting the best haunted attractions money can buy- a lot of the time he just relies on good old-fashioned psychology to ensure Horror Nights delivers the scares each and every night. Murdy discussed what he considers 'the art of the scare' and why he loves scaring hordes of fans year in and year out.
"In addition to relying on music cues, performers or even smells in our mazes, I also study psychology and fear because I want to know everything that you could be afraid of, and then I want to use it against you when you're in the park," said Murdy. "I will be the first to admit that I'm very obsessed with scaring people, which is why I think creating Horror Nights is the best job in the world. A random example of what a great number of people fear would be clowns. I know it sounds strange, but I've found research supporting the fact that a large number of people out there are deathly afraid of clowns. So what does our park have a lot of running around? Clowns with chainsaws, of course, and I think those are the guys that always get the biggest reactions outside of the mazes. After all, what’s scarier than something that's meant to elicit joy running towards you with a chainsaw blaring loudly?"
Murdy added, "What's also really fun for me is that every night you see these teenage guys come to the park where they bring their dates and try to put on this bravado of 'you'll never scare me.' Those are the guys I especially love to 'get' during Horror Nights. We're all really intense here- we run an R-rated attraction over 19 different nights this year so expect that if you come here, we're going to get you in the end- one way or another. I don't care how tough you may think you are, we'll definitely get you scared before you leave."
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