Halloween Horror Nights Creative Director John Murdy Gives Us a Tour of “The Horrors of Blumhouse”

John Murdy has been working as the Creative Director of Universal Studios Hollywood’s enduringly popular Halloween Horror Nights haunt event since 2006, after serving as a Show Writer for projects like the Revenge of the Mummy attraction and the reimagining of the theme park’s world-famous Studio Tour.

As part of a media tour, I recently had the opportunity to walk through the “Horrors of Blumhouse” haunted house at Universal Studios Hollywood with John Murdy as our guide as he prepares for this year’s highly anticipated iteration of Halloween Horror Nights.

“This is our third Blumhouse compilation house that we’ve done at Horror Nights, although we started working with Blumhouse back in 2013 the first time we did Insidious,” began Murdy as he began our walking tour of this year’s “The Horrors of Blumhouse” haunted attraction. “We’ve had a long relationship working with Jason Blum and his company. A couple things that are different this time around: the previous two ‘Horrors of Blumhouse’ experiences that we created, we always set it in a movie theater– it was always a ‘Horrors of Blumhouse’ film festival. The reason we changed it this year is the location. It used to be in the Parisian Courtyard, and then once it was downstairs on the Backlot. But this year, as we were shuffling the slate around and figuring where we were going to put things, we decided to put it here in the Waterworld location. It has this big permanent shade structure, so we couldn’t build the facade that we’d built before, but that gave us an opportunity to create something new. So literally as a joke, my art director says, ‘The movie theater’s not going to fit. Why don’t we do a video store?’ And I was like, ‘That’s brilliant,’ for a couple of reasons. One: I worked in classic mom-and-pop video stores from the time I was in high school all through college. Even when I started at Universal, I still worked there on the weekends.”

“In recent years, these pop-up old-school video stores have been kind of a thing– Slashback Video, people make pilgrimages to go to the last Blockbuster, and Netflix created a video store when they launched the Fear Street trilogy. I just thought that was really cool, so the idea here is that this is an abandoned strip mall that’s about to be torn down– there’s going to be ‘condemned’ signage, trash, this is going to be tagged with graffiti. On this particular night, suddenly this video store pops up. The name of the video store is done with invisible black-light paint, because we wanted to create this hellish-looking faux-neon sign. This is ‘Blumhouse Video,’ and it’s your horror movie HQ. It’s only open one night a year, and it only rents two particular horror movies– Freaky and Black Phone. Our prop crew is busily making tons of VHS tapes– they’re re-creating the packaging so they can make VHS tapes of Freaky and Black Phone and have them in the windows. The other thing that’s different: in the previous ones, we did three movies at a time. We decided to just do two this time, and it really has to do with the content of these particular movies.”

“When I saw Freaky, I just loved it. I thought Freaky was great. What a fun horror movie combining the idea of Freaky Friday with a horror movie. I just thought it was a heck of a lot of fun, and then when I got to screen Black Phone before it came out, I thought that also had a lot of content to mine. So we decided just to focus on two movies. The idea with the video store is that it's pretty much a portal to hell. There’s gonna be red smoke and eerie light coming through [the entrance], and then once you step through the video store, you’re in the world of these two particular movies and we go from there. Like our previous houses, we always set it up with a title card for the movie we’re dealing with. We’re starting with Freaky, there’s a special effect associated with the La Dola Dagger– its eye starts to glow red with the narration. We’re picking snippets of dialogue from the film. Part of the challenge with Freaky is the story’s kind of complicated to explain in the context of a haunted house, so we had to come up with visual ways to tell this switching-bodies story with a curse and all that.”

“I wanted to start with the comedic one, because by the time you get to Black Phone, you couldn’t pick two films that were [more] diametrically opposed in tone. Freaky is a comedy-horror film, and Black Phone is just dark. We wanted to end with the dark one. Freaky has an opening sequence that plays exactly like a slasher movie– it could be Friday the 13th, you know? You’re in the house, the Blissfield Butcher comes in, smashes this case, takes the La Dola Dagger, takes one of the ceremonial masks off the wall, and starts his killing spree with all these teenagers. So on the front end of the house, we just wanted to hammer you with the Butcher. It’s thunder and lightning, just like it is in the movie, and then the Butcher crashes through the window and comes at you a second time. We’re really trying to step it up on the scenic front this year, but we really wanted to try to take a big leap with our effects. We have a new effects person this year, and we also tapped into our own internal tech services department. We have highly skilled mechanical engineers– people that deal with animatronics– and a whole group of them actually came to us this year and they were like, ‘We want to make stuff for Horror Nights.’ We tasked them with a whole bunch of engineering challenges.”

“We wanted to convey in this house the whole switching-bodies thing, starting with the night where the Butcher attacks Millie at the football stadium and he stabs her with the La Dola Dagger, but then he immediately reacts in pain as though he was stabbed himself. That’s what triggers the curse that causes the body change. The way we do that is when you leave this scene, it’s as if you’re walking along the outside of the football stadium with a concrete-block look. Then all of that disappears– it’s our disappearing room effect that we’ve used in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ [houses]– but in this case we want all those walls to disappear, and then there’s a set that the performers are in. It’s that Aztec temple and Millie’s in her mascot costume with that goofy beaver head.”

“We’re trying to cast, as well as we can, people that have a general resemblance [to the actors in the movies], because a lot of the times he’s wearing that Butcher mask, but a lot of the times he’s not and he’s lip-synching to [and audio] track. And we did a pretty good job– I’ve seen the candidates that they’ve selected. Casting’s always interesting to see. We have a lot of people that come back year after year– they’re part of our family of scareactors that work this event. But then there’s a whole lot of new people that come in every year, so you create these roles and then hope that you can cast them.”

“Another challenge that was difficult to figure out: we wanted to do that switching-bodies moment. That’s hard to do without a lot of dialogue, so we came up with an idea inspired by a one-second shot in a montage from the film. Right after Millie’s attacked by the Butcher, she goes home, she takes a bubble bath, and then she goes to bed and she has a nightmare. She’s tossing and turning in bed, and they do this montage of what she’s dreaming about in her nightmare. Just for a second or two, there’s a shot of Millie’s bed in the Butcher’s lair, and then it changes.”

“I thought that might be a cool way to do the switching-bodies thing, so we’re gonna walk in and enter part of Millie’s bedroom, but there’s one object that shouldn’t be there– that weird thing sitting on her wicker clothes basket. We use scent in this scene, and in a lot of scenes in mazes. I said, ‘I want it to smell like Bed, Bath, & Beyond or Claire’s Boutique– something that screams teenage girl’s bedroom.’ Then you enter the Butcher’s lair, but Millie’s bed is in it. Millie’s tossing and turning in her bed, all of a sudden her alarm clock goes off. At the same time we see the Butcher standing in here. She wakes up with a start, he comes out as if he’s gonna scare us. They look at each other, they scream, and then he just kind of freaks out and goes back in, because he’s not really the serial killer now. Now he’s Millie.”

“It’s just a quick little loop that’s gonna repeat over and over again. There’s nobody really trying to scare you in this scene– it’s just trying to pay off the comedy aspects of Freaky. Then we go to the next day– Friday the 13th. Now you’re back in high school. Millie’s the scare, but now she’s the Butcher in Millie’s body and she’s wearing that leather jacket like she does in the film. She comes out with a knife to scare you, but we wanted to again work in the comedy, so as she retreats she goes, ‘I can’t wait to kill you, I can’t wait to kill you…’

And then we get to the wood shop. We wanted to create an effect where Millie could take the body, push it through the saw blade, and have it split and splay open. This is all just a mechanical, practical effect. We do a lot of practical effects, because that’s just the nature of what we do, but we’re trying to take it to the next level. This of course has a massive compressed-air and water spritz, and then she has a screwdriver that she can pick up.”

“Then we take you to the final confrontation in Freaky– the jocks get their comeuppance. Millie is unmasked in the Butcher’s body, and she’s doing that scene from the end of the film: ‘I want my body back!’ Then [the Butcher in Millie’s body] comes through the curtain with a chainsaw and says, ‘Come and get it!’ And then we transition into Black Phone.”

“There is an embarrassing Easter Egg in here somewhere, and I’m sure you can find it. My prop crew was like, ‘Hey, do you have any pictures of yourself when you were like 12 or 10?’ So I sent them a few pictures and somehow a picture of me as an altar boy from the 70s ended up as a lost kid on these posters. We take you into the Grabber’s house. We had to recreate it all from the film. With the Grabber, what we wanted to do– because he has that mask that changes with his mood, we thought that was such a cool thing in the film– we had our makeup artists create masks with removable pieces. So every time you see the Grabber, he’s got a different mask on.”

“As you’re coming into the living room, you’re hearing the doorbell and you’re hearing his dog Samson going crazy, and the brother trying to calm the dog down. This is right when the police arrive and they're trying to ask him questions, and then the Grabber comes around the corner with his hunting knife and drives you further into the house. We wanted to do that moment in the film where Finney’s talking to one of the boys– he’s gonna try to escape– and he goes, ‘Don’t go upstairs. He’s on the other side of the door. He’s waiting for you.’ So we went to our actors that we cast in this role, and we’re like, ‘How do you feel about going shirtless?’ Because that’s one of the things that makes that scene really creepy– he’s just sitting there with his shirt unbuttoned, and he’s got the leather belt in his hand, and he’s just passed out.”

“Then we need to get you to the basement. In the movie they go down the stairs; obviously you can’t go down stairs in a haunted house, so we wanted to take you in that transition to the basement, but we wanted to give you an extra surprise along the way. We don’t typically [theme] floors, but we’re doing it in several places this year. Most of the time your focus is like, ‘Where’s the scare, where’s the scare?’ But this [set] had a really distinct Parquet floor pattern, so we did the floor all the way through the basement section. Then Samson, his dog, comes busting through and attacks you. This is totally the way we did ‘American Werewolf in London’ or the werewolf in ‘Universal Monsters.’ Samson will be a puppet effect and the jaws will open and close as this dog tries to bite you. That ought to make you jump. And then we finally arrive at the basement– there’s his dead brother, he’s been hit in the head with an axe. Finney’s on the bed, the phone’s ringing, we hear Finney say, ‘It’s for you,’ and then the Grabber attacks us from [behind]. This would be what we call in Horror Nights, ‘the Final Scare,’ and then sometimes we do a ‘Final Final Scare.’ In the case of Black Phone, we do the ‘Final Final Final Scare.’ As you leave here, you hear the Grabber’s voice saying, ‘If you want to get out of here, you have to go through me.’ It’s almost like he’s talking to our guests. If you want to get out of here, you gotta get through the Grabber.”

Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights from Thursday, September 8th through Monday, October 31st. For additional details about the event and to purchase advance tickets, be sure to visit the official Universal Studios Hollywood website.

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