Halloween Horror Nights: John Murdy's mad, mad world

Many in Southern California have heard of Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights, equipped with men with swinging chain saws, cackling Chuckie characters, and unforgettable lengthy mazes that reach to the darkest corners of your nightmares. Universal’s gore kings and queens will be opening their doors to this fantastic Halloween extravaganza this Friday, September 19th at 7pm.

Walking through one maze takes perhaps five minutes or so, maybe eight if you savor every step, however, what perhaps doesn’t come to mind while phantoms pop out at you is the time it took to create the whole arena. From the gruesome prosthetic masks to themed mazes, it is all carefully crafted by a skilled and imaginative team of perverse people who wait for Halloween every year like most three-year-olds wait for presents under the Christmas tree.

The brainchild of this year’s project, and of many in years past, Horror Nights is creative director John Murdy. An avid lover of Halloween and all things horror, Murdy began assembling scare mazes in his parents’ garage at the age of ten and, always possessed a twisted sense of dark humor gathered from classic horror films.

With Murdy at the helm, this year’s Horror Nights features seven new mazes with themes from classic horror films, new releases, and television shows. This year, will brave the darkened walks of The Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator, From Dusk Till Dawn, An American Werewolf in London, Syfy’s Face Off, Dracula Untold, and Clowns 3D: With Music by Slash.

Popular television has turned to zombie ever since the premier of “The Walking Dead” in October, 2010. Since the premier of Frank Darabont’s modern series about the surviving community of humans in a zombie populated America, “The Walking Dead” has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Television Series Drama, and was nominated for three Emmy awards.

“‘The Walking Dead’ transcends horror into popular culture,” says Murdy, explaining his choice for Universal’s zombie-themed walk. The Walking Dead maze feature’s the show in its most recent season, visiting episode eight of season four when The Governor, played by David Morrissey, uses a tank to mow down a fence outside of a prison. Zombies, also referred to as “walkers” or “biters” by characters on the show, thereby pour into the once safe haven and havoc is released on the survivors within this dimly lit, tightly cornered prison.

The maze takes you on a tour of the corpse-ridden prison, as well as multiple other scenes from the show. Murdy insists on including the most accurate details, things that people walking through the hallways may not take the time out of being petrified by scare actors to notice. Simple things like a sign saying “home sweat home” instead of sweet home, the creation of a store filled with made up brand names and recognizable scenes from season fours episodes.

While the “Walking Dead” maze connects with maze walkers on a national pop culture level, another maze within the repertoire connects with people on a more personal level, specifically the common fear of clowns.

The “Clowns 3D” maze features a sick family of clowns, their creepy wide eyes and smiles, and their secret vengeance against humanity. Usual clown things.

Murdy explains this maze idea came from multiple sources, including an NPR report by Mark Memmot made in February saying that membership for clown schools and associations are at an all time low due to audiences being majorly coulrophobia.

Though Murdy suffers from claustrophobia and a fear of small wooden spoons and cotton balls, clowns have never held a place in his favor either. “I’ve never liked clowns. I’ve never found them amusing,” he says, recalling the popularity of sad clown paintings by Red Skelton and movies like “It” (1990).

The narrative for this maze is a clown family of three owns an ice cream factory and has unfortunately slipped further into madness due to the family business going under. Their desire is to invite people into their 3D home, fill them with ice cream until they puke and then turn them into a clown to help build up the world’s lacking clown force.

The rooms explore into all the creepy manifestations of a clown world, headed by the family’s patriarch Sweet Licks, a demented father and mastermind of the factory. He is joined by his two disturbed children; his daughter Cuddy with a severe cutting problem, and son Bubba, who is based on Steinbeck’s character Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”. Bubba has a love for smashing stray fluffy kitties (sorry crazy eHarmony cat lady) and wearing them around his neck.

While there will be plenty of terrifying performers with crimson noses and dark corners for popping out, the maze utilizes multiple senses in order to effectively scare. From psychological fears of clowns, the 3D lighting to keep you disoriented, to the incredibly detailed gory prosthetic figures, to the smell of vomit and urine. Unfortunately, they don’t actually give out ice cream at the end, but it’ll at least send you running to the nearest vendor. Or it’ll just send you running.

The maze music was written by Slash, lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses,who became involved with the project after attending last year’s celebrity maze-walk night.

In his own John Hammond way, Murdy spared no expense in the detailed creation of every room, attempting to incarnate your nightmares into a walking reality with each step, only to have you wake up sweating as you finally find the exit.

Much of what makes a maze so terrifying is the director’s use of personal experience to create a place of terror that everyone can actually relate to. Scenes from the 2012 Horror Nights maze “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” was a recreation of one of Murdy’s actual nightmares.

Scare actors, or scarators, as Murdy calls them, undergo a very rigorous scare training in the months leading up to late September. He works with every single performer to help them get the scare just right, working with them on timing, readiness, body language and consistency, among other things. “For the performers, there is a new show every ten seconds,” he says, noting that a performer will undergo a single scare 60,000 times during an event.

“There are a million ways to scare people,” says Murdy, but the most successful ways combine geometry and psychology. For instance, scaring people from a frontal direction is not as terrifying as a scare coming from just outside of your peripheral vision.

Many in Murdy’s scare academy, his “demented little family", are loyal actors who return back to Horror Nights year after year, only really recognizable to Murdy when they’re in character as Chucky or a girl slitting her tongue open (a prosthetic tongue, for the fain-hearted readers).

Horror Nights will be open Fridays and Saturdays in September and Thursday through Saturday in October, from 7pm to 2am. Blood Thirsty Thursdays are College Nights, featuring a pre-party at the Hard Walk Cafe on CityWalk from 6 to 8pm with food and drink specials, 20% off merchandise, a live DJ and raffle prizes for students.

Tickets can be found a ushtix.com/smc for those of you daring enough to step foot into your deepest darkest nightmares. My best piece of advice, keep looking over your shoulder and, when in doubt, look twice.