A set decorator is adding foam to a pint of beer, one piece of cotton at a time. Another secures knickknacks to a desk, for in this world of immersive, interactive theater, objects have a tendency to wander off in pockets. Nearby, a creative director discusses the choreography that will soon fill the scene, where a character will engage in a ballet-like dance to lead the audience from one room to the next.
“Elegant” and “patient” are words peppered in the conversation by John Murdy, the architect of the scene, to describe the actor’s movements. Making eye contact with the participants, and even extending a hand, he says, will be paramount in establishing an intimate connection for what is expected to be a centerpiece moment in the debut of Jordan Peele’s “Us” maze at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights inside Universal Studios Hollywood.
The scares will come later, but in crafting a walk-through attraction themed to “Us,” Murdy is more interested in taking his time, letting guests luxuriate in the head games the existential horror film provides, crafting a maze with detailed suburban houses to toy with who’s dead, who’s alive, who’s real and who’s a doppelgänger. While largely recreating and referencing scenes from the film, an ending will seek to recall the work’s more personal themes, with guests having to navigate a living mini-maze where actors come together and apart to create new paths and establish a closeness with the audience.
No theme park Halloween event for adults is complete without the requisite dude with a chainsaw, but at Southern California’s major parks, each launching specially ticketed Halloween events this month, walk-through attractions are increasingly feeling like theater. Narrative also takes a prime focus at Orange County’s Knott’s Scary Farm, where one new maze set in the park’s famed Old West area Ghost Town, will explore the origins of witchcraft. Even the family-friendly Disneyland Resort, which had long avoided the maze trend, has entered the space with a villains-themed trail seeded with fantastical, otherworldly set pieces as part of its Oogie Boogie Bash.
Taken together, they show that Halloween season can be as funny and dream-like as it is creepy and bone-chilling. With Halloween season now a multi-month affair, tricks and treats are a lifestyle choice, and one that’s bringing us a wide-range of live-in narrative experiences that explore play through discovery.
Universal, in particular, with two key additions this year is more fully exploring the breadth of horror, be it the metaphorical “Us” or the humorous world of “Ghostbusters,” each following in the wake of the returning “Stranger Things,” which made it clear that Horror Nights could be more subtle in their approach to fear. The special effects-heavy “Ghostbusters” attraction expands on the lore of the films, incorporating at least one scene from the script that didn’t make the film.
“When I started doing this 14 years ago,” Murdy says on the Universal backlot, “my vision was to bring horror movies to life. I knew fans of horror movies would go crazy for that, and they did. In the early days it was Freddy, Jason, Leatherface and Michael Myers — it was just slashers. We were very specific in that subgenre of horror.”
Today, however, Murdy says he’s just as interested in “playing against the genre.”
“Ghostbusters” is an example of that, which Murdy says fell into Universal’s lap due to Sony Pictures wanting to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the film. One scene essentially brings guests inside the ghost containment unit, where they’ll see ghosts looking bored and playing cards. The maze also show us how ghosts navigate the city, as rooms are connected with subway-like signage indicating a sort of supernatural thoroughfare to drop specters off at various scare locales.
Tricks of the light, and old-fashioned magic such as the Pepper’s Ghost effect, will pair with a large Stay Puft figure in the grand finale, where models representing the original “Ghostbusters” actors will be zapping the marshmallow creature with LED blasts designed to mimic neon. It won’t necessarily be frightening but it will be full of color, humor and good ol’ theme park wizardry.
And if guests find it funny rather than scary, Murdy points out the line between the two emotions may be thinner than most people think. “I’ve noticed something over the years with our guests,” he says. “Usually when they come out of a maze they’re screaming and they’re freaked out by whatever that last thing was that scared them. Then they immediately start laughing. I’ve just noticed that laughing comes very close on the heels of screaming. It’s similar to riding a roller coaster. You’re screaming the whole way and then you get to the end and bust out a laugh.”
In contrast, the “Us” maze is about the slow build, with guests exploring the homes of the families central to the film. There are plenty of creepy bunnies and typical scares built out of two-way mirrors that are only triggered by light, but the maze is more about creating a mood. Look up, or around a corner, to see something or someone unexpected. “Us” relies heavily on its performers, whether they’re dancing or standing stoically as they pretend to scar their faces.
“You want to break up the hard scares,” says Murdy. “Not everything can be a guy jumping out at you trying to stab you with a pair of scissors, especially with a film like ‘Us.’ It’s such a nuanced movie, so you want to have moments that are playing off those things that are unique to the film. It has different flavors. It’s like writing a piece of music. You want it to go up and down and have an arc to it.”
While theme parks have gradually been moving into a more narrative direction with their Halloween scares, Knott’s Scary Farm veteran and the designer of this year’s Haunted Hayride at Griffith Park Jon Cooke says the push was accelerated by the growth of immersive theater. Smaller, independent Halloween events such as Creep Los Angeles, whose event this year Haus of Creep promises to provide a “terrifying sendup of social-media-driven culture,” provide a more one-to-one interaction between guests and actors, which Cooke says changed audience expectations and has shifted larger theme parks away from pure chilly thrills.
“It kind of exposed the audience to deeper dives into immersive fear,” Cooke says, noting the challenge for a Knott’s or a Universal is providing that personal touch while still accommodating thousands of people per hour. One solution at Knott’s was the maze Paranormal, Inc., which begins with a more theatrical performance. “It starts off with a mini-show, so you become part of this show, and all these ghost occurrences happen, and by the time it’s over the room has been divided in half naturally, and that puts you off onto two different tracks.”
It’s consistently among Knott’s top-rated mazes, which Cooke says allowed him to push further this year with Origins: The Curse of Calico, the Ghost Town set maze that focuses on a witch on a sort of revenge quest. It will still feel similar to the mazes of about a decade ago, but only now with more plot. “With the big boom of all these [Halloween] events, we all realized that you can startle people in so many different ways,” Cooke said. “And then when you started to see this big development in storytelling, and that has become the focal point. How do we make these stories believable?”
At Disneyland, the evolution of the Halloween maze has found its way to California Adventure as part of the park’s sold-out Oogie Boogie Bash, where guests can walk through what the park is calling Villains Groove, a trail that will reside in the nature-themed Grizzly Peak area of the park.
While Disney reps shy away from calling it a maze, believing that conjures a more scare-focused environment — which this most definitely is not — the trail will be filled with luminescent fixtures and effects designed to evoke various Disney evildoers, such as a waterfall with a Maleficent-like glow or a lightning storm conjured by the Queen from “Snow White.”
“We generally associate Halloween mazes with our other Southern California parks as being horror-based,” says Jordan Peterson, a show director at Disney Parks, at a media event. He quickly acknowledges, however, that such a definition is shifting.
“They’ve evolved from being a literal maze to just experiential designed locations.”
Where: Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
When: Thursday – Sunday, 7 p.m., through Nov. 3
Tickets: $64 - $102
Information: (866) 258-6546, hollywood.halloweenhorrornights.com
Where: Knott’s Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd, Buena Park
When: Select Thursday – Sunday evenings, 7 p.m., Sept. 19 through Nov. 2
Tickets: $43 -$157.99
Information: (714) 220-5200, knotts.com/play/scary-farm
Oogie Boogie Bash
Where: Disney California Adventure,1313 Disneyland Drive
When: Select nights Sept. 17 – Oct. 31
Information: 714) 781-4636, disneyland.disney.go.com