Neil Druckmann on how ‘The Last of Us’ became a haunted house at Universal Studios
A hit television series, a comic book and even a brief, one-off stage play, “The Last of Us” has been a multimedia success since its 2013 release date. But one medium perhaps more than any other signifies that “The Last of Us” has become a cultural phenomena. This September, “The Last of Us” will make its debut as a theme park attraction, becoming one of the centerpiece haunted mazes in Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights on both coasts.
Neil Druckmann, the game’s writer and the co-creator of the HBO series starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, has long been a theme park admirer, having attended Halloween Horror Nights in the past and often making small talk during interviews by discussing the latest attractions. “I think it’s like the ultimate escape,” Druckmann says of his love of theme parks. “When you’re on that ride, or going through a maze like this, you’re somewhere else. You’re not thinking about the world. You get to be transported somewhere, and the good ones tell a story. I’ve fantasized about working on something like this.”
He has the social media history to prove it. Back in 2021, while discussing the merits of Universal Studios’ rides themed to “The Mummy” on the site formerly known as Twitter, Druckmann showed his desire to see “The Last of Us” at Halloween Horror Nights. “Who do I need to talk to?!” Druckmann tweeted, and in a month he was taking meetings with the likes of John Murdy, the key architect of the Universal Studios Hollywood event.
“I was hopeful,” Druckmann says, when asked if he truly thought his tweet could result in a maze at the parks. “This was two years ago, and ‘The Last of Us’ had been pretty successful at that point. I have hundreds of thousands of followers, and even though Twitter can be a toxic mess, I just hoped it reached the right person.”
When Halloween Horror Nights opens Sept. 7 at Universal Studios Hollywood, it will do so with a “The Last of Us”-inspired maze that aims to up the level of theatricality in a haunted house. Taking its cues from the Naughty Dog-developed video game — so much so that its key voice-over artists have returned to lend their talents to the maze — “The Last of Us” will place guests in the grim, cynical landscapes of a near mid-portion of the game set in Pittsburgh. The game’s protagonists — hardened survivor Joel and Ellie, the young girl he’s tasked to protect — figure heavily in the attraction, which will attempt to show their bond. Aside from a maze of jump scares, however, expect a foreboding atmosphere with themes of dread and a depiction of suicide.
As a game and a television series, “The Last of Us” was as much marked by action as it was a deep dive into the lasting effects of trauma. The game and series delved into the emotional sacrifices and personal betrayals one will justify and endure to survive in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal infection that turns humans into zombie-like creatures.
Don’t expect the maze to go that deep, as its emphasis will be on thrills as well as the burgeoning familial bond between Joel and Ellie, but Murdy says those are among the themes that make “The Last of Us” ripe for further exploration. He points to the game’s harrowing opening moments, when Joel loses his daughter at the start of a pandemic, as a scene that has forever stuck with him.
“It’s extremely relatable,” Murdy says. “As a dad, the opening scene rips your heart out. As a teen, I think they would identify more with Ellie. Her journey is all about growing up, but in a very horror kind of way. And now, because we went through our own pandemic, we can relate to that postapocalyptic environment from the game. The game was kind of like Nostradamus. We can all relate to that. We know the fear of spores in the air that can infect you. Horror, as a genre, is cyclical, and it’s always tapping into the existential threat of the times that it’s made.”
Expect plenty of callbacks to the game. In-game collectibles such as notes or a child’s artwork are peppered throughout the space, sometimes on walls and on floors. Horror Nights, which is erected in a few weeks each year, marries a bit of old-fashioned theatricality with theme park trickery, such as a heavily detailed Humvee made of foam and then placed on a track, triggered by guests stepping through nearly invisible light banner placed low to the ground.
“The Last of Us” maze gets more claustrophobic the deeper it gets, as once one gets into the Pittsburgh sewers they’ll come face to face with fungi-infected humans in various states of transformation. A clever use of props and prosthetic humans will attempt to divert attention away from where the scare actors are stationed, but some scenes are designed to pay off heroic video game moments more so than they are to scare guests. There’s a set piece, for instance, in which an actor playing Joel will trigger a series of lighting and sound effects to create the illusion of firing an arrow into an enemy’s chest.
“So much of the story is those two characters,” says Druckmann of wanting to feature Joel and Ellie so heavily in the Horror Nights maze. “Without them, it could feel like other similar stories in that genre. We had the choice of doing a montage — ‘best-of’ scenes from the game, or what we decided to do was to focus on one area as if you’re moving in real time alongside Joel and Ellie.”
Some harrowing video game challenges will also be brought to life, such as a moment in which Joel is attempting to start a generator. Scenes like this weren’t in Murdy’s original treatment, but were pushed by Druckmann to be included because of their importance to fans of the game. “When people talk about the first game — the most tense part — they always mention the basement in the hotel to turn on the generator,” says Druckmann, noting that when he watches play-throughs of the game players will tend to sigh at that scene. “They’re like, ‘Here we go.’ They just prep for it. Fans will know immediately what this represents.”
The maze does get rather dark for a Horror Nights event. Murdy says the team tried to re-create the scent of burning flesh, and in one sad but horrific room we’ll see that a trio of trapped humans resorted to suicide and mercy killings rather than risk a run-in with the infected. Murdy was asked if there was any concern about depicting something that could be emotionally triggering to guests. “No,” he says, reasoning that “it’s in the game.”
Joel and Ellie will appear so frequently in the maze that multiple actors will be required to portray them in the different scenes. “This one has a lot more theatrical moments than a typical haunted house,” says Murdy, noting that actors will lip sync dialogue, as is normal for a Halloween Horror Nights event, written specifically for the maze by Druckmann. The game’s voice actors Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) return to reprise their roles. Actors have to lip sync due to the pace and loudness of the mazes.
“Our mantra with Horror Nights is that it’s a new show every 10 seconds,” Murdy says. “We try to design things within that window. It’s about the average length of time it takes someone to talk through a scene. We try to choreograph whatever we’re doing so it’s repeatable, and no matter where you walk in on it, you hopefully get the gist of it.”
Having written for the game, a comic, the HBO series and now a theme park attraction, it’s joked that Druckmann will be rewriting “The Last of Us” for the entirety of his career. “Next I will talk about [‘The Last of Us’] interpretive dance,” Druckmann says. “By the way, if that’s the rest of my career, I’m OK with it. I love this world.”
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios
The most important theme park ride ever created? It may just be the Universal Studios tram tour, which dates to the silent film era. Once primarily a behind-the-scenes tour, the trek has evolved to define the modern theme park.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.