How do you make ‘The Shining’ maze scary? Universal’s Horror Nights unleashes Jack with an ax
After a decade of failed attempts, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy finally landed the rights to turn Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” into a haunted maze and immediately ran into his worst fear.
“What am I going to do?” Murdy asked himself. “How am I going to make this scary?”
Based on the 1977 Stephen King book, the horror film follows aspiring writer Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, after he accepts an off-season caretaker job at the haunted Overlook Hotel. The hotel’s horrific history reveals itself during a blizzard that leaves the Torrance family snowbound.
The challenges of turning the movie into a maze were daunting, Murdy said. All the scenes take place in one location. Many of the film’s most visual moments don’t lend themselves to a haunted maze. The 1980 movie is more psychological than the visceral slasher films of the era. Much of the action happens inside Jack’s head.
“It’s the whole idea of Jack’s descent into madness,” Murdy said during a preview tour of the maze. “Like a lot of movies of its time, it’s a slow burn.”
To tackle the daunting task, Murdy made a list of all the movie scenes he most wanted to include in the maze and then figured out how to pull them off theatrically with live actors.
The film’s psychological, psychic, telepathic and supernatural elements are difficult to represent in a haunted maze. The key, Murdy said, was to focus on the core fear in “The Shining”: a foreboding sense of impending dread.
“The overall feeling is that something bad is going to happen,” Murdy said.
Murdy’s storytelling breakthrough came when he decided to have the ax-wielding Jack chase visitors throughout the entire maze.
“That’s really the trick,” Murdy said. “When to be absolutely faithful to the film, when to reinterpret something in the film to make it work and when to have a guy with an ax just jump in like he’s going to chop you in half.”
“The Shining” marks the first time a Kubrick movie or a King book has been turned into a Halloween Horror Nights maze at Universal Studios Hollywood.
“We kind of get to do the best of both worlds,” Murdy said.
Murdy read all of Stephen King’s books as a kid, but his parents wouldn’t let him see “The Shining” when the movie first came out in theaters. In high school, he worked nights at Video City in Hacienda Heights and screened the Kubrick film for the first time one night after the store closed.
“I remember loving it,” Murdy said. “It’s considered a masterpiece of modern horror.”
The initially panned movie has developed a cult following among Kubrick aficionados, even spawning a “Room 237” documentary detailing the film’s “hidden themes” of Native American genocide, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Holocaust and the mythic story of the Minotaur. Murdy and his team decided to keep the maze focused on the original film.
“It’s crazy when you start reading all the theories out there,” Murdy said.
Murdy’s storytelling process began with a dissection of the movie that took eight hours, pausing every few seconds to take notes on dialogue, costumes, scenic decor, props, lighting effects and audio cues. Then a 100-page story treatment was married to the contours of the physical maze layout.
“The balancing act that we have to do is to hit all those beats of the film, be true to Stanley Kubrick’s vision, deliver those iconic visuals and scare the hell out of people at the same time,” Murdy said. “Psychologically, physically and visually.”
Spoiler alert: What follows is a detailed description of “The Shining” haunted maze coming to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The natural instinct was to make the movie’s Overlook Hotel the entrance to the maze, but Murdy and his team quickly realized that wouldn’t work.
“That hotel is so large,” Murdy said. “If you tried to scale it, it would end up looking like Stonehenge in that scene in ‘Spinal Tap.’ It would look that silly.”
Instead, the designers went with a simple hedge maze entrance that hinted at the conclusion of the film and the haunted maze.
The first scene takes visitors past a door with “redrum” scrawled in red lipstick (“murder” spelled backward).
Around the corner, Jack is hard at work on his typewriter, but his production turns out to be highly repetitive. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” covers the walls, ceiling and floor.
One of the most technical scenes in the maze shows the ghostly Grady twins before and after their bloody murder at the hands of their caretaker father, who preceded Jack at the Overlook Hotel.
A Pepper’s Ghost mirror-image illusion utilizing angled glass makes it look like the twins magically appear and disappear at the end of the hallway. It took three attempts to get the theatrical trick to work properly, Murdy said.
“It involves a lot of math and we were wrong,” Murdy said. “It really is like a mad science project to do this stuff.”
Kubrick fans will marvel at the attention to detail in the hallway scene of “The Shining” maze.
During my visit to the maze, all the 2’s were missing from the hotel doors leading to room 237, the most haunted room in the hotel.
“The 2’s were wrong,” Murdy said. “They weren’t exactly the right font. So we had to replace all the 2’s.”
Horror Nights maze designers matched the psychedelic geometric pattern of the orange, brown and red carpet lining the hallway in the film.
“We got into the carpet business this year, which we’ve never really worried about in the past,” Murdy said.
At the end of the hall, a mannequin version of Jack’s son Danny sits on the tricycle he uses to explore the hotel.
The transformation of a beautiful young woman into a decomposing old hag will be handled in the maze with a rear-projection screen behind the bathtub.
“It’s pure visual,” Murdy said. “Nothing happens as far as characters.”
Murdy is anxious to see how the bathroom scene plays out with millennial audiences accustomed to instant gratification.
“Horror movies have very definitely changed, especially the pacing of the movies,” Murdy said. “I think most modern-day audiences would have a really hard time getting through the horror movies I grew up on, like ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Shining.’”
The old woman will follow visitors from the bathroom into the most-feared room in the Overlook Hotel.
The “scareactor” portraying the old woman in Room 237 will wear a printed spandex creature suit that looks like a naked, decomposing body. The flexible and breathable lightweight material is designed to allow the actress to perform the 10-second scene hundreds of times per night.
“We’re always trying to find the next technology we can use,” Murdy said. “We got a lot into printing technologies this year.”
The ballroom scene will be filled with skeletons, some more animated than others. A jarring transition from a big band orchestra version of a dreamy “Moonlight, the Stars and You” to a nails-on-a-chalkboard orchestral piece by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki brings the skeletons in the room to life.
Just like Jack in the movie, maze visitors will run into a guy in bear costume and a tuxedoed man with a severed skull.
“Those are brief little moments in the film, but we wanted to include them in the maze,” Murdy said.
The highlight of the maze is expected to be a re-creation of Danny’s premonition that is only briefly glimpsed in the movie: a cascade of blood gushing from an elevator door.
“I would characterize this as an impossible scene to reproduce in a maze,” Murdy said. “You can’t dump 40,000 gallons of blood every 10 seconds.”
The solution: A high-resolution rear-projection clip from the movie combined with a practical elevator set.
Maze designers ran out of fake blood — twice — while dressing the scene, much to Murdy’s displeasure. He sent them back for more.
“We’re going to go much more hog wild in here with the blood,” he said.
An animatronic ax will smash through the bathroom door in the most iconic scene from the film, in which Jack quotes Ed McMahon’s customary introduction of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
The maze ends just like the movie — with Jack chasing his victims through the snow as a voice echoes, “You are the caretaker; you’ve always been the caretaker.” A pair of five-ton air conditioners blow cold air into the maze’s garden labyrinth.
“The Shining” has been high on Horror Nights fans’ “most requested” list for a long time. And Murdy’s bucket list.
“I’d been wanting this forever,” he said. “From the very beginning.”
While Kubrick only made one horror movie, plenty of King stories would make perfect Halloween Horror Nights mazes. Murdy is waiting to see the reception for “It,” which is also on fans’ “most requested” list. “Carrie” is unlikely, Murdy said, mostly because of the need for pyrotechnics. Same for “Firestarter.” “Dead Zone” wouldn’t work as a maze, he said. “Salem’s Lot” remains a real possibility, though. And so does “Children of the Corn.”
“Something creeps me out about ‘Children of the Corn,’” Murdy said.
Halloween Horror Nights 2017 runs on select nights from Sept. 15 through Nov. 4 at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Parental Advisory: While every kid’s fear factor varies, it remains up to parents to determine what’s appropriate for their children. In my experience, kids let you know when they’re ready. If you think of Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest as PG-rated and Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt as PG-13, then Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights would carry an R rating.
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