Behind-the-Scenes, Events

Behind-the-Scares Look at “Holidayz in Hell” with John Murdy

September 12, 2023
Man in prom suit tied up next to heart reading "kill"

John Murdy’s foray into horror came when he was just four years old. His mom let him watch the Universal classic horror movie, “Frankenstein” one Saturday afternoon. When the film ended, she found little John sobbing in front of the television. She likely thought what most parents would in that situation: Uh-oh. Maybe this was a little young to watch “Frankenstein.”

“But when she started talking to me, she realized I wasn’t scared at all,” John says. “I was empathizing with the monster. Because all of our classic horror films are, in essence, tragedies. And even at four years old, I related to Frankenstein’s monster.”

That fueled a young obsession with the Universal monster movies, which took John all the way to where he is now: the creative director/executive producer of Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) at Universal Studios Hollywood. In short, John is responsible for all the stuff that scares the crap out of you at HHN. And while he may not be a four-year-old crying in front of the TV anymore, John’s work at HHN remains rooted in that moment. From understanding the monsters comes commitment to character, storytelling, and worldbuilding — in other words, everything that makes HHN so much more than a haunted house. 

Man standing in haunted house.

That commitment shines through in the Haunted House, “Holidayz in Hell.” The crowd favorite returns this year after terrifying droves of fans as a Scare Zone in 2018, then as a fully realized house in 2019. In it, guests experience major holidays from New Year’s Day to July 4th to Thanksgiving — well, the most terrifying versions of each holiday imaginable, of course. 

For “Holidayz in Hell,” John reached into the depths of his childhood psyche, and pulled out the things that terrified him the most. We get glimpses of his horrifying visits to the Easter Bunny, his fear of getting his fingers blown off on Independence Day, and even a look into his current life in Ireland for a (rather ghastly) St. Patrick’s Day. 

I got the pleasure (is that the right word when a RabbitZilla is involved?) of a personal walk-through of “Holidayz in Hell” with the head honcho himself. 

Grace Perry: Tell me about your general inspiration for “Holidayz in Hell.”
John Murdy: The inspiration actually came from vintage postcards. If you ever look back at Victorian Christmas postcards or greeting cards, they’re incredibly creepy. Pick any holiday. If you go back to the 1800s, they’re incredibly disturbing. So when I started working on this house, the first thing I did was a ton of research on that exactly, pulling old greeting cards and postcards. And it kind of informed the design, particularly with the original artwork we created for this attraction.

Demon Father Time stands in front of Happy New Year mural

GP: We’re at the very beginning of the house now — tell us about this room.

JM: We start out front with a big Happy New Year postcard. It’s the countdown to New Years — 10…9…8…7…6… And we see Father Time as a huge stilt-walking character out front. When we come inside, we start with New Year’s Day, which is the beginning of the calendar year. 

Then we step inside and find ourselves in a nursery that’s gone horribly wrong. All of the skeletal children are screaming and crying. And the artwork is all riffing off of different Mother Goose stories — except, the dark version of them.

Demon nurse holds skeletal baby next to crib

This scene is all about the birth of Baby New Year, the first child born on New Year’s Day. We created a character called Baby New Year, who’s repulsive and terrifying, and a character we call the Nightmare Nurse. She’s done like one of those old nurses from the turn-of-the-century, early 1900s, and she’s carrying a crying infant. But when you see the baby, it’s a demon baby. 

GP: Naturally. All right, so we’re leaving New Years, and now we’re entering…

JM: …Valentine’s Day. So when we started thinking about how we wanted to depict Valentine’s, the idea of an old fashioned Tunnel of Love came up. And of course, the character would be Cupid. So we’ve created an HHN version of Cupid. 

All of the light bulbs in the scene are painted with invisible black light, and when you hit them with a strobe, they look like they illuminate. So all of the lights are chasing and sending you down the Tunnel of Love. But Cupid’s waiting for you to essentially rip your heart out. 

Demon Cupid holds knife above bloody woman on table

GP: Of course, that’s Cupid’s thing. 

JM: The inspiration for this scene in Valentine’s Day is, first of all, bad prom attire from late 1970s, early ‘80s. We have the boyfriend and girlfriend who are all set for prom, but Cupid has fired a multitude of arrows into their body. So Cupid can reach into her and pull her heart literally out of her body as she screams bloody murder.

GP: And now we’re leaving Valentine’s Day and heading into St. Patrick’s Day. You live in Ireland most of the year, right?

JM: I’ve lived in Ireland for about six years now, in the county of Donegal. And one thing that you have plenty of in that part of Ireland is abandoned, old farmhouses. So I literally drove around the countryside and took pictures of some — you know, with the traditional thatched roof, kind of cliché Irish cottages — and then sent them to my art director, Chris Williams, so that he could replicate it. 

Exterior of Irish farmhouse

GP: Which we see here as the entrance to the Leprechaun’s home. 

JM: This part of the house is all about heading to the Leprechaun’s house. The Leprechaun, of course, is protecting his gold and is afraid that you’re going to steal it. So he’s going to take anybody out with his shillelagh. Anybody who tries to get their hands on the gold will not only be killed by the Leprechaun, but then he’s going to pour molten gold all over your body. So that’s why you see these gold-plated bones. 

To make you feel like you’re in a Leprechaun’s house, we shrunk everything, put the windows at a much lower level, and scaled it all down. So then when you walk in, you feel really big.

Demon Easter Bunny holds bat up to two guests in haunted house

GP: And now we’re heading into my favorite part of the house — or, maybe my least favorite, I don’t know…

JM: I’m sure you’ve seen all the memes on the internet of kids from like the ‘50s, ‘60s, ’70s ‘til today, sitting on the Easter Bunny’s lap screaming and crying and freaking out. So that was part of our research and that inspired this particular piece of artwork. “Come meet the Easter Bunny!” When I was a kid, I went to malls to sit on the Easter Bunny’s lap and I hated it. The Easter Bunny freaked me out. I’m like, “Why is there a giant dude in a bunny costume?” When you break it down, it’s really creepy.

So in this scene, we have our classic Easter photo op in a shopping mall where the kids are screaming. We purposely sourced the worst bunny costumes that we could possibly find on the internet, because they’re always tacky looking. And all of this is a visual distraction because the scare is the Easter Bunny himself, which is a rabbit-man: half of his body is skinned and the other half has fur. 

Large colorful Easter eggs with demon rabbit popping out

GP: And this all feels very 1970s with the tacky wallpaper and the rainbow floors. 

JM: Yeah, I grew up in the ‘70s. And even as a kid, you knew that mustard yellow, avocado green, and covering all your furniture in plastic so it wouldn’t get messed up was just wrong. So when it came time to design this scene, I was like, Oh, we’re setting this in the ‘70s. It’s the creepiest time period. 

GP: And tell me about this horrifying rabbit I’m looking at? 

JM: That’s RabbitZilla. 

GP: Well, sure.

JM: And now we transition to the Fourth of July. We’re at Yankee Doodle Fireworks, a patriotic themed roadside fireworks stand where everything is caught on fire and is exploding. And in doing that, that meant we had to create our own brand of fireworks. So, our artist Lucas Culshaw, who does all the original house artwork for all of our houses, created fake labels for fireworks. Like the Red Monster and the Mauler.

Fireworks branded "Red Monster"

GP: I see Red Monster Fireworks, and the Mauler, with a graphic of somebody’s hand with all the fingers blown off. 

JM: And then the character here we call Fireworks Kid. And it’s that classic thing your parents would always tell you: “You’ll blow your fingers off!” And in his case, Fireworks Kid has blown both his legs off. He’s horribly mutilated. He can’t even talk because his whole mouth has been blown apart. And he’s holding a big, giant, lit firework in his hand.

GP: You don’t want to be Fireworks Kid. 

JM: In the next scene, we run into Uncle Sam himself, who sets off all of the fireworks at once. So these lighting instruments that you see inside these crates, these are what we call a “maniac.” It’s a combination of an intelligent light fixture and a fog machine. So you can create the effect of a big explosion. That’s all tied to what we call the trigger, which is a switch that the scare actor can hit that controls their own point source, audio, and lighting and most effects. But in this scene, it also controls these two maniacs.

GP: So it’s huge chaos — you don’t know where you are, what’s up and what’s down.

JM: And then we head to the holiday that we’re celebrating during Halloween Horror Nights. 

For Halloween, we take you inside a giant Jack-o’-lantern, and the entire scene is under blacklight. There are all kinds of pumpkins that are painted UV — some are on mannequins, and some are on scare actors. So under the blacklight, you just see a whole bunch of floating pumpkin heads all over the room. But several of them are performers. And you don’t know what’s what…

Floating Jack-o-lanters frighten three people in a haunted house.

GP: …Until they start moving. Obviously, you could’ve gone in a million different directions with Halloween. But it seems like you’re playing off the most classic version of each holiday. 

JM: Exactly. So for example, like Thanksgiving. Everybody who grew up in America knows that famous image of this classic Midwestern American family sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal. So we wanted to take that idea of the traditional artwork you always see of a family — grandpa and grandma, the kids, mom and dad. But in this one, the turkeys are taking revenge on the humans. 

So we call this character Turkey Lurkey — there’s two of them in this scene, and they’re dressed like Pilgrims. But they’re turkeys that are bent on killing all the humans for killing so many turkeys on Thanksgiving.

GP: Understandable. It’s bound to happen. 

JM: Our props and dressing team creates everything and brings it to life. And that includes creating fake food that looks absolutely real. So if you look at the green beans or stuffing, it looks like you could stick a sponge in it and put it on a plate. 

GP: Nope. It just feels like a sponge. But it looks delicious. 

Satan in a Santa Claus outfit holds axe

JM: We end at Christmas, which is the final holiday of the year. We decided to set this at a Christmas tree lot. So there’s lighting effects that create the feel of falling snow. But all the trees in the lot are strung with the intestines of the people that Satan Claus — that’s our version of Santa Claus — has killed. 

The performer playing Satan Claus busts through the fence, ready to hack us to bits. And then we have Satan’s little helpers, the elves, attacking us as well. There’s four different performers in this one scene. So this function is like a pinball machine: it’s like, ping-ping-ping-ping! You’re getting scared from one side, to the other, then back to the other…

Demon winter lady scares guests at haunted house

GP: It’s like, Oh, you think you’re done? Think again. 

JM: Right. Oftentimes with a haunted house, it’s about what you leave them with. So you always go out on what we call the Final Scare. And then sometimes we have the Final Final Scare. Yeah. And then sometimes we have the Final Final Final scare. I think in some houses this year, we have the Final Final Final Final scare. We learned over time that when you get to the end of the house, you want to just go, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!

What part of this year’s Halloween Horror Nights are you most excited for? Let us know on social media or in the comments below.

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