Behind-the-Screams of Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) at Universal Studios Hollywood

October 14, 2022
John Murdy 2021 HHN Headshot

Imagine being on the set of your favorite movie and the person giving you a very exclusive tour is the film director himself, revealing all the magic that happens behind-the-scenes. On top of getting the real backstage scoop, you get to ask every question you’ve ever had about that production — whether it’s about the creative process, the actors, any unrevealed detail… Sounds like a Hollywood dream, right? Well, nightmare seems more appropriate because, in this case, that (horror) movie is Halloween Horror Nights (HHN). And the director showing me around the event is none other than John Murdy himself, the creative director of HHN for Universal Studios Hollywood. If you’re not already totally obsessed with his craft (and his social media account!), you should know two things:

1. He’s the one who gifted the world with Revenge of The Mummy — The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood (John, how can we ever repay you?)

2.  He’s an expert on haunted houses — he built his first one at his parents’ house when he was only 10 years old.

So, yes, when it comes to everything macabre, the man knows what he’s doing. John, along with his Universal Orlando Resort partners, writes most of the HHN storylines and plots the haunted houses that scare the hell out of us from September to October. And while you’re still enjoying this year’s HHN, next year’s event is already being planned. I recently had the opportunity to walk with him around Universal Studios Hollywood in the midst of HHN season and even got a lights-on tour through La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, terrifying even in broad daylight.

The highlights of this inspiring (and chilling) hour-long conversation with John Murdy are what you see next.

Andrezza Duarte: John, how did you get hooked on horror?

John Murdy: I watched a scary movie with my mom some Saturday morning when I was four years old, and something just clicked. I started doing haunted houses in my parents’ house in 1977, when I was 10. The first house I built was based on a movie that had just come out. And I remember that we made everything ourselves because we couldn’t afford to buy any decorations back then.

Andrezza Duarte: It’s like a homemade HHN! Was it something you did every year?

John Murdy: I kept that going until I was 14, when my dad shut it down after seeing me run around the house carrying a real butcher knife. At this point, my haunted houses had become kind of famous in my hometown and there would be like 200 people lined outside just to go through it.

Home Haunt John Murdy

Andrezza Duarte: Well, given that you now create haunted houses for a living, it’s safe to say you’ve got your dream job! Tell me, how did your career at Universal start?

John Murdy: I started working at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1989 as a tour guide on the Studio Tour, right out of college. A couple years later I became a production assistant on World of Cinemagic, then spent most of my career with Universal Creative, creating great stuff like Revenge of The Mummy — The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood and reinventing the Studio Tour in 2000.

Andrezza Duarte: And how did you get involved with Halloween Horror Nights?

John Murdy: It was 2004 and I had been living in Orlando for a few years at that point. That’s when I got a call from the then general manager of Universal Studios Hollywood asking me if I’d consider moving back to Los Angeles and leaving the Universal Creative team to bring HHN back to the Hollywood park. But the history of the event here in Hollywood was pretty erratic. It had started in the 80’s and was on and off for about a decade. So, by the time I got that call, Universal Studios Hollywood had been out of the Halloween business for at least four years. So, it was a tough decision, especially because this is the most competitive market in the world to do what we’re doing.

Andrezza Duarte: Plus, you were doing so well in Universal Creative!

John Murdy: I had come a long way for sure. I think the first 40 things I wrote didn’t ever get produced. But I had worked all the way up to being able to design my own ride! So being asked to drop everything to try something that had no guarantees was a huge gamble.

But one that John Murdy was willing to take. He reopened HHN in Hollywood in 2006 as a much smaller event than the one we see today that only ran for seven nights and had only one haunted house and some scare zones. And one year later, John was able to implement what he calls his “master plan” — and forever changed the HHN game. He realized that what would set HHN apart from other Halloween events in town was partnering with filmmakers and licensing the event, which meant creating haunted houses and scare zones based on intellectual properties (or IPs), such as existing movies, shows and franchises. And it worked. As he says, “the proof is in the pudding.”

Andrezza Duarte: In order to put an event of this magnitude together, how soon do you start preparing for it?

John Murdy: I started working on Halloween Horror Nights 2023 in March of 2022.

Andrezza Duarte: Wait, you started planning next year’s event before this one had even started? That’s crazy!

John Murdy: Around March I usually get together with Mike Aiello [Entertainment Director] from Orlando and we kind of curate the event together. Our marketing and licensing partners also join in on these conversations. By this point, we have a good idea of what we want for the following year. There might be changes along the way, of course, but that’s the plan.

Andrezza Duarte: So, all these brilliant minds just sit together in a room and brainstorm? Sounds like quite the experience.

John Murdy: We all come to the table with ideas. We all know people in the industry from years and years of doing HHN, so we get contacted by filmmakers and artists and talk about how we can collaborate on a story.

Andrezza Duarte: Given that you write most of the narratives, can you walk me through your creative process?

John Murdy: After I open the event here in Hollywood, I’ll stay in Los Angeles for about two weeks before flying back to Ireland, where I live, and just start writing for the next several months. And I get ideas all day long, while I’m driving, sleeping…

Andrezza Duarte: It must be fascinating to live inside your mind.

John Murdy: Oh, I wouldn’t want to live there! And it’s funny, people are always like, “well, you must only watch horror movies.” I do, but I actually try to avoid horror when I’m not working. I’ll watch documentaries, old movies from the 50s… I have to mentally cleanse the palate because horror is all I do year-round. I live, eat, breathe, and sleep horror. And most of it is twisted stuff, so I gotta turn it off.

Andrezza Duarte: Is there a criteria you follow when deciding what is and isn’t HHN material?

John Murdy: There are three things we’re looking for:

  1. Good environments that we can replicate in a seasonal haunted house;
  2. Characters that translate to live performers, after all, everything we do requires actors, so we have to make sure that we can work with real talent;
  3. And if it’s based on an intellectual property, is it a movie or tv show that people know and want to see?

Andrezza Duarte: How does the research for an original content house differ from an intellectual property?

John Murdy: For original content it’s like researching a term paper for college. It’s diving down into the minutiae of research. But if we’re basing a house or a scare zone on a movie, for example, the filmmaker pitches an idea to us and I’ll watch the film for the first time just to see what it’s about. And then I’ll watch it again. And the second time around takes me the whole day, because I’m taking meticulous notes. I always ask to go through the unit photography for the film, which is every picture they took when they were making it — and that’s about 40,000 per film. Then, I’ll choose about 100 selects and work with the team from that.

Andrezza Duarte: What excites you the most about your craft: the storytelling, the artistry, the scares?

John Murdy: My favorite two parts of the project are that initial moment when I’m first creating it and it’s all brand new, and then seeing the performers bring it to life, which is really fun. When I go through a haunted house for the first time and everybody’s doing their job and the scares are working, I’m like “oh, that was all inside my head and now it’s here.” That’s pretty cool.

At this point, we’ve already walked around the park for a bit and finally reached the entrance of what’s probably my favorite house of this year’s event: La Llorona: The Weeping Woman. As a Latin American woman, I grew up listening to the many variations of this urban legend. I don’t mean to scare you to death, so I’ll just give you the opening sentence of the tale: La Llorona is the ghost of a mother who drowned her two children in a river. Dark, I know. And the haunted house is set up as if a grandmother was telling the story to her grandchildren — usually how these tales get passed on from generation to generation. And what’s very original about his approach is that John has explored what comes after said story time: when the kids go to bed, what are their dreams like? (Haunted is an understatement.)

Andrezza Interview John Murdy La Llorona

Andrezza Duarte: Let’s talk about La Llorona. Why did you pick this specific Latin American tale for HHN?

John Murdy: We first brought the story of La Llorona to HHN Hollywood in 2010, originally as a scare zone and part of the Terror Tram. In 2011, we did the first house based on it and then again in 2012. And now, 10 years later, we’re bringing it back. Our priority, then and now, was to ensure the authenticity of the tale, because we’re dealing with a 500-year-old Latin American myth that I, personally, didn’t grow up with. It wasn’t part of my cultural heritage, so we needed to make sure we had it right. And as soon as we started diving into this, we were like “this is dark stuff,” which makes it perfect for HHN.

Andrezza Duarte: The details in the La Llorona haunted house are so elaborate that you’re completely immersed from the beginning. What are some can’t-miss details?

John Murdy: The facade out front is based on a real structure that’s in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a Mission Church from the 1600s. If you look at the two bell towers, the window with the bars and the doorway, when light goes through it, it looks like a screaming face. That’s the kind of detail and effect we make sure every haunted house has.

La Llorona Haunted House USH HHN2022

Andrezza Duarte: It’s so cool that the event highlights different cultures.

John Murdy: HHN has really been putting the hispanic culture on the spotlight in a big way. After all, this is Los Angeles — it’s in the name! So, introducing something that terrifies one culture to people who maybe haven’t even heard the story before hopefully delivers an authentic experience.

As we’re walking through the haunted house, we come to a small wooden bridge. When I look down at the water, I see the bodies of Maria’s (La Llorona’s original name) two kids. They’re facing down. Drowned. Even in broad daylight, that image stuck with me. Yeah, yeah, I know none of this is real, but HHN makes sure I forget that for a second. I’m speechless and John notices.

John Murdy: This is probably the most disturbing scene in the history of Horror Nights and it doesn’t even involve blood. It was dark 10 years ago, it’s darker now.

Andrezza Duarte: When writing the stories for HHN, how do you know if you’ve gone too far on the horror?

John Murdy: Horror should make you uncomfortable, that’s the tricky thing about Horror Nights. We’re always walking that line and trying to determine what’s too much and how far we can push. But in the case of La Llorona we had no choice. Many of our guests here in Hollywood grew up with this story, they know it intimately. So, we have to deliver content that’s true to the community.

Andrezza Duarte: What reaction do you expect from guests coming out of the haunted houses?

John Murdy: It’s funny, this is something I do all the time: I like to sit at the exit of the house and just watch people come out. That’s the best feedback. And what I usually see is screaming and then laughter, almost immediately afterwards. It’s a nervous reaction. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s normal. If that happens, then everything’s good.

Andrezza Duarte: Do you ever get nightmares?

John Murdy: Nothing in here haunts my dreams.

Speak for yourself, John Murdy!

La Llorona USH HHN2022

Did you make it out of La Llorona safe and sound? What’s your favorite haunted house of this year’s Halloween Horror Nights? Share your experience with us on our social media accounts or in the comments below!

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