"Unmasking Halloween Horror Nights: A Conversation with Universal Studios Hollywood Creative Director, John Murdy" By Jason Anders

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, known early on as Fright Nights at Universal Studios Florida in 1991, has been terrifying guests for over 25 years, now taking place in Orlando, Hollywood, Singapore and Japan. John Murdy, Creative Director of Universal Studios Hollywood, was kind enough to invite me up to his office (overlooking the historic Universal backlot) to talk about his life, career and behind-the-screams stories of producing the definitive Halloween party we're all dying to attend...  

Jason Anders: I can't believe I'm conducting an interview on the Universal lot.

John Murdy: So much great history here. You'll see things around this lot that are definite reminders of not only the earliest days of the studio, but the tour as well. The old Runaway Train is just sitting on Denver street. It's a trip being around Universal for so long; you're constantly reminded of your past.
(The Runaway Train on the Universal Tram Tour)
JA: I love that the Psycho set is still on the tram tour and that Norman Bates chases after you with a knife...

JM: Yeah, I wrote that! That was my idea.

JA: I read that you played a huge part in the refurbishment of the Bates mansion.

JM: Yes, it's one of my favorite films. The house is the original house but it's been moved several times from the original filming location. Psycho was originally a Paramount film and the last film for that studio of Alfred Hitchcock's career. At the time he wasn't churning out the hits and it was deemed a low budget B-movie. Either Paramount wouldn't let him film Psycho on the lot, or the stages were reserved for other productions. He had already been doing Alfred Hitchcock Presents here at Universal, so Hitchcock shot the vast majority of Psycho on this backlot and today it is a Universal film, so are the sequels. The original filming location is directly above Jaws where the Chicken Ranch set is, which has been used in everything from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) to Murder, She Wrote (1984) to Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003.)

The house was originally a true facade, not fully enclosed, and it was moved to the location it is today for Psycho II (1983) and III (1986.)
(John Murdy on the set of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho)
JA: Do you remember what originally sparked your interest in horror movies?

JM: My mom made the mistake of allowing me to watch the original Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff when I was four years old. I grew up primarily in the 1970s and during that time the classic Universal horror films were experiencing quite a revival; that's when the Aurora monster models came out and on television every town had an Elvira-like host of a horror show who would always re-run the classic Universal horror movies on Saturdays.

So she let me watch Frankenstein and when she came back I was crying...

JA: Do you remember what made you cry?

JM: The ending, absolutely. What my mom quickly figured out was that I wasn't afraid of Frankenstein, I was crying because I felt so bad for him. The great power of the classic Universal horror films is that the monsters are sympathetic characters, and that was never more true than with Frankenstein. When you really look at that film, everyone around him is a monster - the villagers with the torches and the pitchforks running around our little Europe set downstairs, setting the windmill on fire. He is a poor, hapless creature that was stitched together from the body parts of criminals who were put to death and robbed from graves. He didn't have a choice. He was brought to life by electricity and throughout the entire film he's just trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, and specifically looking for a friend. It's so damn sad.
(Bride of Frankenstein - 1935)
They're still sad to me today. When I watch Bride of Frankenstein (1935) there's that incredibly powerful scene when they finally bring the Bride to life and he reaches out to put his hand on her shoulder and she hisses at him like a cat. The look on Karloff's face is heartbreaking.

From a very early age I was obsessed with the Universal Monsters and had this weird feeling like I needed to protect them from all of these terrible people. I have birthday pictures of me from when I was four with a 1960s-era Aurora Wolf Man monster model and King Kong next to my cake. I have a plate collection at home from 1975 when I was five years old of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mummy that I made with my parents on an arts & crafts night where you'd draw a piece of artwork and put it in the oven and turn it into a plate... which sounds really dangerous now.

JA: Was House of Horrors part of the park before you started working here?

JM: That particular attraction has a very long history. When I first started coming here, that building was a restaurant called Womphopper's Wagon Works, then it became a Victoria Station restaurant and eventually Marvel Mania. At one time it was a walkthrough themed to The Grinch, then Chicken Run, The Mummy, Van Helsing and eventually House of Horrors, which I created with Chris Williams.
(Universal's extinct attraction House of Horrors)
I started coming to Universal in 1972 and there's a photo of me with The Wolf Man with this look of utter admiration in my eyes - even though he looked pretty darn cheesy. He looked less like Lon Chaney, Jr. and more like Michael Landon's I Was a Teenage Werewolf in really tight pants. They always had Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and, even better, in the earliest days of the theme park, they had a make-up show with a store located across from the tram entrance which sold make-up supplies and the Don Post monster masks. When I was ten I got made-up in this store; it was very gory with a big slash across my cheek, blackened flesh and all this fake blood, and they just let me wander around the park. People were coming up to my parents telling them to take me to first aid. It was the greatest day of my life. It was those moments early on of seeing classic Universal horror movies and coming to Universal Studios Hollywood in its earliest days that inspired me to do what I do today.

JA: The first movie to get me interested in filmmaking was a Universal horror film of sorts, Jurassic Park (1993).

JM: I kind of worked on that film in a weird way. Initially I was a tour guide at Universal, I started here in 1989, transitioning into what was then MCA Planning & Development (now Universal Creative) located off-property down Lankershim Boulevard and worked as a P.A. on the old special effects show, World of Cinemagic. After I finished that job, they didn't really have a core creative staff and I had the choice of going back to being a tour guide or to keep trying to move forward in this field. Through the connections I made on that project, I went to work for another company called Kevin Biles Design. Gerald R. Molen (producer of Jurassic Park) contacted them because Kevin Biles was known throughout the industry for being kind of a guru of the corporate theater. He did these crazy, state-of-the-art multimedia slide shows and they specifically wanted to talk to us about the scene where Hammond is presenting the concept for the park, right before they play the video with Mr. DNA. I was in my early 20s and they brought us into Steven Spielberg's conference room at Amblin...
(Entrance to Amblin Entertainment on the Universal backlot)
JA: Were you freaking out?!

JM: Oh yeah! I literally grew up watching Spielberg's movies. I was very aware of the company I was in and I had an enormous amount of respect for the people who were in that room. We did all kinds of work on that scene; we were originally going to shoot it second unit. At the end of the day we didn't end up doing it. I still have all the storyboards somewhere. I don't have any credit on the film or anything like that, it was all on the development side of it - in particularly talking to them about the theme park aspects of it, because we also did theme park design at this company. Years later, I found myself on the set of the sequels; I remember being alongside Stan Winston while shooting the T. rex scene on Stage 12. Stan and I later worked together on a project for the Universal theme parks that never saw the light of day, spending a lot of time at his shop. It's interesting how everything comes full circle.

JA: I freaked out when I saw a parking space reserved for Robert Zemeckis downstairs earlier, by the way.

JM: Back to the Future was filmed in my hometown, Whittier. I was working in a toy store while in high school at the Puente Hills Mall when they shot the scene in the parking lot with the DeLorean. I just hung around the set from a distance and watched them film. Years later, when I started as a tour guide here in 1989, we were making Back to the Future: Part II (1989) and III (1990.) With our tour guides, it's always meant to be a stepping stone into the industry; back then I was able to request visiting a set on my day off and that year I spent a lot of time on the set of Part II where I met Bob Gale, with whom I just finished restoring the DeLorean (which you can see in the NBCUniversal Experience in the Lower Lot.) The production designer for that film, Rick Carter, did the plane crash scene for War of the Worlds (2005) which I took from him to add to the tram tour.
(Promo shot for the Tram Tour's War of the Worlds set)
I've been able to thank people, like producer Frank Marshall, for being so cool to me when I was young and trying to learn about the film industry for not kicking me off their sets. I even shot baskets with Michael J. Fox once outside the soundstage. I saw Fox's production schedule during that time and it was just crazy, shooting Family Ties at Paramount during the day and Back to the Future at Universal all night. He's a great guy who gave a classic performance and I put that film in the top ten list of all-time Universal classics.

JA: I hated to see Back to the Future: The Ride retired from the parks. As a kid, Universal Studios Florida was like my film school, specifically because of attractions like Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies.

JM: Susan Lustig produced that Hitchcock attraction. I don't think Susan knows this, but when they were filming that opening piece with Anthony Perkins (which they shot in Hollywood) I totally crashed the set. I was literally inside the Bates Motel when they were filming Anthony on the steps. I ended up working on the L.A. version of that, World of Cinemagic. I have these wonderful photos of Anthony Perkins dressed as Norman, reading the script with the original owl from Psycho behind him. It's funny to look back on your career and realize what a trip it's been.

JA: What are your thoughts on the Psycho sequels?
(Anthony Perkins in Psycho III - 1986)
JM: Psycho is a classic. In my mind, it's as close to a perfect movie that there is. There are very few movies I would consider perfect, and I would put Jaws (1975), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) in that camp. I particularly like Psycho III (1986), to tell you the truth. Anthony Perkins' sense of humor was very similar to Hitchcock's. I've spent a great deal of my career trying to preserve some assets from these movies, so it's neat that when we opened the NBCUniversal Experience we were able to showcases pieces from Psycho that still exist, like the owl from the back of the office (which is very fragile and can only be put on display once in a blue moon), Anthony Perkins' wardrobe from that film and the set plans for the Bates mansion. The iconic top of the house was a stock unit which was used in the movie Harvey (1950) with James Stewart, and if you go back and watch that film you can clearly see the top of the Psycho house.

It's a lot like playing detective when going back to find the history here, because in the early days of movie studios they never thought it was going to be important. There's always been controversy over whether or not Janet Leigh had a body double in the Psycho shower scene, and there was; we found the written authorization to hire the person to be the body double, right there in black and white. It's pretty exciting when we find these things. My favorite prop-find here were six pallets that had been in the warehouse for decades and decades. Very Indiana Jones-like, we went in and rescued them and took them back to the archive. There were pieces from To Kill a Mockingbird, military props from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and all kinds of things that will now be preserved and here for all time. This lot has so much history, it's been here since 1915.

JA: You mentioned being on the set of Jurassic Park earlier, do you know which productions also shot on Stage 12?

JM: Stage 12 was built for the 1929 film Broadway, Universal's first talking picture with Technicolor sequences. It was and always has been the biggest stage on this lot. It was used for the lab from Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), it was the main interior set of Dracula (1931), there was an indoor version of the clock tower built on that stage for Back to the Future for close-ups, the town of Whoville from The Grinch (2000), the final scene from Scarface (1983) and in Jurassic Park it's the Visitor Center. The other famous soundstage is Stage 28, which we call the Phantom Stage because it was built for The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which is where the interior of Norman Bates' home was filmed for Psycho. You'd also see it in films like The Sting (1973) and Deanna Durbin musicals.
(Stage 12 on the Universal backlot)
Speaking of Spielberg, we recently found the memo from 1965 first granting him access to the Universal lot. He worked as a clerk in the editorial department as an unpaid intern. That's his entry into Hollywood and I've interviewed him about that.

JA: Which other heroes have you been able to work with as a result of your job here?

JM: I got to work with Alice Cooper for Halloween Horror Nights. I grew up obsessed with horror and rock & roll and his music was the marriage of those two things. As a kid I had six-foot tall posters of him in my bedroom that my mother hated. I really got into his music and would write him letters and he wrote me back. He sent me an autograph when I was in junior high that I still have. It's pretty surreal to find myself working with him. He was truly scary to authority figures in the 1970s, the stake-in-the-heart to the peace & love generation. When he came out it was shocking. I told him he had a really positive influence on my life. I had a daughter recently and his family sent a baby gift. It's a trip, too bizarre to stop and contemplate.

I also got to work with Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who produced the original recordings of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. I got to go to Sun Records and be in that recording booth and listen to stuff that had never been released. Also getting to meet and know Rick Baker - all of these people were heroes to me.
(My ticket to this year's HHN... and Michael, of course.)
JA: The first Halloween Horror Nights I went to was Universal Orlando's Sweet 16.

JM: I never produced an Orlando Horror Nights, though I think I was living in Orlando at that time. Horror Nights actually started out here in Hollywood. I didn't get involved with Horror Nights until we brought it back out here in 2006, it's actually the reason I left Orlando and Universal Creative. The last thing I did there was Revenge of the Mummy (2004.) At the time I got a call from Michael Taylor, our then general manager, who really wanted to bring Halloween back. We had known each other for years starting back in my tour guide days. He asked me if I would be interested in coming back to Hollywood and leave designing rides behind. It's tough when you're someone who grew up going to theme parks and making model miniatures of attractions when you were a kid.

JA: I read that you built a scale model of Pirates of the Caribbean when you were a kid.

JM: Yeah, none of it survived. It's all destroyed. There was only one thing that was going to get me to leave designing rides, especially after I had just finished Revenge of the Mummy, and that was the idea of possibly jump-starting Halloween Horror Nights for the studio that invented the horror movie.
(Promotional photo for Revenge of the Mummy)
The first year we did it was 2006, and it was really just a baby step to see if we could do it. This is an extremely competitive market out here in L.A. There's so many great entertainment offerings out here on any given night. The first year we did it, we did one maze, which was an original maze, and an overlay to House of Horrors. It was successful enough that we got to do it a second year. That was the launching pad.

I should mention that I don't do Halloween Horror Nights alone; my partner in this, Chris Williams, is my art director and production designer. Chris and I, since day one, have hand-in-hand created all the entertainment for Horror Nights. In my opinion he's the best in the business at creating sets. The big idea we wanted to do that we just didn't see anybody else doing was to try and license horror movies and create what we call "living horror movies." To take something like Friday the 13th (1980) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and try to make the guest feel like they got up from their theater seat, walked through the screen and are now living a horror movie. That was really what I thought would be the best thing for Universal to do because we're the studio that invented the horror movie. The hard part was getting the first one to say yes, and that was New Line Cinema in 2007 with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface. The event just took off once we did those three houses and every year it's been bigger and bigger. We've now done every major franchise, from Halloween (1978) to Saw (2004.)

Horror as a genre is spreading and expanding with television like The Walking Dead, as well as in video games and music, which creates endless opportunities for HHN.
JA: Do you have a favorite Horror Nights maze you've created?

JM: I don't have a personal favorite. We always say they're all our demented little children - you conceive it, you give birth to it, it's perfect in its infancy and then you have to guide it through the whole production process and make sure that the end product resembles what you wrote on the board. As far as movies that were important to me growing up, Halloween would certainly be way up there. Of course the Alice Cooper houses - I was talking with him once about one of the houses we were going to create and he said, "I always imagined that there was some kid in a dark room with headphones on listening to Welcome to My Nightmare and the music is causing him to imagine something like a horror movie." That was me. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre house was a particularly good one, there's just something about that franchise and that character that's very disturbing.

The films that you have an attachment to from childhood hold a special place.
JA: How old were you when you started working at the tram tour?

JM: 22. I was born in 1967.

JA: Was that your first job?

JM: No, my first job was delivering drugs to mental hospitals in the L.A. area. I was 16, I think? I don't think it was legal. It's inspired multiple scenes for mazes which featured mental hospitals. There's a certain smell you have to have, you know it if you go into a mental hospital, and we produced that scent. I had a bunch of weird jobs. I did my first professional haunted house when I was 14, producing and designing a local haunt that was doing it for charity. I worked in a toy store the year that the Cabbage Patch Kids came out, which was horrible because it created a mania with parents engaging in fist-fights in the middle of the store over the last doll. I got to see the dark side of humanity at a very young age.

I also worked in a video store, which was absolutely my film education. When I started working there it was all Beta, then went to VHS, then Blockbuster put all the mom and pop stores out of business. Now it's all in a whole other world. My store was the only store to carry the great Universal film, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988.)
JA: Did you ever consider a different career path?

JM: I remember 1980 was the year I wanted to be an actor because it was a banner year for great performances like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, John Hurt in The Elephant Man and Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. I had an acting scholarship and that's what I thought I was going to do, but as I went to college I started discovering writing. I wrote and produced my own plays in college and was lucky enough to have one of the many critics I invited show up and write about it. He listed it as one of the ten best plays of the year. It was bizarre seeing my play on a list with Les Misérables. It led to writing a movie that wasn't very good... horrible, actually.

By the time I graduated college I was looking for a job. I had a friend who was a tour guide here and he called me up inviting me to the audition. I knew the park really well because I came here all the time as a kid, but I don't think I realized how difficult it was going to be - it's not easy to be a tour guide. I wrote a lot of what they have to learn now and it's like a phone book. The tour isn't literally scripted, you don't have to say every line, the hope is that the tour guides will make it their own. You never know what the route is going to be one day to the next because of production. We have always viewed our tour guides as the ambassadors to Hollywood because people come here from all over the world. We can take it for granted. I don't know how many times I've parked my car out by the Psycho house to help with Horror Nights lighting, but I'm always conscious of the fact that that's incredibly special. I can't not walk by that house without stopping to look at it. There's no way you can walk around this lot and not fall the history of 100 years of moviemaking.

I'm always amazed at the questions our guests ask. It's awesome. People are passionate about the movies they love, which is absolutely true of our Halloween Horror Nights fans. It's pretty cool.
JA: I love the title card for the Universal tour at the end of John Landis' movies that said "Ask for Babs."

JM: We used to do that here for decades, if you asked for Babs you'd get a discount. I talked to Landis not that long ago and he asked me if I remembered that.

JA: How different was the tour then by comparison?

JM: When I was a guide all we had was a microphone and the tour was about three hours long. The tour was mostly all that this place originally was. The first year was 1964 with a trailer down on Lankershim Boulevard with three trams and maybe five tour guides. One of the first tour guides was actually John Badham, who directed Saturday Night Fever (1977.) He was working in the mail room before they launched the tour. So many people got their start here.

One of the things I did for the tour was put video on it because the lot is constantly evolving and changing. Wisteria Lane is a great example; Harvey (1950), Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), Leave It to Beaver (1957) and The Munsters (1964) were all filmed on that street, but if you walk down it today it's going to mostly look like the set of Desperate Housewives (2004) because that's the most recent big production that did a whole lot of filming on that street. The idea with the video was to connect the dots for our guests. Courthouse Square is another good example because you can show video of it used in Back to the Future then in To Kill a Mockingbird, it was also the courthouse in Psycho II, Ghost Whisperer (2005) and Sneakers (1992.)

So now the tour guides have over 200 pieces of media at their fingertips that I update all the time, which they can pick and choose from. I've also gotten a lot of directors to talk about their experiences on the lot such as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Stephen Sommers, Bob Gale, Oliver Stone, John Carpenter and Peter Jackson.
(Vintage merchandise on display at the NBCUniversal Experience)
JA: Do you still see employees in the mail room going on to bigger things?

JM: Yeah, the President of the studio (laughs). He started in the mail room. He was also an agent's assistant. I think the tour guide position is the mail room equivalent. A friend from my era of being a tour guide has gone on to being camera man who works all the time - he worked on The Tonight Show and I'm not even sure which show he's on now. Another co-worker is now a major casting director, another is a producer and one is a director. Another is an actress who I see in commercials all the time. It was a stepping stone for all of us and a way to get into the business, and it still is. Universal has always been a great company for promoting from within. Michael Taylor, who I mentioned before, started here in the 70s sweeping the park and he was the general manager of this place when he retired.

Universal puts a whole lot of energy into what you'd call a front line employee. When I give speeches to those who show up to work Horror Nights, I literally get down on my knees and I thank them. It's not me interacting with the guest, it's them. If you're a tour guide, you can absolutely make or break a guest's day. If you invest in people, they're going to do a good job. Our actors are incredibly important to us at Horror Nights. Everything Chris and I do, from the sets to the lighting to the props, at the end of the day is just set dressing unless those guys bring it to life.

Particularly with Horror Nights, we never want to rest on our laurels. I think that's how you do good stuff, you have to constantly push yourself and be passionate about it. If you don't, and you don't care,  then you probably shouldn't do it to begin with. You've got to believe in what you do. There's plenty of movies and properties that I've passed on because I wasn't passionate about it. If I don't feel like I can get excited about doing it, then I don't do it. That's the philosophy.
(Universal founder, Carl Laemmle, with his niece, Carla)
JA: It means a lot that you preserve the history for the guests, and that you keep Carl Laemmle's memory alive in the park. He's as important to Universal as Walt Disney is to The Walt Disney Company.

JM: Absolutely. I've interviewed his niece, Carla Laemmle, and that woman was a prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 and she's in the opening scene of Dracula in 1931! She's from the silent film era and literally lived on this lot. There was a reason they called him "Uncle Carl", it's because he had a whole lot of relatives working on this property and they would literally live here over where all the bungalows are now. She told me a wonderful story once about Halloween, they'd decorate the wilderness out there and have the kids go through the spooky forest. I would love to have seen that.

One of my favorite stories she told me was about a guy who lived up on Beachwood Canyon, Hermit Pete (or Hollywood Pete), and he raised goats during the silent film era. He would go down to Hollywood Boulevard dressed like Moses and direct traffic with his goats. She said they would always see him wandering around the hills. For a while he became this icon of Hollywood - there was merchandise that they made about him, like bookends and postcards, which I found through researching him. We take guests into these hills during Horror Nights and I'm always out there thinking, "... the ghost of Hermit Pete is going to get me one day."

Carla Laemmle had so many fascinating stories about growing up on this lot and working on the classic films. Carl Laemmle was hugely important to the movie industry. A lot of people credit him with inventing the idea of the "movie star." He's the guy who basically saw the potential of Hollywood. He came out here and capitalized on it and, in a lot of ways, brought moviemaking to Hollywood. He's also the guy who realized that the general public might be interested in that.
JA: Thank you so much for your time and insight into Universal and Halloween Horror Nights...

JM: I just want to say thank you to the people who are fans of Halloween Horror Nights and support the event. Without them I wouldn't get to do what I do, and I am always very aware of that fact. For a little kid who grew up making haunted houses in his garage, I really owe the fact that I get to do this to the fans.

Follow John Murdy on Twitter at @HorrorNights