SNEAK PEEK: A Backstage Tour of the Stranger Things Maze at Universal Studios Hollywood
With just a few days to go until opening, I had the unique opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the all-new Stranger Things maze, on a tour led by John Murdy, Creative Director and Producer of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights.
A collaboration with Netflix and the Duffer brothers (who are big Horror Nights fans themselves), the Stranger Things maze had been requested by fans almost the minute the series first aired. “I watched it because of our fans,” John said. “They very much made me aware of this particular brand, and it exploded in popularity almost immediately, so that also helped.”
The maze is the first ever to be built inside one of Universal Studio’s soundstages (which, due to production demand, was very hard to secure for Halloween Horror Nights, John tells me), in Stage 29, where countless movies and, most recently, Family Feud have been filmed. The sheer size and height of the soundstage offered unique opportunities to build as tall as 30 feet, triple the typical size of Horror Nights maze props.
The Stranger Things maze entirely takes place within the plot of season one of the Stranger Things series. John said they toyed with combining seasons one and two but that too much was left out and it felt too “jumpy”. Focusing on season one was the best choice to get the story beats they wanted, and the Duffer brothers agreed.
The maze was still very under construction during our tour, but we were allowed to get photos in three locations which were most of the way finished. The messiest final touches like tree branches were to be saved for last, we were told, to keep the maze tidy. “We always work on these things until the last second,” John said. “I’ve been in the maze painting it myself the night before opening. Chris Williams (Art Director and Production Designer) and I are always the last guys out every year. We’ll leave at 2 or 3 in the morning and it’s just us left in the park. We just don’t stop.”
Many of the props like couches, porch swings and light fixtures (which are programmed to flicker) help set the 80s time period of the series. The Jaws movie poster had yet to be placed in Will’s room, but we saw framed art of owls on walls covered in bicentennial-themed wallpaper. In the Byers’ living room, Christmas lights strung on the walls and ceiling are each individually programmed by computer to get the effect they wanted of Will attempting to communicate through them.
For reference, John said he went through approximately 40,000 still images of the series to replicate the sets and props as accurately as possible. Music, dialogue and sound effects were pulled directly from the series, as well. “When we tackle a movie or TV show, our job is to replicate that to the best of our ability,” John said. “When you film a special effect for a movie, you only have to get it right once, and it lives forever on celluloid. In our maze, the effects have to work every ten seconds. We have to think about things you would never have to think about on a movie set.”
Whereas in the show the Upside Down was all rendered in CG, in the maze special effects will help bring it to horrific life. Falling particles are achieved with fiber optics hidden inside little balls of cotton at the ends of wires hanging from the walls. They appear to float thanks to tiny hidden fans in the room, as well as projected computer animation. Later, a scrim illusion in the hallways of Hawkins Middle School makes what appears to be a solid concrete wall an opportunity for the Demogorgon to scare you from behind the wall.
One of the challenges of this maze was how to portray the kids from the series effectively; it wouldn’t be convincing to put a wig on an adult scare actor. John said they creatively got around that via sound effects: you hear the kids talking to each other via walkie-talkies on 5.1 surround sound speakers hidden throughout the maze. The kids’ bikes can also be seen as you navigate the forest of Hawkins. (Yes, Barb is in the maze – dead, of course. We saw the unfinished mannequin in her pre-cocooned state.)
Several scare actors – 15 or 16 in all, according to John – will appear in the maze as the Demogorgon to scare the living daylights out of you, including two hidden in the darkness after the final scene, before you reach the exit. John explained that guests tend to relax when they think the maze is over and that this is a great opportunity to prey upon them when their guards are down and defenses are lowered!
“Horror continues to evolve and change,” John said. “Stranger Things is a great example: it’s not strictly horror, it’s also fantasy, Sci-Fi, 80s nostalgia, a bunch of things. It’s a pretty exciting time to be in horror. As it evolves, we try different things, and this maze is just another evolution of that.”
The Stranger Things maze opens to the public with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood on select nights beginning Friday, September 14.
Special shoutout to Matthew Gottula for covering the event for us! You can find him on Twitter @DLThings.