How Stranger Things Became Universal Studios Horror Nights’ Most Impressive Maze Yet

Sure, you can watch Stranger Things at home. Chances are you’ve done that countless times and loved it. What if you could visit the Upside Down in real-life, though? Yes, an actual Upside Down–some kind of dark dimension filled with slime and dead trees and monsters–might not be your idea of a good vacation. But what if you could take a stroll through a replica that probably won’t kill you?

That’s what Universal Studios has built with its Stranger Things attraction at Halloween Horror Nights in the Hollywood and Orlando parks. The haunted maze pulls visitors into the first season of the Netflix series, retracing the steps of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) as she searches for her missing son.

GameSpot was one of a few outlets to visit Universal Studios Hollywood for a tour of its Stranger Things maze while under construction. During the tour, Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy spilled many secrets about the new maze and how his team managed to translate a show as spooky and otherworldly as Stranger Things into a live experience. We were also able to snap some photos of the maze–and get our hands on some others for your viewing pleasure.

Halloween Horror Nights opens at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando on Friday, September 14. It runs on select nights through Halloween. Make sure to check out our coverage of the other TV and movie-based mazes the event is pulling off this year.

Why they needed a soundstage

Though mazes for the event are typically built in massive tents constructed around the park, Stranger Things required something more. When a soundstage on the lot became available, Murdy knew he had his solution. “Only about two months ago Family Feud was filmed in here,” he said. “And now we’re in.”

As for why this particular maze demanded a different type of space, there were a couple of reasons. First and foremost, lighting was a concern. “There’s a lot of the Upside Down where you needed to have complete control, even though we build mazes in tents and everything,” Murdy explained. “Having complete control of the lighting was really important.” The other chief reason was a soundstage offers a much higher ceiling than the tents, which leads to some of the biggest sets ever seen in a Horror Nights maze–including a massive scene set in the Hawkins National Laboratory.

Working with the Duffer brothers on the maze

When it comes to creating a maze based on a known property, it always starts with a pitch to the creative teams behind the movie or show. Luckily for Murdy, Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer brothers are fans of Halloween Horror Nights.

“I pitched it to Netflix initially,” he said. “I didn’t personally pitch it to Duffer brothers, [Netflix was] going to present it to them. And so I said, ‘Well I’ll send you my treatment.’ And that’s usually about a hundred pages. And they called me as soon as they had the meeting with the Duffer brothers and [were] like, ‘You won’t believe this, there’s no notes.'”

While Murdy and his team have been doing this long enough that it’s not often that he would get a long list of notes back, “it’s rare that you get none.”

“They agreed 100% with our approach,” he said. “They couldn’t have agreed more.” That approach is to solely focus on Season 1 of the series, rather than a mix of both installments.

Integrating the kids without having them throughout the maze

While Horror Nights mazes are typically filled with actors in costume, Stranger Things presented an odd dilemma. “What to do with the kids was a big decision we had to make because obviously on the show they’re all 12,” Murdy explained. “We just quickly realized that’s not going to work, we got to figure out how to deliver the kids in a different way.”

The answer was to use audio from the first season–the voices of the kids. “There’s 5.1 surround sound system throughout this sequence and multi-channel audio everywhere,” he said. “So all throughout the maze, you’re hearing the kids on the walkie-talkies calling to each other looking for their friend who’s missing.”

Keep your eyes open, though. You still might see a couple kids along the way.

Recreating the Byers home

When it came to the actual design of the maze, that’s where the obsessive work of Murdy and his team began. They poured over the show countless times, studied photos, and tried to recreate everything as closely as possible to what was seen on the show. When it came to the Byers’ home, that wasn’t necessarily easy.

“It’s set in the 1980s but really for the Byers that means the ’70s because they’re not a wealthy family,” Murdy admitted. “Most everything they have in this house came from the ’70s.” That meant sourcing out furniture, recreating wallpaper patterns, and looking for appropriate touches to fill the house with, including rotary phones that the Horror Nights team had to have altered by a special effects company, in order for them to react to what’s happening within the maze.

Building Castle Byers–twice

It also meant things outside of the house needed to be built, like Castle Byers–Will’s fort that he uses to escape from the real world. To make sure it was accurate to what fans remember, the maze-building team received on-set photography to use as a reference. Murdy said he pulled around 30,000 pictures from the show for reference.

And when it comes to Castle Byers, that department has to do it all twice–once for our world and once for the Upside Down, which has its own fort.

How they created the Demogorgon suit

What’s a Stranger Things maze without a Demogorgon scaring visitors? Or in the case of Horror Nights, several Demogorgons. If you’re going to be stepping into the maze, don’t freak out when the beast is suddenly standing in front of you. “This is a full-blown creature suit that our performers are going to be wearing,” Murdy teased.

How does one create a Demogorgon in real life, though? While originally Murdy planned to use the same molds the show did, there was a problem. “Quickly, you realize how much is CGI,” he admitted. “So like when they did the Demogorgon on set, they had a guy in a creature costume but his head inside the head petals was all a big green hood. So all of the teeth and the mouth and the movement was CGI.”

Instead, the Universal team used an animated “hero” head–one used for certain shots in the series–and sculpted their own version of it for the costume. From the teeth to the head petals, the massive Demogorgon will be haunting the maze, thanks to the event’s artists.

Bringing the Upside Down to life

Building the Upside Down created another challenge for the team, due to it being mostly CGI on the series. To recreate that, the Horror Nights team created a forest of trees that look rotten in a pitch-black room. From there, dozens of small fiber optic lights have been hung throughout the area, creating the creepy light orbs seen in the Upside Down. “And then we’re projecting on top of all of it,” Murdy said.

The process of creating this particular piece of the maze took multiple layers and steps, but should ultimately be one of the most impressive pieces of the maze.

And that includes a very dead Barb

Yes, we have all come to terms with the fact that Barb is dead. Still, you wouldn’t expect a Stranger Things Season 1 maze to not shout out the untimely death of Nancy’s best friend, right? Murdy and his team simply couldn’t help themselves when they created this particular dead body to help decorate the Upside Down. Happy trails, Barb.

An Easter egg hunt

What’s a fun haunted maze without Easter eggs to search for? Like most of the brand-based mazes that came before it, Stranger Things is filled with fun nods to the rest of the franchise. The only one we could get Murdy to point out takes place in the classroom scene of the maze, which comes near the end. In it, there’s a Rube Goldberg device believed to be built by the boys in Season 1. It’s the sort of thing where you won’t see it if you’re not looking too carefully, but noticing it helps to make the experience all the more exciting.


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