Daily Dead was recently invited to an intimate, behind-the-scenes tour for two of the highly anticipated upcoming mazes at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights- Clowns 3D and The Walking Dead- which was led by John Murdy, Creative Director at Universal Studios Hollywood and Executive Producer of Halloween Horror Nights.

Both Clowns 3D and The Walking Dead mazes were still being propped and dressed by Murdy’s tireless crew at the time of our sneak peek, but enough components were in place to give us an idea of the mayhem that Halloween Horror Nights has in store for its victims once it opens its doors on September 19th.

When we arrived at Clowns 3D, Murdy discussed how iconic rock guitarist Slash became involved with the maze, lending his musical talents in order to create the overtly creepy score for their upcoming haunt. “I didn’t have an obvious rock and roll tie-in to Horror Nights this year so we thought, going into 2014, that we wouldn’t be able to do anything. Musicians end up often being the coolest people to work with on the mazes because they get really passionate about these things. And so we knew we were going to create a 3D maze this year because they’re always really popular and so Chris and I decided to do something original.”

“And a lot of times, I’ll end up working with someone because they really dig what we do here at Horror Nights and that’s what ended up happening with Slash. One night, I got a call that he was in the park and wanted to meet up with me so I headed up and met with him and Chuck Liddell. I took them both through the park and Slash had never been here before, so when I took him to the Black Sabbath maze last year, and just flipped out. He said it was one of the coolest things he had ever seen and wanted to find a way for us to work together.”

“So a while later I got a call from Slash- it was right after we had decided to do Clowns- and he said he wanted to do something this year,” added Murdy. “I thought maybe he could score a maze because we have never done that before. He then asked me to send him the treatment, which was 70 pages long, and he emailed me like right back and was immediately in to work on Clowns. In fact, he said he was already in the studio and was going to start writing something that night and that’s how it’s been working with Slash this entire process. He did an enormous amount of work on his score, especially because the music changes from room to room.”

Because Clowns 3D is an original maze idea, that meant Murdy and his art director and partner Chris Williamson had to come up with an overall story to set the stage for all the clown-themed frights he had in mind for Horror Nights attendees. Murdy discussed how some real-life facts surrounding clowns and their waning popularity first inspired the idea for Clowns 3D.

“I was driving home from work one night and was listening to NPR and heard a news story on the Clown Trade Organization and their unions. And they were bemoaning the fact that clown unionship was down to an all-time low because no one wanted to be a clown anymore. Everyone hates clowns now and they blamed it on horror movies and how they’ve been depicted over the years (laughs). And so the thing for me was that clown mazes have already been done a million times before and 3D clown mazes have also been done a million times before too so we had to find a way to give Clowns 3D our own unique twist, which I believe we have,” explained Murdy.

Before heading inside the maze, we learned that the story for Clowns 3D will be transporting its victims to a 1950’s Route 66 roadside attraction called “Sweet Licks Family Fun Center and Ice Cream Emporium” which has fallen on hard times. The emporium used to be a popular place to visit but over time, as clowns started to become less of a draw, it became harder for Sweet Licks to get customers to stop and visit. The patriarch to a crazy family of clowns, Sweet Licks is partially frozen himself from years of working inside his diabolical factory and has had to resort to killing people and turning them into ice cream just to keep the family business going.

Sweet Licks isn’t alone in his murderous ways either- he also has a dangerous daughter named Cutty and a son named Bubba who has a penchant for killing and then wearing victims of the feline variety- to help him carry out his deadly deeds and as you make your way through the maze, you’ll be encountering several versions of each character depending on the location.

As we make our way through a giant clown mouth entry way, Murdy gives us the lowdown on the “trippy” entry hallway we’ve entered, which has amped up the striped 3D wall painting techniques he and his team have perfected over the years for Clowns 3D. For this attraction, the ceilings and floors have also been painted in addition to the walls, which Murdy gleefully admits that he hopes will throw fans off immediately with the dizzying and disorienting effect as all aspects of the room will jump out at you as you enter. This is also where we are introduced to Sweet Licks and his family, before heading into the doomed ice cream factory where most of the clown-fueled chaos awaits us.

Once we make our way into Sweet Licks’ factory, Murdy informs us that Clowns 3D will prey heavily on your sense of smell, with things starting off rather innocently as maze-goers will be greeted with the sweet scents of candy and cotton candy. But as you progress further into the factory, things will go horribly wrong  for your nose once you arrive in the maze’s more notorious areas- particularly where Sweet Licks keeps his victims caged up, gorging them to death on tasty treats so that he can repurpose their bodies for his ice cream.  Beyond the prison-like area is a place Murdy called “The Vomitorium” which features brown and neon-coated walls made up to look like- well, I think you get the picture- and is made complete by hiding Vomit Monsters that come alive to attack visitors.

Visitors will continue to try and escape Sweet Licks and his insane family through a few more scares in Clowns 3D before they finally arrive at the exit. It’s also worth noting that one of the clowns in the maze’s final scare was created as an homage to the maze’s composer, Slash, and looks completely badass.

After we wrapped up with Clowns 3D, we then met up with Murdy over at the location of this year’s maze inspired by the most recent season of The Walking Dead. It’s evident, just from the exterior of the maze, that Murdy and his team put forth a vast amount of effort in regards to capturing all kinds of incredible details for their haunt which should undoubtedly please fans of the series. At the front of the prison, we’re greeted with The Governor’s large tank that has crashed through the chain-link fence on the perimeter of the prison as well as the watch tower, courtyard and kitchen areas we got to know so well last year on the first half of The Walking Dead.

As we enter the prison, Murdy informs us that for this year’s Walking Dead maze, Halloween Horror Nights are taking fans into cell block D where the infection that first ravaged many of the prison’s residents early on in season four of The Walking Dead. Despite the fact that it would be easier to just flood the cell block with generic-looking zombies to scare visitors, Murdy told us that his favorite part of creating a maze like The Walking Dead is picking out specific moments, and zombies, from the show so every gag in the maze will be related to something we all saw during last season. He also discussed how he closely works with Greg Nicotero during all phases of planning in order to make sure every little detail is perfect.

Murdy said, “Each season we get to pick and choose what we want to do, which is great, and of course because we are working with The Walking Dead property which means we’re also working very closely with Greg Nicotero. And Greg looks at every piece of make-up we do and he gives us his notes as we progress. There’s nothing make-up wise in either of these mazes that Greg hasn’t touched in some way. It’s pretty cool to have someone with his talent being so involved with these effects because we have to make sure we do his incredible work justice each and every night of the maze.”

“We’re also working with Greg on the maze for From Dusk Till Dawn this year too so we’re actually collaborating with him on two things which is really fun for me. Greg was also instrumental in bringing (Robert) Rodriguez in for Horror Nights too, in fact; Robert was just one guy I could never pin down until now and I had always wanted to work with him so I’m really happy we get to work with him and Greg on (From Dusk Till) Dawn this year,” added Murdy.

As we exit the prison, we are greeted with an homage to Carol and when she burned the infected people inside the prison alive and it caused her banishment by Rick. Murdy explains that the look of the corpses here resemble hot dogs that cooked too long on the grill and the room will also be piped with the smell of burning flesh too in order to fully immerse visitors in the gruesome setting.  From there, we head into the Big Spots store from the season four premiere of The Walking Dead where the ceiling caved in on a group of survivors who were out hunting for supplies. Again, you can tell that Murdy and his crew spent a lot of time just getting the details right for The Walking Dead because the Big Spot room alone has an incredible amount of detail to it, right down to an unfortunate walker hanging by his intestines from the ceiling. Lots of really cool stuff.

After Big Spots, you take a trip through the woods where you’ll encounter the moss/tree walker that has now become so iconic to fans of The Walking Dead (even inspiring the collector’s edition Blu-ray set earlier this year). After that, you’ll head into the mortuary where visitors will be attacked by several walkers, providing some fun frights in another iconic setting from season four. From there, you’ll arrive at a very familiar setting from the last few episodes of The Walking Dead- the darkened train tunnel that Glenn had to make his way through while on his way to Terminus. It was an extraordinary feat to create that setting for those who worked on The Walking Dead and Murdy’s spin on the breath-taking moment from the series is both ambitious and impressive.

It’s evident from just spending a few hours with Murdy that Halloween Horror Nights is the very thing that continues to drive him both professionally and personally. It’s evident that Murdy and his crew have put in a pain-staking amount of time going through every minute detail for each of the mazes, scare zones and the Terror Tram tour, and it’s that kind of attention that makes HHN one of the premiere Halloween-themed attractions in the US (not just Los Angeles) each and every year.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.