Journey Through The Upside Down: “Stranger Things” Maze Tour with John Murdy

It’s the beginning of September and that means Halloween is just around the corner, but be careful where you turn because you’ll never know what else is around the corner! What better way to get spooked than mazes — a staple in every thrill-seeker’s Halloween-time entertainment. Typically, I am not one of those thrill seekers, but last week this scaredy cat ventured to Universal Studios Hollywood for a behind the scenes preview of the brand new “Stranger Things” themed maze opening at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, which runs from Sept. 14 through Nov. 3. The popular Netflix series follows the supernatural disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers and his friends’ journey to save him from the clutches of a mysterious alternate dimension. The show has quickly become a modern day Sci-Fi treasure and fans from all around the globe have campaigned for a live experience maze. Two years after the series’ premiere, that dream became a reality.

Leading the way through the unfinished maze was none other than veteran Creative Director of Horror Nights John Murdy. Unlike any other Horror Nights mazes to date, the “Stranger Things” maze is set entirely on a soundstage, allowing for a fuller realization of scenes with bigger space for the sets and easy access to audio and visual effects (bonus: there’s air conditioning). Murdy first began designing the maze in November of last year; Season 2 of “Stranger Things” had already been released, but Murdy chose to have the maze follow Will’s Season 1 journey, which was better suited for a maze adaptation.

The tour took place on Sept. 5, just nine days before opening night, and there was still a lot of work to be done but the key elements of each scene were ready. The beginning of the maze immerses participants in the Mirkwood forests where Will’s abandoned bike is hung with one wheel spinning. An eerily tame beginning eases you into the world of Hawkins, Indiana, a town that is burdened by the presence of the Demogorgon- the interdimensional creature named after a Dungeons & Dragons monster- who is responsible for Will’s disappearance. Creating the Demogorgon was the first of many challenges that came with turning a show that relies heavily on CGI into a live experience. A team of sculptors spent five months crafting the final product, sparing no details. Recreating any piece of a show surrounded by as much popularity and cult-like fan following as “Stranger Things” is a painstaking process, especially because the artists know even the slightest differences will be caught by super-fans. To get in front of this issue, Murdy, who worked in close conjunction with Netflix, went through episodes with a fine toothed comb and studied close to 40,000 location photos from the show to ensure everything was just right.

From Mirkwood, maze-goers enter the Byers house where one of the most emblematic images of the first season — Joyce Byer’s hand-painted alphabet wall — appears in front of them. Individually hung Christmas string lights crowd the ceiling and the classic yellow phone sits blackened and burnt on an end table. The trick with designing this section of the maze was nailing the mix of eras. While the show is set in the early 1980s, the Byers’ modest home has mostly 70s furniture. All these seemingly minute details contribute to the atmosphere and make you appreciate the work that goes into the experience, but of course they will be hard to pick up on when the only thing you’re scanning the room for is the next scare. This maze has no shortage of scares with a cast that consists of about 40 rotating actors, so keep your guard up! Before you leave the living room, the Demogorgon will tease itself again, this time pushing its hand against the wall, lunging in the direction of guests. Running from that scare will lead into the following scene in Will’s bedroom which is chock full of minute knick knacks and exact replicas, from the vintage wallpaper to the US Air Force bedding.

A “Stranger Things” maze wouldn’t be a “Stranger Things” maze without a taste of the Upside Down – the alternate dimension and origin of the Demogorgon that exists in parallel to the human world. Moving beyond the Byer house, you’ll round a corner past the backyard shed and then turn another corner into the Upside Down. Any fan of the show knows that CGI floating white orbs are the first sign of trouble. The practical effects version of those orbs are fiber optic balls wrapped in cotton dangling from wires; while that may sound a little arts and crafty, coupled with light projections, foam covered trees and black vines, they create a frighteningly realistic Upside Down realm.

The next scene takes maze goers to Hawkins Laboratory where the advantages of being on a soundstage shine. In perhaps the most dramatic looking set of the maze towers the Gate (also called the Rift) which extends its toxic biological growth from floor to ceiling. Its webbing is a mix of spray foam and “chaos” fabric dipped in silicone, another example of practical effects at work. Step through the portal to see Castle Byers and the cobwebbed corpse of Barb (R.I.P), and after a quick moment of silence, trek onwards to Hawkins Middle School and the grand finale in the science classroom. The maze reaches its climax mirroring Eleven’s destruction of the Demogorgon. This is yet another scene from the show that uses CGI, but after much trial and error, the final tech projections in the maze come together to create the most realistic version of the decimation of the Demogorgon. Breathe a sigh of relief, this monster is destroyed… but there might just be more waiting on your way out.

Going through a maze with the lights on nullifies its effect, but after reaching the end, imagining the full experience with all the bells and whistles made it easy to understand how daunting a walk through this maze would be. I asked John Murdy what his elevator pitch for this “Stranger Things” maze would be for someone like me who typically runs from the idea of horror and his answer was simple, “Face your fears. It’s like you’re a kid and you’re looking at that roller coaster that you really want to ride but you’re terrified. It’s that same type of right of passage… you’re sitting there going ‘I don’t know If I can do this. I don’t know if I can do this’ but usually when you do you fall in love with it. At least that’s why we have all these fans.”
Face your fears and make it through the all new “Stranger Things” maze at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights opening Friday Sept. 14. Student discount tickets can be found at ushtix.com/collegediscounts.