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Horror is his calling

The macabre has gripped Universal Studios' John Murdy since youth. Welcome to his nightmare.

October 08, 2011|Brady MacDonald
  • John Murdy at Universal Studios in 2010.
John Murdy at Universal Studios in 2010. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The horror movie that is John Murdy's life opens in 1974 on a bloody scene of carnage in his family's Hacienda Heights living room when he's just 7 years old.

Eccentric Grandma Rose Kavanaugh convinces the Murdy kids to stage a murder scene to surprise their parents when they return home.

The children toss knives on the floor, cover themselves in ketchup and play dead on the carpet.

"We all thought it was a great idea," says Murdy, 44, laughing at the recollection like a homicidal maniac. "My parents were horrified."

Such are the formative years of the creative director for Halloween Horror Nights, a month-long event filled with haunted mazes, scare zones and dreadful monsters running on select nights through Oct. 31 at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Murdy's life story plays like a grisly series of tortured tableaux, each a potential source of spine-shuddering scares for the annual fright fest.

Flashback to 1971. A 4-year-old Murdy sobs uncontrollably in front of the black-and-white television set watching the 1931 "Frankenstein" starring Boris Karloff. Comforting her son, Murdy's mother worries she's scarred him for life. But they're tears of empathy, not trauma.

"It was almost like I felt I had to protect him," Murdy says of the 8-foot-tall monster.

"I just felt like somebody needed to be his friend."

The life-altering moment whet Murdy's appetite for classic monster movies featuring hunchbacks, phantoms, mummies, wolfmen and other creatures.

A macabre type, Murdy favors horror-themed baseball caps and T-shirts. A curl of gray chest hair peeking out of his collar matches the soul patch below his lower lip. Wire frame eyeglasses sit halfway down his nose. A night owl, he runs on nicotine and caffeine. His staccato laugh sounds like Dracula on helium.

He counts showman P.T. Barnum, B-movie director William Castle and makeup artist Jack Pierce among his heroes.

Dissolve to the Murdy house, midafternoon one day in the mid-1970s. Arriving home from school, the Murdy kids search from room to room for their Hungarian grandmother. Suddenly, Grandma Rose pops out of a closet in a Halloween mask, chasing the joyfully terrified kids around the house.

"She would chase you out of the house and down the street and around the block," says Murdy, crediting his grandmother for his demented sense of humor. "She just didn't let up. And she would do this all the time."

Zoom in on a 6-year-old Murdy standing up in church, explaining to the hundreds in the congregation why he can't sleep at night.

"I had apocalyptic recurring nightmares, like right out of Revelations," Murdy says, blaming Grandma Rose in part for his bad dreams. "I couldn't sleep. They had everybody in the world take a look at me and try to figure out what was wrong with me."

The unconventional cure: His older brother's eight-track tape of Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare." The concept album, which takes listeners on a journey through the nightmares of a child named Steven, calmed and comforted Murdy.

Dissolve to Murdy tinkering in his bedroom on a 5-foot-tall model of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion in 1976.

Inside every window, miniature dioramas portray bloody scenes in horrific detail. Tiny rubber bands help animate the ghoulish figures inside the manse.

"It was kind of my earliest foray into design," Murdy says. "That's pretty much what I still do today, only on a much larger scale."

Universal Studios Hollywood started experimenting with Halloween events in the mid-1980s, continuing in fits and starts before throwing in the towel after the 2000 season.

In 2006, Murdy, who'd graduated from being a Universal tour guide to developing rides for the venue, resurrected the event, combining two of his great loves: theme parks and horror. Since then, Halloween Horror Nights has grown bigger, bolder and bloodier with every Halloween season.

Universal separates itself from the rest of the haunted attraction crowd with movie-quality mazes that put a premium on set dressing, props and special effects, something that comes easy for a film studio.

The goal: Make visitors feel like they're trapped alive inside a horror movie.

The haunted mazes employ an array of sensory triggers that change room temperatures, spray "blood" and even emit smells that include chain saw exhaust, rotting flesh and bathroom odors.

"We like to play on all of people's psychological fears," Murdy says. "You want to break down their walls and defenses."

As far as he's concerned, the more blood, guts and gore, the better.

"Horror fans are a rabid fan base," he says. "No matter how extreme you make it, no matter how far you take it, no matter how far you push the line, they always want more."

An avid Twitter user, Murdy has sent out more than 17,000 tweets since 2009 to his 13,000-plus followers, engaging fans in an ongoing question-and-answer session about Horror Nights.

"I definitely see myself in all of the fans," Murdy says.

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