Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights Brings Stranger Things to LifePhotos courtesy of Universal Studios TV Features Stranger Things
“The Demogorgon is only one creature. He just happens to be everywhere all at once.”
Patrick Braillard wants to make sure there’s no mistake about the signature monster from Stranger Things. The Show Director of the Stranger Things haunted maze at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights insists that the Demogorgon is a single creature, despite popping up dozens of times throughout the maze. Yeah, there might be a different actor or puppeteer responsible every time the beast appears, but within the confines of the maze’s story, it’s just that one Demogorgon following you throughout this small Indiana town.
In Universal’s version of Stranger Things, that evil creature from the Upside Down lurks behind almost every corner, always ready to jump out at anybody who walks past. Like so much good horror, this maze can both startle and exhilarate, jolting your system with a primordial fright that reminds you how alive you are. When combined with the fuzzy nostalgia of Stranger Things—memories of both the show itself, and also the ‘80s culture and Stephen King and Steven Spielberg works it pays tributes to—it’s somehow both comforting and unsettling. It’ll scare the hell out of you, and you’ll love every second of it.
Braillard and his team fastidiously recreated some of the most iconic places and moments from the Netflix hit’s first season. Starting inside the Hawkins National Laboratory, you’ll see the cold open from the very first episode, the gulping breaths of an ill-fated lab technician beckoning you forth into a pitch black room where the ominous title sequence is recreated before your eyes. After a short walk through the woods you’ll come across Castle Byers, Will’s handmade play shack, and then see the missing boy himself nervously holding a rifle in the family’s tool shed. Strobing Christmas lights and throbbing synth music disorients in the Byers living room as an actress playing Winona Ryder’s frantic Joyce Byers takes an axe to the wall. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or I Should I Go” blasts throughout Will’s bedroom, with a massive hole in the wall guiding you into the Upside Down. Almost every major character from the first season makes an appearance, all played by live actors, as lighting, music and other practical effects ratchet up the tension throughout.
“We didn’t want it to be a museum piece,” Braillard says during a private lights-on walkthrough of the maze. As much care as Universal took in building these sets—going so far as getting the original blueprints to the Byers home from Netflix, stocking it with era-appropriate decorations from the early ‘80s, and even buying its distinctive wallpaper from the same vendor the show bought it from—the main goal was always to frighten the audience, and not just build the world’s most accurate Stranger Things funhouse. That’s why the Demogorgon stalks you everywhere you go—the goal, Braillard said, is for it to feel like the monster is hunting you.
As you stumble through the maze you’ll regularly come across recognizable characters from the show. Breaking from haunted house tradition, not every actor in the maze is there to scare you. “You’re traveling parallel to the kids’ adventure, because it is their story and we specifically engineered the maze so they’re not the scares,” Braillard explains. “We didn’t want the kids to be focused on and be the scary ones in the maze. That’s sometimes a crutch [with] haunted houses, that they like to use everybody as a scare, and we don’t want to do that. We want you to focus and when you see Dustin or Will or you see Joyce Byers we don’t want you to be frightened by them, we want you to empathize with them and be a part of the story.”
That story will eventually take you into the Upside Down itself, where spores constantly float down from above. Familiar places from the normal world are corrupted and inverted. The decaying corpse of a friendly face is embedded in the wall, with bulbous, writhing tentacles reaching out of its mouth. Actors playing Winona Ryder and David Harbour’s characters pop out from behind bookshelves in Hazmat suits, a blue light tinting the visor on their protective helmets. One of the final rooms puts you in almost complete darkness, with invisible bits of string hanging from above to make it feel like some unseen evil is gently caressing your face. Old-school tricks like that combine with state-of-the-art technology to address an age-old problem: how to best frighten anybody willing to make their way through the maze, as efficiently and memorably as possible.
Stranger Things fans should be impressed. Universal captured the look and feel of the show, while ramping up the terror quotient by a considerable amount. Braillard, the leader of the team that worked on this project for over a year, unsurprisingly sums up the maze in the best way possible. “It’s like a love letter to the show,” he says—”a really scary love letter to the show.”
The Stranger Things maze is part of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Singapore. It can be experienced on select nights now through Nov. 3.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He also writes about theme parks whenever he can. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.