'Tis the spooky season! ET goes behind the scenes of the surreal and terrifying attraction inspired by his celebrated album.
The Weeknd is joining the likes of Michael Myers and Dracula at Halloween Horror Nights, where "Blinding Lights," "Heartless" and other chart-toppers drown out the screams from park guests in The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare.
To get all the behind-the-scenes details, ET spoke with John Murdy, executive producer of HHN at Universal Studios Hollywood, who worked closely with The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, to create a “surreal living nightmare filled with grotesque characters and themes” inspired by his music and short films.
“Abel had a very specific idea. He wanted to focus on what he would refer to as ‘the universe of After Hours,’” Murdy explains. “He wanted to take that album and turn it into a haunted house experience.”
Murdy’s team soon realized just how suited The Weeknd was to brush shoulders with HHN’s other scary mazes, like the Horrors of Blumhouse and La Llorna. “There's something really dark going on [in Abel’s music videos.] In some ways, darker than a lot of other things we do,” Murdy notes.
Not only that, but the horror elements extended into The Weeknd’s album artwork and live performances. In his Super Bowl Halftime Show, the disorienting hall of mirrors sequence is retroactively a backdoor proof of concept for an HHN attraction.
Following its debut in September, After Hours Nightmare is one of the year’s most in demand Halloween activities (it’s also an HHN installation at Universal Orlando Resort). Chrissy Teigen is one of many sharing praise, tweeting, “between smile, barbarian and the weeknd’s universal studios halloween horror nights I am a very happy horror gal.”
Murdy, who’s been with HHN since 2006, communicated to The Weeknd early on that they weren’t interested in basic recreations of his music videos. To this point, the team's creative method is encapsulated in their approach to “Heartless,” where The Weeknd embarks on a hallucinogenic journey through Las Vegas after licking a toad. At After Hours Nightmare, the end result is a surprise reveal of an enormous toad-like monster shuffling toward guests on stilt legs.
“One of the things I quickly learned about Abel is that he thinks very cinematically,” Murdy says, citing a list of movies the renowned artist told him had helped inspire After Hours, including many entries from Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, Jacob’s Ladder and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The latter example further solidifies the built-in connection between The Weeknd and HHN, as one of the source material’s most iconic quotes also describes the inherent warning with any haunted house admission: “Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”
After Hours Nightmare is far from the first music-themed attraction at HHN, as the parks have previously featured Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare and Black Sabbath: 13-3D. For Murdy, adapting the certified double platinum album was not unlike translating The Exorcist or Killer Clowns From Outer Space but with a crucial difference.
“With a movie, what you're trying to do is replicate the movie the best you possibly can and truncate it down to its greatest hits,” Murdy explains. “With Abel, we wanted to give [After Hours] a structure.”
The experience, which also features a curated tracklist from the titular album, is divided into three segments. First, “The Club” section, inspired by the warehouse rave from “In Your Eyes,” itself a tribute to the slasher genre. Guests then enter the “Hotel and Casino” dimension, a compilation of many psychedelic visits to Sin City in the music videos for “Blinding Lights,” “Heartless” and the animated “Snow Child.”
For anyone who hasn’t slipped out via the attraction’s exits at this point, they enter the finale, “The Station,” which harkens back to The Weeknd’s ethereal trek through L.A.'s metro tunnels in the short film that kicked off his fourth studio album.
“We very much intentionally try to look at our slate and program it as much as possible with different aspects of horror,” Murdy says of HHN’s offerings this year, where The Weeknd joins horror mazes inspired by cinema icons, as well as original narratives like Scarecrow the Reaping.
“We're always trying to balance,” he continues. “We need our classic horror movie stuff that speaks to our core fanbase, but let's take a chance. Let's do something different. Let's look at a different area.”
Another of those areas this year came from Jordan Peele, who’s become the latest horror maestro for Universal Pictures in the studio’s long line of horror maestros. Following their Us collaboration in 2019, Murdy helped the Nope production team install the old west town of Jupiter’s Claim as a permanent segment of the Studio Tour. Naturally, the new addition found its way into the Studio Tour’s other role as HHN’s Terror Tram but not without some obstacles.
“That represented an interesting challenge to the Terror Tram, because Nope is a movie where the threat is up in the air,” Murdy says, adding that it was Peele who provided the creative solution. The final product is a mashup of the auteur’s cinematic universes, with riders surviving an attack from Nope’s “Jean Jacket” in Jupiter’s Claim only to then immediately encounter a band of tethers from Us.
Looking to the future, Murdy reveals he’s already months into planning next year’s HHN lineup. When asked if After Hours Nightmare’s success will lead to more crossovers with the music industry, he says the door is always open.
“It all depends on what opportunities come down the pipe,” Murdy shares. “I think we will continue to look for new things we can do that expand our brand, take it a different direction and maybe do something we haven't done before."
ET will be at Universal Studios Hollywood for a full week of shows beginning Monday Oct. 24. The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare can be experienced at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort until Oct. 31.