Courtesy Universal Studios
"Abandon all hope ye who enter here," warns the sign greeting guests to the Gates of Hell – as if they even had to say it.
Welcome to Halloween Horror Nights
at California's Universal Studios Hollywood, which, like its sister park in Orlando, Fla., decks itself out on select nights this month for that scariest of holidays. Having frightened brave-hearted visitors witless since 2006
, Universal's multiple walk-through horror mazes include this year's newest attraction, a ghoul-filled Dead Inside
zombie apocalypse inspired by AMC's The Walking Dead
(whose third season premieres Oct. 14).
"You need to be emotionally involved in order to be drawn into the horror," Halloween Horror Nights
creative director John Murdy, stepping over empty shotgun shells amid the piped-in ersatz scent of rotting corpses, recently told PEOPLE at the entrance to the Walking Dead
maze, which features actual scenes and props from the series.
The experience, as described by Murdy, "should be as if you got off of your living room sofa, stepped into the screen and started living it."
Among those who've "lived" it have included Justin Bieber
, Demi Lovato
, Jayden Smith and even Elizabeth Taylor, who one Halloween brought Michael Jackson's kids. This year, so far, the Jonas Brothers
(whose blog featured photos
), Vanessa Hudgens
, Connor Cruise, Diddy
and Seth Green – who posted a shot of himself surrounded by ghouls
on WhoSay and said, "Ran into some old friends @HorrorNights this year" – have tested their mettle in the mazes.
Populated by seasonal extras who pop out of the walls, the mazes feature cast members who "are not all actors," says Murdy. "We have doctors, lawyers, even 75-year-old grandmothers who like to frighten people." Before being made up to greet their public, each of them has been taught "the art of the scare," says Murdy.
Universal being the home of the original Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies, studio craftsmen are no strangers to playing visual tricks on even the savviest participants. This is particularly evident in the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3D
maze, inspired by the veteran glam rocker's 1975 concept album Welcome to My Nightmare
, where black-lit optical illusions help fuel the bad dream.
Starting with queue that pays tribute to garish 19th century Coney Island, the experience devolves into a trip to Purgatory, Limbo (populated by demon babies) and across the River Styx. All the while there are personal encounters with all seven deadly sins – until, literally, Hell freezes over.
Talk about realism. As he entered Purgatory, with its interminable wait, a deadpan Murdy joked, "The inspiration for this is the Department of Motor Vehicles."