In the music video for “Heartless,” The Weeknd inadvisably licks a toad inside a dark Vegas hotel room and begins a Wolf Man-like transformation into an amphibian creature. Now, nearly three years after the clip’s debut, fans can experience the full scope of the pop star’s mutation – only they have to visit Universal Studios Hollywood to see it.
In a highlight of “The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare” – a new fright maze at the Los Angeles theme park’s popular Halloween Horror Nights attraction – we witness the singer’s After Hours character enduring an extension of that briefly glimpsed metamorphosis, culminating in the monstrous reveal of a red-jacketed man-toad creature bursting from an aperture in the wall. (Talk about a jump scare.) That moment is arguably the centerpiece of the new maze, which pulls on the disturbing imagery contained in After Hours’ lyrics and music videos to create an immersive experience that puts attendees smack inside the world of the album. For Horror Nights’ creative team, the maze also marks an important milestone: the first such attraction they’ve created with a music artist at the top of their game.
“This is the first time we’ve worked with…an artist that’s top of the charts and I guess you’d say pop music today,” says John Murdy, the longtime creative director and executive producer of Halloween Horror Nights, who has served in the role since 2006. Though he and his team have worked with other musicians in the past – namely Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath – they were artists who had long been associated with the horror genre. For all of his star power, The Weeknd, a frequent Horror Nights attendee who reached out to Murdy with the idea, wasn’t as obvious a fit.
“I knew him, of course, and I knew his songs, but I didn’t really understand how it all connected to horror until I sat down and started talking to Abel and then did a deep dive into his music. His music videos and his cinematic inspirations…was really I think the ‘a-ha’ moment for me,” says Murdy.
During a roughly 90-minute introductory video chat, The Weeknd took Murdy through a list of his After Hours visual inspirations, including such left-of-center films as Jacob’s Ladder, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and 12 Monkeys. But instead of just rehashing the music videos they inspired, the pair instead agreed it was more interesting to “tap into the essence” of the album. That involved extending on flashes of imagery – as with the toad-creature – and leaning into After Hours‘ dark-side-of-Hollywood visual aesthetics and lyrical content.
Throughout the maze, various iterations of The Weeknd wander, attack and buzz (at two separate points, we see the singer being fried in an electric chair) around scenes that incorporate imagery from his videos while also tossing in some original concepts. In the first section, loosely inspired by the slasher-esque “In Your Eyes” music video, we watch him stalk a blond-wigged woman through a club and, in a grotesque bit of creative license, slit her throat as a collection of alien-looking creatures sit silently by at cocktail tables. As in the video, the singer/murderer nonetheless gets his comeuppance, as we later witness the same woman (played by a different actress) gleefully hoist the demented pop star’s severed head in the air.
The other two sections of the maze, divided into what Murdy refers to as three “chapters,” take place in a macabre hotel-casino – a la the videos for “Blinding Lights” and “Heartless” – and a “nightmare version of the LA Metro,” where The Weeknd shot the After Hours short film, which was released in advance of the album. For the former, Murdy and his team took inspiration from Vegas hotels’ notoriously-gaudy interiors, exaggerating its hideous carpets and wallpaper prints to Kafkaesque heights. For the latter, the creative team built the front of a “subway train” that jerks threateningly in the direction of visitors as they pass by.
The experience wouldn’t be complete without the pop icon’s actual music. To that end, Murdy brought in frequent The Weeknd collaborator Michael Dean to create maze-specific remixes of songs from After Hours, Dawn FM and even 2016’s Starboy that, in Murdy’s words, would “work for a live walkthrough experience.”
True to his reputation, Murdy says The Weeknd was intimately involved with every aspect of the maze’s creative development, from the costumes to the sets to the plastic-surgery-gone-wrong makeup designs. All, it seems, to ensure that his ultimate vision for the maze was followed through: “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘I want this to scare the living daylights out of people.’”
“The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare” can be experienced on select nights at Universal Studios Hollywood through October 31.