The Haunted Mansion is one of Disney’s greatest creations. It’s also an unfixable, thematic mess, which is part of its appeal. Disney has allowed it to remain imperfect for the past half century, a wise exception to the company’s notorious perfectionism.
This piece was first published on April 27, 2016. We’re bumping it today to celebrate the Haunted Mansion’s 50th Anniversary.
It’s a mix of ideas, a collection of concepts about how funny or scary to make the best haunted house. It’s changed in small ways over the years and is rewarding to appreciate as a kid or an adult.
As a child, we might take it at face value, letting ourselves be scared or delighted by the “999 happy haunts.” As we get older, and once we’ve been on the ride a time or 20, we can appreciate the Haunted Mansion with a shrewder eye. We can take pleasure in the craft and process of the ride’s creation and operation. It’s like being an adult fan of magic. No adult thinks that Penn & Teller can actually make balls appear out of thin air. Rather, it’s admiration for the magicians’ skills that makes the tricks engaging. Knowing the secret can deepen one’s appreciation for how well the tricks are performed.
The ride is a memorable spectacle. It employs several classic illusions in the service of entertainment. For example, the Pepper’s Ghost effect that creates the transparent ‘ballroom scene’ dates back to the 16th century. The effect shows up in the mansion’s Grand Hall, where glowing, transparent ghost couples dance among real life props. Other ghosts disappear and reappear at a banquet table. Still more ghosts swing from the chandelier or pop out of oil paintings. It’s a scene of uncommon beauty and impressiveness. It’s so impressive, in fact, that during the ride’s testing, the effect tricked experts, who were shocked by the sheer audacity of what they were seeing. “We fooled [the magicians] too,” boasted Haunted Mansion designer Rolly Crump in Jason Surrell’s official guide to the great ride. “They’d just never seen a piece of glass that big.”
The Haunted Mansion’s creation was notoriously tortured. Disney’s developers spent over 10 years creating ideas before settling on the final vision. Even that was a product of hard compromise. There were too many great ideas, and many of them live on through preliminary sketches and concept art. One potential storyline for the Mansion climaxed with a Headless Horseman. Another story treatment, according to Surrell, told the dark story of Captain Gore, who murdered his bride in cold blood and bricked her up in a cellar wall.
Another idea integrated a “Museum of the Weird,” where guests could observe oddities such as a melting candle man and a living chair. You can see models for some of these oddities below. The man in the image is Rolly Crump, who, along with Yale Gracey, did a lot of preliminary work on the attraction. It’s mind-blowing to look at stuff like this and imagine an alternate Haunted Mansion that would be no less creative or engaging.
The simplest decisions were points of contention. A haunted house, for example, typically has a scary, foreboding exterior of crumbling facades and imposing structures to foreshadow what’s inside.
But Walt Disney disagreed, according to Surrell. He dreamt up Disneyland as an alternative to broken down, unregulated amusement parks. To deliberately put a broken down structure in his beloved theme park was too much, and it led him to declare, “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.” The resulting structure, built in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, was a quaint antebellum mansion that belied its true purpose.
The Mansion is a ride-through attraction, even though it was first conceptualized for walking. Disney’s developers made the correct choice. It allowed for a larger number of guests to experience the attraction, and it also allowed the illusions to exist in a more controlled environment. Thankfully, some strong elements from the original walkthrough concept survived to the final design. In the loading area right before the ride, for example, guests can spend time looking at creepy statues and changing portraits. Ostensibly, the portraits are innocuous paintings of pretty people. Whenever lightning strikes, however, the guests get a look at the real ghoul beneath the facade.
Some of the best Haunted Mansion artwork came from the brainstorming sessions for these changing portraits. The author of most of the sketches was a Disney developer named Marc Davis, who is also credited with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “It’s a Small World” rides. Davis was also one of Disney’s lead animators, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and ending with 101 Dalmatians.
Here’s a Davis sketch for a changing portrait that never made it into the Mansion.
Dark, but funny. Davis wanted to create a Haunted Mansion that winked at its audience. He wanted lots of gallows humor and lots of friendly ghosts, who could play with the audience and say, “See? We’re not so scary after all!”
One can see a prime example of Davis’ humor in the ‘Stretching Room’ that precedes the ride. The Stretching Room was a creative solution to the problem of the physical mansion in Disneyland not being big enough to house the whole Haunted Mansion ride. And so, they built the Stretching Room as a glorified elevator, which took the guests below ground, and into another building that housed the ride.
Upon entering the Mansion, guests are escorted into a massive room by a disembodied Ghost Host. The doors lock, and the room elongates, from bottom to top. And then suddenly, the lights go out. Lightning strikes. Guests hear a high pitched scream in the darkness, and can see a corpse hanging from the rafters.
By themselves, these disorienting effects would have been frightening. But they’re not, thanks to Davis. Most guests are too busy staring and laughing at his portraits, which elongate to reveal some embarrassing, darkly humorous scenarios. If you’ve never been to the Mansion, use your hand to cover the bottom halves of the portraits, and slowly move your hand downwards. No person is scary when he’s lost his pants.
But while Davis wanted to do an amusing deconstruction of the haunted house trope, his colleague, developer and set designer Claude Coats, wanted the Mansion to be scarier and creepier. This was the main dispute during the ride’s creation. Davis won. The majority of the Mansion is in tune with his more lighthearted vision. The music that plays in the graveyard, “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” lets you know exactly how seriously you’re supposed to take all of this. Fast forward to the two-minute mark in the clip below. That’s where the tempo really starts to pick up. The bass singer is Thurl Ravenscroft, better known to most people as Tony the Tiger from the Frosted Flakes commercials.
There are some rooms that are touched by Coats’ influence. At the beginning of the ride, for example, guests don’t get a good look at any of the ghosts. They haven’t yet begun to “materialize.” Guests see creepy shadows. Door knockers clank on their own. A voice screams, “Lemme out of here!” in a terrified voice. The wallpaper is covered with angry eyes, meant to give the impression that the guests are always being watched. There’s a devilish grandfather clock. A candelabra floats down an endless hallway. The centerpiece of the tableau is a half-opened coffin, with an inhabitant who can barely contain himself. Coats’ contributions create unease and claustrophobia.
The Mansion’s Omnimover ride system moves at a steady clip. There is no way that the average guest is going to pick up on more than a fraction of what is actually there. That’s exactly what makes the Haunted Mansion so appealing. Its visual density rewards repeated rides and re-rides.
The Haunted Mansion has not been changed much since its 1969 debut. Most areas of the Mansion have had little adjustments to lighting or arrangement but nothing that radically changed the experience.
The only room that has been overhauled is the Attic. The centerpiece of the Attic has always been the bride. From 1969 to early 2006, she had the same essential concept. She was a silent, foreboding figure holding a candle in one hand, and she had a visible, loud, beating heart. There were also pop-up ghosts that screamed directly in your face, which made for some good jump scares. The best part of the original Attic was its ambiguity. There was no narrative voiceover, no direct information as to who the bride was or what her motives might be.
Fans tried to fill in the gaps for themselves. One of the most common legends was that the bride killed herself by jumping out of the attic window. Either that, or the groom threw her out the window. For years, sharp-eyed guests pointed to a “ring” outside of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. It wasn’t actually a ring. It was just a piece of a broken pole that was embedded in the ground, but that hardly mattered. It captured people’s imaginations, and rumors circulated for years. The developers eventually paved it over, but when they revamped the Orlando attraction in 2011, they installed a real ring in the ground as a clever nod to the fandom.
Disney revamped the entire Attic in 2006. Gone were the screaming pop-up ghosts. Gone was the Bride and her beating heart. In her place was a brand new Bride, this time with a definitive backstory. Her name was Constance Hatchaway, and she was a black widow bride. She married five men and beheaded them all with a hatchet after securing their money. Each husband’s history is fleshed out both in literature and in the attraction itself. The final, fifth husband, George Hightower, was the prior owner of the Haunted Mansion.
The new Attic, in its current form, has five wedding portraits, each of which fades between a normal couple’s photo and an alternate photo with the decapitated husband. The above photo, which depicts Constance and her fifth husband, George, is a direct callback to the earlier ‘stretching portrait’ of the old woman sitting on her husband’s tombstone. We’re led to believe that she’s the same person. The rose that they’re both holding is a dead giveaway.
In the Haunted Mansion fandom, the reaction to the new bride has been mixed. On one hand, it’s nice to get some clear backstory. Perhaps, after so many years of loose plot threads, Disney felt the same way. On the other hand, it feels like sacrilege to replace something so old and established. There was something romantically ambiguous about the original Attic, when everything wasn’t so spelled out, and fans’ imaginations were allowed to run wild. I went to Disneyland for the first time when I was four years old. I don’t remember much, but I remember The Haunted Mansion most of all. And that original, terrifying Attic scene was a major reason why. When it comes to horror, less is usually more.
The Attic continues to change. In 2015, Disney restored the Hatbox Ghost to a location right past the exit. A little backstory: the Hatbox Ghost was the alleged groomsman to the Bride, and he was situated in the Attic during the Mansion’s debut year. His special effect was his head, which would disappear and then reappear in a hatbox he was carrying. But the special effect did not create a convincing illusion—the head was simultaneously visible in both locations—and so the Hatbox Ghost was removed shortly after the Mansion’s opening.
For decades, guests from Disneyland’s debut year would claim that they saw the Hatbox Ghost in person, and members of the fan community would scour old video footage to prove his existence. Finally, in 2015, the Hatbox Ghost made his triumphant return to the Haunted Mansion. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It felt like a tribute to the dedicated fan community that had kept the Hatbox Ghost relevant for decades, a Disney ‘Thank You’ for the continuing love and support.
Disney/Marvel recently published Haunted Mansion #1, the first issue in a comic series that will explore the Haunted Mansion in more depth. The run will no doubt give us additional nuggets of information about Constance, about the Hatbox Ghost, about Madame Leota and her mystical powers. The author is well-equipped for the task. Writer Josh Williamson is a devout Disneyland fan and claims to have ridden the Haunted Mansion enough times to have memorized it. Still, there will be unanswered questions. Every time someone scratches the surface of one character, there are 998 other characters who beg for a well-formed history. There will never be a definitive telling of such a sprawling tale, because the Mansion is such a hodge podge of half-realized, brilliant concepts.
Take, for example, the Raven, who is present in most of the Mansion’s main setpieces (both in California and in Florida). He was part of an abandoned, early concept, where he narrated the entire ride from room to room. That idea, like many others, fell by the wayside, but the raven motif remained. It’s another loose plot thread that doesn’t connect to the greater whole. There are tons of elements in the Haunted Mansion like the Raven, ideas that never came to total fruition, but were put in the attraction anyway. That’s probably because the developers couldn’t bear to throw them out.
It’s this messiness, this lack of structure, this ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ ethos, that makes the Haunted Mansion so memorable, so addictive, and so compelling. Its haphazardness makes it unknowable, which is an essential characteristic to any good ghost story. And it dares the fans to ride it one more time, to peer at the glut of detail for a single, missed clue and gain a little clarity.