The most remarkable thing about the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland has nothing to do with the ghosts. When I say “Haunted Mansion” in this post, I am referring specifically to the attraction at Disneyland in California, and not to the attraction’s other locations or to the (apparently dreadful) 2003 film.
When I visited Disneyland for the first time this spring, I looked askance at the Haunted Mansion. I assumed it would be either a sanitized, childlike fantasy or a gothic, Burton-esque nightmare. It would be overly branded with Disney characters, and it would either bore me or scare me, and I dislike being scared almost as much as I dislike being bored.
As it turns out, I overlooked something very critical, and I was not bored in the least. Because the Haunted Mansion is beautiful.
The Haunted Mansion is perhaps one of Disney’s best examples of artistry in attraction design. Disney’s brand is built in part upon a fanatical attention to detail. Although visiting Disneyland occasionally made me want to crawl out of my skin (that’s another post entirely, but let’s just say it rhymes with “schmacism”), it also inspired a great deal of artistic respect.
As it turns out, however, it’s a bit of a twisted road from the first idea to the attraction I saw this spring. The development of the Haunted Mansion was incredibly complicated, and plagued by very basic story questions. For example, was the ride supposed to be scary or funny? The mansion cycled through a number of designers, and was never actually approved in its final form by Walt Disney; he was skeptical about the ride at the beginning of development and didn’t live to see it open.
The idea for the mansion came from a simple sketch by art director Harper Goff, during the initial rendering and concept phase for Disneyland itself in 1955. (Harper Goff also art-directed Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and watching that movie after seeing Disneyland itself is a little eerie.)
The concept was then handed off to Imagineer Ken Anderson, who created a run-down, ramshackle building full of fantastical and extremely spooky effects; so spooky that the cleaning staff of the Disney offices refused to clean in the rooms where the effects were being developed. But Disney didn’t like the idea of a shabby building smack-dab in the middle of his beautiful park, and the outer concepts had to be redone. After being announced to the public in 1961, the project was put on hold while Walt Disney and his team focused on getting ready for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Walt Disney died in 1966. In the period between the fair and his death, Anderson left the project, and the Haunted Mansion’s development went through a confusing stage, as many different ideas and directions were piled on top of the original concept.
After Disney’s death, the project evolved, eventually opening in 1969 to mixed reviews from both the internal team, who were frustrated over the complicated development process, and park visitors, who had been hearing hype about the ride for the past 7 years. That said, the ride’s opening night brought record crowds, and over the years the Haunted Mansion has become something of a cult classic, inspiring a large and devoted fan base. One fan site describes the Haunted Mansion as a testament not to Disney himself, but to the team he put together, as prime example of their ability to continue creating to Disney’s standards after his death.
What were probably once viewed as problems with the ride now seem to be loved as character flaws. For example, The Haunted Mansion breaks down all the time. Or rather, it stops. For a few seconds, or a few minutes. Apparently this is sometimes mechanical, sometimes because the ride slows to load elderly guests, and sometimes because kids climb out of their seats. On my one ride, we stopped three times. My park buddy, who grew up near Disneyland and has been on the attraction many times, remembers it breaking down on almost every visit. Thankfully, the ride effects keep running even when the seats are stopped. Our seat was stuck in front of a chorus of singing gravestones, their faces projected from somewhere hidden beneath our feet onto smooth marble busts. If we’d sailed by them I might have remembered them simply as a neat effect and a momentary scrap of song, but sitting in front of them for five minutes meant that I became very interested in figuring out how they worked. (I’m still not sure.)
A lot of the delight of the Haunted Mansion is in trying to figure out how the tricks work. At one point the seats pass along a gallery that overlooks an empty ballroom. As we passed by, I watched as translucent, blue figures in rags appeared and began to dance below us. I remember leaning eagerly forward and saying “It’s a mirror!” (I’m pretty sure I was right about that one.)
The Haunted Mansion is surprising, textured, and focused on artistry and detail. This is not the soft, cuddly Disney I was expecting. The attraction exemplifies the entire experience of Disneyland: meticulously curated, happily weird, supported but not driven by established movie characters, and more than a little surreal. There’s no obligation for the ride to present an overarching narrative, so the characters vary in aesthetic from cartoonish to realistic, weaving hundreds of tiny stories together.
My favorite moment of the attraction is a good example of one of those tiny stories. As you enter the ride, you’re ushered into a large room with paintings on the walls. This was the first trick I figured out while I was there; the room is an enormous elevator. The paintings expand downward, so that previously idyllic scenes become dangerous and gruesome as you slowly travel down. A nice older man in a suit turns out to be standing on a keg of dynamite in his underwear. A happy woman holding a rose is actually sitting on her husband’s gravestone. And a young woman holding a parasol turns out to be standing on a tightrope above an alligator.
That young women clinched the ride for me, right from the very beginning. Through my wanderings on the internet, I was already familiar with the painting, and with the complex development of that character over several different versions of the piece. She’s a tiny character. She doesn’t appear in a Disney film or show up in any other rides. You see her for perhaps 30 seconds as you step inside the room, and that’s all. But she’s had so many iterations and interpretations over the years that there’s reams to be written just about her.
That’s the beauty of the Haunted Mansion. The details are dense, and behind every detail is a story. The ghosts aren’t particularly scary, but the stories they tell are dark. Dark, and funny, and beautiful.
Sara Eileen Hames is afraid of the dark.