Disney's Haunted Mansion ride is beloved by many, and we're nearing the best time of year to go on it. (How many times have I been on it? Oh, um, like, a lot.) But some people just love it more than the rest of us, so there are entire web sites devoted to the ride's history and how it works, as well as ways to bring a little of the enchantingly spooky magic into your own home.
We're dying for you to join us after the break, for everything I could dig up related to the Haunted Mansion: its history, the four different versions of it, how some of its best tricks are accomplished, how to haunt your own mansion, and a
ghost host of crafts... including how to get in touch with a few from a dearly departed page. Hop in your Doom Buggy and join us!
Haunted Mansion History
Although the idea of putting a "haunted house" into Disneyland had been on the table since the park's initial conception, no such attraction existed when Disneyland opened in 1955. Walt Disney had a keen interest in building the idea to fruition, and eventually assigned Imagineers to the project that would become the Haunted Mansion.
A building in the style of a pre-Civil-War mansion on the Louisiana bayou had been built by 1963, to fit in with the New Orleans Square district of Disneyland (gallery image). The Mansion promised to open that year, but Walt Disney refocused the majority of the company's creative resources on the 1964-1965 World's Fair, then passed away in 1966.
The Imagineers working on the Haunted Mansion then went through many different possible concepts, storylines, and elements, with a tug-of-war between whimsy and spookiness. The Mansion eventually opened in August, 1969, and was the first major attraction in Disneyland to be designed without Walt Disney's guidance.
Walt Disney World, in the Orlando, Florida area, was being designed around the same time. Disney Imagineers decided that it, too, would receive a Haunted Mansion: while building the attraction for its initial appearance in Disneyland, they simply made two of everything.
In considering what would seem appropriately creepy and exotic to Floridians, a large brick mansion in the early American "Dutch Gothic" style was chosen (gallery image). It's the sort of house that a wealthy settler might have built on the Hudson River several centuries ago. Walt Disney World does not suffer from the constraints of space that have always plagued Disneyland, so the Orlando Mansion is somewhat larger than its predecessor.
This kind of dwelling is alien to most Japanese people as well. The decision was made to use the same concept for the Haunted Mansion in Tokyo Disneyland, where the ride is a near-exact replica of the original Orlando version (gallery image).
Because of the disparate interests of the Imagineering team members who developed it, a strong storyline for the Haunted Mansion attraction never materialized. It went through various drafts starting in the mid-1950s. Nothing ever seemed quite right: a "sea captain," who is really a pirate, murders his young bride when she discovers his secret; a Headless Horseman leads guests to a monster wedding; restoration work on a cursed manor house is always undone overnight by prankish spirits.
Eventually, the team settled on something that worked. The house welcomes wandering spirits from all times and places around the world, particularly those displaced by the havoc of World War II. There is room for 1000 ghosts, but at present, there are only 999 Happy Haunts. Would you like to take the last spot?
A recent refurbishment in California and Florida applies a slightly different storyline to the attraction: the Happy Haunts are still around, but one, Constance, is a sinister "Black Widow Bride" who has murdered at least five husbands for their money. She replaces a vaguer "Bride" character (gallery image) who was probably a carry-over from the "sea captain" plot.
The Phantom Manor
When plans were being made for "Euro Disney" -- also known as Disneyland Paris -- the idea of how to translate the Haunted Mansion's concept for a European audience was approached. Stately Gothic-style homes, of the kind shown in the Florida and Tokyo Mansions, are not particularly rare or notable in France or the rest of Europe: they're often part of the neighborhood.
However, the French have a long history of fascination with stories of the old American West. The decision was made to give the Haunted Mansion a new setting and storyline, and as a result, there are many differences between it and the other versions. One of the most visible to guests is the fact that it has a run-down exterior.
The Phantom Manor (a name chosen because the words mean approximately the same thing in French and English) has an amalgam of themes: it's partly a dark Western tale set in a ghost town, partly a take on French author Gaston Leroux's famous novel The Phantom of the Opera, and also contains a nod to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
In the Phantom Manor's backstory and storyline, a mining magnate named Henry Ravenswood has built a huge, high-Victorian mansion (gallery image) for himself, his wife, and their daughter, Melanie. Melanie is engaged to be married, and Ravenswood is angry to learn that Melanie's fiance plans to move her far away. As preparations for the wedding reach their zenith, the town is destroyed (and Henry and his wife, killed) by a terrible earthquake; Melanie's fiance is also found dead.
It's assumed that Melanie died in the earthquake, but her body was never found, and fleeting glimpses of her have been caught by visitors to the wreckage. In reality, she survived, spending the rest of her life wandering around her home in her wedding dress (gallery image), until her death many years later.
The Phantom Manor has two cohesive ghostly presences: the menacing, murderous Phantom assumed to be Melanie's father, who also functions as the Ghost Host, and the benevolent Bride, Melanie herself. While other versions of the attraction have art that depicts a variety of characters, many design elements in the Phantom Manor have been changed to allude to Melanie's sad fate.
The Haunted Mansion experience
The attraction proceeds through several stages: guests are led through a few antechambers and introduced to their Ghost Host, the narrator of the attraction. The Stretching Room kicks off the attraction before guests actually board the ride: portraits that seem innocent at first are eventually shown to be full of mortal peril. (See gallery images of the Stretching Room as it starts, and the Stretching Room as it ends up.)
Guests then board Doom Buggies (the Haunted Mansion version of the Omnimover system used on many Disney attractions), which take them through the lower floors of the Mansion. They see no spirits in particular, but are surrounded by a foreboding atmosphere: wall-hangings that read "Tomb Sweet Tomb," doors that bang and breathe, a coffin whose occupant is clearly trying to get out, creepy wallpaper with watching eyes (gallery image), a clock that runs backwards and goes up to the thirteenth hour, and so on. There are no visible characters.
Eventually, they reach the Séance Room, where the Ghost Host tells them that Madame Leota (gallery image) is a gifted psychic who will encourage the Mansion's residents to materialize. Madame Leota herself is a speaking head inside a crystal ball (which, depending on which version of the ride you're in, will either be on a table or floating around the room). Musical instruments begin to play, and guests are moved into a ballroom (gallery image), where dozens of visible but transparent ghosts are dancing and making mischief (gallery image).
The guests then move up into an attic, where elements vary between versions of the house, but there is always a bride (gallery image) with a glowing, beating heart. The Doom Buggies "fall" out of an attic window into the cemetery, where the attraction's only live characters, the caretaker and his dog, watch the following scene in terror and amazement: ghosts are everywhere, singing, interacting, and playing. A row of busts sing the attraction's theme song, "Grim Grinning Ghosts," while the assembled spirits make up a chorus.
The Doom Buggies then move through the crypt (gallery image), where they are told that some Hitchhiking Ghosts might want to come home with them, then taken past dim mirrors where they can see one or another of the Hitchhiking Ghosts sitting next to them in their Doom Buggy. The Doom Buggies then move into the "unload" area, where a small bride doll (gallery image) tells the guests to, "Hurry back! Hurry baaaa-aaaack! Don't forget your Death Certificate!"
The Phantom Manor version of the ride is essentially similar, but there are several appearances by the Phantom and the Bride, and the cemetery scene is replaced by one in which the Doom Buggies descend to the underworld and eventually experience a ghostly reenactment of the earthquake that destroyed Ravenswood Manor.
If you've never had the chance to take a ride through the Haunted Mansion, or if it's been a while, you might want to watch a few videos. This great YouTube video is a 16-minute trip through Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. However, several of the most effects-heavy parts of the video are too dark: the author says that the darkness was caused by YouTube's compression. This six-minute Disneyland Haunted Mansion video isn't as good in terms of sound, but you get a clearer view of the Ballroom and Graveyard scenes, including the effects I'm about to discuss.
There are several great Haunted Mansion fan sites on the web:
- DoomBuggies is Haunted Mansion fandom central, with all the information you could want.
- Better Haunts and Graveyards is more modest, but has some great pictures and hosts the Haunted Mansion FAQ.
- GrimGhosts has maps of the ride and insider information.
Behind the Illusions
The Haunted Mansion has some impressive special effects. So... how did the Imagineers accomplish them? They must have had to spend a lot of time building complicated machinery, right?
Well, sort of. Two major illusions in the Haunted Mansion are not really mechanical, and are easily explained. The techniques used to create them are common stage techniques that have been around since at least the mid-19th century. A third is created with a more recent trick. (However, in a general sense, it's true that the Mansion's ghost figures are the mechanized Disney animatronics used elsewhere in the parks. In the Mansion, they are frequently transparent and often wear clothing made of clear vinyl.)
Haunted Portrait Gallery
The Disneyland Mansion's portrait gallery is notorious for its humorously creepy portraits, which change from a "normal" picture to a "weird" or "scary" one. Various lighting effects have been used with the portraits over the years. Sometimes they fade slowly in and out, as if they were morphing; at other times, they change with flashes of lightning.
This effect is achieved with scrim material, a sheer theatrical fabric. Scrim material looks reasonably opaque when it's lit from the front, if the area behind it is kept completely dark. However, if the area in front of the scrim is dark (or at least dimly lit), and the area behind the scrim is lit, the fabric becomes transparent, and you can see what's behind it. Want more than one "stage" in the transformation? Then you need more than one layer of scrim material. Front lighting must be at an oblique angle to the scrim, because any layers behind it will show if they are lit through it.
The "normal" form of a Haunted Portrait is printed onto scrim material and lit only from the front until the weird versions are to be seen. The "weird" versions are behind the normal version, and are visible when lit from the front (but not when another scrim in front of them is also lit from the front), and difficult to see when lit from the back. These scrim portraits can be stacked on top of each other with space between them for lighting, so a portrait can appear to morph through several changes. If you watch the videos of the ride linked earlier in this article, you'll notice that the room around the portrait gets noticeably darker as the picture becomes "scarier": this helps keep the panels towards the front looking transparent.
You can see this effect in action in our gallery: Master Gracey as a handsome young man (gallery image), and Master Gracey as a skeletal ghoul (gallery image). In the second picture, look closely at the area on the right half of the portrait where his white collar was in the "normal" version: you can still see a ghost of the collar. That's because you're looking at the ghoulish portrait through several scrims with "earlier" portraits painted on them.
(It's worth noting, though, that I believe these photos are from two different versions of the Mansion: the paintings are similar without being exactly the same. Until recently, this portrait was only in the Orlando and Tokyo Mansions, where it is the first effect guests see, prior to entering the Stretching Gallery. At Disneyland, a series of changing portraits lines the walls of the corridor between the Stretching Gallery and the area where guests board their Doom Buggies; one of the classic portraits was recently replaced with Master Gracey, making his first California appearance.)
Ghostly Ballroom Scene
It has long been rumored that the ballroom scene, which features multiple ghosts merrily carousing, was created with holograms. This is not the case: the ability to create a hologram of that complexity was not available when the attraction was initially designed in the late 1960s. In fact, the Ballroom uses a visual trick developed in the 1860s to show realistic ghosts in theatrical productions: Pepper's Ghost.
In the Pepper's Ghost illusion, there are two identical rooms separated by clear glass. One is kept dark and is not visible to the audience, but it contains the item which is to appear in a ghostly manner in the visible room. When it is illuminated, the item will be reflected in the glass and will "appear" in the visible room. The audience sees only the reflection, which can interact with whatever is in the visible room (a keyboard, a swordsman, etc).
For more information on how it works and tips on how to make it real, check out the Pepper's Ghost page at Phantasmechanics. Tsing Bardin's Physics Toys has a Pepper's Ghost page which explains the illusion in simple terms and offers an easy magic project as a demonstration. Several period diagrams that are very helpful for comprehension are reproduced at Thomas Weynant's Early Visual Media: Pepper's Ghost.
In the Haunted Mansion's ballroom scene, the extra rooms to create the Pepper's Ghost illusion, which contain the solid forms of the figures you're seeing, are hidden above and below the Doom Buggy track. Many guests do not notice the sheet of glass between the Buggies and the ballroom. It's one of the reasons that the Ghost Host requests that guests refrain from flash photography.
The Pepper's Ghost setup is also used to create the illusion that the Hitchhiking Ghosts are riding with the guests in the Doom Buggies near the end of the ride, except in that instance, the guests themselves are actually the "illusion." You see a reflection of yourself in the glass, and can see a semi-lit white figure through the glass.
Talking Statues and Busts
Several times through the ride, a character is shown to be talking, in unusual circumstances: Madame Leota in her crystal ball, the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" singers on their pedestals in the cemetery, and Little Leota the Ghostess in the very last bit of the ride. All of these elements are accomplished the same way: a short color movie is projected onto a white mannequin head from below the front of the head. This allows the heads to look "alive."
Haunt Your Own Mansion
Former Disney animator James "Jamie" Lopez did a blog called The Haunted Mansion - Northside, showing off one of his hobbies: recreating elements of the attraction. From his study, which has been themed to look like it's a room in the mansion, to the way he decorates his house for Halloween, to his own versions of the infamous Staring Statues, this is totally cool.
One of the best things about Lopez's blog is the fact that he goes out of his way to show how he created things: you'll need a modicum of artistic talent to reproduce his results exactly, but they are achievable. In many cases, he sculpted what he wanted out of polymer clay, which he then used as a mold. Sometimes he had to ask friends of friends for help, trading favors for the use of the equipment he needed. You'll even see the scrim trick in action, when he details how he brought a lost Mansion character, the Hatbox Ghost, back to... er... after-life.
In the case of the owl/face wallpaper with the menacing eyes, in his study, he made his own stencil. I've had a similar idea, and I think it would work best as a three-layer stencil, lined up carefully: one layer with the majority of the design, another layer for the whites of the eyes, a third layer for the pupils. It would be easy to do in an image-editing program, as would the face of the Grandfather clock that goes up to 13 (more on that below).
If you're interested in doing something like that to your own place, the Gothic Manor site (warning: plays sounds) is a good resource. It's a collection of detailed pictures of various Haunted Mansion motifs. The site's creator, who calls himself the Ghost Host, claims to be making a private home into as much of a replica of the Haunted Mansion as possible. There are a few links to products you can purchase, and if you ask nicely, the Ghost Host might let you commission a replica item of his own manufacture from him.
Several of these sites point out that a few items used in the Mansion were commercially available to begin with: Lopez found one of the sconces in a lighting shop, for example. The most famous of these is the lily wallpaper from the Foyer area. It's available from Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, a California company that sells reproductions of hand-printed Victorian wallpapers. The pattern is Lily-Dresser Tradition II (Color Code: LYW-550, Color Scheme: Ashes of Rose). You can order it from their site at the link provided.
While some Haunt Your Own Mansion projects are attempts to duplicate elements of the attraction, others are just aimed at using the Imagineers' techniques to create similar items and effects in an original style.
Backyard Imagineering at Hidden Mickeys has mostly Haunted-Mansion-type projects: a scary shadowy moving hand, glowing eyes, a "chainsaw cabinet," and so on. Most of the ideas are relatively low-tech electrical ones that don't involve computers.
ImaginEERIEing has details on how to make high-tech Haunted Mansion-inspired projects for an awesome haunted house. Their stock in trade is a "Magic Mirror" effect, in which a computer monitor showing the face of a digital puppet is placed behind a carved facade with a "mirror" set into it, and candy is dispensed with a puff of smoke. The puppet can interact with guests. Several of their digital puppets are premium items ($15 for a pumpkin or skull), but the basic program, with a mask-like face, is free and is available for both Mac and PC. They also have instructions for other effects.
Paper or Card Models
Haunted Dimensions just might be everyone's favorite craft site related to the attraction. Artist Ray Keim creates detailed 3-D renderings of the Mansions and the Manor, then uses them to create amazing paper models that you can download, print, and build for free (the Phantom Manor model will be coming next year). There are also models of a few of the things you'll find around the Mansions, like tombstones and crypts, which are good for practice. He even gives you a list of all the equipment you'll need! The rest of the site is impressive as well, so be sure to look in all the nooks and crannies. (See gallery images of a partially-completed Disneyland Haunted Mansion model, and the same model in its completed state. There are also completed model images at Haunted Dimensions.)
Tasha at Flowers for the Dead has created a page of Haunted Mansion Stretching Room paper models: one for the original version of the room, another for the Phantom Manor's Stretching Room (portraits of Melanie Ravenswood which become increasingly ominous as they are fully revealed), and a third for the Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion Holiday Overlay that runs in some of the parks for the last three months of the year. (More about that below.) The models are more complex than they initially appear, but they really work. If you build them correctly, your tiny rooms should stretch like the real rooms do (though not necessarily with the same mechanism).
Gingerbread Models... er, Houses
Trust Ray Keim to make this topic his own. His "gingerbread" version of the Phantom Manor was actually made of sugar cookies colored to look like gingerbread, but that's a technicality. He offers downloadable templates for cutting out the pieces of your structure, instructions on how to get the icing colors you need, construction ideas, and photos from readers who have completed the project. The most impressive is the Phantom Manor integrated into someone's wedding cake.
JustJenn, a Craftster user, built a gingerbread "Haunted Mansion" with the aid of Halloween candy. It looks like she meant the term less formally, as in, "haunted large house," but as it happens, her creation also looks much like the Phantom Manor. There's more information on her gingerbread Haunted Mansion at her site.
Other craft ideas
Gothic Manor's photo reference will be helpful for the following ideas. Why not try:
Cross-stitching your own Tomb Sweet Tomb wall-hanging?
Creating the "Staring Eyes Wallpaper" design on glassware? Print stencils of elements taken from the "purple staring eyes" wallpaper onto sticker paper, spray over them with clear fixative, stick them to glassware, carefully remove the black areas with a craft knife, and use glass etching cream
according to label directions to make your own awesomely spooky drinkware. DoomBuggies
offers a download of the wallpaper pattern to use on your desktop; it would be easy to edit. This Dura-Film etching system
allows you to print on its special material and claims you don't need to cut out your stencil to etch with it.
Creating the "13 O'Clock" face with an image editing program, printing it on parchment-style paper, using spray adhesive to glue it to a round clock face board of the appropriate size, inserting a clock kit, making claw-shaped "hands" out of chipboard and attaching them, then...
Sculpting the "mouth" from around the clock face with Creative Paperclay as a frame for the clock you've just made, and decorating it with acrylic paint when it's dry?
Make your own versions of some of the Haunted Mansion tombstones, for your Halloween yard? See gallery images of the Master Gracey tombstone
, the Good Old Fred tombstone
, and the super-cool animatronic Sweet Leota monument
(every few minutes, its face pushes forward, its eyes open, and it looks around, before going back to "sleep"). See also the tombstones that Jamie Lopez has done for his yard
. Have a shape cut from plywood or MDF; paint it with primer. Get a good effect by lightly sponge-painting watered-down shades of gray and pale green acrylic paint onto a grayish ground. Work slowly, in layers, blending the colors as much as you can and letting each layer dry before you go on to the next. Let some areas be slightly more greenish than others. Paint your epitaph on in dark gray or black (you may need to draw guidelines in pencil or chalk first, which you should erase after the epitaph is dry), and lightly sponge a bit more gray and green over it. If you plan to leave the tombstones outside, you will need to coat them with several layers of matte polyurethane sealant.
Several years ago, there was a wonderful site dedicated mostly to Haunted Mansion crafts, Doom Buggy Productions. It was full of great tutorials and all the downloads you would need to finish the projects. It inspired this article... but sadly, while I was researching, I found that the site had disappeared without a trace.
That doesn't mean it's entirely gone for good: the Internet Wayback Machine at the Web Archive is like Madame Leota, in that it will put you in touch with a dead page. You won't be able to see most of the images, and you may have to dig around quite a bit. Visit the Web Archive, and in the "Wayback Machine" search box near the center top of the front page, enter one of the following URLs (the last is the most specific):
When you get results, do not click on any of the most recent "updates": try versions of the page from 2004-2005. You should turn up plenty of cool craft ideas. Read the target URLs in your status bar as you mouse over the links, if the images are broken. If the Wayback Machine doesn't work the first time, wait a few minutes and try again.
One of the projects at Doom Buggy Productions was a Madame Leota ornament that was essentially made from a clear glass Christmas bulb with a stand created from shaped plastic painted gold. A printed picture of Madame Leota, downloadable from the site, was placed inside. We do have a picture of Madame Leota in our gallery, but I'm afraid that it won't print out at the resolution that you'll need to create this item.
Doom Buggies has a desktop downloads page in its media area; one of the desktop wallpapers you can download is Madame Leota. Her head fills most of the screen. You can probably use this wallpaper to get a higher-resolution image for your ornament. Get the largest version of the wallpaper that's available. In an image editing program, set the image's DPI to about 150 (the pixel dimensions should decrease: if not, halve them yourself, maintaining the aspect ratio) and try printing it out. If it's still too large for your bulb, resize the image and try again.
Haunted Mansion Holiday
In 2001, Disneyland premiered a "Holiday Overlay" version of the Haunted Mansion: the whole ride was given a makeover with a Nightmare Before Christmas theme. The ride is closed for most of September and January to create and break down the overlay, and open as Haunted Mansion Holiday from October through December. The Holiday Overlay was popular enough in California that it was reproduced at Tokyo Disneyland. However, although the Tokyo version of the regular ride is almost completely identical to the one in Orlando, there are no current plans to institute Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disney World.
It's called a Holiday Overlay because most of the alterations to the ride are cosmetic: to begin with, the exterior of the Mansion is heavily decorated. The Stretching Gallery is replaced with Christmas-themed stained glass windows that "shatter," popping ghosts are replaced with popping Jack O'Lantern heads, Little Leota is replaced with a small Sally, and so on.
If you would like to read a detailed run-down of the changes, which includes photos, please see this article about the Haunted Mansion Holiday at DoomBuggies. As with the regular version of the attraction, there are a number of "ride-through" videos on YouTube: a sixteen-minute Haunted Mansion Holiday video, which has great sound but is very dark in certain segments, and a ten-minute Haunted Mansion Holiday video, which has so-so sound and better visuals. Also, take a look at the following images on Flickr: the Haunted Mansion Holiday exterior, the Haunted Mansion Holiday Countdown Clock, the Christmas List, and the replacements for the "popping ghosts."
As the movie and the ride both have a solid fan base, there have been a few crafts related to the Holiday Overlay. Two different wreath designs are associated with it, and each has been recreated by a Craftster user. One is the twig or vine wreath with a cartoonish skull and a striped ribbon bow that decorates the front of the house (here's a gallery image of the real thing). The other is a leafy wreath with eyes and teeth, in the style of both the Holiday version of the Haunted Mansion sign, and a wreath that guests encounter in the course of the ride.
There is also a paper model version of the Haunted Mansion Holiday Stretching Gallery at Flowers for the Dead, with suggestions for how to make the finished product more dimensional.
A variety of books have been produced based on the Haunted Mansion since its inception, but two of the most interesting were released in association with the 2003 movie based on the attraction. Jason Surrell's The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies is a comprehensive history and overview of the Mansion, including its early concept stages and the variations between different Disney theme parks. It's still in print, and is the best available book on the topic. Surrell is an Imagineer and Haunted Mansion fan who was involved in the creation of the Leota tribute tombstone. If you're interested in making your own Haunted Mansion stuff, you will want it: it's full of useful photos. (It was also a very helpful reference for this article.)
Build Your Own Haunted Mansion is a children's storybook. You can use the pages, along with the plastic bolts and wrench that are included with the book, to create a small paper model of the Mansion. The book comes with punch-out figures so you can act out your own stories! It's not as accurate as some of the paper scale models I discussed here, but it's still worth a look for any fan (Amazon.com will let you look inside the book). Although it's out of print, it's not difficult to find for around US $7.
I'm afraid we've reached the end of our ride together. Please take care in exiting your Doom Buggy. And hurry baaaa-aaaaack!