When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls. Whenever candlelights flicker, where the air is deathly still. That is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight.
When I was a kid, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion filled me with a mixture of dread and fascination.
My sister and I always rode the attraction with our Dad comfortingly sandwiched between us. In the haunted elevator – is this room actually stretching? – I’d cling to my parents for dear life, especially during the part where it goes dark and everyone screams.
The Haunted Mansion literally haunted my dreams. I had a recurring nightmare/fantasy in which my family and I made our home in the attraction, an idea that was fun but also terrifying.
Over the years, my affection for Disney’s most ghoulishly delightful attraction grew. When I visit the park, New Orleans Square is the go-to spot I’ll feel sad about missing if for some reason I don’t make it over there.
I started a modest collection of themed merchandise. For a long time, I had the spooky theme song as my ringtone.
And the annual transformation of the mansion into a “Nightmare Before Christmas” mash-up has only fanned the flames of my obsession.
My husband even proposed to me on the attraction, which is a funny story – it was very, very dark — and a weird, but wonderful memory.
Your cadaverous pallor betrays an aura of foreboding, almost as though you sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Or is it your imagination, hmm? And consider this dismaying observation: This chamber has no windows and no doors, which offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out!
Of course, there’s always my way.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in being mesmerized by the swinging wake of a ride Walt Disney debuted in 1969.
Judging by the popularity of Disney’s Haunted Mansion Holiday and Halloween Time activities, along with the proliferation of Haunted Mansion merchandise over the last few years, and a couple of Google searches (key words: “Haunted Mansion cosplay” and “Haunted Mansion fans”), there are thousands of Disney fanatics who have embraced the macabre eccentricities of one of Walt’s most memorable creations.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the origins of the Haunted Mansion can be traced to the ‘50s when animator turned Imagineer Ken Anderson was asked by Disney to develop a story for the attraction.
Anderson thought up a gruesome tale of a sea captain/pirate. The story changed over the course of the attraction’s development, but it entailed the captain disposing of his beautiful, young bride in a demented way. In one version, he walled her body up inside the mansion’s corridors.
At this point, Disney envisioned the Haunted Mansion as a walk-through attraction, but in the ‘60s, technology advanced to the point where it would become the ride-through it is today, complete with DoomBuggies whisking guests through gloomy halls.
Eventually, the mansion’s backstory revolved around a “black widow” bride who kills off a string of unsuitable husbands. Hints of this narrative can still be seen in the attraction’s attic vignette.
Part of the beauty of the Haunted Mansion, perhaps, is that no single narrative was ever really settled upon, which lends the attraction a pleasing open-endedness and sense of mystery.
No history of the mansion would be complete without mention of the Hatbox Ghost, who was added to the ride, with much fanfare, for its 60th anniversary in 2015. The wildly grinning specter whose head appears and then disappears in the hatbox he clutches is the stuff of legend. Reportedly he was present for the attraction’s original opening day, but disappeared abruptly thereafter, presumably because of a malfunction.
“The Hatbox Ghost was one of those things that really nobody got to see,” Walt Disney Imagineering special-effects designer Daniel Joseph said in a 2015 L.A. Times interview.
“He was forbidden fruit.”
Oh, I didn’t mean to frighten you prematurely; the real chills come later. Now, as they say, look alive, and we’ll continue our little tour. And let’s all stay together, please. There are several prominent ghosts who have retired here from creepy old crypts from all over the world. Actually, we have 999 happy haunts here, but there’s room for a thousand. Any volunteers?
Old Hatbox is working just fine now, and has proven to be a popular bit of tweaking on the part of the Disney Imagineers. He’s one of my favorite elements, actually.
Because my love for Disney’s eccentrically cobbled-together mansion feels very subjective and is sometimes difficult to explain, I turned to my friend and fellow Disney fan, Kirsten Kerr, for another perspective.
Kerr lists the Haunted Mansion among her top two favorite attractions at Disney theme parks.
She said she loves it for the same reason she loves visiting the parks in general, for the “true immersive experience.”
“I enjoy being transported to a different world, one where things are cleaner and easier and more entertaining than the real one. I think the Haunted Mansion does this perfectly. I love the queue being in a graveyard and all the silly, punny grave stones. I love the stretching room. I love the DoomBuggies! And the song! So catchy, but not as annoying as ‘It’s a Small World.’ I love the weird, disjointed story about the bride and feeling like if you ride it just one more time it’ll make sense.”
Kerr hasn’t had a chance to experience Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland, but she has had the opportunity to compare and contrast different versions of the attraction at three of the Disney parks, including Tokyo Disney in 1995.
“I was thinking about which one I like most,” she said.
“And I was thinking I didn’t remember much of a difference. So, I asked Google to help refresh my memory. Well, the reason I don’t remember much difference is there is not much of one. The outside of Disneyland and Walt Disney World are different to match their locations (New Orleans Square and Liberty Square, respectively), but the insides were basically built at the same time and they pretty much made two of every prop.”
Kerr is heading to Disney World this week with her husband, Bill, and is planning to DisneyBound with a Haunted Mansion outfit that includes a smoky purple dress, black lace biker shorts, and skull cameo earrings she found at a Halloween store.
One of the reasons she loves the Haunted Mansion, she said, is it’s “like Halloween Disney-fied.”
We find it delightfully unlivable here in this ghostly retreat. Every room has wall-to-wall creeps, and hot and cold running chills. Shhh, listen!
So why do some Disney fans respond so passionately to the eerie attraction, which has an almost cult-like following, as opposed to, say, Space Mountain or It’s a Small World?
Kerr said she thinks it has to do with the narrative of the attraction, along with the Disney trademark special effects and an enduring love for ghost stories.
“I think there is more of a story to take home with you for Haunted Mansion than some of the other rides. I’m always anticipating which ghost will join me in my DoomBuggy.
“Also, I think there are so many cool special effects that are really magical. Not just the ghosts that join your buggy at the end, but everything from the stretching room to the singing busts in the graveyard to Madame Leota. It all makes you feel like magic is at work.”
And just maybe the gothic allure of the Haunted Mansion has to do with our fascination with the afterlife, Kerr speculated.
“People really seem to like cozy ghost stories,” she said.
“Day of the Dead merchandise is really popular right now, for example. No one really knows what the afterlife is like. Even as a Christian, there is not a lot of descriptions of it, and the unknown is scary. So we make up stories. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I like stories about them.”
Ah, there you are, and just in time! There’s a little matter I forgot to mention. Beware of hitchhiking ghosts! They have selected you to fill our quota, and they’ll haunt you until you return! Now I will raise the safety bar, and a ghost will follow you home!
If you, too, are a great, big nerd when it comes to the Haunted Mansion, or you’re looking to join the 999 happy haunts that populate the attraction, here are some ways to get into the spirit.
Haunted Mansion Fashion 2017: It’s a Big Family, which coordinates unofficial fan meet-ups within the Disneyland theme park, will host an event for fans who want to show off their Haunted Mansion-themed fashion, beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 15.
To participate, you must use your annual pass or purchase admission to the park and don your park-approved Haunted Mansion or “Nightmare Before Christmas” gear, which includes clothing, hats, Mickey ears, pins and buttons, outfits purchased at Disneyland, and Disney Bounding-style dress. On the agenda are group photos and individual photo opps and a big group walk to the standby line to ride the Haunted Mansion together.
Disney’s Happiest Haunts Tour: Disneyland Park is offering a two-hour historical walking tour focused on the stories and characters of Halloween. It costs $85, plus park admission, and features ghost stories around the park, a visit with a Haunted Mansion character, and facts about spooky characters and their creators from the Haunted Mansion and films throughout Disney’s history. Tour guests receive a sweet treat, collectible pin, and souvenir tour credential. For reservations, call (714) 781-8687.
Haunted Mansion Holiday: Through early 2018, the classic Haunted Mansion attraction is transformed with jack ‘o’ lanterns, wreaths, scary toys, and macabre characters from Tim Burton’s animated film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Sally, Oogie Boogie, Jack Skellington himself, and other favorite characters make appearances throughout the mansion.
Mickey’s Halloween Party: Sadly, this nighttime Halloween-themed event is all sold out for the rest of the month, but Halloween Time is in full effect throughout Disneyland until Oct. 31.
Disney Store’s Haunted Mansion Collection: Never have HM nerds had so much merchandise to choose from to fill their own mansions with. Ghostly attraction-themed treasures can be found online, from those pricey Dooney & Bourke bags, to jewelry, clothing, Christmas ornaments, mugs, and kitchenware, to collectibles, posters, coasters, T-shirts, books, puzzles, and art.
Etsy Haunted Mansion Merch: For unique and unsanctioned handcrafted pieces to express your Haunted Mansion love, head over to Etsy, where you’ll find home décor, custom Mickey ears, creative T-shirts, costumes, jewelry, decals, hair bows, painted sneakers, art, and more items than you could ever imagine emblazoned in that distinctive purple and black brocade wallpaper pattern.
If you’re crazy about the Haunted Mansion, we’d love to hear your story. What do you love about the attraction and how do you express your ghoulish obsession? Tell us in the comments. Photos are welcome and encouraged!
Hurry back! Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. Make final arrangements now! We’ve been dying to have you!