Say “spooky” and “Disney” in the same sentence, and the majority of people will immediately make the leap to the Haunted Mansion. No matter what the time of year, the Haunted Mansion attractions around the world represent the pinnacle of Disney’s spooktacular side.
But what is a haunted house doing at Disney? Although the Haunted Mansion has become a familiar icon, and few people consider whether or not it “fits” in Disney parks, the beloved attraction is certainly not what many modern critics would consider “family friendly” or “tame.” So what’s it doing at Disney? And how did it end up so spooky…and silly?
Well, that’s where a little history comes in.
A haunted attraction was in the works for Disneyland from the beginning of the park’s development. In 1951, over a year before the founding of WED Enterprises (the parks and resorts wizards who would become Imagineering), a sketch by Disney studio director Harper Goff depicts a churchyard with a threatening structure looming over it that Goff labeled a “Haunted House.”
Why include such a thing? Because it, like so much else in the original plans for Disneyland, was a part of Americana. Walt Disney was, in the words of Disney historian Jim Korkis, “a hardworking country boy with a love for rural humor. The early Mickey, being a reflection of his creator, was just as much a good-natured hayseed as Walt and had the same inclination toward barnyard jokes.” That love for “country” humor included the appreciation for a good scare. Walt stayed away from the grotesque or gory in his plans for his parks, but he never hesitated to include the occasionally ghastly or spooky. Those things were a part of the human condition and the American tradition. From Tom Sawyer to Treasure Island, spooky adventures were a part of what drew audiences, and Walt had no intention of omitting that part of what he had loved as a boy.
The nature of the haunted house, however, was far from set. Harper Goff’s imposing structure was not only relocated as the park took firmer shape, it also changed its nature more than a few times. Imagineers worked on stories that ranged from a Bluebeard-style tale of a murderous sea captain (surnamed Gore…subtle, right?) to a house that had hosted murder after murder called Bloodmere Manor to a weirdly alive structure reminiscent of the Beast’s castle in the classic 1942 Jean Cocteau La belle et la bête. Although none of those plots survived Walt’s review and the transformation of the “haunted house” from a walking to ride-through attraction, homages can be found throughout the current attraction. The villainous sea captain can be found in one of the sinister portraits in the mansion, as a graveyard animatronic (according to imagineer Tony Baxter), and not-so villainously as possible inspiration for the tomb of Captain Culpepper Clyne in the new interactive queue. The proposed proposed final sequence of Bloodmere manor with the headless horseman streaking across a haunted graveyard yielded to the elaborate graveyard of the modern attraction. And remnants of the anthropomorphic house are visible to anyone who looks carefully at the mansion’s interior from the face in the recurring chair to the looming visage in the graveyard gates to the arm-torchieres that light your way out of the attraction.
In the end, however, the original mansion didn’t really end up with much of a plot. Unlike their overseas cousins, America’s Haunted Mansions were a series of scenes cobbled together largely from the masterful atmospheric settings of Claude Coats and the often humorous character vignettes of Marc Davis. Like many things in the parks, the beloved Haunted Mansion emerged partially from a casual aside from Walt Disney. Disney legend Marty Sklar noted that when he asked Walt what he was doing in Europe after a trip to London, Walt commented that “”he was searching old mansions and manor houses for ghosts that didn’t want to retire.” That aside about a retirement home for haunts planted a seed that blossomed years later, after Walt’s death and created a loose framework in which two great imagineers struggled to create a single attraction.
What do you think? Looking back, does the haunted mansion “fit” at the Disney parks? Should it have been spookier? Tamer?