We all know the story of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion . . . or do we?
It’s the most famous haunted house attraction in the world, and the scariest place at any Disney Park, home to 999 happy haunts who practice their terror with ghoulish delight. When you visit you get trapped in a stretching room with no windows or doors, taken aboard a Doom Buggy, and given a tour through creepy hallways, a raucous ballroom, an eerie attic, and a swinging graveyard, all before being told that the residents of the mansion (ranging from Madame Leota to the Hatbox Ghost) are always looking for one more ghost to join their ranks.
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But that’s not quite a storyline, though, is it? It’s an experience, to be sure, one featuring many quickly-told stories along the way — a ghoulish figure trapped in a coffin, two duelists whose hatred extends even beyond death, and (told in the most detail) a ghostly bride who did away with each of her husbands. There’s also a clear, established location and a sense of place to it all; arguably, no place on earth has quite the same eerily macabre feel as Disney’s Haunted Mansion (except for any given Tim Burton movie).
However, it’s hard to tell on a first, second, or even hundredth ride-through whether or not there is a clear storyline that we’re meant to be following. Who is the ghostly voice speaking to us? Whose body do we see hanging above the stretching room? What (if anything) does either have to do with the owner of the house, the nigh-mythical Master Gracey, or that one hidden Mickey in the ballroom, or Eddie Murphy? (It’s got nothing to do with Eddie Murphy.) Is there any relation to Mystic Manor or Phantom Manor? (There isn’t.)
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Now, as they say, “look alive,” and let’s take a little tour of the storyline – or lack thereof – of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion.
Style Without Storyline
As David Younger explains in his book Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment, Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion was one of two Disney attractions (alongside Pirates of the Caribbean) that embodied the ultimate realization of the “Traditional” design style created by Walt Disney and his first generation of Imagineers. This style, “can be identified by its preference for Immersive Design . . . and Experiential Story, but came about in a time before the theme park was defined as a place of elaborate rides, instead pulling inspiration from many forms of spatial attractions.”
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What this means in practice is that the Haunted Mansion was created to evoke a feeling and a sense of space/place, but not necessarily to tell a specific story. Each scene isn’t necessarily connected to the ones that come before or after it – other than through the spatial representation of being inside a haunted house with multiple rooms – and Guests aren’t taking a role in a story but are rather passing through and observing these various scenes.
However, in the years since the Haunted Mansion was developed and first opened at the Magic Kingdom, the desire for immersive storytelling on the part of theme park fans has grown, which means that there have been several after-the-fact attempts to bring a cohesive storyline to the attraction even if none was originally intended. Only one of these, though, is considered the “official” story by Walt Disney Imagineering.
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The Storyline Emerges
It wasn’t until late in the design process that the Haunted Mansion’s show writer, X. Atencio, was brought on board. According to Disney Imagineer Jason Surrell in his Disney Editions book The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, “Atencio’s main task after joining the team was to take Marc Davis’s humorous characters and vignettes, Claude Coats’s sinister settings, and Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey’s haunting illusions and special effects and combine them in a way that made sense.”
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This, of course, was easier said than done. For example, the original idea to have a raven guide Guests through the attraction was dropped in favor of the voice of the disembodied Ghost Host, and, “Almost by default, X. returned to Walt’s original concept of a retirement home in which displaced spirits could spend their afterlives happily haunting any unsuspecting guests who came calling.”
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Ultimately, though, Surrell notes that a story did come together:
Though not as intricately constructed as a Shakespearean play, a story exists. In fact, Imagineering legend and Disneyland veteran Tony Baxter believes that, in the end, combining the seemingly divergent work of Marc Davis and Claude Coats inadvertently gave the Haunted Mansion a fairly solid three-act structure. In Act One, which begins slowly and ominously in the Foyer, guests anticipate the appearance of the happy haunts, and experience poltergeist activity and unseen spirits. Madame Leota provides the curtain that separates Act One and Act Two. The medium conjures up the spirits and encourages them to materialize, which they promptly do in the swinging wake in the Grand Hall and the Attic. The descent from the attic window into the Graveyard takes guests into Act Three, in which they are completely surrounded by the ghosts who are enjoying the manic intensity of a graveyard jamboree. Finally, one of three Hitchhiking Ghosts materializes beside guests in their Doom Buggy before the exit. This might be a happy accident, as Imagineers refer to such serendipity, but it works.
And there you have it – the gossamer-thin storyline thread that weaves together the otherwise disparate scenes of Haunted Mansion. See if you can follow along next time you take a ride!