Foolish Mortals: How the Haunted Mansion Manifested to Frighten for Fifty Years
Last week Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, the “delightfully unlivable” southern plantation that is home to 999 happy haunts, turned 50. Patrick and I visited the “happy haunting grounds” to wish it a spooktacular birthday.
What few may know about the Haunted Mansion is that the ghosts could have been having their “swinging wake” for much longer. In fact, the idea for a “haunted house” attraction dates all the way back to the first drawings of Walt’s idea for a theme park. To highlight the rather turbulent history of the Haunted Mansion’s development, the Disneyland Resort’s Disney Gallery showcased concept art and maquettes of some of the ghostly residents.
In gazing upon some of these images you may notice that while the direct ideas didn’t end up in the attraction, many of the smaller ideas did. For example, the changing portrait above didn’t make it into the Mansion’s gallery, but she is an obvious inspiration for the 2006 revamp of the bride, when she was given a name, Constance Hatchaway, and whose elegant bouquet changes into an axe.
In 1951 Walt Disney began working on ideas for his theme park, which he called “Mickey Mouse Park” and it was to be situated on an eleven acre parcel of land next to the Studio in Burbank. An early piece of concept art by Harper Goff (who went on to design many elements of Disneyland) featured a rundown Victorian home overlooking a classic white steepled church with a cemetery.
When Walt’s ideas outgrew that eleven acre plot, he enlisted a crew to find a new location for what he now called “Disneyland” and the team found Anaheim to be ideal. In the new expanded theme park, the haunted house was situated at the dead end (pun intended of course) of a residential street off of Main Street USA. But, for one reason or another, it just didn’t happen.
After Disneyland’s initial success in 1955, Walt set to expanding his park, and in 1958 New Orleans Square was announced, and it would finally include a haunted house. Before New Orleans Square was built however, the tail end of Frontierland already had New Orleans vibe, including Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen with its elegant wrought iron, and the Swift Chicken Plantation. In fact the street they were located on was called New Orleans Street. Today Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen is River Belle Terrace, but the Chicken Plantation was demolished to make way for the Haunted Mansion.
With the setting of the haunted house now in the elegant southern city of New Orleans, it seemed more appropriate to have to be a mansion, and was then dubbed the “Haunted Mansion” But while the setting was in the south, the main inspiration for the Haunted Mansion’s exterior came from a northern home, the Evergreen House in Baltimore, Maryland, built in 1857, but in 1942 it became a museum and part of Johns Hopkins University, as well as the Lydecker House, also of Baltimore. The Lydecker was built in 1903, but demolished in 1967. Imagineer Ken Anderson made a rough sketch of the new southern plantation and fellow Imagineer Sam McKim transformed it into a painting. A stunning, but slightly ramshackle antebellum mansion emerged from trees covered in Spanish moss, but Walt wasn’t a fan of the abandoned appearance of the mansion. Everything at Disneyland was bright and clean, so he said “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”
Now that the place had a setting and a look, it was time for a story…and there were many! One included a sea captain named Bartholomew Gore (or Gideon Gorelieu in another version) and his bride, Priscilla. Their fateful story was told by a maid or butler who guided guests on a walking tour through the mansion, and involved Priscilla stumbling upon looted treasure, learning her husband was in fact Black Bart, a pirate! Drafts included Gore killing Priscilla in a variety of ways, only to have her ghost torment him to the point where he hanged himself.
Other odd ideas included a tale that Disney attempted to move a “real” haunted house with plans to restore it, however strange things kept happening, so Guests wondered a “partially restored real” haunted house. Another story included a one eyed cat who had a dislike for mortals.
Yet another idea involved the Headless Horseman from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a wedding between Monsieur Bogyman and Mademoiselle Vampire, with wedding guests including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the like. This is the idea that the team ran with when they chose to move forward with coming up with the effects for the attraction.
Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey went wild for one year trying out various effects and coming up with new ideas. But at the end of the day, Walt didn’t care for a lot of them, and that the attraction was a walk through (especially after the rather lackluster performance of the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk through), so the project stalled, even though construction on New Orleans Square began in 1961, and by 1963 the exterior of the Haunted Mansion was completed. However attentions had shifted to attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
Soon, Marc Davis, Claude Coats, and X. Atencio joined the Imagineering team for the Haunted Mansion, and they found fresh inspiration with the new art-form Imagineering created, Audio-Animatronics. Audio-Animatronics first debuted in 1963 with the Enchanted Tiki Room, but it wasn’t until the World’s Fair that a human had been fully realized, with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and soon dozens of new ideas involving the use of Audio-Animatronics were created.
Meanwhile Rolly Crump had been coming up with bizarre new ideas, and Walt liked them so much he wanted to add a “Museum of the Weird” area to the mansion, but ultimately the idea, like so may before it, was scrapped, although some of Crump’s ideas, such as a chair that has a face, found their their way into the final attraction. Crump also drew up a colorful room for a fortune teller, including many banners, like the ones hanging in the gallery.
While the mansion got its medium/fortune teller in Madam Leota, her space wasn’t as colorful as Crump’s original art. However, the image of the hand wrapped in ribbon with a rose did made it into the park eventually, when Crump received his window on Main Street, an honor for those who have been influential at the Disneyland Resort. His coffin clock that he designed as part of the Museum of the Weird is featured as well.
Even though there were plenty of new ideas and new directions, the project stalled yet again in 1965 when Walt focused on moving his World’s Fair attractions from New York to Disneyland, along with completing Pirates of the Caribbean, and a revamp of Tomorrowland.
Walt took viewers who tuned into The Wonderful World of Disney behind the scenes of his attraction ideas for New Orleans Square, showing off concept art and models, including interviews with Davis and Crump, who showed off models of his “Museum of the Weird” items that would never make it into the Mansion.
New Orleans Square opened on July 24, 1966, but with no attractions. A teaser sign was constructed by yet another Imagineer, Marty Sklar, one that Disneyland reproduced and hung outside the Haunted Mansion in honor of the 50th anniversary.
On December 15, 1966, Walt passed away. The world lost a great storyteller and showman, and the team working on the Haunted Mansion lost their man with the final say on creative choices. Pirates of the Caribbean opened the following year and was an instant hit. Because of that success, which included mostly ideas from Marc Davis and Claude Coats, it was their ideas that moved forward for the Mansion. However, there were tensions, was this to be funny or scary? Davis favored humorous ideas while Coats liked darker and creepier ideas.
Davis came up with the stretching portraits and a lot of the humor seen in the ride. One idea that partially made it into the attraction were his ghosts on a see-saw. Originally it was to be a visual pun, where only the top ghost would be visible, and the one at the bottom had disappeared, seeing one ghost after you saw another. Davis chose a king and queen for the idea, and while the royal pair teeter and totter today, the gimmick didn’t pan out, and both are visible in the attraction’s graveyard at the same time.
Image Source: My vintage postcard collection. See more here.
By this time the whole monster wedding idea had been tossed out (only traces left, a bride, and large party happening in the ballroom) and had been replaced by vignettes designed by Davis and Coats, and it was left to X. Atencio to string them all together. He settled on Coats’ more frightening images, which featured no visible spirts, for the first part, then Guests entered into a seance with a medium, where after Guests are finally able to see the spirits as they have heard the Guests’ “sympathetic vibrations.”
Atencio linked each scene together though a narrator, which was originally suppose to be a raven, but due to his size, he was often overlooked, but that is why a raven is found throughout the ride. Then the simplest choice was made, a disembodied voice, the Ghost Host. In addition to the narration, Atencio also penned the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”
Now that the final creative choices had been made, how were they going to move people? Gracey toyed with a boat idea, after the successes of it’s a small world, and Pirates, with people moving through the Mansion partially submerged in the bayou, but the choice for what is now known as the Doombuggie came from the future…The Omnimover was developed for Tomorrowland’s attraction Adventure thru Inner Space, where it was known as the Atommobile. It allowed a large number of Guests to move continuously, creating for a high capacity attraction, and the vehicles could move 360 degrees.
All of these behind-the-scenes struggles meant the public was left to their imaginations as to what was taking so long! One rumor that circulated was that the ride was just too scary! So scary in fact a reporter died of a heart attack and the whole thing had to be revamped! But really it was just a lot of distraction, arguing, and technical difficulties. The doors to the mansion finally creaked opened on August 9, 1969, and The Wonderful World of Disney gave audiences around the country a front row seat to see it on TV, in addition to getting a peek behind the scenes at Imagineering, with Kurt Russell playing host.
Fifty years later, the Haunted Mansion is still just as spooky and fun as it was back in 1969, while still looking for that 1000th ghost!
Skirt: Pinup Girl Clothing
Bangles: Here and there…
Happy Haunts Materialize. The Disney Gallery, Disneyland, Anaheim. Visited 9 August 2019.
Surrell, Jason. The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies. New York: Disney Editions, 2003. Print.
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3 comments on “Foolish Mortals: How the Haunted Mansion Manifested to Frighten for Fifty Years”
This was sooooooo fascinating, and all that concept art!! 💀
LOVE! Thank you so much for sharing this with those of us who live too far away to attend. Haunted Mansion is my favorite ride and you shared some wonderful information.
Your articles are always so well researched! Since I’m from Baltimore, I was fascinated to learn of Disneyland’s connection to the Evergreen House! Also, I have a one-eyed cat, but she’s sweet, not spooky!
I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Good Place, but I was instantly reminded of you when I saw Kristen Bell’s hairdo and glasses in Season 2, Episode 10: Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent. Check it out if you haven’t seen it!