The Disneyland house in Anaheim was the first project, and its chief Imagineer, Ken Anderson designed an antebellum mansion based on his study of plantation residences. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t like the result because the exterior of the mansion was dilapidated, and he did not think its appearance matched the rest of his pristine park. Disney knew that the part should complement the whole, a principle that should also inform the work of the horror writer.
A solution was reached. The Imagineers would keep the exterior of the house looking good, but leave the condition of the interior of the house to the care--or carelessness--of its ghostly residents. “We'll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside,” Disney declared.
Whereas Anderson had researched the mansions of the antebellum South, Disney himself conducted research for the project by visiting the famous--or infamous--Winchester Mystery Mansion. He was impressed with the immensity of the house (which, by the way, inspired the mansion in Stephen King’s television mini-series Rose Red) and its many oddities (stairs to nowhere, doors which open upon blank walls, windows that look upon nothing more than one another, the number thirteen as an architectural and decorative motif, among many others). Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, the Imagineers assigned to produce the mansion’s special effects, researched reports of allegedly haunted houses, Greek myths, and movie monsters for ideas, and both their, Anderson’s and Disney’s own studies of various aspects of the project demonstrate that research is important in the designing of a haunted house, another principle that the horror writer should adopt in creating his or her own haunted domicile. (I did research for Mystic Mansion and The Madhouse by familiarizing myself with architectural terms and by reviewing photographs and reading descriptions of mansions and architectural features typical of the various styles of such homes.)
Where to locate the haunted house is an important decision, too. Disney and his Imagineers decided to locate the Anaheim park’s haunted mansion in New Orleans Square, which is why the house is an antebellum mansion. Disney understood, as horror writers should, that it is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.
Anderson created a series of stories that unified the various sights and sounds that the haunted house featured. The “ghost host” who greets visitors as they enter the house is the spirit of a sea captain who hung himself after killing his bride. The lesson here, which should not be lost to writers of horror fiction, is that a unifying back story is needed for their fiction.
Two of the projects’ Imagineers, Marc Davis and Claude Coats, disagreed as to whether the haunted house should frighten or amuse; in the end, both got their way, when Davis’ desire for amusement and Coats’ wish for frights were both honored in the mansion’s final features. Writers of horror fiction, when faced with contradictory impulses should consider the Disney resolution: it may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.
Writers of horror fiction can also profit from the care that Disney’s Imagineers used to let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house. Each of the house’s many rooms becomes a staging area, so to speak, for its sights, sounds, and special effects, so that there is variety in the attraction’s chills, thrills, and chuckles. In addition, the exhibits often have a delightful, unexpected “extra,” such as the grandfather clock that manages to strike 13! Wikipedia’s article concerning the attraction features a section devoted to describing “the basic attraction” which does a good job of summarizing this room-by-room variety. The odd capitalization and the bold type are the anonymous encyclopedia authors’, not mine:
The following scenes are common to all versions of the attraction except The Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, and taken as a whole form the basic ride experience.
After entering through a pair of ornate gates, guests find themselves walking through the mansion’s well-tended gardens and courtyards. A cemetery featuring tombstones bearing humorous epitaphs adorns the grounds. A pet cemetery is also seen nearby, with marble representations of some dearly departed critters. Guests are led into a Small Foyer by Cast Members dressed as maids and butlers.
After a few minutes, the guests are brought into an Octagonal Room (also known as the Portrait Gallery, the Stretching Room, the Secret Room, or the Expanding Room), and encouraged by the staff to stand in the “dead center.” The door they entered through then becomes a wall, and the chilling voice of Paul Frees introduces himself:“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host--your 'Ghost Host.’
. . . and taunts them:“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?”
As the voice speaks, the audience's eye is drawn up to four portraits on every
other wall of the octagonal shaped room. The walls quietly stretch upwards,
elongating the Marc Davis-designed paintings on them to reveal the comedic fates
of previous guests:
A bearded man (Alexander Nitrokoff) is seen in the dress of minor nobility... and red and white striped boxer shorts. . . while standing on a keg of dynamite with a lit fuse.
A demure young woman holding a parasol. . . and calmly balancing on an unraveling tightrope... above the hungry jaws of a waiting crocodile.
An old lady (Constance Hatchaway) sits. . . atop a tall gravestone... which features the bust of a man (George Hightower) with an axe through his head.
A man with sideburns sitting. . . on a fat, mustached man who is sitting... atop a lean, pale-looking gentleman... who is chest-deep in quicksand.
“And consider this dismaying observation: this chamber has no windows, and no doors... which offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, there's always my
way. . . .”
The lights go out, lightning and thunder effects fill the gallery and, in a rare instance of Disney “dark humor,” a glimpse of the earthly remains of the Ghost Host is shown hanging from a noose high above in the cupola. The ceiling above is a piece of fabric called a scrim, which conceals the hanging body until it is lit from above. The Ghost Host apologizes for frightening the guests so early, and a wall mysteriously opens, leading the guests further into the Mansion.
Guests are then led down a dimly lit hallway with thunder crashing from outside the windows to the left while the portraits of several people on the right wall mysteriously transform from the image of them in their original states into their doomed appearance. At the far end of the hall, two statues which depict one of a man and another of a woman are stationed. As the guests move about, these two statues follow whichever direction they take.
Next, guests step into the dusty and deathly cold loading station room, where they are led around to be placed in their Doom Buggies. Stepping on a moving carpet synced to the motion of the Doom Buggies, guests are seated and ride to the next scene. The Doom Buggies point guests down an Endless Hallway. A lone candelabra [sic] floats down the hallway, and a suit of armor (which moves) stands at the hallway's entrance.
Turning away from the endless hall, guest peek into the Conservatory where a long forgotten funeral is taking place. A large raven perches next to a dead plant-adorned coffin, with a corpse trying to break free.
The ghosts become more restless and try to escape from their hiding places, which results in a Corridor full of shaking, knocking, moving, and breathing doors. Demon-faced wallpaper adorns the walls as well as black and white photos of goblins and ghouls. A demonic grandfather clock chimes 13 as the hands spin wildly backwards, the shadow of a claw passing over it.
Guests enter a dark Séance Room full of floating musical instruments. Madame Leota, a medium appearing within a crystal ball, summons the mansion's spirits while levitating above her table. Madam Leota says the following:“Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat/Call in the spirits, wherever they're at./Rap on a table, it's time to respond/Send us a message from somewhere beyond./Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween/Awaken the spirits with your tambourine./Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond/Let there be music from regions beyond./Wizards and witches wherever you dwell/Give us a hint by ringing a bell.”
Next, guests pass onto the balcony of a magnificent Ballroom where the happy haunts begin to materialize. Translucent couples waltz to the music of a macabre organist. A ghostly birthday party appears to be taking place at the dining table (a dinner plate and two saucers on the left side of the table combine to make a “Hidden Mickey”). Some spirits sit on the chandeliers, gorging themselves on wine, while other ghosts enter the hall from an open coffin in a hearse. A ghost wraps his arm around a woman bust, and two portraits of men with guns come to life, shooting each other with their pistols.
The Attic is an irregularly-shaped room that the Doom Buggies enter immediately after the ballroom scene. It features a collection of gifts, personal items, mementos, and wedding portraits. In each portrait, a common bride is featured with a different groom, whose heads disappear to the accompaniment of a hatchet sound. Just before the Doom Buggies leave the attic, the same ghostly bride from the pictures is seen floating in the air, intoning wedding-related vows. As she raises her arms, a hatchet appears in her hands.
The Doom Buggies fly out a window, turn around, and plunge backwards down a fifteen percent grade surrounded by dark, ghoulish trees with knotted expressions. On a branch overhead, a raven caws at the guests. (This gag is from an earlier idea, which was to have the raven narrate the tour.)
The Doom Buggies reach the ground, and turn towards the gate of the Graveyard. There stands a caretaker, the only living person in the entire attraction, his knees shaking in fright and an expression of terror on his face. Beside him is his emaciated dog, whining and whimpering. Around the corner, a ghostly band of minstrels plays a jazzy rendition of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”
Ghosts pop up from behind tombstones, a king and queen balance on a teeter-totter, a young princess swings back and forth from a tree branch, and a hellhound growls from behind them. The Doom Buggies travel down a hill and turn to see five singing busts continuing the song of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”
Next, guests encounter a tea party of sorts, where ghosts are having a "swinging wake" and singing along too. An arm protrudes out of a crypt with a tea cup in its hand, while ghouls ride bikes in the distance. Next, guests see a mummy and an old man. The old man tries to listen to what the mummy is saying through an earphone, but the mummy is just too hard to understand underneath its bandages.
Before the Doom Buggies turn to face two opera singers to the right, they see the inside of a tomb, where there is a phantom dressed in a robe-like outfit. The Doom Buggies turn to face the two opera singers, blasting their voices up into the night. Beside them are three other ghosts--a headless knight, a prisoner, and an executioner--who also join in the song.
A brick tomb can be seen at the graveyard's exit, and a cadaverous arm protrudes from an opening in the wall where a couple of bricks are missing. A trowel in the spook's hand implies that he is actually walling himself in. At last, guests pass into a Crypt where they encounter the attraction's unofficial mascots, the three hitchhiking ghosts. Passing by three large mirrors, guests discover that one of the trio has hitched a ride in their Doom Buggy.
As the vehicles prepare to convey guests out of the Crypt, a tiny ghostly figure--“Little Leota”--is seen above the exit and encourages you to:“Hurry back… Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. Make final arrangements now. We've been [snicker] ‘dying’ to have you…”
This tiny woman in a bridal gown (though referred to as the Ghostess in early versions of the attraction script), is commonly known as “Little Leota” because her voice and face are those of Leota Toombs (who also provided the face of Madame Leota.)
We’ve culled these six additional rules for creating a haunted house by considering how Walt Disney and his Imagineers created their haunted houses:
- The part should complement the whole.
- Research is important.
- It is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.
- A unifying back story is needed.
- It may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.
- Let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house.