This story originally appeared as a journal on DeviantART, but after a brief conversation with Nick Braccia, I discovered he also shares my obsession -and I have a feeling many of you do, too.*
This is a story about my mother, anticipation, mythology, Disneyland, and a very, very long creative process.
The first time I went to Disney World, I can remember my mother was itching to ride the Haunted Mansion. She told us this story about how, as a young girl, she had been to Disney Land in California only to find that the ride was down for repairs. She has grown up to be the kind of adult who really does believe, or at least make-believe, in the existence of ghosts. She photographs empty rooms looking for “orbs” and “extras.” She goes out of her way to stay in hotels that are purported to be haunted. I have no doubt that her visit to the Magic Kingdom, sans Haunted Mansion, had a hand in this.
When we visited Disney World on my fourth grade winter vacation, I didn’t get to ride the Haunted Mansion. It was closed for repairs. But I DID hear about it from one of my schoolmates, who had ridden it on her many trips to the two parks, and IT. SOUNDED. AWESOME. There was this stretching elevator thing and all these dancing ghosts and a decapitated gypsy and ghosts that got in the car with you holy shit. I was deeply impressed. I hoped against hope that NEXT TIME, it would be open.
I finally rode the Haunted Mansion on a trip to California, at least three times on my next trip to Florida and twice in California when we visited to see my sister in the Rose Parade. Oh my god I loved that ride. I still do.
In my teens, I was absolutely determined to figure out many of the effects, including the aforementioned talking gypsy head. Sometime after college, I started having dreams about it and as a result started doing research on Wikipedia and doombuggies.com. I expected to read a behind the scenes about how all the effects were done, but I found something far, far more interesting. The story of the Mansion’s creation was a long, long, complex tale, full of creative setbacks and managerial switchups that led to a very, very long development time – either eight or 14 years, depending on when you start counting.
As a result, the team had to adapt, convert and scrap their earlier work as new technologies cropped up and the basic idea of the Mansion kept changing. Some of their adaptations were pure brilliance – I’m thinking, specifically, of the stretching room you have to experience to get to the ride proper. I’ll let Wikipedia explain:
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…..
“…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 Ghost Host apologizes for frightening the guests so early, and a wall mysteriously opens, leading the guests further into the Mansion.”
If you’ve ever been, you know that this part of the ride is a pivotal experience – perhaps the most memorable part of the show. This is the bit you’ll tell your classmates about. But this room was built out of necessity.
The original idea had been a walk-through spookhouse that would have probably fit in a slightly larger building attached to the facade. But! By the time Disney’s designers figured out that they wanted to build a massive high-tech dark ride, the facade for the attraction had been standing for quite some time, and it was barely large enough to fit the foyer and two of these stretching rooms.
Worse, in the intervening years, Disney had built a railroad around the entire park, and it ran just behind the Haunted Mansion facade. To get to the ride, guests were going to have to go either over or under the railroad – so the Haunted Mansion designers opted to go under. The stretching room is an elevator that delivers guests to the underground tunnel that leads to the real ride – and most of them don’t even notice that they aren’t there yet. The experience started when they entered the facade, on the other side of the tracks.
I have a satellite photo somewhere** of the Haunted Mansion’s facade and real building. It reminds me of an experiential angler fish, dangling a little shiny thing in your view, waiting to swallow you. And I never guessed that this was happening, in all the times I rode the attraction. And I was arguably an adult on at least half those rides.
The fact that this part of the ride was born of necessity blew my mind when I first read it, but now I can only think how much I’d like to have a beer with the people who came up with it. That’s creativity! The ability to be so flexible, the circumstances seem to be lined up to fit YOU. The park had been open for over a decade when this part of the ride was created.
This is when something in my personal history regarding the Mansion failed to click. The ride was announced in 1961, but didn’t open until 1969. My mother visited Disneyland in 1965. The ride wasn’t closed for repairs in 1965, it hadn’t even been built yet! In fact, it wasn’t even fully planned. It was about to get a bottom-up redesign in 1966, which would turn into the final ride. The ride of my mother’s obsession – the obsession that got passed on to me, and developed into a lasting affection – was pure fiction. It was a myth, a promise that was nowhere near being fulfilled at the time.
These days, I don’t think a project could stand that long a development cycle. The final product is the result of a creative accretion, a layering of a decade’s ideas. It doesn’t even have a clear back story, although more concrete stories have been concocted for its clones in other parks. “There are ghosts, and they are awesome,” seems to be all the plot it needs.
There’s a lot of talk about how the Mansion became an urban legend staple in the years between its announcement and opening. I guess my mom was one of the kids caught up in the mythology. But kids have a way of taking for granted that things exist, if given even the most scant reason to believe. For my mom, the Haunted Mansion experience didn’t start in the stretching room, or the foyer, or the long winding queue through the graveyard outside the house. It started years before, before there even was a ride to be ridden. I’m really glad that in the end, she wasn’t let down.
* Also, DeviantART is no place for a 1,300 word essay.
** Yes, one that I saved. This was pre-Google Maps.
Posted in experience storytelling