Happy birthday to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion – the first is still the best

Madame Leota's disembodied head still summons spirits and thrills in The Haunted Mansion forth-three years laterForty-three years ago today, theme park entertainment took another giant leap forward in artistry and design complexity as Disneyland opened the doors to The Haunted Mansion, that foreboding southern facade at the far end of New Orleans Square on the shores of Rivers of America.

The original Haunted Mansion remains the best in the world to me, a cleverly created realm of chilling illusion and Imagineered magic that playfully toes the line between macabre humor and ghostly scares. It was Walt’s original Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion that inspired me to write and create for theme parks and haunt events, and the decades of entertainment they have provided to me have allowed me to realize my dreams and help create Eli Roth’s Goretorium haunt opening in Las Vegas this September.

In 2002, I got the chance to meet one of my heroes, Disney’s legendary show writer X Atencio, who wrote the show scripts for both Pirates and the Haunted Mansion rides along with several others. He was a gracious host and good humored man who welcomed me into his home to share his personal memories of working with Walt and his Imagineers to bring this antebellum mansion to life in Disneyland. Not only was the attraction a huge success but it raised the bar for the theme park industry and redefined the dark ride for a generation of show creators and park fans. I’m adding an excerpt from my interview with X that appeared in part in Issue 31 of Haunted Attraction magazine and in full in the book Walt’s People Volume 7 edited by Didier Ghez to join in today’s birthday celebration of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

SW: You mentioned that you got the Pirates assignment first. When did you start working on the Mansion?

XA: At the completion of the Pirate ride, then I went on into the Haunted Mansion. I guess Walt liked what I did on the Pirate ride, so I had a career in script writing. I moved into the Haunted Mansion, and there again the problems you have of doing a script for something that’s changing all the time. You don’t have an audience like a theater where you can tell a story, it’s got to be an ongoing narration as you go through there. The only place you have that is as you go into the Haunted Mansion, before you go into the elevators that take you down. I wrote a few things in there and I was kind of proud of them, but people walk in there yakity-yak and they don’t even know what you’re saying. I want to say “Shut up, shut up, listen to this.” (Laughs)

Who else in the team did you work with in developing the Mansion?

When I came into it, Marc [Davis] and Claude [Coats] had pretty much worked out the continuity and the scale model of the ride. We could walk through there and get an idea what could be said. I did that on the Pirates of the Caribbean, scene by scene and decide what would best be said in that area. Same thing happened in the Haunted Mansion. I researched some things like a film – was it “The Haunting”? – there were a couple of scenes where you hear the ghosts and you have the door that shakes. And then you go into the Séance Room with Madame Leota and have the séance. These are just kind of mood things as you move through the ride until you get to the ballroom where they’re having a party. There again, we were trying to keep that as comical as we could.

There was an ongoing debate in WED at the time whether the show should be more scary or comical. As you got into the Mansion project, what state was the show in at that time?

We had story meetings on that with the powers that be at the time, Dick Irvine and John Hench, et cetera. There were two schools, one to make it scary and one to make it comical.

In the Mansion debate of scary vs. funny, were you of any one particular mind in that discussion?

As I was developing it, I was kinda going more for the scary stuff. I think I made some sketches of things, I had a one-eyed cat that I thought would be kind of spooky. And after seeing that picture, “The Haunting,” I thought the pounding on the doors would be scary. Not as macabre as the Japanese idea of scary, but there’s a lot of spooky stuff. In later days, they had a live character in the Endless Hallway there, in costume as the Doombuggies went through. I think that got a good reaction, but something like that isn’t too practical. You’ve got to have a live actor in there, that’s not too practical but it worked on occasions.

But there were stories at the beginning that they had to close the ride, that somebody had a heart attack because it was so scary. I don’t know where these things get started, but those are some of the rumors.

And that’s not true.

Yeah, obviously.

Were there any interesting scenes or effects that got dropped out of the ride in development, or favorites in it that you like?

I had originally thought of having a raven as the Ghost Host, and he would meet you in the beginning and trail with you throughout the ride. But it didn’t work, we just couldn’t get it synched. So I had it at the very beginning, then you don’t see it again until you’re going down the ramp into the graveyard. And the Raven says, “Ah, there you are!” Then you go on through the graveyard and you see him again at the end when you go into the tomb. I would have liked to have that Raven as a character but it didn’t work.

Obviously that turned into the Ghost Host character, the disembodied voice by Paul Frees who narrates the ride in the same way?

Yeah.

Going through the attic, we had the Bride there with the beating heart, and we tried to use one of Yale [Gracey]’s illusions with the headless guy with his head in the hatbox. But that never did really pay off. Then the have the pop-up ghosts that just bug the hell out of me, all they did was make noise. Weren’t that scary!

The Hitchhiking Ghosts, which was a later addition as the ride was developed, we thought that was a good exit. The idea was that the ghosts would go home with you, you never know, you’ve got to be careful. That worked well going out. Then Little Leota would kiss you off and ask you to come back again.

Out of all the Mansions, do you have a favorite, or is that like asking you to pick a favorite child?

Well . . . I guess the Disneyland one would be my favorite, because that was my baby, that was the first one. The rest of them used the same show with little changes, but I guess Disneyland is my favorite. Like people say they like their eldest son the best, or their eldest grandchild. (Laughs)

I send my best wishes to X Atencio, all the talented Imagineers who created it, the past and current cast members who have roamed those chilling halls for over four decades. Happy birthday, Haunted Mansion, and there’s always room for many more!

X Atencio interview appearing in Haunted Attraction magazine and Walt's People Volume 7

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