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The Dark, Troubled History of Disney's Haunted Mansion

Captain Gore vs. the Blood Family in the voice of Walt Disney

Image © Disney

Anderson’s ideas were profound, and the seeds of them still percolate through many of the harrowing moments of the Doom Buggy experience. Do you know the moment in the ride when you exit the attic through the window? If you pay careful attention, you’ll notice that the shingles are different from the Haunted Mansion building itself. The explanation is that you’re re-living the horror of a character and story invented in 1957. Here’s how that’s possible.

The original vision of the backstory for the Haunted Mansion involved a happy fiancée named Priscilla, whose wedding day bliss ended the moment that she unearthed the truth about her potential husband. After he warned his young betrothed to stay out of the attic, she couldn’t resist opening Pandora’s Box and entered the top floor of their decadent mansion. Hidden there were the vestiges of his days as a dread pirate fittingly named Captain Gore. Since the man had taken on a new identity to hide his treacherous past, he couldn’t risk the locals discovering that he was a murderous letch. When the sea captain realized his soon-to-be wife had found out about his past life, he threw her out the window, and she died in the fall.

To drive home the heartbreaking reversal of fortune, Anderson drew pictures of a dead woman in a wedding dress. This theme evolved into the driving force of the entire story of Haunted Mansion as an attraction. The idea is that after her death, Priscilla haunted Captain Gore until he could no longer take it. He committed suicide by hanging himself in the rafters, which explains the dead body above you at the start of the ride. You know Gore better as me, your Ghost Host. The concept is that my Bride and I have such a passionate relationship that even in death, our spirits attract others. To date, 997 other souls have found themselves drawn to our mansion…but there’s always room for one more.

Image © Disney

As a second concept, Anderson visualized a building and surrounding area named Broodmere Manor. It was to be a run-down establishment, with abandoned land once owned by a powerful pirate. Nobody else would willingly buy the parcel of property or even approach the surrounding terrain for fear of the obvious. The house is notoriously haunted by yours truly and friends. Of course no one would go there! All of this exemplifies sound reasoning as well as a wonderful ability by Anderson to open up his imagination as if the Sea Captain and the Bride’s plantation were real.

Over time, Anderson modified his original premise with a few key variations. At one point, Walt Disney himself performed the role of the Ghost Host, narrating all the macabre elements of the journey through the Haunted Mansion. Another take featured Disney providing an introduction to the doomed domicile at the start of a walking tour. These ideas unfortunately fell by the wayside. Wouldn’t it be great if you heard Disney’s voice every time you rode one of his greatest attractions?

Image © Disney

Another theme that was explored but eventually discarded was a retelling of Disney’s animated classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Guests would re-live the events from the perspective of the Headless Horseman and his intended victim, Ichabod Crane. There are a lot of drawings and plans for this version of the Haunted Mansion, but Anderson eventually deduced that the attraction should operate without the need for back story. The amount of exposition required for a Sleepy Hollow introduction would have bored active children and frustrated their parents.

The most intriguing variance of the Haunted Mansion was unquestionably the Bloodmere Manor iteration. Disney would claim that they moved a century-old Louisiana mansion to Disneyland, only to discover that its supernatural reputation was quite true. It seems that the former hosts of the opulent residence, the Blood family, were all too well named, and they demonstrated their reluctance to leave their home by tormenting its new guests. An entire mythology was plotted wherein various Disney contractors would claim phantom injuries during the transport and renovations of Bloodmere Manor. Disney would have admitted defeat once an especially unfortunate worker wound up walled in, leaving the doomed project abandoned right in the heart of New Orleans Square. As your Ghost Host, I wouldn’t have had a detailed role in this iteration, but this Blood fellow sounds like my type of ghoul.

The winning pitch

Image © Disney

There was only one real flaw with Anderson’s innovative, almost prophetic ideas for the Haunted Mansion. Think about everything you just read from the perspective of a theme park operator. What Walt Disney heard was something different compared to what his Imagineer intended. Disneyland, the culmination of all Walt’s ideas for the future of entertainment, would have a decrepit building right by the entrance to the park. It was the ultimate non-starter of an idea as far as he was concerned. As much as his facilities are renowned for their personal touches and attention to detail, he wasn’t about to spend a small fortune building a mansion in disrepair to stand out like a sore thumb at his otherwise beautiful masterpiece of an amusement park.

For this reason, Anderson’s ideas percolated under the surface and behind closed doors at the offices of WED rather than moving forward as a detailed plan for the building of the Haunted Mansion and its surrounding area. Had Anderson demonstrated slightly less attention to detail, this attraction might have appeared a decade sooner. Walt Disney was fully on board with what he later described in a BBC interview as a “retirement home for ghosts,” but it would have to be one that suited his impossibly high standards as a theme park entrepreneur. He squashed the hope for the desolate look once and for all when he emphatically stated, “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.” Fittingly, Bloodmere Manor fell into an ideological kind of disrepair, lingering for years as a premise but not a reality.

In a rare misstep for the company, the marketing team failed to receive the message. In 1958, Haunted Mansion appeared on an official Disneyland map for the first time, over a decade before its actual inaugural ride. This announcement was so early that New Orleans Square itself wasn’t ready for a groundbreaking ceremony yet. That part of the park wouldn’t open for another eight years, which must have confused their map-carrying guests a great deal. It’s the type of behavior that park visitors would never tolerate today, and it clarifies why even the oldest Disneyland fans think of the Haunted Mansion as being there right from the start. Three years after the park opened, its name was already bandied about on Disney’s marketing materials.

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There are 4 comments.

Thank you for such an interesting read. (You might want to go back and change something though, you wrote 997 ghosts early in the piece. I am sure that is a typo.) This ride was one that was described to me by friends when I was a little kid. It was one of the burning reasons I wanted to go to the Magic Kingdom. When I finally went (as a teen) The Haunted Mansion was the first attraction I went on, and I was not disappointed! It took me a few years to figure out the Pepper's Ghost effect, which is brilliant! Now, my goal is to ride the Mystic Manor ride. I just hope I don't have to wait too long to see it.

Hi Kenneth,

David was actually right with the 997 thing, I think...it doesn't include the bride and groom. Adding those two in brings it up to 999.

Nick

What I shall always remember about the Haunted Mansion is that on our first visit to Disneyland, my sister (who was 7) threw up as we exited the ride. Disney clean-up was right there on the spot to make sure we were okay, and we headed back to the motel for her to take a nap and my cousin and I to play in the pool.

I think originally the Haunted Mansion at Disney World had 99 Friendly Ghosts. Then, after an update, they now have 101 ghosts which do not seem so friendly! I really liked the ride better with the "friendly ghosts". I like what they did to the outside tho. I took a behind the scenes tour and it was very good.

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