The Haunted Mansion is a fan favorite that no visit to a Disney park is complete without. This popular attraction is a timeless classic that relies heavily on old school special effects and simple visual trickery to create a chilling atmosphere that’s the perfect combination of whimsical and scary. If you love to know the “how’s” and “why’s” behind Disney attractions, keep reading for an inside look at some of the special effects on the Haunted Mansion.
Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know about the real-world mechanisms behind the other-worldly air of the mansion, don’t read any further.
The spooky scrims
A scrim is a special effects tool that’s used not only in theme parks, but in museum exhibits, stage shows, and any other place where the show requires two interchangeable scenes in the same location. A scrim is a loosely woven piece of cloth that’s painted on one side. When it’s lit from the front, you’ll see the painting on the surface of the scrim. When it’s lit from behind, you see through the cloth to what’s behind.
Scrims are used generously throughout the Haunted Mansion to create chilling special effects. The most obvious scrims are in the Portrait Gallery. These pictures change when the lightning flashes, so you’re seeing the front of the scrim when it’s lit normally, and the ghoulish image behind during flashes of lightning.
The Endless Hallway has another scrim about halfway down the hall. The floating candle you see is located behind a scrim, which helps obscure the mechanism that causes the candle to “float.” The scrim here also creates a cloudiness that makes the mirror at the end of the hall more difficult to discern, so the seemingly endless corridor looks more realistic. Wondering how the mirror works with the candle in front of it? The candle is painted black on the backside so its light doesn’t disturb the mirror’s effect.
The Graveyard has another scrim. Here, the scrim is lightly painted to give the entire graveyard a foggy effect. This is the largest scrim in Walt Disney World. Here, its use is similar to that of the hallway. The lighting doesn’t change to reveal different visions, but the loosely woven fabric allows you to see through it strategically, so you can appreciate the ghosts behind, while painted areas create fog and help obscure other mechanisms that would make the special effects throughout the graveyard noticeably less special.
The ballroom ghosts
Many guests attribute the famous ghosts in the ballroom scene to a high tech special effect, such as a projection. However, long-time Mansion fans know that this scene has been around far longer than many modern video effects. The ghosts that appear and disappear in the ballroom below you are created using a projection technique known as phantasmagoria that dates back to the mid-1800s. John Henry Pepper was the first to perfect the approach, which is often referred to as “Pepper’s Ghost.” Disney’s use of the Pepper’s Ghost effect is the largest in the world, but it’s not unique.
The ghostly figures that you see in the Haunted Mansion ballroom are real animatronics that are just below your doom buggy in a separate room. What you’re seeing from your elevated vantage point isn’t the figures themselves, but rather a reflection of them. There are huge panes of glass set at an angle in the ballroom that are invisible to the viewer, until the figures opposite them are lit. The glass then reflects the ghostly characters, giving the impression of a room full of figures that appear and disappear.