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Behind the Ride: The Haunted Mansion

The Experience: A room with no windows and no doors

The Trick: The world’s quietest full-room elevator

Image: DisneyBehold my favorite line of dialogue, one I often recite to uninvited guests of The Haunted Mansion:

“Our tour begins here in this gallery where you see paintings of some of our guests as they appeared in their corruptible, mortal state. 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? And consider this dismaying observation: This chamber has no windows and no doors, which offers you this chilling challenge: To find a way out!”

There is, of course, a way out, and I don’t mean my way. The Haunted Mansion features one of the cleverest designs in the history of Disneyland. Since space was so tight in Anaheim, Walt Disney identified a brilliant way to increase the size of his rides. He constructed large portions of them in the basement. Imagineers faced a problem, though. How could they lower the guests without their knowing? As always, their solution was stunningly creative.

Do you know how every horror film says, “Don’t go down to the basement?” My Haunted Mansion doesn’t give you a choice. The octagonal room that you enter when you visit my abode harbors a dark secret. In Doctor Who terms (yes, even ghosts watch Doctor Who), it’s bigger on the inside. The Stretching Room doesn’t really stretch. The name is intentionally deceitful. Instead, the room itself moves, operating as an elevator that lowers you to the basement.

The reason you may feel confused is the set of paintings on the walls. They’re not extending in size. They’re always that length. The trick is that the room obscures your view of the paintings until you begin your descent. As you sink lower on the elevator, you can see more of each image.

Should you ever take a trip up the elevator, you’ll notice that the entire picture frame moves, and the size of the display determines how much of the ghastly visages you can view. Our friends in Orlando don’t have an elevator. Since Magic Kingdom has plenty of space, the Stretching Room doesn’t include a descent. Instead, the ceiling rises. Once again, the original version is superior.

The Experience: A headless groom

The Trick: 50 years of technological innovations

Image: DisneyConstance Hatchaway is a hard woman to love. Despite this statement, many men, possibly even including me, did so. Each one of them was wealthy enough to persuade her to marry, and each of them wound up quite dead because of it.

Specifically, her grooms are dead because of her hatchet, which she swung at each groom with great force. The worst part of The Haunted Mansion is that if your evil bride does kill you, death isn’t an escape from her company. Instead, both of you join the rest of the 999 ghosts who live here.

Out of the five men who married Constance, the most noteworthy is…someone else altogether. To add to the perception of Hatchaway the decapitator black widow, Disney added another man to the attic where she resides, a doomed fellow whose head disappeared from his body then reappeared in an unexpected place.

Image: Disney

His name was Harry, and a lot of the special effects imagery in the days prior to the opening of The Haunted Mansion mentioned him. That’s because the Imagineers loved the concept of a ghost whose head came and went. They used a special effect to disappear the head. Once my home opened to the general public in 1969, Disney employees quickly realized that the disappearing head, well, stayed appearing. The special effect failed under the actual conditions of the functioning attraction. The ambient light near the Doombuggy track undid the trick, and that’s why Harry vanished for years.

Ghosts don’t stay gone forever, though. My friend triumphantly returned in 2015. More than 45 years later, a new generation of Imagineers found a great solution. They project Harry’s face onto a blank head. All that’s required to make the top half of Harry vanish into the hatbox is for Disney to remove this face. The space of the blank head now shows nothing. Meanwhile, they project his head in the hatbox. As far as Imagineering special effects go, this one’s nothing special, yet it solves a problem that had befuddled cast members for almost half a century!

Now then, we’ve discussed four carefully kept secrets of my otherworldly residence. Like I said, there’s always room for one more, though…

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