Vintage Disney attractions are loaded with oddities. Seemingly outlandish creations — operatic tropical orchids or rum-hungry feral cats — are less likely in today’s modern theme parks, where referencing the thing we saw in a movie too often takes priority.
But even for ’60s-era Disneyland, when weird wasn’t in short supply, 1969’s long-in-development Haunted Mansion stood apart. Here, the borderline perverse clashes with the ghoulishly celebratory. A serial-killing bride hangs out in the same manor as a king and queen on a seesaw, not to mention mummies, singing busts, a regal organist, a royal psychic, whatever the Hatbox Ghost is (or was?) and a drunk passed out under the dining table.
Young, old, rich, poor and even inanimate — all are welcome.
Delightfully original and peppered with timeless magic tricks, the Haunted Mansion has endured to become what is arguably Disneyland’s most beloved attraction. While Disney doesn’t publicly rank rides by how much merch each sells, by observation, it’s easy to surmise that the Haunted Mansion would rank at or near the top.
The release of a Haunted Mansion anything is often met with fans swarming the park, waiting seven-plus hours for a tiki mug or plastic figurine. On this 50th anniversary of the ride’s opening day, Aug. 9, 1969, fans were lugging out three or four giant bags of new Mansion merch at 9 a.m. when others were simply beginning their day.
And while Disney continues to perfect the art of selling nostalgia, plenty of major rides have celebrated pivotal anniversaries — Pirates of the Caribbean turned 50 two years ago — without the fanfare of the Mansion, for which Disney just staged two high-priced events ($300!) that allowed fans early access to commemorative merchandise — $60 jugs that glow with the Mansion’s inhabitants admittedly are pretty neat — and the ability to experience the ride and other attractions after hours until 4 a.m.
Though nominally a party to buy merchandise or dine on limited-time food offerings that are never as good as year-round ones, the event, held after 11:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, also reveled in the Haunted Mansion’s mysteries. A bright light shone behind it, as if its ghosts were breaking free to flood the park, and fog surrounded guests as everyone cheered for funeral processions and listened to ghostly characters serenade us as we rode the Mark Twain Riverboat at 2 a.m.
Throughout New Orleans Square and the neighboring lands, characters sprang to life — Madame Leota spoke in rhyme from a balcony, spectral dancers cavorted in front of Pirates of the Caribbean, tightrope-walking portrait character Sally posed for photos and ghostly projections emerged on Disneyland’s Rivers of America. The power of the Mansion bled to its neighboring lands, as attractions with supernatural themes such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure and Big Thunder Mountain stayed up past their bedtime.
Of course, the star attraction of the night got some party-only embellishments. Live actors dotted the Haunted Mansion, cleverly mixing in with illusions and projections in the ballroom scene. A knight even provided a slight jump scare as guests rode through the Mansion’s hallway, an addition Disney once considered for the attraction’s normal operations.
The late-night-to-early-morning soiree tapped into the idea that the Haunted Mansion has become something of a guiding light for its devoted fans. Such a sentiment was just echoed in a recent interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who was once associated with a never-made Haunted Mansion film. “The Haunted Mansion is not an attraction, it’s a way of life,” he told Moviefone.
Of course it is. The Haunted Mansion is far from just a simple celebration of the macabre. Without a clearly defined plot — early treatments told of a sea captain who murdered his wife and buried her in a brick wall — the Haunted Mansion has become a melting pot of lifestyles and misdeeds. It’s a fete that contains an assortment of humanity’s self-centered tendencies — our lust for wealth, our idiocy to engage in gunfight duels — and tempts us with them.
Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this what you want? Just wait, and someday, this will be yours.
It should be noted that while its sinister side is draped in humor, it also has relatively progressive elements. The ax-wielding bride in the attic who has murdered one husband after another can be read as less of a cruel joke and more of a course correction for a male-led world that’s made a mess of it. No, we don’t endorse manipulative relationships and beheading a fiancé, but today we sympathize with Constance, nicknamed the black widow bride, for not waiting for her prince to come and instead taking matters into her own hands. In a way, she’s a princess for the app-dating age of snap judgments and believing a better person is a swipe away.
The Haunted Mansion is chaos, a dismantling of power structures and mercenary in its embrace of our flaws. No wonder the caretaker in the Mansion’s cemetery looks so frightened; this is what humanity might really look like if we just let ourselves go and decided to get along with a bunch of singing, dancing, drunken fools where all that divides us was buried with us.
As a whole, the ride is both a love letter and a middle finger to us “foolish mortals,” arguing that we’re all doomed and our penchant for sin will, at best, lead to one hell of a party in the afterlife. It’s the Hot Girl Summer of Disneyland attractions: Everything stinks, so live it up.
For all the stress, anxieties and downright horrors of the modern world, there’s something reassuring in the Haunted Mansion’s view of death. We’re all equal, for one, at this swinging wake, and the guest list is open for everyone forevermore when the velvet rope has no power.
If only a ghost could truly follow us home and remind us that whatever is frightening us today won’t matter in the end.
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