“Welcome, Foolish Mortals”:  Passive and Aggressive Thrills in Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion

After almost sixty years of providing thrills and wonder, the Disneyland theme park has become a special place for the millions of people who visit each year. Opening day of Disneyland in 1955 featured many of the same rides still there today, though enhancements or relocations have been made throughout the years. Dumbo the Flying Elephant, King Arthur Carrousel, and Mad Tea Party are just some of the original rides still in operation (Weiss). Included in the lineup of the original attractions, dark rides such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White and her Adventures (renamed Snow White’s Scary Adventures in 1983), and Peter Pan’s Flight were, and remain, quite popular. These types of dark rides are defined by Angela Ndalianis as a “journey into the dark that places the viewer in the passive role over the narrative that then unfolds in space” (68). Branching off Ndalianis’s definition, I am defining my own terms of “passive dark rides” and “aggressive dark rides”: passive rides are simply scenes to be viewed, with a clear separation of the rider from the scene, while aggressive rides actively place the rider into the storyline and may even threaten or attack the rider directly. Dark rides meant to be viewed in passivity, like Peter Pan’s Flight, can be likened to a narrator reading a story aloud while the rider listens and views scenes or pictures, whereas aggressive-based rides demand the rider’s attention in an immediate way, as the rider is directly addressed and becomes emotionally involved with the storyline.

Though not part of the park’s original attractions, The Haunted Mansion is a dark ride that dates back to the time when Disneyland was just a concept. Walter Elias Disney—known by many names, including Uncle Walt, Mickey Mouse, or simply Mr. Disney—hired “Imagineers,” imaginative concept engineers of technology. The first was Harper Goff, who developed sketches of a main street with crooked pathways leading from a peaceful area to a church and graveyard, with a run-down manor on a hill in the distance (Heimbuch). These sketches were transferred to the hands of Imagineer Ken Anderson with the intent of building a ride around Goff’s initial vision. Ten years after hunting for inspiration (including at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California), planning, and building, The Haunted Mansion opened its creaking gates on August 9, 1969 and has been “[w]elcom[ing] foolish mortals” into its grand foyer ever since (Mayhem).

The Haunted Mansion uses both passive and aggressive story-telling styles more than other rides. Pirates of the Caribbean consists of a pronounced passive route, wherein the riders are solely passive observers of the scenes throughout. However, selections such as the Indiana Jones Adventure puts the focus on the rider, with Jones himself actively speaking to riders and pleading for their help, while special effects assault the rider to create fear and heightened awareness. This solely aggressive-focused attraction forces the rider to feel more involved in the storyline for the duration that they’re in the Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

The combination of the two very different story approaches and the variation of riders being protagonists or observers create Disney’s imaginative take on a typical haunted house. The Haunted Mansion successfully merges the passive and aggressive—though focusing more on the passive—into one central theme of imaginative thrills, creating an experience that is not easily forgotten. Riders of The Haunted Mansion, though immersed in the sounds and scenery, are not the main participants/protagonists, or even acknowledged much in the ride itself and mostly take on the role of an observer of the gothic experience. The Haunted Mansion’s conception and creation was as unique as the ride itself, and this comes into view as we further explore the beginnings of theme park history and how the past shaped the modern dark ride.


Dark Rides Through the Decades

It’s no secret that amusement parks are very popular pastimes. With money-makers like Universal Studios, Cedar Point, Knott’s Berry Farm, and of course, Walt Disney World, California Adventure, and Disneyland ruling the entertainment industry, the idea of a theme park is just as popular as when they first were opening. However, the theme park industry began to develop decades before one might think, and dark rides got their start not as a typical scary attraction but instead were meant to make the rider feel as though they had travelled to some distant place. How these rides developed and changed through the years—shifting more from the passive viewing to aggressive rides as the popularity of the rides increased—is important to how dark rides were, and are, experienced.


Pleasure gardens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be seen as precursors to modern day amusement parks. While not fitting the typical definition of a theme park, pleasure gardens were usually expensively maintained gardens open to the public, which showcased a variety of trees and plant life, including “vinery, . . . forest trees, ornamental, decorative, and estate trees, fruit trees, roses, and . . . sundries” (Brown and Osborne 96). These gardens were also places of amusement that may have included vocal and instrumental music and fireworks in the summers, equestrian performer débuts, and social parties (Wroth and Wroth 71, 198, 147). Within these gardens, the public was a spectator rather than a protagonist because they were not aggressively targeted in tactile manners. The guests walked through the attractions, which, over time, included arbors, mazes, shops, dining pavilions, and replicas of ruins and saw what was being performed or offered (Samuelson 10). Guests could choose their own paths, giving them some variety and deeper immersion, but they were primarily observers. Having one central area in which shops, various attractions, and dining areas are located is a defining characteristic of the amusement parks of today and it may be seen that pleasure gardens were passive versions of modern day parks.

Expanding from the idea of pleasure gardens, World’s Fairs began in Paris (then called the French Industrial Exposition) in 1844, with the first World Exposition held in New York in 1853, where science and technology from around the world were brought together. These fairs had new buildings constructed just for the event that were not meant to be permanent (Mohun 294). The fairs were mostly utilized as a celebration of the host country, where inventions made their debuts, such as the elevator (Dublin World’s Fair, 1853), outdoor electric lighting (Paris World’s Fair, 1878), and the Ferris wheel (Chicago World’s Fair, 1893) (“Expos”). New technologies, appreciation for the homelands of others, and a place for people to come together from all over the world were celebrated and loved at the World’s Fairs and still are today, with the next World’s Fair—Expo Milano 2015—to be held in Italy (“World’s Fair Calendar”). Not unlike the permanent theme parks of today, many expositions, rides, and attractions filled these fairs and continue to attract a myriad of people from all over the world.

Occurring after pleasure gardens and World’s Fairs, dark rides can be dated to the turn of the century, within the first amusement parks and carnivals. Dark rides have evolved greatly from their humble beginnings as carnival or fair attractions (68). A Trip to the Moon, a cyclorama and one of the first dark rides, opened in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and was astoundingly popular (it soon moved to Luna Park in Coney Island in 1902). Featuring a large canvas curtain, the cyclorama was painted and revolved around the viewers; this screen is often referred to as a “cyc” in modern theater terms (Ndalianis 64). The world had never before seen a ride of that type, with moving screens and sound effects, which snowballed the hype of other dark rides. Old Mill rides were developed a year after A Trip to the Moon and featured gondola-eqsue boats floating through dark tunnels with fantastical scenery (Samuelson 90). The Old Mill ride is often referred to by critics as the beginning of dark rides, accurately named since the attraction took place in the dark of a covered structure. Originally, a dark ride was not meant to be scary, but instead intended to make the rider feel as though they actually had travelled to some distant place. Scenic railroads came about in the 1910s, slow-moving train cars that usually puffed along through tunnels and caves, featuring mainly nature-based scenic backdrops  (Mohun 298). Cycloramas, Old Mill rides, and scenic railroads were all attractions that focused mainly on visual amusements, featuring mainly changing backdrops and painted scenes to evoke the imagination.

With the increasing demand for more dramatic experiences of entertainment (which would also increase profit), the rides became more rider-focused: centering on the aggressive, in-your-face thrills that many amusement park-goers were seeking. Early roller coasters were inspired by the scenic railroad rides, though creating fear was done so in a different manner than the high-speeds-and-daring-heights expectation we have today. Instead, the anticipation was built through acceleration and sharp turns rather than looping speed and high drops. The first roller coasters were much slower than what is in demand in today’s era, yet the capacity for accidents was also very high. Most coasters featured brakemen, given the task of manually slowing down carts as they came around curves, and if the brakemen failed to do their jobs, the cart could derail. This caused at least two deaths in the Coney Island park (Mohun 299). With the addition of lap bars, locking the cart’s wheels to the tracks, and other safety features, the first of which was developed in 1910, early coasters became safer, though accidents were not a thing of the past (Mohun 300). With rides becoming faster, demands for new innovations, and the popularity of theme parks, the aggressive-based ride was building into more of what we know as a thrill ride today.

The aggressive take on fear and evoking a rider’s emotions were not made popular until 1928 with the creation of a dark ride that was made to push the limits. The Pretzel, named so because the rider felt as though they had been twisted around, was one of the first dark rides with individual carts on tracks within an enclosed space (Hix). The ride puttered through pitch-blackness with only simple cart-triggered sound effects creating the scare factor, such as an unexpected clashing cymbal (Hix). Later, effects like hanging strings above the track to mimic cobwebs passing over the riders and cart-triggered papier-mâché demons that seemed to jump out towards the cart were added (Hix). With the addition of more rider-focused tricks and scares, the rides were suddenly able to generate fear of being attacked on a much more personal level. Playing on the experience of a walk-through haunted house, The Pretzel became very popular, inspiring many copycats and new ideas for how to create fear in a more rider-focused way, rather than relying on stagnant dummies and props. Dime museums, carnivals, and dark rides—especially in the 1930s—became more horror-laden and brought the idea of Satan into their attractions, with “devils and witches attack[ing] delighted and frightened children and teenagers” (Poole 193). In updated versions of the 1950s and 1960s, Satan was swapped for killers with chainsaws, creepy scientists and their creations, and aliens as the “perfect mix of irony and macabre fun” with a combination of horror and comedy (Poole 193). The idea of what made a dark ride entertaining was changing though the decades, becoming more and more aggressive in terms of how the audience experienced the ride.

While it is not a prerequisite for dark rides (taking place in the dark of an enclosed space that transports the rider to imaginary, far off places) to be centered around the idea of horror—Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight (1955), It’s a Small World (1966), and Pirates of the Caribbean (1967), for example, are fantasy-based—the idea of wanting to be scared continues to be a popular phenomenon (Ndalianis 68). Even today, entire theme parks are being refurbished and redecorated to cater to this demand. A popular example is Knott’s Berry Farm, which is transformed in the fall into Knott’s Scary Farm, featuring Halloween-centered dark mazes themed around works like those of Edgar Allan Poe (MacDonald).

Over the years, park rides have varied the relationships between the rider and the ride, with a shift from passive imaginative rides to jump-scare, pitch-black rides. This can be seen in the progression from cycloramas and scenic railroads to The Pretzel and modern rides of today. Many theme parks now tend to offer an array of passive and aggressive rides, so that the guest may choose their own thrills. Such a wide history of rides and dark rides can show a shifting towards more aggressive rides, as technology and demand for new ways to feel fear are heightened. The Haunted Mansion pulls from both categories, allowing the ride to be both scary and fun, which creates an atmosphere that draws in a dedicated crowd.


The Disneyfication of the Dark Ride


When Disneyland first opened in 1955—in addition to the popular life-sized versions of Disney movies come to life (Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the Mad Tea Party)—a dark ride themed around horror was also included and is still operational today. Snow White and her [Scary] Adventures was one of the original opening day rides, though the story is different today. In the 1955 version, guests rode in mining carts and carried out the story from beginning to end on a controlled track (not so different from The Haunted Mansion) and were most certainly the protagonist of the story. Using the narrative to put riders in the place of the protagonist creates a new experience as the ride was suddenly full of choices as if the rider was Snow White: “Should I go to the Dwarves’ Cottage or the Witch’s Castle?” (Rahn 23). Despite the many warning signs, including Dopey Dwarf trembling at the “Beware of the Witch” sign and the skeleton of a previous victim chained to the wall, the rider is forced to follow the same path that Snow White herself took in the movie towards the evil witch (Rahn 23). The original ride focused on trusting that the dwarves were well-meaning, and the evil queen (disguised as the Witch) was cunning. The “damning consequences of choosing the wrong path,” where evil wins and the Witch succeeds in destroying Snow White (differing from the movie as there is no prince to save her), shows how trusting the wrong figure will lead one to doom (Rahn 22). The rider was supposed to feel as though he or she was Snow White, and the story unfolded without the main character in the attraction. However, many guests did not understand the concept, and the ride was refurbished to include the main character, thereby sealing up the fourth wall: the rider now became a spectator—a listener—rather than the protagonist (Rahn 22).

The ride was updated in 1983 to include Snow White and her Prince and to tone down the scariness, including the Witch now falling to her death by a strike of lighting as she attempts to kill Snow White (Rahn 23). The Haunted Mansion very well might have suffered the same fate after Walt Disney’s death in 1966. Imagineers Marc Davis and Claude Coats debated whether the ride should be funny or scary. They eventually decided to combine their ideas so that the ride begins with scares (loud sudden noises, a chilling host, a dead man hanging above the guests) and then morphs into more of a goofy atmosphere along the way (Keim). The scary segments begin with dimly lit corridors that seem to go on forever, a floating candelabra moving on its own, rattling doors with ghosts moaning and screaming for help, and the rattling lid of a coffin overseen by a red-eyed crow, where the spooky terrors from nightmares become real. The séance room brings more fear to life as Madame Leota, the opaque head of a medium, floats above the table, chants out to the spirits, and calls them forward. Her chants seem to be answered as instruments fly about the room and boom, chime, or ring along with flickering candles and a spell book open on the table. Typical haunted house-esque offerings such as these examples can be found throughout the beginning of the ride, though these lessen as the ride progresses.

The ballroom is where Davis and Coats’s ideas begin to mesh, with forlorn-looking ghosts dancing to haunting piano music in the grand room around a table set with fine china and linens, and ghosts coming out of their paintings to duel in the afterlife. Though these seem like scary aspects, the brighter interior atmosphere of the ballroom, ghosts hanging from and playing on the chandeliers, and the birthday girl struggling to blow out candles on a massive cake in the center of the table bring a taste of humor and livelihood to the earlier somber tone that reappears in the next room. The attic room shows a cluttered space and more scares as the riders pass by framed pictures of a woman in a wedding dress, known as Constance Hatchaway, and in each picture, she is posed with a different groom. As the riders move by, the heads of each groom within the previous pictures disappears and a chopping noise is heard. The ghostly figure of the bride appears in the attic holding a hatchet and reciting wedding vows (infaMOUSEproject). The switching of scary to lively throughout makes the stark contrast from where we begin, with the creepy atmosphere, and where we end, mid-party amongst the tombstones when ghosts “come out to socialize” (Levine).


From there, the scary parts of the ride are diminished, focusing more on silly spooks. Chaos erupts in the graveyard as ghosts pop up from behind their tombstones, swing in the trees, sing, have a tea party around a hearse, ride bikes, and even stack the bricks to their own tombs (infaMOUSEproject). The faint tune of “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (the title of the song being taken from a line of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis) can be heard as the riders exit the attic—moving beyond the somber tone—and go out through the balcony to weave under shadowed trees, which dissipates the fear of the unknown (Kolin 84). Once the song gets louder and more upbeat upon getting closer to the graveyard, guests are now anticipating a funny scene à la Casper the Friendly Ghost rather than pop-out or aggressive scares, based on the happier melody and harmonized lyrics (showing the ghosts are neither inherently “good” nor “bad”), much different than the single slow, somber organ and piano featured in earlier parts of the mansion (Rahn 24). The mansion makes great use of contrast throughout to not only keep the riders guessing as to what might come up next, but also to appeal to all ages in the family-focused theme park, Disneyland.

The Haunted Mansion has been in operation for forty-five years, but it might not have been as successful as it was without the merging of horror and laughs. Taking two very different ideas of creating fears and enticing silliness, putting them within the same space, and having it become memorable is a difficult task. However, the passive and aggressive play off each other, and the idea that ghosts can be both terrifying and comedic works well. Combining both extremes appeals to a wide audience, broadening the amount of riders who can experience the mansion. There are no height or age restrictions for the ride, though children under seven years of age must be accompanied by a person fourteen years of age or older. As the ride contains “mildly frightening subject matter,” some children who are afraid of the dark or loud noises are not recommended to ride (“Haunted Mansion”). However, there are plenty of opportunities for guests with smaller children to exit the mansion before they get to the ride, if the conditions seem too scary. In looking at how the ride teeters between scary and funny, there can be seen the fine line of difficulties in marketing horror to children and the balance that needs to be kept in order to create a successful attraction.


Atmosphere and Technology in The Haunted Mansion 


Much more technologically advanced than its dark ride predecessors, like The Pretzel and A Trip to the Moon, The Haunted Mansion makes use of multiple modern-day technologies as well as borrowing from older illusions to create the unique atmosphere within the mansion. Not only are the mansion’s grounds entirely different than any other ride offered at Disneyland, but the illusions inside are distinctive to the ride.

While on the tour of the mansion, riders experience many optical illusions that have been revamped for the ride. First demonstrated in public at an 1862 Christmas performance of Charles Dickens’s Haunted Man, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion supplies many of the effects within the mansion (Ndalianis 67). Created by John Pepper, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion involves projecting an image on a piece of glass tilted at a 45-degree angle, while mirrors and lighting techniques make the image seem to appear and disappear before a viewer’s very eyes (Ndalianis 66-67). This illusion is mostly passive, simply showing various ghosts doing their own thing in their own rooms, never attacking the rider by addressing them directly. The magic lantern is another illusion dating back to the late sixteenth century, which became a much-used illusion by nineteenth century magicians, including Etienne Gaspard Robert (known as Robertson), who used the illusion to create skulls and ghostly apparitions within a dimly lit tomb during his live horror theater in Paris. Within The Haunted Mansion, this illusion was used to create the flying and bike-riding ghosts in the cemetery and the “disappearing” ceiling in the main foyer, by projecting and then ceasing projection of a painted ceiling onto a translucent screen (Ndalianis 68). Ghosts seem to appear out of thin air, like the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, if the glass is hidden from view. However, with the magic lantern illusion, the images were projected on a screen and were able to be enlarged and decreased at will (Ndalianis 67). Again, these ghosts are encompassed within the room they inhabit and do not attack or acknowledge the riders.

Beginning with the first steps into the mansion, the change in atmosphere from the more typically cheery Disneyland rides is immediate. Cold, crisp air seems to breathe down your neck in the foyer, while your somber attendant tells you to step further inside. Full of fantastic optical illusions, small decorative touches, and exciting technology, The Haunted Mansion creates a magical atmosphere in re-envisioning technology of centuries ago.

Attractions of today have come a long way since The Pretzel-type rides with simple string-as-horror mechanisms, though the inspiration of the “original dark ride” has impacted dark rides for decades since its creation. The fear of the dark is still a widely played upon fear among horror rides, such as in Universal Studios’ Revenge of the Mummy—the Ride (Ndalianis 56), but The Haunted Mansion only once plunges riders into darkness (and it is when the guests are not yet on the ride itself). Playing off common fears helps in setting the scene of a horror ride, and also gets the riders ready for other spooks and scares that may arise. In this regard, The Haunted Mansion does play on other fears, including but not limited to achluophobia (fear of darkness), astraphobia (fear of thunder and lighting), claustrophobia (fear of being closed in with no escape), necrophobia (fear of death and/or the dead), and spectrophobia (fear of ghosts and phantoms) (“Phobias”). However, while these fears are brought to life within the mansion, there is nothing that poses an attacking, aggressive threat to the riders in quite the way that other aggressive rides do.

One such ride that appeals with an aggressive tactic is Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye (1995), where sensory assault is taken to the extreme (Sharp Productions). Poisoned darts—concentrated jets of air—whoosh by rider’s heads, flames erupt around a rope bridge, and an audio-animatronic cobra striking at riders are all used to create the heart-pounding, screaming, and bodily jerking which solidifies the idea that we are “supposed to experience [horror]” rather than understand it (Sharp Productions; Hantke 1-9). The Haunted Mansion takes a less extreme approach, using some sensory ideas such as thermoception, where, in the mansion, the air conditioning is turned down the entire time, automatically giving the chill in the air that most people associate with a ghostly presence (Ndalianis 70). Even when employing a more aggressive tactic, with the Ghost Host directly addressing the riders before they are welcomed into the mansion and the ghosts attempting to hitch a ride with the guests as they leave, in comparison to other rides like Indiana Jones, the level of a threat is much less pronounced.

Other non-aggressive sensory aspects that set the tone of The Haunted Mansion before even getting on the ride include dull flickering candles in a main foyer decorated in dark purples, reds, and blacks with meager light. Soft music reminiscent of a sole organ continually hums out low tunes into the cold air, portraits change from normal scenes to depictions of monsters and skeletons, and thunder and lighting can be seen through the “windows” of a dark hallway (infaMOUSEproject). Even before the ride begins, the guests are immersed within the atmosphere of a creepy, yet beautiful mansion and are prepped to expect a certain level of optical illusions in having been exposed to so many while waiting in line. Therefore, the mansion relies more on the idea of terror (the fear that harm will come to oneself), rather than horror (the emotion that one feels in anticipating and witnessing harm coming to others that one cares for) (“Terror and Horror”). In employing greater amounts of passive effects and fewer aggressive effects, the ride takes on the unique ability to be able to set an evocative tone and then weave darker aspects within the prominently elegant scenes and light-hearted scares.

Many of the atmospheric illusions and scenery in The Haunted Mansion are derived from early variations and those in modern day. The old becomes new as the technology is borrowed and simply spruced up to create the memorable atmosphere within the ride. Greater concern for creating an immersive experience within The Haunted Mansion resulted in riders experiencing disjointed horror scenes as they moved from room to room (Rahn 24). The designers of the ride had to create an atmosphere that guests could enjoy without the need to follow a narrative such as one that occurs with Indiana Jones, where the riders are addressed and expected to help Indiana on his quest.

One of the major elements of the mansion is the unique Omnimover cart-loading system with individual carts called Doom Buggies, where riders are seated in twos or threes and guided for the duration of the ride (Ndalianis 65). These modern carts are a revision of the idea of the scenic railroad trains, though they get a high-tech makeover. The Doom Buggies, while confined to a track, are unique in their movements in not only moving forward, but also tilting in different directions and turning around a full 360-degrees. Such a wide range of movement allows Disney not only to make the most of the available space, but also to control the rider’s viewpoints at all times (Ndalianis 65). Additionally, the Doom Buggies are constructed to loosely resemble a coffin-type shape with a hooded back and sides that obscure the rider’s view from other carts, creating a sense of being alone and isolated within the mansion, also playing on the fear of being cut off from others. The use of technology to create the designed atmosphere and forced perspective allows for an entirely unique ride experience that is all-together similar and distanced from other dark rides within the park.


Dark rides have had much of an impact on modern rides, from small pier-side amusement parks to worldwide companies. Using technology from decades passed mixed with new spaces and enhancement of a rider’s experience, this growth can be seen from the humble beginnings of dark rides to what they are now. In growing from rides featuring simple moving pictures within an enclosed area to the technologically-driven rides on tracks set completely in the dark, the role of the rider has also grown in how they are expected to experience the ride itself.

With early rides focusing more on scenery, the rider was definitely a spectator and a direct observer of the scenes being shown. Tackling the fear of the rider by plunging them into darkness was just the start of how dark rides became sensory experiences, and some chose not to include story lines at all. Adding elements like cart-powered demons popping up, thermoception, and Pepper’s Ghost illusions further immersed the rider to in a zone of fear. With the immersive experience being so much more real for the rider, this created a new type of ride that was not only nerve-wracking at times, but fun as well, and in some cases, finished with a sense of gratitude and relief at the end of the ride. While rides can work with more passive attacks on the rider, such as dark canals laid out with creepy scenes, or more aggressive attacks, like a striking cobra, The Haunted Mansion tastefully handles both senses of fear. Hallways decorated with innocent paintings that change to scary images, and rattling doors with moaning ghosts directed towards the rider—but not directly attacking—are ways the mansion combines the two. In also appealing to a broad range of people, the mansion ensures that guests will continue to ride, whether they do so for the creepy horror in the beginning or the lighthearted fun at the end, merging both in a way that is creative and innovative while appealing to all ages.


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