This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.
Haunted Mansion was launched as a theme park attraction at Disneyland in 1969. Riders get strapped inside “doom buggies” and whisked through a spooky old manor with chills and thrills around every corner. The ride doesn’t end at the last stop, either. A mirror along the exit captures the image of a phantom prankster attaching itself to each visitor. For Disney’s upcoming Haunted Mansion film, director Justin Simien wants to bring that feeling home.
“My number one goal as a filmmaker is to make sure you actually get haunted,” Simien tells Den of Geek magazine. “I was nine when I rode the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, and you couldn’t tell me that dude was not still over my shoulder all around the park.”
The feeling never left, so Simien brought that spirit to pitch meetings. He had to know how to project that sensation. “There’s a physicality to the ghosts you can’t explain,” he says. “They may not be there, but they’re somewhere.”
Simien couldn’t find that special presence, though, from the last time Disney attempted to make the ride into a movie via The Haunted Mansion in 2003, which starred Eddie Murphy. “When I was a kid, I was disappointed it wasn’t the mansion at the theme parks,” Simien tells us. “This,” he insists about his new film, “is the mansion you see at Disneyland.”
In that mansion, audiences will meet single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) as she moves into the estate with her son. The place is cheap because it is already crowded with tenants who are ghosts of their former selves, so she hires paranormal investigator Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), college history professor Bruce (Danny DeVito), and Father Kent (Owen Wilson), for a bit of haunted house cleaning.
The director, who acted in the Disneyland cast early in his career, had studied the attraction thoroughly long before making the movie. “I even got to walk through it before the park was open,” Simien says. “It was kind of sad because they turned the lights on, and all of the magic was ruined. But it was amazing. I’ve ridden it so many times; there were so many little details I never knew were there.”
Still, Simien felt trepidation when he heard Disney was considering a Haunted Mansion remake. “I had had the same reaction anybody finding out a Haunted Mansion movie is coming out would have: ‘Okay, we’re doing that again.’” Yet strange twists come in the witching hours. “I read this thing expecting, frankly, to pass on it, and I stayed up all night. Katie Dippold, who wrote the script, tells the story through a journey through the mansion. I knew when I got this job, I had to do justice to this script and to that ride.”
Nor was he alone. Most of Hollywood loves the terrifying attraction. Jared Leto took even that to new levels, creating new speech patterns to match his ghostly character’s eternal dilemma (his head disappears from his shoulders and reappears in a box). This generation’s most dedicated method actor also flirted with playing the Hat-Box Ghost without effects.
“He wanted all of that going on during recordings; he was in full gear,” Simien concedes. “Luckily, he didn’t take it far enough to suggest: ‘Okay, I’m gonna go to the other side, and you’re going to channel me, and then I’ll do the scene.’ But he comes very prepared for everything.”
The director also readied the set and cast by tuning into paranormal thinking. “I’m a little woo-woo already,” Simien admits. “Ghost stories and a connection to the other side, that’s just in my DNA. When we started shooting, I went a little crazy. I bought crystals and gave them out. I got into burning different things, setting my intentions. I really wanted to mentally go there.”
Still, one cast member known for going there remains a mystery guest at the film’s mansion. When it comes to Winona Ryder, little is known about her role, and the director will only tease, “[She] was really a hoot to work with. I don’t want to say where she appears.”
This is not for shock value. It makes for a better story. “I definitely want people to feel like they’re not sure how the tricks were done,” Simien says. “Strip everything away—the effects, the ride, all the goodies—and this is a movie about people who would not get along under any other circumstances, finding a way to find a family with each other.”
Or at least share a ride. There are 999 ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and room for one more. Simien would be thrilled to fill the vacancy. “Whatever happens on the other side, this is the place to be. They got music, a rotating set of guests. You can talk to people from any time period. When you see the movie, I don’t know how you wouldn’t wanna hang out in this house. Once you get past the terror, it’s a lot of fun.”
Haunted Mansion opens in theaters on July 28.