How the Haunted Mansion Remains a Timeless Gateway to Horror

How the Haunted Mansion Remains a Timeless Gateway to Horror

This Halloween we want to celebrate Disneyland’s original macabre monument the Haunted Mansion, which for many has served as a rite of passage as a first friendly introduction to horror when visiting the theme park. It definitely was for me growing up in Southern California — I can still remember my first few rides, hiding my face in my parents’ arms and peeking through my fingers on the Doom Buggy until I was brave enough to embrace the silly spooks in their graveyard jamboree.

So my chat with Imagineer Kim Irvine, daughter of Leota Toombs — the Imagineer who is the model and namesake of the fortune-telling floating head in the Haunted Mansion’s seance room — feels like years in the making. We recently caught up on the phone during spooky season to discuss her family’s historyx with the attraction, and how its impact has extended beyond the West Coast destination to sister mansions, books, television, and films to introduce more generations to its lore.

That Disney Magic

Screenshot: Disney Parks/YouTube
Screenshot: Disney Parks/YouTube

Dating back to seeing her mother Leota and father Harvey Toombs working at Disney since early in her childhood, Irvine described how they knew everybody. “With Haunted Mansion, she used to come home and share stories about what was happening at work all the time because they were like family,” she said, recalling the progress on the ride through its early stages. As she got older, its concept took a few years to come together (after Walt Disney’s passing), from a walk-through Museum of the Weird to the dark ride it eventually became.

Her mother, who’d been designing and creating models for attractions such as It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean, was pulled into the Mansion project in a fateful way when Disney animator and Imagineer Blaine Gibson asked for her help. “She came home and said, ‘You know, Blaine asked if I will model for this test they want to do for the Haunted Mansion attraction that we’re working on. It sounds like it’s going to be kind of fun, but I’m going to have to practice at home because I have to learn an incantation,” Irvine reminisced. “I can’t remember how old I was at that time, but she would practice downstairs ‘witches and goblins, tail of a rat,’ the whole little incantation in a mirror because they told her that she was going to have to hold her head perfectly still and mouth this without moving her head at all. So all expressions had to be done. You can imagine how she raised her eyebrows or rolled her eyes around, because she couldn’t move her head.”

Irvine revealed that Toombs didn’t think it would be more than just a stand-in role. “So she just went to work next day and they did all of the things that they needed to do — the secret things they used to do in order to create the life mask and film. Harriet Burns and some of the makeup artists put this crazy makeup on her, and they filmed it. It was meant to just be a test because Yale [Gracey, Disney Imagineer] wanted to see if this funny idea worked and it did. So that’s how she became Madame Leota. The test turned out so well, it became the real thing,” she said. “And we went to Disneyland a few months later and actually saw her as Madame Leota on opening day. And what’s so funny about it, opening day, August 9, is also mum’s birthday. So it was a big birthday celebration for her as well.” With a name like Leota Toombs, some would say it was very much meant to be.

Spirited Fun Frights for All Ages

Hearing about what it was like being brought up around those years at Disneyland was inspiring — especially getting details about my personal favourite ride. I wondered if the connection coloured the regard Irvine held the Haunted Mansion in. “It’s always been my favourite attraction too, like you,” she agreed.“And I think it has such a fan base because it’s really the heart of it that they went back and forth on for so long. Is It’s scary? Is it funny? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen some of the galleries that we’ve done, but there’s a series of drawings, sketches, and designs that were done before they finally settled on something. With that, it’s probably got the biggest library of artwork.” Reader, I do indeed know about the galleries, of course (pictured below), and have spent so much time poring over every detail of the concept art and models displayed.

Haunted Mansion Gallery, Disneyland (Photo: Sabina Graves/Gizmodo)
Haunted Mansion Gallery, Disneyland (Photo: Sabina Graves/Gizmodo)

That balance of finding the dark ride’s spooky whimsy really came down to the collaborative effort of imagineers. “The amazing technical skills that Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump had to make Marc [Davis] and Claude [Coats]’s designs come to fruition but without a whole lot of tech, I think that’s what people love, the spookiness of it and the fun,” Irvine said, giving credit to the ingenuity that still raises the attraction’s signature 999 spirits. “If you want to call them effects, like the Pepper’s Ghost, which has been around for hundreds of years, they’re so innocent but they are so good. And technology is nowhere to be found, hardly anywhere in that attraction, you know? You don’t feel like you’re looking at holograms or looking at, you know, 3D effects of any kind. You feel like it’s all very real. And so I think that’s the thing that is so endearing about it, the wonderful elemental gags that just work so perfectly for a ride through like that.”

Legions of fans would agree. “It’s probably the same appeal that people have for magicians that don’t use tech. There’s a wonder about it that makes you go, ‘I don’t even know how they did that.’ It’s so invisible and so cool. You know, there’s obviously no high tech involved in at all.” Irvine understands when fans get protective against modern enhancements for fear that too much state-of-the-art tech might break the spell. “When we add things to the mansion and have to update [it], changes are naturally going to happen in an attraction of that age.”

Haunted Mansion queue  (Photo: Disney Parks)
Haunted Mansion queue (Photo: Disney Parks)

It’s a delicate matter and one Irvine takes seriously — and as she’s shepherded various refurbishments on the attraction, she gets it. “Our mantra, as long as I have been working for the design team at Disneyland, has been if we’re going to change anything at Disneyland at all it has to be better than it was before. You can never go backwards, you always have to keep going forward,” a philosophy that echoes Walt Disney’s famous “Keep Moving Forward” tenet. “And so when we made the recent changes in the queue, we went an extra mile to put in fancy Victorian screens with one-of-a-kind light fixtures that look so old. And most importantly, we had to bring back that April to December portrait. I’ve been seeing guest letters for years when we took that out to do the the new changing portraits back in [the] late ‘80s or early ‘90s. We lost her and we’ve always wanted to bring it back. And so the WDI tech group down at Disneyland, they were able to find that film and piece that together. And it was such a treat to bring that back to the fans.”

Photo: Disney Parks
Photo: Disney Parks

A Welcoming Invite to Regions Beyond

Over the years, the Haunted Mansion has sparked the imagination of many filmmakers, video creators, actors, cosplayers, and writers to feel inspired for works of their own. At one point Guillermo del Toro was poised to make a film adaptation with Disneyland superfan Ryan Gosling; Gosling even put out a whole eerie, ghostly album with collaborator Zach Shields, Dead Man’s Bones, that sounds like it was recorded in the Mansion’s graveyard. “It has quite a following. They’re always extremely respectful of the original stories,” Irvine said about the attraction’s imprint on pop culture.

Of course officially, there’s been Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion movie, as well as various comic book and literary adaptations, “We want to make sure that it always maintains that same wonderful personality that it has,” Irvine shared. “WDI actually has the Haunted Mansion bible that we put together, that kind of outlines who everybody is in the mansion: what their names are, what their backgrounds are, and the do’s and don’ts of what to do with them, [for] everyone that has ever done anything with Haunted Mansion as far as the films they’ve made or stories that have been written or different types of products that are made from it.”

Curious about the bible, we inquired about all the concepts that didn’t make the cut on the ride — are those included in it as well? Or does it just include everything that’s in the mansion? “I think it’s pretty much everything that is in that mansion, you know?” Irvine responded thoughtfully. “We kind of keep the things that weren’t ever fully developed to ourselves as possibilities for the future.” As a fan, that sounds very exciting!

While she couldn’t share much about Disney’s upcoming new Haunted Mansion film starring Rosario Dawson and directed by Justin Simien, Irvine did reveal she has worked on it in some capacity. “We make sure that they really understand the background before they move ahead with any of these projects. I visited the site where they built the mansion and the sets. It was absolutely mind-blowing the care that they took in recreating some of these spaces because they actually finished off rooms that we only did small parts of. In order to film a whole movie, they had to make them larger and finish them off to see what it would look like if each room was actually filled with furniture and completely 3D surrounding you.”

Excited for the attraction’s lasting presence in other mediums outside the parks, I brought up last year’s Muppets Haunted Mansion special, and working with the Henson team. “They are just awesome and were coming at it from such a different and humorous angle that I’m sure Marc Davis would enjoy, he’s the one that wanted the humour in it,” Irvine said of the experience — and her cameo with Madame Pigota. “Working with them was just a real treat. It was a surprise to really to get a chance to do this and interact with Piggy and the rest of the Muppets team because they are such talented and kooky people. The director was so much fun. And, you know, I think for sure he was the one that sets the mood for the whole thing. So we just had a blast doing it.” The director in question by the way is Kirk Thatcher, who made an appearance in this year’s Disney+ Halloween special Werewolf by Night (directed by Michael Giacchino) as one of the scene-stealing monster hunters.

Screenshot: Disney+/Muppets Studios
Screenshot: Disney+/Muppets Studios

Timeless Legacy

Now don’t close your eyes

And don’t try to hide

Or a silly spook may sit by your side

Shrouded in a daft disguise

They pretend to terrorize

Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialise

-Haunted Mansion

You’re never too old to grow out of the magic of the Haunted Mansion, I told Irvine, because it just takes you back to the childlike wonder of experiencing and enjoying scary things. X Atencio’s script and lyrics really lull you into the joyride with the happy haunts. She agreed that it’s tantamount to its lasting legacy. “It’s kind of the perfect recipe for a successful attraction between the visuals and the lighting and the effects in the script. Basically, as [Disney artist] John Hench calls it, ‘it’s like a big cocktail party that you’re just passing through.’ You get to see all these things going on in this house and the sense of humour with a little bit of fright. We have used that same type of thinking on a lot of our attractions.” she said. I mention that it reminded me of Coco, the Pixar film which is a proposed candidate for a future park attraction, as they share a thematic element of not fearing death — and that everyone could open up to the possibility that the afterlife celebrates memories with the living.

The Haunted Mansion, of course, has its own spin-off rides around the world as well. “Florida has our [sensibility] but Paris’ is different because Tony [Baxter, Disney Imagineer] felt the Parisians liked more western movies and their appetite for scare was a little bit more. It’s still a wonderful attraction that tells much more of the story of the jilted bride. The mansions in Tokyo and Hong Kong, they’ve done different things with them, but they also follow pretty much the same philosophy.”

During the fall months, the Haunted Mansion transforms into a crossover that’s heavily entwined Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. It decks the Mansion’s halls a little early for Christmas, I point out, but concede that the classic Haunted Mansion does get love in letting its ghosts loose in parades and interactive encounters. Irvine replied that it’s great to see them feature in other Halloween offerings. “It’s really fun that they have the grave diggers dragging their shovels in the parade and it’s a different element. The Hitchhiking Ghosts get out and do a performance somewhere. And we’ve seen many versions of Madame Leota through the years. Of course she makes the rounds as well, but they’re kind of like the ambassadors of the mansion.”

Going back to the Nightmare overlay, I ask about her connection to the ride and how exactly it came to pass for her to reprise her mother’s original role. “Steve Davison, who was the art director for the Nightmare overlay, he came to my office and he said, ‘Kim, you know, you know what we’re doing in there and we’re going to have to change your mum’s incantation because I want it to be more about Jack and the Nightmare story.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s ok, [my mum would] be all right with it, if its just temporary thing.’ And he says, ‘Well, the thing is, we need another actress to do it. Would you do it?’ And being kind of shy, I thought, ‘That sounds so intimidating’ but I didn’t want anyone else to do it either. She’d passed away by this time, so I couldn’t share it with her and I wish I could have. But all the things that she went through, the technology didn’t change at all. We went through all the same things, learning incantations holding my head perfectly straight and having to do all the expressions.”

A wonderful shared legacy, I told her, and she added, “They thought they would have to change out the head from regular show to the Nightmare show. But they don’t because our faces are so much the same. We actually project [my mum] on my head. So we play a dual role the rest of the year, which is pretty cool.”

Agreeing, I let her know that it’s just another thing we love about honouring the ride’s legacy through her work and presence as Disneyland’s creative director. A role she found herself in by fate, just like her mum. “I knew I was going to do something with art. After I graduated from high school [I was] planning on going to [art school]. And [mum] said, ‘You know, we’re trying to to get Walt Disney World open. We have six months and we have so much work to do. And you are such a good painter. Would you come to work?’ So I said, ok, I’ll work for the summer and here I am, still there,” Irvine laughed. “What better teachers could I have? Mary Blair and Mark Davis, John Hench, Herb Ryman — all of the people that I mentored with every day at work. So it really turned out to be the best education I ever could have gotten.”

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