‘Haunted Mansion’ – How Director Justin Simien Captured the Disney Ride’s Subversive Tone [Interview]

Disney’s Haunted Mansion has officially materialized in theaters nationwide, unleashing 999 grim grinning ghosts upon audiences. 

Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) directed the new live-action adaptation of the famous, long-running Disney theme park attraction from the screenplay by Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters, “Parks and Recreation”). 

Bloody Disgusting spoke with Simien for the film’s release about capturing the unique tone of the dark ride and what stars LaKeith Stanfield and Chase Dillon brought to the production.

The family-friendly feature emphasizes humor, but Haunted Mansion doesn’t shy away from inducing frights or tugging at the heartstrings.

Simien took the gateway scares seriously, stemming from his lifelong love of horror that began in childhood. The director’s origins with horror give insight into his approach to crafting gateway scares that don’t talk down to the film’s younger audience.

One of my core memories is watching Nightmare on Elm Street at five years old. My aunt Zara just let me watch it, and that blew me away,” Simien explains. “First of all, I was too young to really understand the implications of it, but there was something in my queer, Black heart that just related to Freddy and related to the horror fantasy of it all. And yeah, I remember being a little kid, and I didn’t like kiddie stuff. I knew when a movie was gaslighting me or telling me the world is all rainbows and puppy dogs. And weirdly enough, I loved Disney movies growing up because of that.

With my cinematographer and my production designer, we watched the sequence in Snow White a few times where she gets lost in the woods. It is a brilliantly executed example of cinematic horror, and it’s right there in the middle of the first Disney feature film for children about a princess. So, I never felt shy about going there, and I made the movie I’d want to see at Chase Dillon’s age and the movie I wanted to see at LaKeith’s age and my age. That was just my approach going into it.”

Owen Wilson surrounded by ghosts

Owen Wilson as Father Kent in Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The filmmaker’s approach to the distinct blend of comedy, gateway horror, and heart was as much about honoring his inner monster kid as ensuring he did the dark ride justice.

Simien tells us, “It’s something Walt Disney himself understood. It’s something that is baked into the DNA of the ride. I was inspired by and struck by the creative debate that happened when they were making this ride in 1968 between, should it be cute? Should it be funny? Should it be scary? Should it be musical? What should it be? And they landed on, yes, all of the above. That’s part of why the ride is so enduring. When you lean into the details, they’re quite subversive. Grim Grinning Ghosts, 999, that’s an interesting thing to see everywhere on a Disney ride. You look at some of these ghosts; they’re holding cocktail glasses, and it’s a subversive ride. You feel like when you’re on that ride, and I couldn’t put my finger on it as a kid, I wasn’t able to articulate until much later, but you feel like you’re seeing things you’re not supposed to see, and that’s part of the thrill of it.

“So from my standpoint, what I was doing was honoring the source material more than anything and responding to the kind of movie, as I said, I would want to see as a kid, but also the one I want to see right now from this material. And that ride is hilarious, and it’s sneaky, subversive, and it’s really fun, charming, and wholesome too. I don’t know how they did it, but that was the goal point; that was the bar we were trying to rise to.”

Haunted Mansion cast

(L-R): Chase Dillon as Travis, Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, LaKeith Stanfield as Ben, Owen Wilson as Father Kent, and Tiffany Haddish as Harriet in Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION. Photo by Jalen Marlowe. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As fantastical as the inner walls of the Haunted Mansion itself can be, Simien took great care to pay tribute to its home city of New Orleans. Honoring the city’s essence was pivotal in the film’s casting.

Simien explains, “When I first signed up to do the movie, it was really important to me to have a Black lead first and foremost. Not for a political reason, although just being a Black gay man making movies, everything I do is somewhat politicized. But because it took place in New Orleans and because New Orleans is an 85% Black city, that might be the one ingredient of New Orleans that I didn’t necessarily feel in any of the lore of the mansion that I had encountered previously and that I thought was important. Once that decision was made, it was a small list of somebody who could bring general audiences into a character that is grieving and is kind of snarky, kind of hates people, and doesn’t know how to talk to children. That kind of person is hard to care about as a hero in a movie. And I had just seen LaKeith in Judas and the Black Messiah, and I thought it was remarkable how he made me care about somebody I should loathe in that movie.

“I thought, if he could do that with that kind of character, I know he can do this. He’s this charming, funny, soulful person. He, to me, is right there on the cusp of being a big leading man, a star. Then when we thought about who the kid should be, Carmen Cuba, who casts the movie with me, Chase Dillon was literally the first name that anyone brought up. It wasn’t even a question. We had all seen Underground Railroad and thought he was remarkable there. But then, meeting him, he is so funny and so wise above his years. If anything, we had to keep reminding him, ‘You’re nine in the movie.’ Like a real nine, but just born to do this. I mean, he’s remarkable. He’s got that Haley Joel Osment thing where you can’t believe so much soul and heart and craft is coming from this little body, but it is.”

Disney’s Haunted Mansion is in theaters now.

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