Justin Simien, the director of the upcoming movie adaptation of Disney’s beloved theme park attraction, Haunted Mansion, faced the challenge of selecting the most memorable elements from the ride’s extensive lore.
To strike a balance between honoring the attraction’s history and introducing a fresh perspective, Simien made an intriguing choice by casting Jamie Lee Curtis as the fan-favorite character Madame Leota, a beloved medium from the ride’s iconic séance scene.
Simien’s approach blends subversive humor, gravitas, and an entirely new story built around the character. With access to the ride’s physical set pieces and extensive backstory, Simien and his team meticulously recreated the awe-inspiring experience of visiting the Haunted Mansion, while adding their own narrative twists.
A Familiar Character Takes on a Subversive and Gravitas-Filled Role
Justin Simien describes Jamie Lee Curtis’ portrayal of Madame Leota as “a little subversive” and “a little funny,” while still embodying the gravitas expected from the legendary medium.
Initially introduced as one of the relics and mysteries within the haunted house, Madame Leota transforms into a functional character and a valuable ally for a single mother, played by Rosario Dawson, and her young son in their quest to rid their New Orleans home of malevolent spirits.
Read more Jamie Lee Curtis Reacts to First Oscar Nomination for ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
Balancing Nostalgia with Fresh Narratives
While the visual cues introduced by Simien pay homage to the nostalgia of the ride, the story built around Madame Leota is entirely new. Simien’s exploration of the Haunted Mansion’s extensive lore was made possible by his access to the ride’s physical set pieces and the comprehensive backstory provided by the Disneyland team.
This allowed Simien to draw both aesthetic and narrative inspiration, ranging from direct influences such as replicated chairs, doorknobs, and paintings, to fan-favorite characters, rooms, and iconic sounds like the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song, which is integrated throughout the film. Notably, Simien prioritized practical effects wherever possible to capture the authentic charm of the ride.
Replicating the Enchanting Experience
As a former Disneyland employee and Disney World choir singer, Simien embarked on extensive tours of the Haunted Mansion ride to ensure the film accurately captured the awe-inspiring experience of visiting the attraction.
The movie’s central set was inspired by the antebellum exterior of Disneyland’s New Orleans-set ride, recreating the sense of wonder guests feel when approaching the mansion for the first time. Simien’s attention to detail went to great lengths, even obsessing over the precise angles that evoke gasps from visitors during the ride.
Easter Eggs and Unveiling the Mystery
In addition to iconic characters like the organists and the “Ghost Host” Hatchet Man, Simien made sure to include as many Easter Eggs as possible throughout the film. The director even incorporated a scene based on the ride’s stretching room, a visual trick that creates the illusion of stretching walls. This inclusion serves as a crucial element of the movie’s narrative puzzle, allowing characters to unravel the intentions of the manor’s ghosts.
Read more: Jamie Lee Curtis’s ‘Halloween Ends’ Wig Gets New Life in This Jennifer Grey Movie
Striking a Balance of Mystery, Terror, and Lighthearted Fun
Simien believes that the Haunted Mansion’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to balance mystery, terror, and lighthearted fun. By preserving the practicality and grounded nature of the ride’s tricks and effects, Simien aimed to capture the same magic in the movie adaptation. He expressed his desire to avoid relying solely on CGI, emphasizing the importance of building physical sets and creating practical effects that maintain the charm and authenticity of the original attraction.