Ken Anderson's Haunted Mansions, Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When there is a big anniversary of a Disney attraction, like the recent 50th of "it's a small world" and the 45th of the Haunted Mansion, I find that too many websites, newsletters, magazines, and blogs just regurgitate the same facts and familiar stories.

Perhaps I am being too harsh because there are many newer fans that haven't read that same information that I have read over and over for 30 years. I am always hoping for even just one piece of new information or a new perspective on the older material.

For instance, when the topic of the Haunted Mansion comes up, most Disney fans immediately think of Disney Legend Marc Davis. Some more astute fans may even be able to reference the names of Disney Legends Yale Gracey (responsible for the effects) and Rolly Crump (responsible for some of the interior design).

Fewer can recall Disney Legend Claude Coats, who was the person responsible for the scary tone in the attraction.

No one seems to mention Disney Legend Ken Anderson. While all the men cited are well deserving of the attention they receive for their contributions to the iconic attraction, Ken Anderson is the "forgotten" man who laid the foundation for this memorable experience. His early work on the project strongly influenced some of the things we all love best about this happy haunting ground.

I was fortunate enough to talk with Anderson several times before he died in 1993. One of the benefits of that interaction is that I understood the story of the Haunted Mansion while others kept claiming there was no story in the attraction, just a series of experiences.

A well-known and feared pirate captain quietly retired to private life in a seaside community, liked the famed Captain Henry Morgan. He changed his name and used some of his ill-gotten booty to establish himself as a respected and prosperous man of the community. To make his life even more complete, he chose a lucky 18-year-old to be his bride and bear him many children.

The only restriction he gave her was to stay out of the attic of their magnificent mansion. Of course, the curious girl couldn't resist and, on their wedding day before the ceremony but dressed in her wedding gown, she snuck up into the cluttered attic and found a locked trunk that she forced open.

Inside the trunk were souvenirs and documents from the man's previous life as a pirate. Enraged that his secret might be revealed to the community by this foolish girl, he grabbed her and, in the ensuing fight, tossed her out the window to her death.

Riders actually relive this experience being tossed out the window and falling down. Next time, look over to your right as you leave tha attic through the window and you will see that the shingles of the roof of the house do not match the ones on the outside of the houses at Disneyland nor Walt Disney World. Like a medium, you have become the girl and see what she saw, including the house from which she fell to her death.

At the bottom of the drop, the scared caretaker of the graveyard is not looking at the ghosts in the cemetary. He is looking at you because you have become a new ghost to join all the others. That is why he is so scared.

The girl's ghost haunted her fiance so mercilessly that the only way he could find peace was by hanging himself. However, their passions were so intense that their spirits were both bound to the house for all eternity. Their continuing struggle, even after death, attracted other ghosts including some who came to celebrate a wedding that will never be completed.

Of course, with the redesign of the attic and a change of the storyline that the bride is actually a mass murderer ("The Black Widow Bride" of multiple husbands), that tale is no longer intact. Disney theme parks are a living story and so it continues to change from what the original Imagineers intended.

For instance, in the Snow White dark ride in Fantasyland, the guests are no longer Snow White herself going through the story as they were supposed to be when the attraction opened in 1955.

So to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Haunted Mansion with something else other than all that amazing merchandise released in August, I thought I would share Ken Anderson's work on the original Haunted Mansion.

Anderson (1909–1993) had a Bachelor of Architecture degree and fully intended to pursue a career as an architect but kept getting sidetracked. He was employed at MGM Studios as a sketch artist working on films like The Painted Veil and What Every Woman Knows.

One day, as he was driving by the Disney Hyperion Studio in early 1934, he went in and applied on a whim, even though he told his wife Polly that he didn't know how to draw cartoons.

Impressed with his portfolio, the Disney Studios hired him and Anderson began his Disney career in 1934, contributing to many animated classics as art director beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Since he had an architectural background, he was able to come up with innovative perspective on such Silly Symphony cartoons as "Goddess of Spring" and "Three Orphan Kittens" that had never before been used in animation.

Disney Historian Paul Anderson (no relation) who has hours of taped (but untranscribed) interviews with Ken Anderson once wrote that, "At Disney, he showed a versatility that has long since gone unmatched. He did so many different things for Disney, that it prompted Walt once to call him 'my jack-of-all-trades.'"

In fact, Ken Anderson's official credits list such titles at Disney as art direction, art supervision, story, color, styling, layout, production, character development, and more.

He worked on the classic scene of the dwarfs dancing with Snow White, but it became apparent that his talents lay not in animation, but in such areas as production design on such films as Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians.

Actually, Anderson was the one who okayed the use of xeroxgraphy in the later film which led to a temporary rift with Walt Disney, as well as Anderson's first heart attack when he felt he had failed Walt.

Xerography was supposed to save costs of inking the cels and making the artwork on the screen more closely approximate the work of the actual artists. Walt felt the final result was too sketchy and "arty." Walt wanted animation to look more realistic and smooth.

Specializing in character design in later years, Anderson designed such characters as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and Elliott in Pete's Dragon.

"I don't know how I came up with Elliott," Ken told the late Steve Fiott, "I like to think of him as an example of China's concept of the dragon as a symbol of luck and good will, which come to them when they need him. He just came to me, and I sure needed him!"

It is Anderson's innovative character design on the animated feature Robin Hood (which basically was an animal head placed on a human body covered with fur) that inspired an entire generation of young artists including a group of character costume builders known as "furries."

Anderson also designed many parts of Disneyland, including major portions of Fantasyland, like the early dark rides of Snow White's Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, as well as designing the Storybook Land Canal Boat experience and others.

He retired on March 31, 1978, but continued to consult at WED Enterprises (now Imagineering). He was honored with the Disney Legends award in 1991. One of the last contributions Anderson made to Disney was on "Catfish Bend," a proposed animated feature for which he made some preliminary sketches, and all that work resides in the Disney vaults waiting for someone to find it again.

Ken was 84 years old when he died. Forty-four of those years had been spent in the service of the Disney company.

While it had always been part of Walt Disney's vision for Disneyland to include an old haunted house, he had originally considered having it located on a side street off of Main Street. Imagineer Harper Goff had done a sketch of a dilapadated old house on the top of a small hill overlooking a church and a graveyard.

Guests would have looked through the large windows to see the ghostly activity inside.

By 1957, when Walt gave an interview to the BBC about his plans of a retirement home for ghosts, Walt envisioned it being located in an area of Frontierland that had a New Orleans theme. It was at this time that Anderson had just moved over to WED (Imagineering) from the Disney Studios and Walt turned to his "jack of all trades" to research some possibilities.

As Paul Anderson told me, "We always hear about 'the group of Imagineers' that went out to research the Haunted Mansion. Actually, 'the group' was just Ken."

While Ken Anderson's 1958 initial sketch of a decaying mansion was apparently loosely based on the Evergreen House in Baltimore, Maryland. That is the sketch that Sam McKim transformed into the famous concept painting.

It is also apparent that Ken's approach to a Disney "walkthrough" haunted house was greatly influenced by his experiences taking a tour at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.

Sometimes called the "ghost mansion," this popular tourist attraction has doors and staircases that lead nowhere and a maze of rooms that were constantly being redone by the widow of the maker of the Winchester rifle.

She was under the belief that the ghostly victims of the Winchester rifle had cursed her family and were haunting her to keep building more and more rooms for their earthbound spirits. It was even rumored that through "automatic writing," she received building directions which she passed along to the carpenters.

Ken Anderson had two pages of notes on the Winchester House from the size of the tour group (maximum of 20), the mix of adults and children (roughly four times the number of adults to children), the maximum/minimum entrance and exit time in each area (25 seconds to 60 seconds), the maximum/minimum time the guide spoke in each area (32 seconds to three and a half minutes), as well as a variety of notes like "average group well behaved" and "rooms are all empty-nothing to touch."

Anderson strongly believed that a cohesive story was necessary to guide Disney guests through the Haunted Mansion. Not only was storytelling an important element of the Disney Brand and had positioned Disney's "dark rides" as different from carnival amusement park dark rides, but storytelling would be necessary to move guests through the experience rather than have them dawdle in one area and clog up the flow of traffic.

In 1957, Anderson literally developed four story concepts, all of which feature elements reflected in the final version of the attraction, that was eventually opened at Disneyland on August 9, 1969.

Perhaps the best known version was Anderson's first attempt, which featured the Legend of Captain Gore and was written in February of 1957. The mansion was the seaside manor of an old sea captain who had married a young woman named Priscilla. She discovers he is actually a notorious pirate.

Gore killed his bride (and in one version tossed her bloody body into an outside well that still bubbles red) and she haunted him until he took his own life by hanging himself. This story would have been shared with guests by a butler or maid who worked in the mansion.

Another version was Bloodmere Manor, which was the lakeside estate of "the unfortunate Blood family." It was built about 1800 in the swampy bayous near New Orleans and was moved to Disneyland intact because it was an example of early architecture from that section of our country.

It had not been occupied for some time and was badly in need of repair, so the Disney Company started the work of restoration as soon as it arrived at Disneyland, but "strangely enough… the work of each day was destroyed during the night… and the night watchman reported that when he had passed the house he'd heard eerie screams and seen weird lights… In fact, we are sorry to report that the latest tragedy of all occurred here in Disneyland… when one of our carpenters engaged in restoration work on the house disappeared completely from sight… and he has not been seen or heard from since. The house is now too dangerous to live in, but we have succeeded in making it safe enough for a visit… when accompanied by our trained and competent guide, a former butler of the household."

A third version had Walt himself as the narrator on tape as the guests wandered through the house to go to a ghostly wedding celebration.

Another version focused on the Headless Horseman from the Disney animated film The Legend of Sleepy Hollow about Ichabod Crane on Halloween night. This version also featured another wedding.

This one was between Monsieur Bogeyman and Mlle. Vampire. The bride jilts the groom at the altar, sparking chaos and the need to quickly exit the mansion.

Let's take a closer look at Ken Anderson second revision of the "Bloodmere Manor" version of the Haunted Mansion, which is dated September 17, 1957. It is one of the most detailed and atmospheric of the versions that Anderson submitted.

This 24-page, double-spaced document is amazingly detailed as evidenced by this description from the first page written by Anderson:

"Guests will be admitted to the grounds through a large wrought iron pedestrian and vehicle gate typical of New Orleans, Circa 1800. The ticket booth (Note: Remember this is 1957, where each attraction required a ticket) will be located in the brick and plaster gatehouse which terminates the wrought iron fence. Posted conspicuously on the gatehouse are copies of the Times Picayune and Leslie's Magazine, with headlines about atrocities connected with the ghost house in the past.

"The approach to the house will be along paths lined with Azaleas and moss-festooned magnolias and southern oak trees. The garden shows evidence of a once well-planned symmetry and beauty, but is now overgrown and obviously out of control.

"Vines and moss combined in the tall trees shut out much of the sunlight, and lend mystery to the shadowy exterior of the house. Being set well back from the street behind the grove of trees, the house will be scarcely visible until close upon it. It appears to be in a state of dilapidation common to all ghost houses. First at one upstairs window and then another, a girl's face appears momentarily, screams and is throttled by a large hairy hand which draws her back into the darkness."

Notations on this revision also indicate that Anderson had utilized his experience at the Winchester House in terms of audience flow. He estimated that a group of no more than 40 guests would gather on the front porch to enter the house. He figured that at regularly spaced intervals of one and half minutes, that roughly 80 groups of 40 guests each (320 guests total) could be in the house simultaneously or a possible 16,000 visitors in a 10- hour schedule.

"If the show in each room lasts a minute, it would leave 15 seconds to enter the room, and 15 seconds to clear the room," Anderson wrote."We are conducting tests with groups of 40 people, using the Zorro sets (on the backlot of the Disney Studio in Burbank), to determine the practicality of this timing."

"In room clearance tests so far, times ranged from 15 seconds to 25 seconds for an average of 20 seconds. As soon as construction of the test mock-ups for optical illusions are completed, we will utilize them for further crowd capacity tests; which will include a one minute show of the illusions. A tour of the house should take an average of about 12 minutes to complete," Anderson added.

The first episode of Disney's popular weekly television program Zorro appeared on ABC in October 1957, but workers had started building the sets in June 1955 and they were the Disney Studios' first permanent sets, costing more than $100,000.

Do you recall the so-called Disney urban legend that one of the things causing the delays of the opening of the Haunted Mansion was that it was too scary for test audiences, but other scholars aptly pointing out that the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was just a hollow shell, so test audiences couldn't have experienced the Mansion?

Well, apparently there were test audiences going through the experience as early as 1957 on the backlot of the Disney Studios. I wonder if something unfortunate happened then which resulted in the birth of that Disney urban legend?

For the front porch of the mansion, Anderson had written a one-and-a-half minute speech to be recorded by Walt Disney, which would have explained the strange history of the house and ended with Walt explaining:

"The guide is made necessary by another strange characteristic of the house. It has rotted so long in the dank fastness of its lost hiding place in the swamps that not even Southern California sunshine or the best efforts of electricians and illumination engineers can dispel the dimness of the bayous… it mysteriously remains always night within the house… the night in which all ghosts are condemned to live.

"Now we cannot promise you that anything at all will occur during your visit… since it is usually in the wee small hours that the departed ones live it up… However, be prepared to see and hear something or other, and take whatever precautions you please. We recommend that you stay close together during your visit and please… above all… obey the guide's instructions. Thank you."

In Part Two: We take a step by step walk through the attraction. We learn that some of the things we love about the attraction, including the phrase "Foolish Mortals!" was the invention of Ken Anderson in 1957.

Plus short reviews of both The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies updated by Imagineer Jason Surrell, and the recently released The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion by Jeff Baham and why both books should be in your Disney library.



  1. By Dave1313

    Great article! Can't wait to read part 2!

  2. By Jimbo996

    "I understood the story of the Haunted Mansion while others kept claiming there was no story in the attraction, just a series of experiences."

    I hope you tell me the story in Part 2 because I don't have a clue from Part 1. The result from the various story treatments that you described with great effort is nothing really took hold. They are backstories, which are essential in designing of the set pieces, but did not result in a cohesive story in the attraction itself. So the attraction is just a series of experiences, although they are pretty good in itself.

    All I left with is the 999 happy ghosts are looking for 1 remaining person. I'm sure many tried to contribute their ashes.

  3. By jmorgan

    Nice article, but I do not understand what you mean by: "Next time, look over to your right as you leave tha attic through the window and you will see that the shingles of the roof of the house do not match the ones on the outside of the houses at Disneyland nor Walt Disney World.". What is the significance of the shingles?

  4. By Niwel

    I think he means that the shingles on the roof of the house IN the attraction (as you leave the attic and head to the graveyard), are not the same as the shingles you see on the top of the attraction itself

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