The Art of the Haunted Mansion: The Book

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I love books. I also love the thrill of the hunt of tracking down books, an adventure made easier thanks to the Internet but still an often frustrating hobby that takes patience.
Friends love perusing my personal library of Disney books with all the obscure titles I have gathered over the years—from the Pop Culture Legends hardcover biography of Walt Disney by legendary and underappreciated writer Jim Fanning to limited edition books like One of Walt’s Boys by Harry Tytle, Justice for Disney by Bill Justice and Walt Disney: The FBI Files by Richard Tretheway.

Many of those acquisitions took years and money and luck to obtain, and often resulted in my living on peanut butter sandwiches and water for a month in order to pay for one or more of them—and hope that my car didn’t need a new tire until next month.

There are many fans of the Disney theme park Haunted Mansion attractions who were disappointed in the Disney live-action film for a variety of reasons. However, that film spawned an obscure Disney book credited to writer Jason Surrell that I was recently able to add to my collection at a reasonable price after many years. [The MouseStation Podcast interviewed Surrell in June, and Surrell spoke to MousePlanet's Steve Russo a few days later... -Ed.]

Jason Surrell is a show writer for Walt Disney Imagineering in Florida and was responsible for the Haunted Mansion tombstone at WDW’s Magic Kingdom that pays homage to Imagineer Leota Toombs, who supplied the face for the character of Madame Leota in the attraction. In fact, the Haunted Mansion is supposedly Surrell’s favorite Disney theme park attraction.

Surrell has also written a handful of good books about Disney theme park attractions including his first book The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, released in 2003 to tie in with the live-action Disney feature film. (An updated edition of this book is due out this summer and it is a good book to have on your Disney library shelf.)

Two years ago, at a National Fantasy Fan Club event, I got to ask Surrell about another book that he had written but I had never seen titled The Art of the Haunted Mansion. It was obviously published since I saw it offered for sale occasionally for $100 or much, much more at various sites, but I never saw any reviews of it nor any discussion about it other than it was supposedly “rare.” Surrell immediately laughed since apparently he is often asked about that particular book.

“When the movie was released, Disney Editions put together a limited number of copies of this special book to highlight the work of the people who worked on the make-up, sets, special effects and costumes in the hopes of generating attention for possible Oscar nominations," Surrell told me as he promoted his other books to his admiring fans waiting for his autograph. "I believe it was circulated primarily to those who might make that happen since I never saw it for sale. While I am listed as the author of the book, there is very, very little text in the book and if someone purchased the book in hopes of getting some additional information that didn’t appear in my other book, they would be very disappointed. I have seen the book go for outrageously high prices and I will say that it is not worth those type of prices unless you are seriously a fan of the movie itself or the work of people like Rick Baker.”

Surrell’s review is extremely accurate. The book is roughly the same size as Art of the Pirates of the Caribbean that received a wide public release. The book is 147 pages long, although that description is a bit misleading since some pages are practically blank with a faded, ghostly image barely visible on them. The other pages are usually full-page photos (sometimes double-page spreads) with a few scattered quotes from Don Hahn (producer), Rob Minkoff (director), John Myhre (production designer), Rick Baker (make-up), Mona May (costumes), and Jay Redd (Visual Effects Supervisor).

The book is divided into five chapters (The Mansion, The Wardrobe, The Gallery, The Make-up and The Library) that all begin with a one-page introduction by Surrell. There is a full-page forward by Minkoff and a full-page afterword by Hahn acknowledging the craftspeople who created an amazing world for a story that was much less impressive than their work.
The book was produced in 2003 by Disney Editions and was another publication guided by Disney Editions Editor Jody Revenson, who like so many other talented Disney cast members was laid off from her job this year. Despite my research, I have no idea how many copies were published but I would suspect perhaps 1,000 copies since it does pop up fairly frequently for sale.

The book emphasizes that Minkoff was looking for a “haunted elegance” that blended Gothic horror, romance, fantasy, and refinement for what was intended to be a “haunted fairy tale.” (A caricature of Minkoff is one of the Singing Busts in the graveyard. He is the bald headed, mutton chopped, plump faced bust.)

To save a few readers who are merely curious about the contents of the book some time and money, here are a few excerpts of the quotes that might be of interest. As might be expected, most of the quotes in the book are the typical positive publicity puffery of how great everything was and that there were never any problems or bad choices.

Don Hahn (Producer):

“The inspiration is more important than a literal interpretation. Rob and I instinctively knew that we’d have to pay homage to many of the classic set pieces from the attraction. There are iconic things that you at least want to see in the movie, even if they’re not part of the plot, like the ballroom dancers, a corridor of doors, a raven on a tree branch, those kinds of things. I think the audience will really appreciate that level of detail. We weren’t beholden to The Haunted Mansion itself but to the spirit of The Haunted Mansion—no pun intended. It wasn’t important to just make a movie of the attraction because you can go down and ride it. We wanted to make a film that celebrates a whole genre of moviemaking—the haunted house movie. We took inspiration from the mansions in the parks, but when you go to the movies, you want to see reinvention—a filmmaker’s interpretation of a subject.”

John Myhre (Production Designer):

“I started grabbing references from really opulent, wonderful places, because this was a house that was put together in a way, almost the way Hearst did, where one room would be one style, another room would be another style, huge fireplaces would come from Italy, wallpaper from somewhere else. Part of the fun was that each room could have a bit of a different architectural flair.

“At the very beginning of the film there was a big discussion about what the exterior would look like. Would it be the American Victorian found at Euro Disney, the English manor at Walt Disney World, or the Southern Gothic mansion at Disneyland? I pushed for the Southern Gothic mansion. They’re so mysterious and would add an entire new layer to the film. Everyone finally came together and agreed that it should be an old plantation house out in the middle of bayou country. All of the creative heads are in love with The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland so a lot of our inspiration had come from that.”

Jason Surrell:

“Since the film offered a much broader canvas on which to paint, Rick Baker desgined completely original characters to complement the cast from the attraction. One of the highlights was dreaming up creative ways for these new characters to have died. His own happy haunts included a snake charmer that drew his cobra a little too far out of its basket and a William Tell disciple with an apple on his head and an arrow in his forehead. Baker made a conscious attempt to emulate the design intent of the attraction and many of his new characters looked as though they had leapt off an Imagineer’s drawing board. And for Rick Baker that was the highest compliment.”

Rob Minkoff (director):

“We’re making a haunted house movie but there’s a fairy tale aspect to the story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet angle. Then you’ve got the comedic elements of the ghosts and Madame Leota, and the adventure and scares that you have out in the mausoleum and the cemetery. It’s fun to draw from all those different sources and genres and combine them into something new and different that we haven’t seen before. It’s a comedy-adventure-fairy tale.”

Mona May (Costume Designer):

“What was intriguing to me about the movie was that it really was like a ride. You have the Mardi Gras ball, which brings a wonderful element of fantasy to the story. It’s timeless because the costumes are from the 1880s on back, so you have 14th and 15th century costumes, French influences, and English styles—it’s a real mix. There was a lot going on in the South at that time, it was very international. Then you have the zombies, really scary monsters, which are just incredible.

“Rob had a very clear vision of the film from the beginning. He wanted this film to be very elegant and almost timeless in a classical way. I’m very good at blurring the edges of time. I think that’s what he wanted to bring to this film—timelessness—and, as he calls it, ‘haunted elegance.’ What’s great about this film for me is that it’s period, but it’s fantasy, and it’s comedy, too, so there’s a lot of room to play.

“You don’t do many films that are all in the dark, and we had to figure out how to bring color and texture into the clothing in the darkness. I’m very much a colorist. My work is very fantastic in that way, very memorable. The color impacts this film enormously. We used a lot of textures and patterns that resembled the drapery and wrought-iron work of the mansion.”

Jay Redd (Visual Effects Supervisor):

“We covered the costumes with highly reflective microscopic ‘beads.’ We then mounted a light on the camera, and pointed it directly at the beads. The light from the camera bounced right off the beads and came directly back to the lens, creating a very bright and beautiful glowing effect. The effect is similar to the bright freeway signs one sees while driving at night. We then took the glowing effect into the Visual Effects arena and used all the bright lines and shapes to generate, through particle systems, a very smoky, organic, ethereal energy. We ran this plasma energy in reverse, so it appears to the viewer that the ghosts are grabbing and stealing the energy around them, creating an eerie but beautiful apparition of their original existence.

“They’re not just generic floating entities. They act like real people and have the characteristics of their once living selves. They retain the clothes they were buried in and do the things they did in real life. They still have the energy they had when they were alive, but now that energy is in a less stable form of light and ethereal plasma. Anything that was man-made, such as jewelry and clothing retains some of its original color. Anything once living, like flesh and blood, would beecome smoky and erratic, with less color and form.”

Paging carefully through the book, I was once again reminded how many sincere, hard-working and creative people are often involved with disappointing movies and the old adage that I remember from my time in Los Angeles that “great animation can’t make a bad story better but a great story can survive even poor animation."

Is the book worth a premium price? Surrell was right. If you loved the film or are obsessive about everything connected with the Haunted Mansion, it might provide value but for the general Disney fan, there are other outstanding Disney books out there available for one-third or less of the price and will provide 10 times the enjoyment and information including the updated edition of Surrell’s first book.

Despite the publication of The Art of the Haunted Mansion, none of the creative people were even nominated for an Oscar since for most of the audience found the film itself was much more ghastly than ghostly as one critic so aptly put it. However, this obscure Disney book is a testament to their talents and the effort they put into making a theme park attraction a blockbuster motion picture. Having had a chance to see some of the sets and costumes up close, I applaud the craft of these talented professionals and, sadly, wish there had been a better skeleton to hang it all on.

And for all of you Haunted Mansion fans who still haven’t discovered the site, I highly recommend to provide you all you ever wanted to know about the Disney Haunted Mansions.