With the creepy cackles of "Ghost Host" Paul Frees, floating candelabras, and the spells of Madame Leota, Disneyland's Haunted Mansion quickly became a cult favorite among the theme park's more ghoulish fanatics. New Orleans Square's antebellum-styled manor and its grim but grinning ghosts show that even the "Happiest Place on Earth" has an eerie side; one that inspires a subculture of art, cosplay and collectors. The devotional displays are at the center of Foolish Mortals, a new documentary premiering in Anaheim this weekend about the ride.
"I've always had a real sweet spot for the dark and creepy side of Disney," says first-time filmmaker James Carter. The Huntington Beach resident started the Creepy Kingdom Podcast in 2013 when living in New Jersey, a show that attracted fellow fanatics. "I realized that I'm not alone in my love for the Haunted Mansion and there's people that, in fact, love it way more than me. I thought it was a fascinating subject to dive into and it certainly has been."
The fan culture he explored on camera took him into world of discovery. Couples propose at the Haunted Mansion and style their weddings in all its ghastly glamour—proving the romanticism of the estate is more than just a "make out" ride for teens. "We also have people that actually try to create their homes to be like the Haunted Mansion," Carter adds. "Sandy Snyder, a woman featured in the film, learned how to build a replica of the ride's grandfather clock and learned how to paint the stretching room portraits."
After announcing on the Creepy Kingdom that he planned to do the documentary, Carter found an executive producer in Ryan Grulich who immediately emailed him with interest in the project. They began filming Foolish Mortals last year scoring interviews with Rolly Crump, an imagineer that helped design the ride before it first opened to the public in 1969, and Jason Sorrell, author of the Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic. But the film finds an unlikely lead character in artist Topher Adam whose work is inspired by the Haunted Mansion.
At first, Adam's art and dream of being hired on by Disney made him an intriguing character. But the doom buggy documentary took an unexpected turn when he revealed the experiences that informed both his creativity and devotion to the ride. "I didn't really have a good childhood," Adam says. The artist grew up in an abusive home where family trips to Walt Disney World proved to be the only escape from trauma. "I found comfort in dark art. That's why the Haunted Mansion to me was exciting. I didn't see it as scary, but familiar." The Las Vegas-based artist visits the Anaheim theme park at least once a month and still finds endless inspiration in the "999 Happy Haunts," including a canvass painting called "Hattie," styled after the storied Hatbox Ghost that's featured in the film.
With Disney disallowing any footage inside its theme parks for commercial use, Foolish Mortals floats along without any scenes from the Haunted Mansion or its catchy "Grim Grinning Ghosts" soundtrack. The documentary became a wholly inspired creation itself with sections of the ride recreated by virtual 3-D imaging and a score from Sideshow Sound Theater. "It turned a lot better this way and keeps in spirit with the film," Carter says.
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All set to premiere Saturday at the Red Lion Hotel Anaheim Resort, Foolish Mortals crossed the finish line just in time for D23 Expo weekend. Carter used all his 20 years of video editing experience to whittle down forty hours of footage into a ninety-minute documentary. The debut screening event will also feature a Haunted Mansion-inspired cocktail, a costume contest judged by Miss Mansion, a local featured in the film, and Adam's signed prints for sale.
For those who can't attend, Foolish Mortals is tentatively scheduled for general release this Fall and promises to please the eerie estate's faithful better than the Haunted Mansion film starring Eddie Murphy!
Foolish Mortals premiers at the Red Lion Hotel Anaheim Resort, 1850 S. Harbor Blvd, Anaheim. Sat. 7 p.m. Sold Out.