From Disney Parks Cast Member to Director: Justin Simien’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ Journey

When Justin Simien was a Cast Member at the Disneyland Resort in the early 2000s, he would often spend his breaks getting better acquainted with the 999 happy haunts in New Orleans Square. It was time well spent, as he would one day be hired to direct Walt Disney Pictures’ Haunted Mansion, inspired by the classic theme park attraction of the same name. “In college, I was a ride host for the Grizzly River Run attraction,” Simien recalls. “It was amazing to do that in film school, because it was like I got another education in cinema.”

Both Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean were Simien’s favorite attractions, he explains, “because I was obsessed with the fact that at certain points in each ride, my body would react. I would get goosebumps at the same points. Alfred Hitchcock used to talk a lot about how he would play his audiences like a symphony, and those attractions would play my emotions like a symphony. And it worked every time. It was so clear that there was an analog between that and what I was trying to do as a filmmaker. Those two attractions did that for me, because they’re inherently cinematic. So, I rode them every chance I got.”

The affinity and appreciation Simien has for the Haunted Mansion attraction is evident in the film, which centers on a woman (Rosario Dawson) and her son (Chase W. Dillon), who enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts (LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito) to help rid their home of supernatural squatters. “I remember experiencing Haunted Mansion back in the day and thinking, ‘What is this? How do I do this in a movie? How do I make a person feel this way?’” Simien says. “Anything is possible in a movie, and I would think about it a lot. But I didn’t have an answer to that until this movie.”

To preserve the charm of the attraction, Simien was keen to use practical effects whenever possible. “People use the term ‘smoke and mirrors,’ and the attraction literally uses smoke and mirrors—the Pepper’s Ghost effect—to make you believe in ghosts,” he says. “It is classic Disney in that way: ‘This is not possible, and yet, it’s right in front of my own eyes and it has a physicality to it that I can’t explain.’ When you see the ghosts waltzing in the dining room, you know they’re not really there, but they’re somewhere; they’re physical. That kind of ‘how did they do that? ’ quality was essential for me to take into this movie.”

Simien isn’t the only former Cast Member to work on the film. Academy Award®-winning makeup designer Joel Harlow—who did the special effects makeup for such theme park attractions-turned-movies as Jungle Cruise and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and who consulted on projects for Disney’s theme parks division—created the designs for the Hitchhiking Ghosts, the Bride, the Hatchet Ghost, the Mummy, and the Hatbox Ghost. And production designer Darren Gilford, who began his career as a college intern with Walt Disney Imagineering, worked with Imagineers and theme park teams to create an aesthetic that would satisfy the fans of the attraction while impressing moviegoers around the world.

“We’re so lucky to have the support of the Imagineers to really educate us about all the Haunted Mansion attractions around the world which all have a slightly altered canon,” Gilford says. “The Imagineers were kind enough to share their bible which catalogs every detail of every Haunted Mansion ride, which was invaluable. It allowed us to cherry pick elements from all across the attractions’ IP to come up with the perfect version of what we wanted our Haunted Mansion to be, as well as to have the ability to pull all the easter eggs and subtle touches to weave into our story.” Ultimately, he says, “We all just gravitated towards the richness and the history of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. There’s just so much great material and iconic design elements to choose from. For instance, when you first approach Anaheim as a guest, and you’re coming up to the park, the front gate frames the Mansion in a way where you see it fully through the gates, which was really important for me to maintain. I really wanted the audience experience of seeing the Mansion for the first time in the film to be reminiscent of visiting the park. That was a critical choice, and we made some small changes to accommodate filming, but the effect, the reveal, is the same.”

In that way, Haunted Mansion serves as not only a love letter to the attraction, but those who love it. Now, as the film opens in theaters, Simien is basking in this full circle moment. “It’s surreal. It’s an honor. It’s a responsibility,” he says. “Sometimes as an artist, you encounter work and you just know in your bones how to do it. The point of view was already in me. My family is from Louisiana, and I’ve always been obsessed with the attraction. It feels really kismet and weird to direct this, and I probably won’t be able to fully articulate what it’s been like for some time until this is over. I am still very much in it.”