The Haunted Mansion: Gore, Ghosts, and the Greek Revival

By Sasha Coles

When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls. Whenever candlelights flicker where the air is deathly still — that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!

A long time ago, two newlyweds—a sea captain named Bartholomew Gore and his wife, Priscilla—moved into a luxurious new home. Not long after, Priscilla uncovered a terrible secret. Her beloved Bartholomew was no sea captain. In fact, he was a notorious pirate. Priscilla confronted her husband with this discovery. After that, nobody ever saw her alive again. Rumor has it that Bartholomew threw her down a well. After years of emotional agony, Bartholomew decided to join her on the other side by hanging himself in their home. Does that story sound at all familiar? How about this one. A beautiful woman marries a rich man, who dies under mysterious circumstances. She quickly moves onto the next victim, I mean, husband. Here’s another one you might recognize. Members of the Blood family experience tragic, untimely deaths inside of their southern home, the Bloodmere Manor. The house gets relocated to Disneyland to give New Orleans Square some architectural flavor. The staff try to refurbish the interior, but strange things keep happening. Tools go missing. Windows end up shattered. It’s almost as if someone (or something) doesn’t want the inside to change.

At one time or another during the planning stages, each of these narratives served as a proposed backstory behind Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Some of these elements—a murderous bride, a weather vane with a ship design, and the man dangling from the ceiling—made it into the final version. So did the white columns, grand balconies, and wrought-iron railings, reminiscent of southern plantation houses, that grace the mansion’s exterior. Park designers turned primarily to nineteenth-century homes, constructed in the Greek Revival style among the moss and swamps of the American South, for inspiration.

The  Shipley-Lydecker House  in Maryland

The Shipley-Lydecker House in Maryland

When the Imagineers started planning a new themed area (what we know as New Orleans Square) and a haunted house that would anchor it, they did research in the library and traveled to the South to seek out local legends, ghost stories, and architectural examples. Art director and animator Ken Anderson, head designer for Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, took the lead in drawing up the plans for the mansion. His original sketches borrowed from Stanton Hall, a Mississippi cotton plantation cultivated by enslaved people, and the Evergreen House, constructed by a railroad tycoon in Maryland. Scholars, bloggers, and official Disney histories point to the Shipley-Lydecker House as the most direct model for the Haunted Mansion’s exterior. Constructed in Baltimore City, Maryland, in 1803, a carpenter and real estate operator named Charles Shipley purchased the home in 1851. He sold the property to Philip Lydecker in 1906. The three-story, twenty-room house, accentuated by wrought iron porch railings, large pillars, and an impressive garden, caught the attention of several observers. One called the house “pretentious.” Another noticed the “dazzling” iron work and described the home as “the quaintest, the most absurd, and the most picturesque dwelling in Baltimore.”  

Ken Anderson’s  concept art  for the Haunted Mansion

Ken Anderson’s concept art for the Haunted Mansion

The Shipley-Lydecker House emerged during the Greek Revival architectural movement that spanned the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Architects like Benjamin Latrobe, who got his education in England and then migrated to the United States in 1796, designed buildings reminiscent of ancient Greece because they admired the perceived order, stability, freedom, prestige, and democracy of that society. In both urban and rural settings, Americans ornamented residences, schoolhouses, churches, banks, courthouses, academic buildings, plantation houses, and government buildings (including the White House and the US Capitol) with columns, pediments, and porticos that looked a lot like the Athenian Acropolis and other ancient structures. Archaeologists helped spread this fascination with Greek antiquity. They traveled to Greece and Italy, visited ruins, and wrote about what they found in books and articles, which found their way into libraries and bookstores.

The primary features of Greek Revival buildings include:

  • Columns, made of white marble (or wood or brick painted to look like white marble), typically in the Ionic, Doric, or Corinthian styles of ancient Greece

  • A pediment, or triangular structure at the front of the building that is supported by the columns

  • A decorated cornice, or molding that projects beyond the top edge of the building

  • A portico, or a roofed porch held up by the columns, typically at the front of or surrounding the building

  • Balconies with iron railings at each level

  • An entrance vestibule, or a chamber connecting the exterior door to the building’s interior

Stanton Hall , an old Mississippi cotton plantation

Stanton Hall, an old Mississippi cotton plantation

Historians disagree about the precise reason why Greek Revival became so popular in this period. One popular thesis has to do with the major industrial transformation rolling through the United States in the early nineteenth century. Factories sprang up all over the country. Railroad infrastructure expanded. New and improved communication technologies sped up the pace of life. A labor force composed of white indentured servants and enslaved and free black people surged into the cities and fueled the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Greek Revival could have been a response to the chaos, frenzy, and disorder caused by these social, economic, and political changes. Another line of reasoning focuses on why southern slaveowners embraced the Greek Revival aesthetic. Some scholars suggest that they adorned their plantation houses with columns and porticos to justify slavery as an honorable, desirable, and just institution stretching all the way back to ancient Greece, the oldest and most famous democratic society. Other scholars suggest that plantation owners adopted the Greek Revival style not to make a political statement but to convey their fashionable taste. They wanted to leave behind a reputation for being “backwards” and impress people with their elegance, sophistication, and prestige. It’s possible that all of these factors played a role.

When conjuring up a plan for Disneyland’s retirement home for ghosts, a Greek Revival aesthetic made perfect sense. The house was supposed to knit together a southern motif already sprinkled throughout Disneyland. Lead designer Ken Anderson imagined “a large antebellum mansion, out in the Louisiana Bayou, all rotten and moldy.” Walt Disney preferred something more polished and pristine on the exterior, but he agreed that the inside should be thoroughly dusty, ramshackle, and spooky. Now, 999 happy haunts feel right at home in this iconic ghostly retreat. And I hear there’s room for one more.

Sources

Federal Writers’ Project, The WPA Guide to Maryland: The Old-Line State (1940)

Jeff Baham, The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion (2014)

Joseph Downs, "The Greek Revival in the United States,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2, no. 5 (1944): 173-76.

Todd Martens, “The Art of Horror,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2015, p. E1.

W. Barksdale Maynard, “The Greek Revival: Americanness, Politics and Economics” in American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader (2004)

Jason Surrell, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (2009)

“Disneyland’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ Will Be Frightfully Entertaining,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1969, p. I11.

“Spirited Opening Planned for Disneyland Haunted Mansion,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1969, p. SF1.