Spooky Special Effects at The Haunted Mansion

The leaves start to turn, you can feel the cold in the air, that’s your signal that it’s spooky season everywhere! At Disney Theme Parks this is no exception. There is one ride however, that gives off those halloween vibes year round with it’s special effects, ghouls and ghosts all created using some pretty ingenious science to transport you to a spooky realm where the undead rule. 

Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride is one of my absolute favorites at Disney World! Not for it’s thrills, but for the scene it sets and the story it tells. Stepping foot into this haunted abode transports you to a world where those in the afterlife are alive within the walls of the mansion. These ghosts are so vivid that they appear to cross the uncanny valley and land in a spot on our brains that seems more real than fake. To do this, Disney’s Imagineers (the team of engineers, special effects artists, and designers that bring Disney stories to life) use a mix of design features and simple science tricks to transport you to a world beyond the grave. 

Let’s dive into some of the special effects and break down the science behind a few of the hauntingly realistic things you might experience on the ride. 


The Stretching Room:

When you first enter the Haunted mansion ride you are ushered into an octagonal room that appears to vertically stretch as you listen to an eerie voice begin the tale of the mansion. The pictures on the wall seem to elongate and the room above you seems to double in height. This is one of Disney’s most clever illusions. In the Florida based Disney World version of this attraction the Stretching Room serves only as the first stop along your journey into the Haunted Mansion. However, in the companion ride at Disneyland California, the room actually stretches, but not up in the direction you would imagine. This cleverly disguised portion of the ride is actually a massive hydraulic elevator that moves all of its passengers underground to a tunnel that leads to a much larger warehouse where the rest of the ride is housed. As the floor descends, Imagineers mask what’s happening to visitors by creating telescoping walls hidden within walls that trick your mind into thinking that your body is stationary. The walls move at different rates which creates an elongating effect that stretches portraits and moves the ceiling ever higher.     

To see what I mean in action, check out this video of  some lucky visitors who had the opportunity to ride the The Stretching Room elevator back up to the top. When you check out the video, keep an eye on the tops and bottoms of the portraits, that’s where the magic happens. 



Dancing Ghosts & Floating Objects:

Bringing the cast of characters who hang around The Haunted Mansion to life is no easy feat. Imagineers had the task of making these 999 haunts part of the ride experience. One of the most iconic features of the experience is the ballroom scene. As you look down on the ballroom from the buggy you are riding in, you see a lively dinner party scene complete with a group of semi-transparent ghosts waltzing around the room to the music. To accomplish this trick of the eye Imagineers turned to a technique that had been used in the theater since the early 1860’s. The technique is called Pepper’s Ghost. All you need is an object, a few panes of glass, and some well placed light. To pull this off on the ride, designers built two 90 foot ballroom scenes, and sandwiched angled pieces of glass between them. The ghostly figures (which are really just mannequins) move around in a hidden ballroom while their reflections bounce off the glass.This results in ghostly images being reflected into the ballroom for visitors to see from their buggy. The angle of the glass also provides the illusion that these dancing spirits are floating off the ground. 

Here is an early design sketch of the concept that Disney included in its patent application for the ride: 


Lenticular Images

We’ve all seen them, those plasticy images that appear to shape shift and morph as you tilt the card from one angle to another. Enter the simple science behind the Lenticular Image. These images use two different pictures and a little scientific magic to make the images you see shift back and forth. The two images are spliced together in an evenly striped pattern and glued under a piece of plastic full of little speed-bump looking ridges (called Lenticels, because they look like tiny half lenses). These ridges play an important role in refracting (or bending) light so that you see one image shift to the other.

Because this technique uses angles to determine which image you see it can also be done at home by printing out or making a spliced image, then folding it accordion style. Once the paper is folded and laid out on the table you should be able to look at the image from different angles and see the two individual images on their own or a mash-up of the two. You can even try printing and folding the red and blue image above and give it a try. 

 This application of science is especially great when making Halloween decorations and setting the spooky scene in The Haunted Mansion ride. Lenticular and digital portraits line the walls, changing as you walk by and giving you a glimpse into the past lives on the 999 haunts that hang around The Mansion today. Reflected images of ghosts fill the cavernous spaces, and rooms appear to change size right before your eyes!


Are you feeling spooky yet???? What kinds of haunting decorations and terrifying science tricks have you seen around your neighborhood this Halloween season? 


Kate Saulsbery-DeFelice graduated from Russell Sage College with a dual degree in Childhood Education and Life Sciences. She has been a STEM Educator at the Connecticut Science Center since 2014, and especially loves sparking scientific curiosity in early elementary aged students. Kate is also a FIRST Robotics Competition mentor who is passionate about technology and working alongside students to solve problems, generate new ideas, and prototype solutions. Her goal is to help everyone discover and grow their appreciation and excitement for STEM.