Disney Plus’ Muppets Haunted Mansion was a dream 30 years in the making
Kirk Thatcher, a long-time Muppet director and writer, has always wanted to create a Muppet Halloween Special for the majority of his life.
Thatcher, whose career started in the 1980s at Industrial Light & Magic before turning his attention to Jim Henson’s lovable puppet gang, estimates that Muppets haunted mansion might be the “fifth version of a Halloween-themed special” that he has written with Henson Company staff writer Jim Lewis over the years. Past pitches have included mockuments on classic movies about monsters and anachronisms. GhostbustersThe studio prioritized other projects and this led to a spooky adventure that never materialized. Thatcher had the opportunity to include the Haunted House, one of his most beloved attractions in the parks since Disney was the Muppets’ owner.
Muppets haunted mansion, which premieres on Disney Plus on Oct. 8, follows Gonzo the Great and Pepé the Prawn as they spend one night in a creepy manor full of some familiar-looking grim, grinning ghosts who take the form of Muppets and celebrities. Thatcher’s life is complete with the special. Since childhood, he went to Disneyland. Attractions like the Haunted House, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise have influenced his tastes in TV and movies. The Muppets were perfect for different types of movies, as Thatcher always believed.
“Everyone has their approach to the Muppets. I love seeing them in different venues,” he says. “They’re like Monty Python! They do genre pictures!”
Thatcher, like any park fan for a long time, knows the Haunted Mansion more than a ride. The attraction is also rich in legends and iconic characters. It was a joy to combine the Muppet world and Haunted Mansion. Similar to Muppet films like Muppet Christmas CarolAndMuppet Treasure Island, the Muppets play the different characters within the Haunted Mansion, so Thatcher had to “cast” those roles. Some parts were easier than others.
“We immediately knew Piggy had to be Leota,” he says, naming the fortune-telling ghost stuck in a crystal ball. “We call her Madame Pig-ota. Just the idea of Piggy being in a special being stuck in that, as she says stuck in a fishbowl was just so much comedy to be mined from.”
Gonzo and Pepe lent themselves perfectly as the Muppets venturing to the mansion — and not just because they are two of Thatcher’s favorite Muppets to write for. “Gonzo is not scared. He thinks it’s great and Pepe is terrified so you get that classic Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello — two completely different takes on what it’s like to be in a scary place.”
Thatcher was a big Haunted Mansion lover and wanted to cover all notable sites, such as Madame Leota’s singing graveyard or the ballroom with dancing ghosts. It was easy to see the many connections between the Muppets and the Haunted mansion. For instance, using the Mansion’s big ballroom scene as a performance hall meant that Kermit naturally became an MC and Fozzie could take on the iconic role of the beloved Hatbox Ghost, repurposed for this special performer as a standup comedian.
“His head and hat disappearing became part of his act,” explains Thatcher.
Among all of the iconic characters, set pieces, and elements that make up the Haunted House, There was one thing Thatcher didn’t want.
“[We did not want it to be]They go to Disneyland with the Muppets. The Muppets go to Haunted Mansion. The Haunted Mansion,” he explains. The Haunted Mansions in Disney parks have a unique exterior appearance, to blend in seamlessly with any area. For instance, the antebellum South-style manor in Disneyland Anaheim is in the park’s New Orleans Square, whereas the Gothic revival Haunted Mansion in Magic Kingdom resides in Liberty Square (and the Tokyo mansion is basically a replica). Meanwhile, the Paris version is in Frontierland — which is called Phantom Manor and designed with a darker, scarier storyline — evokes Second Empire-style architecture.
“My backstory, which isn’t mentioned really, but it’s that it’s the same architect. Whoever this wealthy person was in the 1800s hired the same architect because he’d done these mansions for other people.” In that spirit, Thatcher and his team went back to the original ideas for the attraction, when it was just a bunch of concept art.
“Where we started was [Disney artist] Harper Goff’s original sketches. That was part of the great thing of having Imagineering on board — we got to see all this old stuff [from] when it was originally designed,” says Thatcher. “[Goff’s]Although the mansion had been neglected and was in disrepair, it still featured Victorian-style architecture. This was what we loved. But again, we kind of agreed with Walt who didn’t want any of the mansions to look beat up and like your typical haunted house. We stuck with that and made it look very well-kept.”
Working closely with production designer Darcy Prevost and a “very specific” document with Mansion lore from the Imagineers, Thatcher crafted a totally unique Haunted Mansion location that still paid homage to the theme park staples. The Haunted Mansion in the special is unlike any of the existing Haunted Mansion attractions in the world — and it’s also completely digital. (“They’re not built for filming,” adds Thatcher, about the actual park attractions). Using entirely virtual backdrops — as well as turning some characters into ghosts — meant the production had to shoot the scenes in layers.
“We couldn’t shoot the ghosts and the people at the same time. So some of the musical numbers are like three or four layers, with background ghosts being shot separately,” he says, comparing the process to George Lucas filming the Star Wars prequels. “Our actors had to do musical numbers with nobody there. They were signing and had an eyeline to somebody who wasn’t there. You know, Kermit will be there. But he’s not gonna be here now. However, you must be singing to him as well as looking at him.”
It was not easy for actors and puppeteers to be cast together as ghosts or mortals. However, the combination of the Muppets & Haunted House was easy because both concepts work so well together.
“Part of the joy of the Haunted Mansion itself is that fun sense of it — it’s spooky but it’s not scary,” says Thatcher. “We said that the Mansion was ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ and the Muppets were ‘Goofy Grinning Puppets.’ That sense of joy imbues the Mansion and also the Muppets.”
Muppet Haunted MansionDisney Plus launches Oct. Watch it … if you dare.
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