When you step inside the looming double doors of Disneyland Paris’s Phantom Manor, you’re greeted by a portrait of a beautiful young woman in a wedding dress, accompanied by a rather severe looking gentleman in a top hat. The painting is in pride of place, overlooking the decaying foyer.
Enter the next room, and you’ll see this mysterious woman again in a quartet of portraits that line the space; this time with four different men. Keep watching, and you’ll discover that each of these men meet grisly, terrible fates – meanwhile, the young lady vanishes entirely. You see a painting of her again in the next corridor, once again in her lavish wedding dress, but it’s not until you turn the corner that you finally see her in earnest. There she stands by a large window as a storm rages outside, all on her lonesome.
Welcome, curious friends, to the best version of Haunted Mansion. Each Disney Park has its own take on the iconic attraction (aside from Shanghai, which doesn’t have one at all) and each version has its subtle – or vast – differences. Phantom Manor, though, is the only house that tells you a somewhat complete story – and what a story it is, filled with lost love, family betrayal, and sinister spirits, wrapped up with a Wild West bow and sprinkled with Gothic trappings.
Strangely enough, though, this tragic tale has never been adapted for the screen; the 2003 movie took its inspiration from the Disney World Florida ride, while, two decades later, Justin Simien’s film draws primarily from Disneyland California’s attraction. It’s about time, though, that we saw the ride’s most haunting story brought to life.
A ravishing bride, a vanishing groom
Phantom Manor tells the sorrowful story of Melanie Ravenswood, that mysterious bride herself. The stern man in the top hat is her father, Henry Ravenswood, the wealthy owner of a mining company (which ties to the neighboring attraction, Big Thunder Mountain). Henry also just so happens to be the titular phantom – a sharply dressed skeletal spirit terrorizing the mansion.
The four, doomed men in the paintings are Melanie’s suitors, each of which died horribly (and ironically: Rowan D. Falls met his maker by… rowing his boat off a waterfall). An ominous appearance from the Phantom hints that these deaths were no accident.
Melanie haunts the house in her white gown, her mournful singing floating through the halls; her father is never far, either. For whatever reason, Henry was dead against his daughter getting married.
As you move through the attraction, you’ll see that Melanie spent her wedding day alone, awaiting a groom who would never come; at her wedding party, she makes for a solitary figure, the Phantom cackling maniacally behind her, ghostly guests whirling across the dance floor below.
Fascinating gaps remain in the narrative, however: how did Melanie and her father die? Why is the Phantom so downright evil? Who exactly is Melanie waiting for?
Before a 2019 refurbishment streamlined the story, the attraction was even more enigmatic – instead of four suitors there was one murdered fiancé, and the Phantom was never clearly identified as the bride’s father, either. Melanie also wasn’t actually a ghost throughout the entire ride, at one point appearing as an elderly woman sobbing into her mirror (still, of course, in that white dress). The official tale has always been something of a tantalizing mystery.
No turning back now
It was the original version of the ride that first captured my imagination when I finally plucked up the courage to step through those doors as a child. I was fascinated by this heart-breaking, eternally waiting bride and menacing, tormenting Phantom, endlessly speculating as to what was really going on; all I knew for certain was that there was a tragic, romantic tale at the heart of Phantom Manor, one that isn’t found on any other versions of the attraction.
The refurbishment’s fresh story details offered some long-awaited answers, but still leaves so much to the imagination – making the tale ripe for adaptation, with all those shadowy corners and hidden secrets just begging to be expanded upon.
Both the 2003 and 2023 Haunted Mansion movies feature a doomed romance revolving around Master Gracey – but neither quite captures the intrigue, beauty, and mystique of the Phantom Manor story. It helps that the Paris version of the ride is inspired by enduring tales of woe, too: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor are cited as key influences. Leroux’s Phantom naturally inspired the Phantom himself, while Dickens’ Miss Havisham, famously in her wedding dress forevermore, is an obvious inspiration for Melanie. The Bride of Lammermoor, meanwhile, is a tale of cursed love (and even features the name Ravenswood).
Plus, Phantom Manor’s setting stands apart from the other rides; weaving a Gothic, romantic tragedy with the Wild West is pure genius. The attraction even ventures into a ghostly version of the Manor’s town, too, featuring cowboys mid-shootout, a Jekyll and Hyde-style scientist drinking fluorescent potions, invisible card players, and a mayor who removes both his hat and his head to greet you. If that doesn’t sound like a colorful cast of supporting characters, then I don’t know what does.
All that’s without mentioning the opportunities afforded by the graveyard filled with skeletons that don’t wish to stay locked in their coffins, Madame Leota’s macabre recitations in the Séance Room, and the Boot Hill cemetery located outside, where you’ll find gravestones dedicated to the likes of Leadfoot Fred (danced too slow and now he’s dead), lovestruck couple Mary Murphy and Frank Ballard, whose headstones touchingly lean together – but watch out for the scowling mother-in-law behind them – and even the final resting place of Henry Ravenswood and his wife Martha. There’s also a tomb with a beating heart, curiously with no name inscribed. And, if you were to turn and look back to the Manor, you might spy a figure in the window, watching you…
Simien, too, has been clear that the door is not closed on more Haunted Mansion movies. “It’s definitely in the realm of possibility,” he told our sister magazine SFX. “I sort of get my rocks off on world-building, so we certainly set up a lot that I think a lot of other stories could derive from and continue from. Not really up to me, but I definitely think there are possibilities there.”
If a sequel or spin-off is on the tarot cards, then, I hope we finally get to see Melanie Ravenswood and that terrifying Phantom, in pride of place where they belong.
Haunted Mansion is in US theaters now and arrives in UK cinemas this August 11. For more, check out our guide to all the upcoming Disney movies.