Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing.
It’s the magic ingredient that makes Horror work. Without suspension of our disbelief, Horror movies are just moving pictures on a screen. They’re nothing. There’s nothing scary about a movie that constantly reminds us it’s fake: even the cheesiest scares require the audience to buy in, if only for the moment the monster appears. It doesn’t have to be real, just real at the time: our brains sign the invisible contract and agree that, as long as the Horror Movie is on, we’re all going to pretend it’s actually happening. We do this because we want to be scared, and in order to be scared we need to play pretend for a bit – at least until somebody hits the pause button or someone’s phone rings.
The best cinema tricks us into suspending our disbelief immediately, but games and other immersive storytelling media work the same way. Suspension of disbelief is what makes Horror, Adventure, Sci-Fi and everything else fun.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But suspension of disbelief requires a level of awareness from the audience. In order for Horror to be fun instead of traumatic, the audience needs to know one very important piece of information: that the danger isn’t actually real. No matter how many times they forget in the moment, or how many times they have to panic-pause the movie because it’s getting too much, the audience knows, deep deep down, that it’s just a movie (or a book, or a podcast). We track down Horror media to enjoy the experience of being scared – but it has to be on purpose.
Enjoying Horror is ultimately a question of consent.
It’s the reason a Horror movie is fun and being chased by a mountain lion isn’t: even if the lion turns out to be a huge, friendly dog, you can’t know that in the moment you’re running away. You don’t have the benefit of disbelief, because requires information you don’t have. The experience in that moment is just belief.
And Horror without disbelief can be an incredibly powerful, dangerous experience.
With that in mind, let’s talk about The Haunted Mansion.
Yes, that Haunted Mansion.
There’s an excellent article over on Polygon where Environment Artist Ryan Benno discusses the exceptional world-building inside Disney’s Tower of Terror in Disney World. He gets into the ways Disney’s, uh, ‘Imagineers’ incorporate everything from background music to the tiniest environmental details in order to tell dozens of tiny stories that, more often than not, are never otherwise addressed. Tower of Terror is an especially cool example because it was a collaboration with The Twilight Zone series itself. It’s an excellent article on a rarely-discussed topic, and you should read it immediately.
It also got me thinking about my own childhood experiences at Disneyland, a hundred years ago.
The Polygon article approaches its subject matter with expertise and distance born of a desire to dig into the subtleties of environmental storytelling. It should: Ryan Benno is an industry professional, and a certain amount of distance is important when you’re appraising another artist’s work. It makes sense.
Distance isn’t an option for me, though. I have a personal history in spooky Disney attractions – one that doesn’t have to do with actual ghosts (I hope). Believe it or not, The Haunted Mansion was where I had my very first knock-down, drag-out panic attack. Right in the signature ‘stretching room’.
I was real small at the time, but it was bad.
I feel bad for the other folks on the ride, all these years later.
I was too young to have any idea what was actually happening, but not too young that I don’t remember every detail. While there are a ton of different reason an anxious little kid might have had a panic attack at Disneyland, over the years I’ve figured least a couple of mine out for sure. They all come down to the mechanics of Horror and the suspension of disbelief – and what happens when ‘suspension’ and ‘disbelief’ aren’t available.
The Haunted Mansion, of all things, is one of the most impactful Horror experiences I’ve ever had.
Let’s start by agreeing that Disney’s Haunted Mansion, like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, probably isn’t meant to be a traumatic experience. Panic attacks in the lobby are rare, and they certainly aren’t the goal of the ride. There’s definitely an argument to be made against The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter that used to be in Disney World – which was genuinely, intentionally traumatic and short-lived – but all the other Disney attractions are meant to be fun-first, spooky after.
At least you’d certainly hope so.
Even when the rides themselves are designed to thrill (The Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), the experience itself is always designed to be fun and engaging. Every ride tells a story, even when that story isn’t explicit: their settings, audio and decorations do most of the heavy lifting. It’s a good thing they do, too. Since Disneyland is enormously popular, the lines are out of control. In fact, any trip to a Disney park is bound to be spend primarily waiting in lines, looking at lines, or exploring the park at large. Rides end up being almost secondary to the rest of the experience, which is the storytelling of the park itself.
Disney are masters at diagetic storytelling. The Environmental Artists they employ – Imagineers – are masters of the craft. They sneak miniature storylines and easter-eggs into every single otherwise-boring area in the park. They make waiting rooms, common areas and washrooms feel alive with narrative. Never is this more true than the lines for rides. If all else fails, when you step into a line for a Disney ride, you’re briefly transported into the universe of whatever ride that is. If it’s Thunder Mountain, you’re climbing the Rockies. If it’s Space Mountain, you’re wandering up through a planetarium and into a space-launch base. If it’s in the park, it serves a storytelling function.
The storytelling function these passive, common spaces serve is, you guessed it, suspension of disbelief. Disney works on such a large, intense scale that if you’re properly primed for that suspension (a fan, a dazzled little kid), the experience is unparalleled. For however long the experience lasts, you’re alive in another world and beholden to its logic.
At its best it feels like magic.
These people are career disbelief-suspenders. They’re that good.
So let’s go to The Haunted Mansion that I, a literal child, was not prepared to experience.
We all ‘get’ what the suspension of disbelief means. When you get caught up in the stakes of a movie, or shout in surprise playing DnD, or fall deep into a roleplaying game, that’s suspension of disbelief at work. A mature, informed audience sets aside the real world for a moment to allow a fictional one to wash over. That audience knows that the new experience doesn’t need to conform to reality – it just needs to be entertaining or scary or engrossing. It’s where fiction lives.
It’s Disney’s whole ballgame and they excel at it.
So it’s a thousand years ago and I’m waiting in line for The Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, California. Like the Tower of Terror, the mansion is a hard break from the rest of the park. It’s dangerous, it doesn’t make sense given the rest of the cheery scenery nearby. Built in 1969, it lacks an easy association to a Disney property. Sleeping Beauty’s castle is literally within view, but the mansion’s tombstones and wrought-iron gates corrupt the aesthetic of the surrounding area, turning it menacing even on a bright California afternoon.
To the mind of a little kid, The Haunted Mansion breaks the rules of the park. That’s its greatest strength.
Rules are incredibly important to an anxious child. They tell you what to expect, what can hurt you, where is safe, what’s meant for you and what isn’t. Rules are the invisible barriers outside of which lay the unknown world of maturity, adulthood and, potentially, danger. To a nervous little kid far from home, rules are often all you have. So to find a rule-breaking place in Disneyland, ‘The Happiest (safest) Place On Earth’, was perverse. Why would they let it exist? Why was it dilapidated and poorly lit, when the rest of the park was a fairyland of colour? The untenable strangeness of it stood out on the landscape of the park like a scar. I hated it and unknown that it represented. To my small mind, it was simply wrong. Therefore, it was forbidden.
Naturally, my family dragged me in.
When you’re a really little kid in a new situation, the notion of suspending disbelief doesn’t come naturally. It’s too abstract to form a connection in your brain: there’s no differentiating between pretend-experience and real experience because everything, up to a point, is just experience. You’re still figuring it out. So why wouldn’t a mysterious hotel in the middle of a theme park actually be haunted? Why wouldn’t a place called The Haunted Mansion be haunted? It comes back to the notion of consent: without the ability to know if something was real or not, there was no belief to suspend.
It’s the mountain lion chasing you up a tree: it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.
Until the moment it catches you, you just believe.
Which is exactly what I did. Because I was like 7.
It turns out little kids are tapped straight into the heart of storytelling. It’s why their imaginations are so amazing. They have access to a bottomless well of power, but it’s a hair’s breadth from trauma the whole time. So when I truly believed that the manor could hurt me, it did. It wasn’t escapism anymore – it was my little reality exploding into a million pieces because all my rules had disappeared.
To put it in adult terms, it was Cosmic Dread. It was also a panic attack.
So when the rules broke down, so did I. When the walls started to stretch and the music fired up and the thunder boomed in the heat of midday, it wasn’t fantasy. It was was. My system of careful rules had popped wide open and let in something awful in the place I’d least expected it to happen: a Disney park. I went for the exit, I was stopped, and I lost my damn mind.
At that point the only way out was through, so I went through.
And then something really surprising happened.
When I climbed into the ride cart, something changed. As we rumbled along I watched the delicate, spinning Pepper’s Ghost in the main hall. I gazed stupefied at the swirling, dancing specters in the ballroom, and marveled at how they could be totally see-through. I was still scared stiff and clinging to the rail for dear life, but something else was happening as well: I was awestruck. My world was growing bigger.
I walked back out into the bright California afternoon a different little kid.
The experience genuinely changed me and my relationship to media. Young as I was, I didn’t learn the easy lesson that day, which would have been something like, “See? Sometimes scary stuff is fun”. I wouldn’t learn that lesson for decade later. Because of how impressionable and weird a little kid I was, I learned something else. I learned that the safe places have scary places hidden inside them, and in those scary places there were points of light. I learned that there was beauty in things I was terrified to face, and delicate, swirling specters that I wouldn’t always be allowed to run away from.
I definitely didn’t learn how to suspend my disbelief that day, nor did I realize that Mental Health may have been a factor. Those lessons took a while longer, too.
Instead, after The Haunted Mansion my world and my imagination simply grew bigger, stranger and more interesting. It turns out I didn’t know all the rules after all.
Years after the Mansion incident, I found myself at the foot of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney’s other spooky ‘dark ride’. I stared up at the blank windows from the ground, horrified, and imagined what might be behind them as everyone else rode the ride inside. Maybe next time.
One lesson at a time.