A reflection on the magical blend of grief and horror in this Disney classic
By Isabella West, Arts Editor
When a mother and son move to New Orleans for a fresh start, their excitement quickly turns to fear once they discover that their new house is filled with unwanted guests who won’t let them leave.
The 2023 film, Haunted Mansion, directed by Justin Simien is a horror-comedy based on the attraction, The Haunted Mansion, located at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland.
“I came into this with a bunch of things that I just knew I needed to see as a fan of the ride,” said Simien in an Instagram reel.
The movie features iconic references to the ride such as the stretching room, the hitch-hiking ghosts, and my personal favourite, Madame Leota.
“I wanted to be really faithful to the ride. There’s a lot of brilliant storytelling and inspiration there. You get the sense that there’s this much bigger world, a galaxy of characters from every era,” said Simien in the same Instagram reel.
However, while this movie brings audiences in with the notion that it will allow them to relive a Disneyland experience, it holds much deeper themes than that.
The film opens with a flashback scene to when Ben Matthias, played by LaKeith Stanfield, meets Alyssa, his future wife at a New Year’s Eve party. The scene then flashes back to Ben’s current reality where he is now a disgruntled man doing a job he has no passion for.
When Ben met Alyssa, he was an astrophysicist studying a formula to map dark matter, or to Alyssa, he was trying to see the unseen. At that time, Alyssa was hosting ghost tours around New Orleans with the intention of helping people see things that they can’t always see. Ben then later takes on the same job that Alyssa held.
However, when a woman, Gabbie, and her son, Travis, move to their new house, they find out that it is haunted and once they enter, they must always return to the house after midnight or else they will face terrible hauntings.
Because of his known ghost-hunting experience, Ben is recruited to take on the job of expelling these ghosts from the house. After a full team of ‘experts’ is recruited to get to the core of the mystery that will reveal why the house is haunted, the team quickly becomes allies and dependent on each other.
It is later revealed that Ben unexpectedly lost his wife and spent years believing in ghosts and searching for ways to connect with her one last time but was never able to. Travis also had recently unexpectedly lost his father and was trying to find ways to cope with the loss.
Once these two are brought together, their journey of grief is consistently tested by needing to decide to either move on from the past or succumb to their pain.
Although this film is categorized as a horror-comedy, I was personally touched by the exploration of grief.
I unexpectedly lost my grandmother in 2021 and I’m still trying to find ways to cope with the loss. My grandma helped raise me. She was one of my closest friends, the person I’d turn to for advice, the one who helped me get into university, and most of all, she was my family’s glue. After I lost her, I felt like there was no place for me in a world without her. Everything seemed a lot less exciting and a lot more painful.
At one point in the film, Travis is about to go be with his dad, because a ghost is pretending to be him but is stopped by Ben. Ben tells Travis that his dad would want him to be happy and live a full life but Travis quickly says “nowhere feels right without him.”
I found this quote to be impactful because grief is such an unusual thing. It can come in waves, hit you all at once, or for some, take years to sit in. But the thing that strikes me the most is how you don’t simply overcome your grief, but rather you learn how to live with it.
Going into this movie, I was expecting a remake of the 2003 lighthearted and children-friendly The Haunted Mansion. However, my expectations were quickly shut down within the first 10 minutes of the film. Although it was not what I was expecting, I was surprisingly grateful for my experience. This horror-comedy had me crying, laughing, scared, and questioning my own journey through grief.
At the end of the film, all of the characters are confronted by the antagonist who is constantly speaking to Ben and Travis as they are grieving, trying to convince them that they will never be able to overcome their pain and that they’d be better off ‘reunited’ with their lost loved ones. I think that this character could reflect the negative thoughts that many who are grieving can often experience. But the message that is driven home in the film is that one’s grief does not become them and I think that is one of the most important reminders to hold dear.