By now, most reading this are familiar with the general three-act structure of the Haunted Mansion attraction: ghosts are trapped and trying to come through, are released and visible from a distance, then surround you in the graveyard.
However, there is a deeper level to all this. In the first segment, from entering the foyer and stretching room down to the portrait hall, all is well kept, but some slight ghostly changes: portraits expand and stretch or have hidden images visible when the lightning flashes. When boarding doombuggies, the interior looks more decrepit…spiderwebs and more overt signs of ominous architecture, like the stairway gryphons. However, it is merely more unclean at this point, slightly older and dustier.
Once into the corridor of doors and conservatory things are changing. Broken windows behind the coffin show active disrepair, the house itself bulges and creaks with ghostly residents trying to come out, and ghoulish portraits hang on the walls. A quick trip to see Madame Leota, who frees the spirits to come out and socialize, follows.
Once the ghosts are out and visible to you as the viewer, things are dramatically different. Windows broken, wallpaper peeling, staircase partly collapsing. The mansion is old and in poor shape without the ghosts inside the walls, maintaining the illusion of order and cleanliness evident at the beginning.
Before ‘falling’ down out of the mansion into the graveyard, the last indoor scene is an unfinished attic, with no trace of elegance or splendor: bare boards and piled junk and the more nasty residual spirit of the murderous bride inhabiting it. The tone changes once down among the partying spirits, and a graveyard is a graveyard…the house and it’s decay is left behind.
This can be seen as a gradual build of the story: once inside, the structure truly changes around guests at the point they’ve been lured deep enough inside to have to keep going, and doesn’t have to maintain the ‘normal’ appearance visible outside in the daylight. Eternal night sets in and the building shows the abandoned state familiar to any fan of horror films involving the archetypal haunted house. In this manner, both Walt Disney (who insisted the attraction be clean and neat from the outside, not run down) and the designers who favored the more ramshackle and decrepit got their way.
Likely, this was more or less overall a lucky design accident, as it were…not sitting down and mapping out the progression from point A to B of the state of disrepair with an eye towards a larger thematic progression. That makes it all the more fascinating to consider the way it seemingly unfolds when inside the attraction, if one is paying attention to such matters.