How Halloween’s Haunted Houses Came to be

I think it’s safe to say that when you think of Disney, Halloween isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Rather, the word seems to be wrapped up in a warm hug from your childhood, complete with princesses, talking animals and enough happily-ever-afters to last you several lifetimes. So it may come as a surprise to hear that the haunted house as a theme park attraction is linked very closely to the creator of Mickey Mouse and friends. You don’t really imagine the guy making ‘fairy tales come true’ for the ‘young-at-heart’ constructing a building purely to instil terror into those who enter it. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Disney’s Haunted Mansion full of then state-of-the-art technology to create ‘realistic’ ghosts, definitely moves away from swapping favourite books with Belle and singing with Cinderella.

Although the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland (opened in 1969) definitely belongs to the darker side of the theme park, it’s probably not that much scarier than all of its wicked queens put together. Despite the Mansion’s ghostly decor, it was created with the intention to entertain and none of it can really be considered nightmare material. Disney’s record can be cleared in that respect, but he was nevertheless mostly responsible for haunted houses having more of a presence in the media, even though his own creation wasn’t all that hair-raising.

What occurred before Disney, however, is worthy of telling around the next campfire you go to. I feel like Marie Tussaud is yet another name you wouldn’t associate with Halloween, but she does appear in the history of the haunted house. The wax museum that survives today wasn’t always a place for taking selfies with the role models you’ll probably never meet and does in fact have a reason for its’ nickname ‘The Chamber of Horrors’. And no, it’s not because being surrounded by celebrities makes you question what you’re doing with your own life and whether you’ll ever live up to your dreams. Though, having said that, it’s definitely one way of looking at it.

In reality, ‘The Chamber of Horrors’ name came about due to one of Tussaud’s projects, which was to preserve the memory of the executed royal family after the French Revolution. Their heads were collected from the guillotines and Tussaud used them to make her moulds. While she worked, blood still dripped from the severed heads, but it’s comforting to know that the profession of wax sculpting is a decapitation-free zone today.

Post-Tussaud but pre-Disney, haunted houses were appearing in a DIY format. Around the time of the Great Depression in America, trick-or-treaters were becoming a nuisance due to their acts of vandalism, so, in an attempt to keep them out of mischief, ordinary people began inviting them into their basements. This isn’t as sinister as it sounds so no need to alert the authorities, as basements were converted into some kind of spooky scene for children to enjoy as they knocked on doors. Although this was something that worked great at the time, it violates all of today’s health and safety standards. So to all of you trick-or-treaters out there: stick to taking sweets on the doorstep. But if you enjoy arts and crafts then you might want to have a go at creating your own haunted house for your friends and family.

If you’re visiting a haunted house this Halloween, whether locally or a bigger production, it’s worth remembering how they’ve developed from Tussaud’s exhibition of the dead to Disney’s mansion of curiosities. Today, costumed actors will do their best to scare us into the next holiday season, so maybe it’s lucky we have mince pies by our sides to take away the chill of even the darkest of corridors in Halloween’s haunted houses.