The Haunted Mansion is well known as the creme de la creme of Disney Illusioneering, and every fan can tell you how it works, from the spinning ballroom dancers (Pepper’s Ghost) to the Hitchhikers (one-way glass). But consider the Stretch Rooms in Magic Kingdom and all the pieces that must be in place in order for the illusion to work properly. One misstep and the whole thing falls apart.
Most casual fans of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion can figure out that the Stretch Room is born of necessity. Ride enough times, and you begin to notice that subtle lurch in the floor, a hint that you’re on an elevator. The Haunted Mansion is such a large ride that they needed to find some way to get guests below the railroad berm so that they could access the large show building beyond. Walt Disney World had no such space issues, and thus no reason for an elevator. But the Stretch Rooms remained because they provided such a great introduction to the ride. Incidentally, except for the foyer and parts of the exit, the Stretch Rooms (there are two of them) are the only parts of the ride that are contained within the famous Mansion facade itself.
Step 1 – The barrier
. In order for the stretch effect to be successful, especially in Disneyland, you cannot allow the audience to see the gaps that separate the the moving pieces (in Disneyland, the floor; in WDW, the ceiling) from the stationary piece. This is done by creating a “cage” for the audience to stand in that is completely self-contained. This is the wood-paneled section of the gallery, with the mantle of gargoyles being the barrier that hides the gap from the moving pieces. At no point can a guest reach out and touch a wall (or a painting) that appears to be growing.
Step 2 – The Senses. The gargoyle mantle is even more critical for another reason. In order to see the stretch paintings and hear the Ghost Host, we need lights and speakers. There is simply no place to put them in an elongating room, because seeing them would destroy the effect. The speakers are hidden in the mantle itself behind fabric painted to look like wood, and they are arrayed in a complete circle to give the effect of the Ghost Host flitting around the room. The lights are above the mantle in order to illuminate the paintings, but hidden from sight.
Step 3 – Audio. The audio here has two jobs. It sets the stage for the story, obviously, but just as important, it provides the necessary creaks and groans to certify that you are seeing a supernatural stretching room, while masking the sound of the machinery behind the walls.
Step 4 – Light Source. There’s a movie trick known as practical lighting, in which the light source illuminating an actor or set is theoretically coming from a logical light source (like a table lamp or a window), even though the cinematographer has actually lit the set with giant movie lights that are not visible on camera. Now you know why the gargoyles hold flickering candles.
Step 5 – The picture frames. In order for the paintings to appear to be stretching along with the walls, the top and the bottom of the picture frame itself must remain stationary with respect to the lower and upper bounds of the stretching. Look closely at the frame and you can see that the top and bottom sections are actually an inch or so apart from the wall, as is the section of wallpaper directly below and above. This allows the entire stretched portrait to reappear from behind the frame boundaries.
Step 6 – The wallpaper. It simply has to be a vertical stripe or the effect won’t work. Any horizontal or pictorial pattern would destroy the effect because the audience would see the patterns revealing themselves as the ceiling moved upwards.
Step 7 – The scrim. The ceiling is nothing more than fabric painted that will turn invisible when lit from behind. This accounts for how that hanging body suddenly comes visible. He is hanging up there the entire time, just waiting for the ceiling scrim to reach him. Oh, and the light source? Lightning flashes from windows at the top of the room, on all four sides of the body.
Step 8 – The Octagon. While not quite a circle, the shape of the room is just disorienting enough that audiences can lose track of which wall they entered through, allowing them to be surprised when the door opens again to reveal a completely different exit room.
Step 9 – The Cast Member. They intone that you should “kindly drag your wretched bodies into the dead center of the room.” Will this help you to see the effect better? Yes, but it also stops you from leaning on the exit door, which will slide open unexpectedly in the dark.
Step 10 – Proportions. This is extremely subtle, but really helps to sell the entire stretching effect. We mentioned earlier that the lower part of the stretch room is a cage, and only the ceiling (in WDW) moves. But that’s not entirely true. During the course of the Ghost Host’s speech, the gargoyle mantle is also moving upwards, but at a slower rate than the ceiling. This provides a proportionate stretching affect, such that the wood-paneled cage below the gargoyles will still appear to be the same proportion in respect to the gallery above it once the stretching is complete.
Step 11 – The Portraits. We at last come to the least relevant portion of the effect, the portraits themselves. They’re just plain old slide-and-reveal gags, expertly conceived by Marc Davis. They’re the magician’s left hand, the thing you’re watching while the right hand does all the work of the trick.