Longtime Muppet writer and director Kirk Thatcher has wanted to make a Muppet Halloween special for most of his career.
Thatcher, whose career started in the 1980s at Industrial Light & Magic before turning his attention to Jim Henson’s lovable puppet gang, estimates that Muppets Haunted Mansion might be the “fifth version of a Halloween-themed special” that he has written with Henson Company staff writer Jim Lewis over the years. Previous pitches included spoofs on classic monster movies and a Ghostbusters-esque adventure, but never panned out due to the studio prioritizing other projects. Since Disney owned the Muppets this time around, Thatcher could incorporate one of his favorite theme park attractions: the Haunted Mansion.
Muppets Haunted Mansion, which premieres on Disney Plus on Oct. 8, follows Gonzo the Great and Pepé the Prawn as they spend one night in a creepy manor full of some familiar-looking grim, grinning ghosts who take the form of Muppets and celebrities. The special brings Thatcher full circle: he has been going to Disneyland since he was a kid and attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Jungle Cruise shaped his taste in movies and TV. He always felt like the Muppets lent themselves perfectly to different genres.
“Everyone has their approach to the Muppets. I love seeing them in different venues,” he says. “They’re like Monty Python! They do genre pictures!”
Like any longtime parks fan, Thatcher knows that the Haunted Mansion is not simply a ride; the attraction has its own steeped lore and staple characters. Meshing the world of the Muppets and the Haunted Mansion ended up being an absolute joy for him. Much like in Muppet movies like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, the Muppets play the different characters within the Haunted Mansion, so Thatcher had to “cast” those roles. Some of the parts came more naturally than others.
“We immediately knew Piggy had to be Leota,” he says, naming the fortune-telling ghost stuck in a crystal ball. “We call her Madame Pig-ota. Just the idea of Piggy being in a special being stuck in that, as she says stuck in a fishbowl was just so much comedy to be mined from.”
Gonzo and Pepe lent themselves perfectly as the Muppets venturing to the mansion — and not just because they are two of Thatcher’s favorite Muppets to write for. “Gonzo is not scared. He thinks it’s great and Pepe is terrified so you get that classic Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello — two completely different takes on what it’s like to be in a scary place.”
As an avid Haunted Mansion fan, Thatcher wanted to include all the notable sights, from: Madame Leota to the singing graveyard and the ballroom full of dancing ghosts. There was so much to draw from, and once the pieces started meshing together, the world of the Muppets interlocked perfectly with the Haunted Mansion. For instance, using the Mansion’s big ballroom scene as a performance hall meant that Kermit naturally became an MC and Fozzie could take on the iconic role of the beloved Hatbox Ghost, repurposed for this special performer as a standup comedian.
“His head and hat disappearing became part of his act,” explains Thatcher.
Amid all the characters and set pieces and iconic elements of the Haunted Mansion, there was one big thing, however, that Thatcher specifically did not want.
“[We did not want it to be] the Muppets going to Disneyland. They go to a Haunted Mansion, not the Haunted Mansion,” he explains. Each of the different Haunted Mansions across Disney parks has a different outward appearance to seamlessly fit in with whatever area of the park the attraction is in. For instance, the antebellum South-style manor in Disneyland Anaheim is in the park’s New Orleans Square, whereas the Gothic revival Haunted Mansion in Magic Kingdom resides in Liberty Square (and the Tokyo mansion is basically a replica). Meanwhile, the Paris version is in Frontierland — which is called Phantom Manor and designed with a darker, scarier storyline — evokes Second Empire-style architecture.
“My backstory, which isn’t mentioned really, but it’s that it’s the same architect. Whoever this wealthy person was in the 1800s hired the same architect because he’d done these mansions for other people.” In that spirit, Thatcher and his team went back to the original ideas for the attraction, when it was just a bunch of concept art.
“Where we started was [Disney artist] Harper Goff’s original sketches. That was part of the great thing of having Imagineering on board — we got to see all this old stuff [from] when it was originally designed,” says Thatcher. “[Goff’s] mansion was rundown and beat up, but it was Victorian-style architecture. We liked that. But again, we kind of agreed with Walt who didn’t want any of the mansions to look beat up and like your typical haunted house. We stuck with that and made it look very well-kept.”
Working closely with production designer Darcy Prevost and a “very specific” document with Mansion lore from the Imagineers, Thatcher crafted a totally unique Haunted Mansion location that still paid homage to the theme park staples. The Haunted Mansion in the special is unlike any of the existing Haunted Mansion attractions in the world — and it’s also completely digital. (“They’re not built for filming,” adds Thatcher, about the actual park attractions). Using entirely virtual backdrops — as well as turning some characters into ghosts — meant the production had to shoot the scenes in layers.
“We couldn’t shoot the ghosts and the people at the same time. So some of the musical numbers are like three or four layers, with background ghosts being shot separately,” he says, comparing the process to George Lucas filming the Star Wars prequels. “Our actors had to do musical numbers with nobody there. They were signing and had an eyeline to somebody who wasn’t there. Like, Kermit is gonna be here. But he’s not gonna be here now. But you have to be singing to him and looking at him.”
While bringing the actors and puppeteers together as ghosts and mortals took some difficulty, combining the Muppets with the Haunted Mansion was incredibly easy, because the concepts just worked so well together.
“Part of the joy of the Haunted Mansion itself is that fun sense of it — it’s spooky but it’s not scary,” says Thatcher. “We said that the Mansion was ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ and the Muppets were ‘Goofy Grinning Puppets.’ That sense of joy imbues the Mansion and also the Muppets.”
Muppet Haunted Mansion hits Disney Plus on Oct. 8. Watch it … if you dare.
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