There has never been a Disney Park without a Haunted Mansion. Since the first opened in 1969, the stately towers and Grim Grinning Ghosts have become as much a part of the Disneyland legacy as Main Street and the Cinderella’s Castle. But when Disney broke ground in Hong Kong back in 2003, it was clear that the classic attraction couldn’t make the cut. In a city where ancestor worship is a part of life and ghosts are considered real threats, Disney’s frolicking spooks didn’t fit in.
“We wanted to be sensitive to any cultural concerns regarding ghosts or the spirit world with our Asian guests,” says Mark Schirmer, Executive Creative Director for Walt Disney Imagineering. “So just lifting the idea of the Haunted Mansion from our other parks really wasn’t going to work. But the idea of mystery, intrigue and the supernatural we thought may have a broader appeal.”
Their solution: build a new attraction that captures the Haunted Mansion’s appeal while addressing cultural concerns. It worked. Mystic Manor, opened in 2013, is a gangbusters ride that serves as a worthy successor to its Anaheim cousin, and a lesson in how companies – from video game publishers to film studios – can take localization as a creative opportunity rather than an afterthought.
But before deciding on a new attraction, Disney first had to be savvy enough to realize the Haunted Mansion wouldn’t work. According to Schirmer, the team didn’t dwell too long on the idea of bringing the classic ride in, since in China, there’s nothing fun about a haunted house.
Dr. Joseph Bosco, an anthropology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says Disney made the right choice. “I’m not sure it would be offensive, but it might be so scary as to not be fun at all.” As an academic who studies Chinese ghost lore, Dr. Bosco is on the front lines of Hong Kong spirit belief. “Ghosts are part of youth culture in the US, but they are mainstream folk religion for the Chinese,” he says, adding that this semester, one local student was so afraid of ghosts he couldn’t finish his course readings on the subject.
Ghosts play a different role in Chinese culture than they do in the west. While haunting stories still scare us at the movies, we find them titillating as much as frightening. In China, however, a haunted house isn’t exciting, it’s hazardous. Chinese folk beliefs credit ghosts with the ability to wreck health and marriage, ruin businesses and cause bad luck. Hong Kong apartment hunters look at “haunted” apartments the same way Americans fear asbestos or black mold. It’s such a concern that local law mandates that real estate agents inform potential renters whether a unit is a hong za, a “calamity house” with a violent history. Searchable online databases catalogue the city’s hong za so potential renters and buyers can avoid them. It’s taken so seriously that a suicide, accident or murder can sink a property’s value by 15-20%, leading to an underground speculation market on “haunted” apartments.
Dr. Bosco points out that this fear is rooted deep in Chinese religion due to a belief anthropologists call “death pollution.”
“When you attend a wake or a funeral in Hong Kong, all guests are given a small envelope with a piece of candy that you are to eat upon leaving the funeral home, a tissue (to wipe your tears), and a coin, that you are to spend and NOT take home with you,” he explains. “All these things are designed for you not to take the ‘bad luck’ of the funeral home with you.” In Chinese religion, death sticks to funeral attendees, polluting them until the rituals rid them of it. This is particularly true for the deceased’s family members, who are disallowed to step in a temple for 49 days after a death. Funeral attendees also wear special hemp clothing that they burn afterward.
“So [in the case of hong za] there is an ‘essence’ of death, if you will, that can still stay in the apartment. The problem for the Chinese is that even if you yourself do not believe, your relatives and friends will be made uncomfortable by the fact you live there.”
This wasn’t the first time that Disney bowed to Hong Kong’s local tastes – the fact that the Hong Kong Government holds joint ownership of the park practically guarantees there will be some local accommodations. During construction, feng shui experts consulted on the park’s design in order to make it a prosperous environment, and local favorites like caramel popcorn and shredded squid dot the park’s concession stands. It’s proof Disney learned hard lessons from Disneyland Paris, where an initial failure to localize plagued the park’s opening years (one major issue: you couldn’t buy wine).
There are no ghosts in Mystic Manor, nor does it have cobwebs, dust or anything you’d traditionally associate with a haunted house. It has residents — namely the explorer and antiquities collector Lord Henry Mystic and his monkey companion Albert. Guests enter the mansion to view Lord Henry’s collection, including his new acquisition, an ancient music box rumored to bring inanimate objects to life.
When Albert opens the box, the house comes alive. Dragon statues awaken, Roman mosaics move. Suits of armor take up weapons and tribal statues blow darts past your face. The music box angle removes the need for specters – animated household objects are a popular and less-threatening folklore motif in Asia — but despite that, Mystic Manor has more scares than its haunted cousins. Cannons discharge right at you and 4-D effects provide some real startles. It helps that the entire production, from the new trackless ride system to digital projections, operates on cutting edge tech. Two different routes change the experience on subsequent rides, an experience I found so compelling that staff members started laughing and waving at me on my fourth consecutive ride-through. “We … wanted to try and infuse new state of the art technologies alongside a brand new story with original characters,” says Schirmer, who points out that Mystic Manor gives HK Disneyland a unique experience and “bragging rights” over other Disney parks.
But it would be wrong to say that Mystic Manor totally upends the Haunted Mansion experience. Rather, Schirmer sees the relationship between the two as “50% evolution and 50% inspiration.” Even with the thematic differences and superior technological presentation, there’s still that old Haunted Mansion feel. Both attractions feature a room with instruments that play by themselves. Both have shifting wall art, living suits of armor, and a cylindrical orientation room that explains the attraction’s story. Eagle-eyed guests can even spot two of the Haunted Mansion’s famous concave busts that follow you with their eyes. Also like the Haunted Mansion, music plays an important role, but the ride’s haunting notes are a different beast as well. Scored by Hollywood heavyweight Danny Elfman, the bouncingly eerie soundtrack reacts to the drawing crossbows and drumming tribal idols. “For the first time in our attractions, the musical score was treated just like composing for a feature film,” says Schrimer. “Instead of looping tracks there are musical arcs that follow the story, setting the emotion for each scene… Danny’s music not only became the perfect complement to the story, at times it became the story.”
That’s especially important, he points out, in an attraction whose guests may speak English, Cantonese or Mandarin depending on their nationality. To accommodate this international clientele, throughout the design process the team tried to limit spoken dialogue, instead telling the story visually or conveying the emotional arc through music. While Lord Henry delivers the welcome in English, the accompanying slideshow includes stylish Chinese characters so no one’s left out of the loop.
But localization doesn’t just mean cutting offensive content and conquering the language barrier, it means finding themes that resonate with the local culture. As a result, Mystic Manor’s climax takes place in Lord Henry’s Chinese Salon, where an enormous jade sculpture of the Monkey King animates and calls up a storm, tearing apart the room’s traditional silk paintings and vases. Giving the Monkey King this prominent role serves not only as a crowd-pleasing closer – the Chinese still watch television shows and movies based on his adventures – it also honors the most beloved figure in Chinese folklore. The local hat-tips continue in the adjoining restaurant, where guests can order menu items from around the world and eat them in country-themed rooms complete with replica artifacts. The Chinese Room of course has pride of place, and in addition to replica jades and screens also boasts archival photos of Hong Kong in the early 1900s.
The irony is that in the decade since Hong Kong Disneyland broke ground, the city’s started to warm up to haunted houses. Halloween celebrations, which began here when local bar owners and amusement parks sensed a business opportunity, are now a fixture of the local calendar. Incredibly, this even includes haunted houses that offer far more intense scares than the Haunted Mansion. Disney itself runs two as part of its Haunted Halloween event – one based on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and an original haunted house called Graves Academy. They’re well done and worth a visit, though it’s strange to visit a Disney attraction where you, say, walk into a freezer full of corpses or see a girl with her mouth sewn shut. (There are more family-friendly events as well, including a new interactive light parade.) Though no one knows exactly why Halloween passes muster with Hongkongers, Dr. Bosco suggests that as a western holiday, it feels as safe and unreal to the Chinese as the Haunted Mansion does to westerners. “I’m amazed that commercialism has been able to transplant such a holiday to Asia,” he says. “A book should be written about that.”
Regardless of this increasing acceptance, Mystic Manor stands out as a masterwork of localization. Faced with transplanting an unpalatable concept, Disney used the opportunity to create something new. The lesson that other companies should take away from it is that localization can mean more than chopping down material so it doesn’t offend local sensibilities, instead it can spur a company to find what makes a game, movie or other experience special and translate it to a new audience. Under the right circumstances, localizing can spur innovation.
What drives the Disney Imagineering team, says Schrimer, is trying to make the product resonate with local park guests. “It allows them to identify with the product more immediately and at the same time it provides our design teams with new and exciting ways to share and diversify our stories.”
And as Mystic Manor proves, if you do that right you’ll make things come alive.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp. Photos by Mike Sakas (sakasphoto.com).