There are two things that I doubt I will ever lose any love for in my life: Disneyland, and a good ghost story. You'd think a place based on stories meant to bring kids joy wouldn't feature anything meant to scare them, but Disney does not disappoint (and when does it ever?)The Haunted Mansion, a tour through the decaying, ghost-infested grounds of an abandoned estate, is a Disney classic. I have been on the Haunted Mansion countless times; however, in the past year, I finally visited the Mansion’s variants not only in the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, but in Europe’s version of the park in Paris, too. Walt Disney World's version is practically a high-tech replica of Disneyland's, though the addition of the library and twisting staircases, as well as an in-ride version of the gallery that exists only in the line in the original does grant it some extra points. The real marvel of the three, though, was Paris' Phantom Manor, a ride where the similarities to its predecessors basically end at its track.
Before visiting Paris, I was told to expect a pleasant shock upon visiting Phantom Manor. The ride would be a darker, scarier version of the Haunted Mansion, based on "The Phantom of the Opera" and centered around the relationship between their equivalent of the Ghost Host and bride, two of the original mansion's most mysterious residents. (So, basically, a ride I would only think could exist in my dreams!)
From the moment I stepped into the part of the park Phantom Manor calls home, I could tell it was going to be a completely different experience from the Haunted Mansion. Not only is it in Frontierland, as opposed to New Orleans/Liberty Square, but it creates and is completely ingrained in the story of "Thunder Mesa," the American Old Western-style town surrounding it. It is so much a part of its surroundings that it gives new meaning to seemingly plotless rides, like Big Thunder Mountain just across the river. But as important as it is to Frontierland, the Manor grounds are built so that as soon as you step through the gates, the land's area music and the sound of the crowds passing through the town fade so completely that by the time you reach the gazebo in front of the Manor, you have been met with eerie silence.
The surprises don't stop at Phantom Manor's unique plot. The ride also features a full orchestral soundtrack throughout the entire tour. In the Haunted Mansion, music is only heard if there is a source for it (the organ in the ballroom, the piano in the attic, etc). In the Manor, sweeping violins, Melanie's melancholy voice, and a children’s choir accompany the ride, turning it into something close to a cinematic experience. Fans of the original ride will be glad to hear that the Manor doesn't stray so far from its roots that it omits "Grim Grinning Ghosts," though. The busts are still singing, even accompanied by strays of music reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion's theme as well as a cameo by the Ghost Host's voice in the body of a headless mayor, which brought a huge smile to my face. However, these references to the original ride actually exist within one of the largest differences found in the entire Manor. Rather than a graveyard as its final scene, Phantom Manor brings its guests through the supernatural underworld of Thunder Mesa, a rift in the Earth called Phantom Canyon, filled with smiling skeletons and ghoulish town residents. It's definitely more eerie than the jump scares and animated spooks of the Haunted Mansion's finale.That isn't to say Phantom Manor is any better than Haunted Mansion, though. The rides are so different from each other its even a bit hard to truly compare them. People insist on it, though, and compare them so often that it is hard to find any article, even one meant to be unbiased, that does not call Phantom Manor a "darker" version of the original mansion. When I first got on the ride, this seemed to be true to me. Phantom Manor is surrounded by a rich past filled with deaths and madness, carried by the menacing presence of the Phantom throughout. Where the Haunted Mansion is a little more comedic, treating itself as a tour through a sort of potential retirement home for ghosts, Phantom Manor is a tour through history. But, at its core, that's just what it is. The Manor is a trip through an animatronic story, about as dark as the other dark rides found in Fantasyland. Its skeletons could come straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, its residents from their very own fairytale. The feeling that Phantom Manor is darker than the Haunted Mansion doesn't come from the history it has been given. If anything, it comes from the role you as a guest of the Manor must fill as a character in the ride, interacting with the Manor and its ghosts. It is the story of you, tricked and trapped inside a seemingly inescapable mansion until, somehow, you manage to find a way out. To that end, the Haunted Mansion and Phantom Manor really aren't that different. The secret to understanding which ride is "darker" may lie in uncovering your role in the ride as a character and guest to the house a little further. In one version, you escape the stretching room after the Phantom threatens to murder you and venture deeper into the house, where you learn the story of the girl who once lived there. As you leave her bedroom, the Phantom who trapped both you and her here appears. You fall into a pit as you try to get away and find yourself in a Wild West Underworld. The Phantom follows you and appears before you can escape the canyon, holding an open casket for you. His once smooth, skeletal face is now covered in ragged, hanging flesh. The ghostly, skeletal form of Melanie appears and points you toward the exit. You escape, but not before the Phantom makes one last appearance, holding to the back of your carriage, cackling.
The Haunted Mansion is a bit harder to figure out, since it has no real coherent plotline, but once you think about the path you take as you go through the Mansion, more than a few ideas of what your role in the ride might be come to mind. In the ride, you are allowed from the stretching room by the Ghost Host and follow his disembodied voice as he invites you on a tour of his home, though the fact that he himself is only in the mansion because he was trapped there like you hangs in the back of your mind. He never threatens you as he shows you what life after death in the Mansion is like, but he never loses the slight smile in his voice as he asks you repeatedly to join him and the rest of the inhabitants of the Mansion. It all seems tame enough, until you realize that he is basically calling for your suicide. His calm and kind manner as he leads you through the Mansion does not make it seem like he means to kill you himself at all, but his continued suggestion that you join him, tempting you with promises of endless song and dance, is, essentially, a polite way of asking that you die.
Your host leaves you on your own after showing you the ballroom, giving you to the mercy of the house's iconic attic. You meet the bride, just before the ride does something entirely odd: the carriages turn completely backwards and send you from the attic to the graveyard facing the night sky, as if your doom buggy fell from the attic window (or, rather, the attic balcony, since the inclusion of the Hatbox Ghost). Some people believe that this is meant to signify that the character you play in the mansion was so desperate to escape that they chose to jump from the attic window/balcony, fulfilling the Ghost Host's wishes and bringing home the idea that the only way out of the Mansion is to die. It would explain why the Ghost Host lets you leave so easily in the end once he finds you in the graveyard (and makes you wonder how many of the "999 happy haunts" in the mansion were also convinced to "stay" by your host.)
So, Phantom Manor's plotline as it relates to you, the rider, may be a bit more frightening while you are on the ride, but the Haunted Mansion's is just as haunting once you give it more thought afterward. Even if you don't believe that you died on your way from the attic window to the graveyard below, the idea of the Ghost Host taking you through the Mansion, urging you down the same sad path toward escape that he took as he shows you the fun you can have in the afterlife is pretty eerie. The Mansion hides tragedy behind humor where the Manor displays the tragedy of its past as essential to its existence, making it seem darker than it may be.
Honestly, though, both rides come from places that are both dark and tragic, and fun and exciting, and as someone who loves stories, I loved the new element that the Paris version of the ride brought forward. I definitely prefer Melanie over the frankly poor effects and forced plotline that accompany the current bride of the Haunted Mansion, Constance. If you love the Haunted Mansion, or just Disneyland in general, and have the chance to go to Paris, you should absolutely take the opportunity to see its darker side. Phantom Manor is so different from the Haunted Mansion that Americans are familiar with that I can't possibly capture it in words. To understand it, you truly need to be trapped there yourself.