DALLAS, Texas — Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: I am a product of Disneyland.
As a Southern California kid, trips to the Magic Kingdom were transcendent, supernatural even, like stepping foot on foreign soil for the first time.
It was a place repeatedly unknown and rediscovered, the scent of popcorn and white chocolate luring us past the sweat-soaked costumes of Mickey and Goofy and into the rush of Tomorrowland.
Going to Disneyland was, appropriately enough, a ritual of sorts for kids where I lived, those who didn’t need a plane to reach the Happiest Place on Earth — just a parent willing to brave the 5 Freeway at rush hour.
That was all, of course, before I knew Heaven was much more than a fun park with gates and a sky-high price of admission.
So when it came time to watch Disney’s latest re-imagining of one of its most popular rides, I readily admit I didn’t quite know how it would go.
OK, well, maybe I knew a few things.
Disney, once considered the untouchable gold standard in family entertainment, is a brand on the decline, both culturally and fiscally. The company’s seemingly insatiable obsession with promoting homosexuality is driving away average Americans; and the house that Mouse built hasn’t shied away from hiring actors and promoting messages that are openly satanic.
So as a self-identified child of Disneyland, I was pleasantly surprised to find Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” proved to be undeniably faithful to the theme park ride, even as I was completely unsurprised by the film’s pervasive occult themes and general hostility toward a biblical worldview.
(Note: spoilers ahead)
“Haunted Mansion,” not to be confused with an entirely different 2003 movie starring Eddie Murphy, boasts an A-list cast that includes Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis and even a virtually unrecognizable Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost.
The movie centers on widow Gabbie (Dawson) and her son Travis, who decide to leave life in the big city for Gracey Manor, a French Colonial-style home in Louisiana. Upon moving in, however, the single mom and her son realize they have supernatural squatters and recruit a team of so-called “spiritual experts” to cleanse their home.
In the real world, for the last 2,000-plus years, priests, pastors and other men of the cloth have been sought out for comfort, for counsel, and for prayer. They are fallen and sinful men, just like the rest of us, who have, for the most part, committed their lives, however imperfectly, to pointing people to the gift of God in Christ Jesus.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
But in Disney World, the priest character, Father Kent — in this case, played by Wilson in a dependably on-brand performance — is a hapless fraud, a swindler who wears a collar and comically oversized cross around his neck as a costume rather than a lifestyle.
Far from being a righteous shepherd of the flock, Kent is a passive, almost apathetic figure, deferring on most matters to atheist freelance photographer Ben Mattias, played by LaKeith Stanfield, and Tiffany Haddish’s psychic Harriet.
Like much of today’s contemporary preaching, Kent has an affinity for sounding more spiritual than he actually is — he tosses out nuggets of "Churchianity" like “The Lord works in mysterious ways” and even quotes lyrics from “Amazing Grace.”
In one scene, Kent tells an already-annoyed Ben that the “Big Man upstairs is always watching. He keeps me on a short leash.”
"Not short enough,” Ben replies.
In another scene, before an overtly demonic “seance” session in which Harriett is possessed by a spirit, Kent offers a prayer that, ironically enough, mocks the whole point of prayer: “God, give us a break! We don’t want to be haunted. There are so many bad people. Haunt them.”
Not quite the same as “forgive those who trespass against us,” is it?
It’s only later that we learn Kent is not a priest but rather a common fraud who works at a Halloween costume store, conveniently enough. While the others plan how they will take back the house from the spirit squatters, “Father” Kent helps himself to some booze and defers to the atheist and the psychic to figure things out.
In fact, it’s during this seance session in which Harriet leads the others in prayers to the dead — a practice specifically forbidden in Scripture in Deuteronomy 18:11 and 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 — that “Mansion” begins to take a noticeably more sinister turn.
After all, necromancy, or making contact with the dead, is at the heart of “Haunted Mansion.”
Divination, rather than being condemned as it is in Leviticus 19:26 and elsewhere, is normalized; psychics, Harriett tells us, prefer to be called “mediums,” in an unexpected hat-tip to transgender ideology and its preference for language over scientific accuracy.
Later in the film, we learn Ben's wife, a spiritualist herself, died in a car accident. The property’s late landowner, who now haunts its halls, reveals he held a seance every night for years in an attempt to contact his own dead wife — a practice which resulted in the arrival of unwanted spirits.
“We had summoned a terrible evil,” he says.
Only after these repeated seances are the floodgates to “the other side” opened, allowing in spirits like the Hatbox Ghost (Leto), a dead tycoon who offers advice such as “You know life has no meaning” and “Suffering is for the weak.”
The motivation behind Hatbox Ghost’s haunting spree, it turns out, is that he’s managed to trap 999 souls and is now working on securing number 1,000 by deceiving Travis into thinking he can communicate with his own dead father.
For anyone who’s been on the Haunted Mansion ride, the number 999 — which, just saying, does happen to be an upside-down 666 — evokes the ride’s “happy haunts” song, which always finishes with the Ghost Host’s invitation: "We have 999 happy haunts here, but there's room for a thousand. Any volunteers?”
It's pretty dark stuff for a movie inspired by a kid’s theme park ride at the Happiest Place on Earth.
And maybe, despite all the darkness, that’s where “Haunted Mansion” buys itself a bit of goodwill with its audience: apart from the cast and plot, the film is careful to correspond to the Haunted Mansion ride itself, including details down to the same vertically-striped wallpaper from the Stretching Room at Gracey Manor.
There are allusions to the ride’s “doom buggy” seating, the Mansion’s three hitchhiking ghosts, Ezra Beane, Professor Phineas Plump and Gus, and the crystal ball head of Madame Leota (Curtis). Such details for products of Disneyland, for ones like me, carry with them a sort of recognizable comfort that doesn't quite fit with the film’s otherwise unsettling and dimly-lit narrative.
And while there might be enough references for some parents to wax nostalgic about the old days at Disneyland, I’m not sure younger people who have never been to one of the Disney parks will necessarily connect with the movie beyond a few sight gags.
Then again, as the culture loves to tell the Church, "who am I to judge?"
So what if, prior to the film, a preview for another occult-themed film, “A Haunting In Venice,” is shown alongside a "Paw Patrol" trailer?
So what if crucifixes and crosses permeate “Haunted Mansion” from the first frame to the last in an obvious glorification of death and a mockery of the cross of Christ, the only One to ever triumph over death?
So what if the film’s plot hinges on an unholy ghost antagonist who seeks to claim the soul of a widow’s only child?
So what if experiencing a taste of nostalgia means exposing your kids to crude Christian mockery?
These are just a few of the questions you may want to ask yourself — and the Holy Ghost — before buying a ticket to “Haunted Mansion.”