Director Justin Simien (Bad Hair) is no stranger to horror. With Haunted Mansion, he gives us an exciting new gateway horror entry, reframing how we look at death and grief. This ride-to-screen adaptation has nothing to do with the 2003 incarnation and instead follows all new characters — single mom Gabbie, who hires a tour guide, a psychic, a priest, and a historian to help exorcise their newly bought mansion; after discovering it is inhabited by ghosts. Simien joined us to chat about the value in scaring kids, laughing to keep from crying, the horror movie he saw way too young, and sings the praises of writer Katie Dippold and the all-star ensemble cast.
It seems people are scared to scare kids now, but you didn't pull any punches.
They are, but Disney has built its brand on scaring kids. Right? I remember I literally put on Snow White while we were shooting the movie, and I was like, "This is a terrifying film." She gets lost in the woods after an attempted assassination. It's very terrifying to me now as a nearly 40-year-old man. You can't do it without the fear. I remember riding the Haunted Mansion as a kid and the trepidation of, "Can I handle this?" And then the feeling of "I did it" afterward is essential to the experience of that ride. So that was my argument from the top, we cannot pull the punches in the scares because that's what makes it meaningful for not only kids but certainly adults and Disney adults and people like me who'd be showing up with kids or not. So yeah, that was pretty vital to me. And I know it's not open right now, but Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. That ride terrified me as an adult. You go to actual Hades.
I think that's character-building, though. You know what I mean? You do it as a kid, and you're scared, and you survive it and are safe. And that's kind of what life is.
That's why these movies can have so much power because they are four-quadrant movies, it's meant for everyone in the family to enjoy, but then they have a life thing. It feels like the stakes are life or death. It feels like, you can walk out of a Disney movie or a Pixar movie or whatever and actually have a little something to chew on. You don't get that unless the stakes are really real.
I was not expecting to cry in this movie. I cried a good amount. I laughed my ass off, but I also cried and that was unexpected. Katie Dippold wrote this amazing script. Is that part of what appealed to you, actually talking about loss, grief, and death?
First of all, let's talk about Katie Dippold's script because it's why I'm here doing this interview, during a very weird time in our industry, so that I can talk about how brilliant she is and how brilliant the script is. But it's also why I wanted to direct the movie. I was told they're making a remake. I didn't know what to really think about that, I'm sure I have very similar reactions to other people, maybe some jaded reactions. I opened the script, and it's a miracle script. It did everything you just said. It made me laugh and literally cry my eyes out. And I realized in the middle of this tent pole thrill ride set-piece-y movie is a character that is struggling to feel his own grief.
I was struggling to feel my own feelings of grief. I was reading the script during the time of Covid and George Floyd and all of that chaos, and I was like, "This has made me feel like I can move through something. It has entertained me, it has delighted me, and it feels like it stuck to my bones a little bit, and made me cry. That was so much of why I said yes. And protecting that initial experience with the screenplay really was my North Star in directing this film. First, Katie is the nerd you want. She's obsessed with the Haunted Mansion. A lot of people, myself and Katie included, we're funny because it's a trauma response. You know what I mean? We literally laugh to keep from crying.
Let's talk about this incredible cast.
It's sort of like you get a bunch of Ferraris on the road. You just make sure that if they crash into each other, they do so on camera and at the right time. Dear White People came out of a love of these big ensemble comedic movies where you have different character actors playing different notes that harmonize at a certain point and sync up. And that's the kind of movie I always want to make. So to be able to do it with people who are just absolute professionals, down to having a movie premiere with no movie stars, it's been really remarkable to see them, to get to work with them, but also to see how they navigate each stage of this. It's been such an education.
What are some of your favorite horror comedies?
Man, I go back to Little Shop of Horrors a lot. Especially with the original ending where the plant actually destroys the world. That's my favorite version of it. But Ghostbusters was a big one for me. Certainly Beetlejuice and even Pee-wee's Big Adventure and that early weird Tim Burton stuff, David Lynch. But then I'm a history guy, so not a comedy, but The Haunting was a huge influence on this movie because I could feel it in the Imagineers who made the ride in 1968. I could feel them reaching for the common haunted house tropes. And so many of them come from The Haunting. So there was a lot of that going on in my viewing, in my little Airbnb that I was in.
What's a horror movie you saw way too young?
Wow. Okay, I didn't know I wasn't alone in this. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 2 at maybe five or six. And it was amazing. First of all, I didn't understand that Freddy was the enemy because I was not processing the story. I see a guy in a cool hat with gloves, and then obviously, people talk about this movie a lot about how, I guess, subtextually gay it is. I don't know if that is subtext. It felt like text to me, just straight-up text. But something about it spoke to me in a way that I really couldn't explain at that time. Now I really understand why it spoke to me, but it was so inappropriate for me to watch it. And I loved it, and I gobbled it up. I saw all of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies way before it was suggested by the MPAA that I see them. I would say horror movies didn't even really work on me growing up because I was so into them. It was just being in a fantasy.
What movie would you choose for a young horror fan to watch too early?
Oh, I don't want to get in trouble for that. But you know what? The NeverEnding Story is a really scary movie, The Nothing! I remember being a kid and it's existential, it's not jump scares, but you're really thinking about the fabric of existence at an early age in that movie. And also, of course, Return to Oz. It's a kid's movie that is horrifying but also intriguing and pulls you in. So I would say those to be safe. But at the same time, I'm a big fan of watching things before you're supposed to, especially if it's horror because it's fantasy.
You're not really dealing with killing per se. You're dealing with life and death in a fantasy world that doesn't quite translate to reality, especially when you're a kid. For me, it was a huge wellspring for my imagination. I remember watching Nightmare on Elm Street, and I would go to bed, and daydream about Freddy. This is really weird and telling, but these were the two movies that I lived for as a kid. I would daydream about Freddy Krueger and Pippi Longstocking. They lived in a house in my imagination, and they'd do things together and go on adventures. And that's where my movie brain comes from, lying awake, thinking about these fictional characters. Murder and death weren't even on my mind.
That's the mashup I didn't know we needed. So I need you to make that a Pee-wee's Playhouse, but it's Freddy and Pippi just on adventures.
Who owns them? Let's go.
Haunted Mansion is now in theaters.This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch some highlights from our chat with Justin Simien below.