Originally concieved in the mid 1950s by Walt Disney as a walk-through ghost house, artist Harper Goff was tapped to conceptually design the house. The house originally had a rural American design and was intended to be at the end of a crooked path that led away from the "Main Street" area of Disneyland (in California). Eventually the decision was made to place the house in the New Orleans Square section of the park, and thus the house was given a southern-plantation style. However the house at Walt Disney World in Florida has a New England facade, likely because the intention there was to base the attraction around the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
Once design choices were made many phases went into constructing the Mansions. At one point Disney's concept was to have the ride be entirely walk-through and then empty it out at a restaurant with a theme of "The Museum of the Weird." (This would be similar to other rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, which empties out into The Blue Bayou Restaurant.) Plans were designed for this concept but it was abandoned.
Eventually by 1969 the Disneyland version of the attraction was completed. Individuals stood in line outside of the mansion waiting to go in and were monitored by park employees dressed as maids and butlers. (In the nighttime zombie versions of these same attendants appeared.) The first part of the ride consisted of a walk through in which guests were led into two rooms with special effects to make things look creepy.
Most notably of these was the second room. Guests are led into an octagonal room where a voiceover plays. Above them on the wall hang paintings of what the voiceover claims are all the previous owners of the mansion. As he speaks the walls literally seem to stretch up above everyone. The paintings lengthen to reveal how each person died. (For instance, one man is revealed to be standing on a keg of dynamite.) Then the voiceover claims that he, too, met a horrible fate. The lights flicker out, lightning flashes, and looking up guests see the skeleton of someone hanging from a rope by ceiling rafters.
These effects are achieved incredibly simply and yet are extremely convincing. The room is, in fact, an elevator that is moving underground incredibly slowly to give the illusion that the room itself is stretching; it is essentially an elevator with no roof. (In the Florida version, and possibly the Japanese one as well, the room actually stays still while the ceiling goes up.) The ceiling above is a piece of fabric called a scrim; scrims look solid but when lit from behind are translucent. Thus the "appearing" skeleton.
Once the guest is safely inside the mansion (in actuality underneath the facade of the building) he boards the moving part of the ride, a car on tracks called a "Doombuggy". From there guests witness what are to this day considered some of the most astounding special effects in the history of theme park rides. The Doombuggies pass a ballroom where it appears pairs of ghosts are ballroom dancing with one another in mid-air. There are a row of mirrors the buggies pass in which it looks like a ghost is sitting next to you. The ride moves through a crypt and cemetery, through halls that seem to never end, and past a mystical fortune teller whose instruments dance in the air around you.
In 1999 a retrospective of the art of the Mansions was featured at Disney World.
Though all the Haunted Mansions are different in certain ways, the version at Disneyland Paris is markedly unique (and is in fact called Phantom Manor rather than the Haunted Mansion). While it features the same general layout and the same melody as the other three, its design is built around an Old West theme that the others don't have, the music is scored very differently, and the ride has a much more cohesive storyline than the other three.