Macabre Muppet Moments: “Muppets Haunted Mansion”

I love The Muppets. I love Halloween. I love horror and horror-comedy. I love musicals—and don’t get me started on horror-comedy musicals. So, when Muppets Haunted Mansion was announced on May 7—coincidentally, right in the middle of my “Macabre Muppet Moments” series—I was ready.

Muppet bats fly by during the full moon in front of the title card for the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Welcome, foolish Muppets…

And finding out Gonzo the Great, the Muppets’ resident “weirdo” (which, amongst the Muppets, is really saying something), would lead this spooky special? The Muppet who once tweeted me this?

My excitement shot up like a human (or Muppet) cannonball.

2021 hasn’t been what any of us planned, nor has it been what many of us hoped for. Maybe it’s at least been easier than 2020 (though that bar is pretty low for). But in some ways, for some of us, it’s been just as or even more difficult. The Muppets bring a unique blend of chaos, wit, and heart to everything they do, and we could all use it right now.

Muppets Haunted Mansion is a 52-minute Halloween musical special (with its soundtrack available here and on other music streaming platforms), directed by longtime Muppet collaborator Kirk Thatcher. Amongst his body of Muppet work is one of my favorite pieces of Muppet media, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002). Not only have I written about that movie previously, but also stayed up late to live-tweet its Freeform premiere during the channel’s “Kickoff to Christmas,” despite owning it on DVD, and even edited footage from that DVD to create a version of the film’s featured song, “Everyone Matters,” which never received an official soundtrack release (or any sheet music), so that I can play it (and sing along to it) whenever I want to on my radio show, Jammin’ with Jamie.

So, let’s creak open the mansion doors and follow our Muppet pals into the Muppets Haunted Mansion! (Make sure you say it with “oomph”!)

Gonzo says, "Indoor lightning. Fantastic," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Well done.

Spoilers ahead!

Host (Will Arnett) says, "Welcome, foolish Muppets," to Gonzo and Pepé the King Prawn in the Haunted Mansion, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Called it.

If you’ve made it this far, be prepared for spoilers. And puns. Don’t get me started on puns…

Caretaker (Darren Criss) sings, "Once they start, they never cease," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
I object to that grave warning…Oh, wait, maybe not…

Here’s a not-so-surprising spoiler: my smile never once died during Muppets Haunted Mansion. Given my love of horror comedy, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Halloween specials, and Muppets Haunted Mansion is definitely one I’ll be watching over and over again. Well done to Kirk Thatcher (who also serves as a writer) and writers Bill Barretta (who also serves as a Muppet performer and the “Puppet Captain”) and Kelly Younger (who also serves as a co-executive producer). If how fun the special is to watch is at all indicative of the fun had behind the scenes and on set, then Muppets Haunted Mansion must’ve been a joy to work on.

The special dives right into what we came here to see: the Great Gonzo and Pepé the King Prawn pulling up in an appropriately spooky hearse to take on the challenge to spend the night spend the night in the Haunted Mansion.

A hearse pulls up with the license plate "2 DIE 4," with a superheading of "Corruptible Mortal," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
This license plate is “2 DIE 4,” but that “Corruptible Mortal” super-heading will revive you.

Gonzo was invited to participate in this challenge and is very excited for it: it commemorates the 100th anniversary of the disappearance of his favorite magician, The Great MacGuffin, and his Red Herring, Pee-wee. Yes, film buffs will get a great double-chuckle out of that. For those unaware, a “MacGuffin” is something that is necessary to the plot and the characters’ motivations, but isn’t important itself. A “Red Herring” is something that’s distracting or misleading. Gonzo cares a lot about The Great MacGuffin and commemorating his disappearance: we care about Gonzo and his literal and personal journey through the Haunted Mansion.

A Muppet ghost says, "Don't worry, folks, we're not gonna be explaining all the jokes," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Okay, okay, I can take a hint.

Gonzo cares so much about daring to take on the mysterious challenge, in fact, that he declines to go to the Muppets’ in-progress annual Halloween party over a video call with Kermit the Frog. While Gonzo’s definitely excited about the challenge, he also makes an offhand comment about proving he’s deserving of his title of “The Great Gonzo.”

Kermit the Frog, in a Miss Piggy Halloween costume, tells Gonzo via video chat, "You know, you don't have to be 'The Great Gonzo' to be great, Gonzo," in the 2021 special, “Muppets Haunted Mansion.”
May we all have a friend who uses pun-like language to make us feel awesome.

Muppets Haunted Mansion is only 52 minutes long (including all of the different credits), and it certainly moves quickly. If a specific joke is dead on arrival for you, another five aren’t far behind. That also means that some of the emotional beats have a little less time to resonate than you might be used to in a feature-length film. But, on the flip side, this adds to Muppets Haunted Mansion’s rewatchability. You’ll catch more jokes, to be sure, and more background events, but you’ll also pick up on the subtleties of the emotional throughline.

The hearse stops at “the most haunted mansion in the world,” and we get to meet the driver…Yvette Nicole Brown! Her cheerful Hearse Driver sets a funny, yet foreboding tone: she’s dropping them off, but has no plans to pick them up in the morning.

The hearse Driver (Yvette Nicole Brown) says, "Dead prawn walking," to Pepé the King Prawn, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Sure, you might disappear in the depths of a haunted mansion…but you’d be with Muppets.

Ed Mitchell and Steve Morrell bring us three thrilling original tunes of terror that will no doubt be as stuck in your head as the 999 happy haunts are stuck in the Haunted Mansion. (Thank goodness for that EP!… Now if only there were sheet music…) When Gonzo and Pepé leave the hearse and step into the mansion’s graveyard, we get our first taste, with the anxious Caretaker (Darren Criss) leading a chorus of both Muppet and human ghosts in “Rest in Peace.”

Muppets Haunted Mansion is definitely on the friendlier side of creepy, but if you watch and listen closely, you may be surprised what they got away with because they were in a Muppet’s vicinity. Recounting the backstories of the ghosts in this song, including revealing some of their causes of death, is a prime example. They’re delightfully dark, but the one that caught me off guard was Cousin Huet (Danny Trejo).

Caretaker (Darren Criss) puts his hands up and sings, "We all know you didn't do it," next to the ghost of Cousin Huet (Danny Trejo), who's wearing a striped prisoner's uniform, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
I’ll take your word for it.

(Side note: is Danny Trejo in some kind of secret contest with Whoopi Goldberg to see who can work with the Muppets the most? Seeing him with the Muppets is always welcome, and the frequency of his appearances makes seeing him feel like seeing a beloved supporting Muppet.)

The bit about Mary (Sasheer Zamata) was also a standout moment for me, bringing an unexpected twist…which is appropriate for a mystery writer. And it’s nice to see the late Ed Asner appearing here in one of his final roles.

Kudos to Michell and Morrell for seamlessly blending the Haunted Mansion’s beloved theme song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” into another original tune, and right at the climax of it, adding an extra jolt of energy to the number just as it ends.

After Gonzo and Pepé leave the Caretaker and his dog and head inside the mansion, we get even more references to the ride. As someone who hasn’t ridden the Haunted Mansion in a while, I caught some of the references on the first watch, but I’m sure there are still some I haven’t caught yet. When I caught the references, it enhanced my viewing, but when I missed them, I didn’t notice because I was enjoying the special. All in all, I believe that people who’ve never ridden the Haunted Mansion can still have a lot of fun with this special and not feel left out.

Our leader through many of these references, pointing us in the right direction through the mansion, is our (Ghost) Host (Will Arnett). Arnett’s Host is so serious, he’s silly, and his character fits in very well with the special, popping in when needed for guidance, warnings, an explanation of why the mansion’s ghosts resemble Muppets, or a musical number. In his first appearance alone, he gives us gags with subtitles, rhyming, ominous stings, and more, while taking Gonzo and Pepé through the mansion as a rider might go through the ride.

Host (Will Arnett) says, "And no flash pictures, please," to Gonzo and Pepé the King Prawn, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Don’t flash the ghosts! …Wait…

After the Host’s departure, Gonzo and Pepé start exploring the mansion, getting separated along the way. Some of what they encounter are rooms, characters, and other elements straight from the ride with a Muppet twist. Others, like John Stamos and an amazing plant, you probably won’t find at any of the Disney parks.

Of course, we also get Miss Piggy’s star turn as Madame Pigota. It’s a really fun scene with Miss Piggy striving to get the most out of her role and making sardonic comments when things don’t go as expected. We also get a cameo from Kim Irvine, Executive Creative Director of Disney Imagineering, daughter of Leota Toombs (the face of the original Madame Leota and Little Leota), and the face of Leota’s characters when the Haunted Mansion has additions. Surprise actors, singers, etc., whether for cameos, unexpected roles, or something else, are always fun, but featuring people who are also involved behind the scenes is lovely.

Kim Irvine, a maid, squirts the crystal ball holding the floating head of Madame Pigota (Miss Piggy) with a squirt bottle to clean it, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Irvine gives a nice, clean performance.

All the while, Pepé is increasingly terrified, and Gonzo is fascinated, overjoyed, and loving the whole experience. Gonzo comments on all the effects and details around them, which not only fits his character, but is very funny, and probably familiar to horror fans who’ve watched horror movies with other horror fans.

Gonzo says, "Secret door? Classic," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Just look out for panels that are a suspiciously lighter color than the rest of their surroundings…

This is when we get another original tune, “Life Hereafter,” a tune that’s so cheery, it’s easy to forget that its purpose is to convince Gonzo and Pepé to die.

Given that It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is a continuation-of-sorts of The Muppet Movie (1979), it’s not much of a surprise that Muppets Haunted Mansion is a spiritual successor (pun intended) to another Muppet property: this time, The Muppet Show. Of course, the overarching theme is about Gonzo feeling he has to prove himself as “The Great Gonzo,” the daredevil artiste who’s been challenging his brain and body since The Muppet Show. Even before the song starts, the Muppets dancing around in couples make very punchy, “setup-instant-punchline” jokes, just as they would in the show’s “At the Dance” sketches.

The ghost taking the form of Kermit introduces “The Mansion Show” just as he would an episode of The Muppet Show. Fozzie is “Gauzey the Hatbox Bear” doing a pun-filled standup act, to the chagrin of Statler and Waldorf, who, instead of their usual balcony seat, are sitting in one of the “doom buggies” that carry Haunted Mansion riders…and, in this author’s experience, tend to briefly break down. This sequence also features cameos from the Muppets’ newest additions, Beverly Plume and Joe the Legal Weasel. I’m so glad Beverly and Joe made the jump from Muppets Now to other Muppet media.

Interestingly, this song also features numerous references to Beauty and the Beast (1991). It’s not entirely unwarranted: the scene bears (pun intended) some striking similarities to “Be Our Guest.” (“Be Our Ghost”?)

This is where the plot really kicks into high gear. After being annoyed at and then thoroughly terrorized, Pepé finally sees something he likes about the mansion…well, someone…

Constance Hatchaway (Taraji P. Henson) says, "So do you believe in love at first sight, or should I float by again?" in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Did Gauzey give you that pickup line?

Constance Hatchaway (Taraji P. Henson), a blend of of a few brides from the Haunted Mansion ride, steals Pepé’s heart with her own glowing heart and leads the smitten king prawn away.

With Hatchaway and Pepé off to get further acquainted, the Host informs Gonzo that, now that he’s alone, in order to complete the challenge by sunrise and survive the mansion, he must enter Room 999, where he’ll face his fears. We get an interesting recurrence of an earlier gag with a slightly more sinister tone this time around, and then, Gonzo’s off to follow the floating candelabra down a long hallway to Room 999. 999 is also famously the number of “happy haunts” that dwell in the Haunted Mansion.

While he makes that long trip, we check in with Hatchaway and Pepé for our third original number, “Tie the Knot Tango.”

I enjoy how Muppets Haunted Mansion gets progressively darker (while still keeping its humor). This progression helps the story but also endears viewers with lighter freaky fare before moving on to, for example, Constance Hatchaway, a ghost bride with a glowing heart and glowing red eyes that hypnotize her target before she pseudo-drugs him in order to add him to her list of husbands she’s constantly hatched away.

We also get fun Muppet cameos here who haven’t shown up yet in the mansion. I’ve loved Walter since his debut in The Muppets (2011), and I’m so glad to see him get a role here as one of Hatchaway’s ill-fated husbands. Johnny Fiama and Sal Minella also make their first appearance since their cameos in the Muppets’ “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video (also directed by Kirk Thatcher).

In the midst of this seductive, spooky song, we still get gags, including one that will always make me laugh where incoherent characters are concerned.

Sal Minella the monkey shouts, "What's the matter with you? You can't say that. This is a family show," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
There are no words…literally.

Taraji P. Henson plays a very dark and menacing character with an undercurrent of humor and puts that all together while singing this song so very well. Her voice gives the scene a haunting, hypnotizing mood.

Gonzo finally finds and enters Room 999, leading to a great gag with the room number that maybe you’ll think about before it happens, but frankly, I was surprised the special was able to actually follow through with it. Nicely done.

This is where the emotional punches come in. Gonzo’s fears, once uncovered, are relatable and will probably resonate with many. The way the special shows this through Gonzo’s appearance is another great mix of dark and humorous: props to the puppet builders who pulled it off, and well done, Dave Goelz.

Gonzo faces his fears, escapes Room 999, and is free to go. But, according to the Host, Pepé’s not so lucky. Caught under Constance’s spell, he won’t be making it out by sunrise, and thus, will have to stay forever. Gonzo refuses to accept this and risks his own freedom to save his friend who’s stuck by him through this whole night. Uncle Deadly finally gets his appearance in this spooky special, and, after a daring and narrow rescue, Hatchaway begs them to “Hurry back…”

A Muppet mummy and a Muppet skeleton jump in front of Host (Will Arnett) to say, "Dun dun dun!" to Gonzo and Pepé the King Prawn, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Oh no! Sequel bait!

Gonzo and Pepé just barely make it out by sunrise and bid goodbye to the Host. In true MacGuffin fashion, we get a sudden wrap-up of that mystery that lured Gonzo to the Haunted Mansion to tackle this challenge in the first place.

There are so many little details I love that may not be immediately apparent, but, if they weren’t there, would be very noticeable. Besides the human guest stars, everything else is a Muppet. The bats, the ghosts (who were also featured in the Vincent Price episode of The Muppet Show), the Caretaker’s dog…even the spiders on Constance Hatchaway’s grapes are fuzzy Muppet-esque spiders. The Stretching Room has Mahna Mahna holding two Snowth candles. The spooky wallpaper has Gonzo and Pepé in it. It’s this kind of attention to subtle detail that solidifies this world as one that’s built for both humans and Muppets.

The Muppets are a little bit of everything. They have humor ranging from clever satire to self-aware comments that demolish the fourth wall (for those unaware, that’s the figurative “wall” separating everything onscreen from the audience), to the worst puns you could ever dig up. (Pun intended.) They sing and dance to everything from meaningful songs about rainbows, to deliberately cheesy happy songs about how life’s a happy song, to covers of songs whose original versions probably wouldn’t make anyone think of the Muppets. They have hearts, but can also be biting or just silly. They also have dozens of characters.

When you have this many ingredients, it gives you the freedom to create something different every time you use them. Fans of the Muppets are, of course, all different: they like different elements of the Muppets, and they like different Muppets. Some Muppet media will be your style, while some may not be.

Statler, sitting in a Haunted Mansion doom buggy with Waldorf, says, "Yeah, booing comes with the territory," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Maybe Statler and Waldorf will save you a seat.

For this Muppet fan, Muppets Haunted Mansion is a fresh direction for the Muppets, while keeping Muppet mayhem—from cheesy, to zany, to clever—and an undercurrent of that Muppet heart in the concoction. Most of all, I was engaged and invested throughout this special, and will be returning to it each Halloween…if not sooner.

As a horror fan, I may be biased, but I enjoy whenever the Muppets move into the macabre. Horror, dealing with primal emotions, is a prime time to deal with emotional storylines that run deeper than running from ghosts. Dealing with extremely unorthodox situations, horror’s also ripe for comedy. The Muppets are adept at both, which is why they can fit so well within the genre. I do hope they “hurry back” for more macabre adventures, whether at the Haunted Mansion or elsewhere.

As for Muppets Haunted Mansion specifically, while it’s easy enough to access on Disney+, I hope it gets a DVD release or a TV airing so even more people can see it…and so we can see some behind-the-scenes material.

Stay tuned until after the credits, although that won’t be difficult, because you’ll be too busy singing and dancing along with the entire rest of the cast to Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s cover of “Dancing in the Moonlight.”

If you haven’t yet, it’s well worth your time to venture into Muppets Haunted Mansion on Disney+. If you already have and made it out alive, I recommend giving it another watch to catch anything you missed, whether jokes, references, Muppets, details or gags in the background, or anything else.

Gonzo exclaims, "Yes! Yes, a thousand times yet," in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Or watch it a thousand times. I won’t judge.

Oh, and have a very, very…

Gonzo laughs and yells, "Happy Halloween!" while standing in a sunroof on a hearse in a foggy night, in the 2021 special, "Muppets Haunted Mansion."
Couldn’t have said it better myself (and not just because my Gonzo impression needs work).

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Written by Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee’s a writer, actor, singer, director, DJ (including hosting “Jammin’ with Jamie”), and more in film, theatre, and radio. Jamie Lee Cortese, despite loving horror and comedy and being an actor and writer, is also not Jamie Lee Curtis, though she understands where you might get confused. Visit her website at or find her on Twitter @JackalopeJamie.

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