And strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls
Whenever candlelight flickers where the air is deathly still
That is the time when ghosts are present
Practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…
Never before or since has a Disney attraction actually opened with a spoken thesis statement which in no uncertain terms is intended as an evocation of a grouping of elements which the attraction itself will eventually supply, and yet here it is, in what is undoubtedly the most literate and effective text ever penned for an attraction, supplied by X. Atencio. And it is appropriate that The Haunted Mansion announces itself in the form of a literal list of things which will be fulfilled by the upcoming experience, as The Haunted Mansion is, in a way of speaking, the most complex attraction ever built.
Now I do not, of course, intend “complex” to mean literally that it deploys the most stuff per square foot nor that it has the most sophisticated technology to guide it along – these are definitions of “complex” often deployed by Disney itself to glorify the most mediocre manner of tripe. I mean “complex” in that the attraction itself takes the form of an impenetrable network of symbols which loops back into themselves with no point of access. To speak of it as a cipher, it is almost impossible to “decode” into a set of elements which may be identified as “this is how this works” or “this is the best thing about it.” Indeed, its insular nature stems from the fact that it is indeed the happiest of all happy accidents, a total artistic success because of what nobody did rather than what one person did right.
And so then to decode, even in part, this pattern, we must follow the attraction’s example and supply a thesis statement.
To this I say that the Haunted Mansion is formal in that we cannot get locked into its’ non-narrative and seek answers there – generations of Haunted Mansion fans have contemplated the Narrative Question and come up with nothing but rumor and speculation. In order to comprehend the attraction we must see it simply and clearly as a succession of objects arranged in a pattern which are viewed from a fixed distance and moved past at a fixed rate which forms a pattern of comprehension. There can be no further or more basic understanding.
I have often spoken of the concept of “Presentationalism” as a form of attraction-based formalism, and specifically in reference to EPCOT attractions and theatre-based entertainment. I have also spoken of 3-D Montage as being a possible stepping-stone to comprehension of what attractions can do. The Haunted Mansion does all of these and more, while at once frustrating every effort to classify it as any one entity; it is, in short, the keystone of what great attraction design can be – and doesn’t have to be. Indeed, its’ power lies in its’ great minimalism, its sparseness, the quietude of the dark, empty void it often seems to inhabit. So in attempting to form a method of attack to this great edifice, I have formulated three concepts which I hope to stick to: What Was Planned, What Was Built, and What It Does.
What Was Planned
Let it first be said that the Spook Train – the basic idea of the attraction and its cultural heritage – is not only as old as
Part of this may be that in order to create a full controlled environment in which scenes may be presented and built, that environment must first be, by laws of light on our planet, fully enclosed and darkened. Only then, the early artisans of the amusement park realized, could scenes be presented to their fullest effect to a spectator in a passing vehicle. This necessity itself and the darkened space it requires ensured the creation of the spook thrill ride – if you’re going to have darkness, why not scariness as well? And thus the tradition of the Laff in the Dark was born.
These early versions of the
Now Walt Disney wasn’t a man who appreciated clutter, madness or low rent thrills; although he liked most other things about America, Coney Island in its’ heyday would probably not have appealed to him. And
And so it goes without saying that, just as Disneyland had its’ own carousel, its own concession stands, its own spinning attraction, and its own kiddie roller coaster, as early as the idea existed there was to be a dark ride.
From here, the history of the ride essentially fragments into three parts: the pre 1964 Ken Anderson and Yale Gracey design efforts, the post 1964 Marc Davis design efforts, and the Claude Coates efforts.
For many years the Ken Anderson portion of the Haunted House development was mysterious, but thanks to a 2005 publication of his original layout and scene descriptions by the famous E-Ticket Magazine, we have a full account of how much and, strangely, how little changed between 1959 and 1969. In 1959 we already have secret passageways in and out of inescapable situations, a haunted grand ball, a dead bride, a piano which plays itself, and sundry gags like a vanishing ceiling to reveal a hung body, ghosts rising out of their graves and mirrors which show guests as well as ghosts which pass among them, unseen except in reflection.
A walkthrough alternately hosted by a generic butler or Walt Disney himself, Anderson’s Haunted House is a relic of an older era in Disneyland’s history, a minor attraction in design but a key development in technique. Especially noteworthy in Anderson’s version is the good natured, pun-based humor of the ghoulish scenes, heavily patterned on the word-image interplay of Charles Addam’s New Yorker comics (“The groom is a little hung up right now” to deflate the tension of the hanging man and the see-through ceiling). Furthermore,
On the other hand, Crump and Gracey’s devices were far more sinister, the most famous of which was the dead sea captain dripping rainwater, an image later drawn by Marc Davis and repainted for the
Marc Davis’ gag sketches, by contrast, are far more contained and less flexible, and generally had to be represented in whole for their eccentric light humor to play. The way the attraction segues from the atmospheric first half to the gag heavy second half as the spirits materialize allows the creative autonomy of Gracey’s work and
Claude Coates Has Another Idea.
Around the same time, Claude Coates had been developing an innovative aesthetic based around ideas of space and minimalism which would ultimately result in Adventure Thru Inner Space and If You Had Wings, the only attractions predating the
Coates also brought in Rolly Crump’s design legacy to the attraction – apparently almost without his knowledge. Crump had designed in 1966 a “Museum of the Weird” using a lot of ideas about the intersection of human and inanimate features in an evil house, ideas borrowed from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the attraction demonic faces, eyes, bat wings, skulls and other features are blended into the architecture itself, on the back of old armchairs, in banners, doorknobs, and fireplace grilles. This highly abstract work is some of the creepiest stuff in the show, and Coates and
Dozens others worked on the show, but the remarkable thing is that of all of these guiding, conflicting ideas, not a one was written out: Ken Anderson’s bride, Rolly Crump’s designs, Marc Davis’ gags, and Claude Coates’ atmospheric designs all survive in the show in relative harmony, one of the richest and most unique blends of ideas and styles in any Disney product, ever.--
Next week: more suspect analysis! Until then, please comment.. commented-upon blogs are happy blogs!