Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part One

When hinges creak in doorless chambers
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.

The Haunted Mansion is the most formal of all attractions operating today. I mean formal in its’ literal intellectual sort – where we must discard motivations, meanings and narratives implied or not to arrive at a deeper meaning, a more complete understanding.

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 Disneyland itself, but as old as the idea of something like a theme park. For as long as people have been willing to pay to be flung about, dangled upside down, terrified, embarrassed or strapped into a somewhat safe moving vehicle, there has been the Dark Ride. Some of the earliest amusements were “Tunnels of Love” full of Ghoulish tableaus, and the traditional Spook House attraction with two person carts on an electric rail was not far behind. Some early dark rides ran on gravity. But the point is, as long as there has been an idea of an attraction providing a three-dimensional form of amusement, there has been a spook house attraction.

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 Haunted Mansion are as primal to the American cultural unconsciousness as the same fledging art being created at the time: the cinema. While the early-model guests rode Steeple Chase, films like The Great Train Robbery flicked across bedsheets in storefront Nickelodeons, and America was all at once creating most of the myths, ideas, pageantry and vulgarity which would inform most of her national character for the next century. And one of these primal experiences was riding a rail down a darkened hall while paper-mache witches zipped from their darkened corners. It was the perfect waking dream state.

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 Disneyland - as a piece as well as a social event - is as much of a reformation of the traditional amusement park as it is its’ own proper work. With all its’ thrills sanitized, dangers cushioned, and vulgarity censored, Disneyland is as much of America’s own reflection of herself circa 1955 as Coney Island was circa 1895. And most brilliantly, Walt’s park used as many familiar images as it did new ones: like it or not, Fantasyland is basically a carnival in appearance, content and function.

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, Anderson’s mansion hosts a cornucopia of famous spooks like The Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, Dracula and the Wolf Man. The unsettling anonyminity of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion – their unfamiliarity to the spectator – elevates the strange disconnect between fantasy and fright which using well known characters does not create. It is, in effect, a cuddlier version of the attraction, a fact which the explicit participation of Disney himself is representative of.

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 Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion. Gracey and Crump were going to spook shows like William Castle’s productions and bringing back ideas on how to genuinely startle and baffle an audience – a lineage which would also be brought to the table in the final attraction.

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 Davis’ work to coexist. In future attractions Davis would retain fuller control over the final product, as his gags are slightly compromised by the fact that the audience’s vantage point is changing every second and a full “loop” is never allowed to fully play. For example, one of the original Davis gags, of ghosts alternately appearing and vanishing atop a teeter-totter, was installed but the gag was never even attempted due to the placement of the ghosts relative the doombuggies meant that the tableau is seen for only a few fleeting seconds. In future attractions, Davis would try to retain more creative control over the final product, but as his influence increased, his ability to get attractions built would decrease.

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 EPCOT Center crop which actually have a functional understanding of modernism. Perhaps spurred by a Marc Davis piece depicting ghosts arriving at the Haunted Mansion in a totally irrational space of boxes floating in space, Coates’ idea of a Haunted Mansion was based on the idea that the literal brick and mortar of the house was unreliable and that whole sections of the house would just melt away into a black void. This delightfully creepy idea is actually still present in all versions of the original attraction in small ways, but the Coates concept art released to the public sphere reveals an constant and obsessive reiteration of the “ghostly nothingness” idea, in stark contrast to the richly detailed decaying house conveyed in the work of Davis and Anderson for the interior.

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 Davis’ retention of these ideas from Crump’s Museum of the Weird animates many very simple scenes.

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!


Klark Kent 007 said...

I greatly enjoy your perspective.

More please

Andrew said...

I'm loving your insight into one of my favourite attractions. I always seem to learn far more than I'd want to at 8 in the morning when you update.

Can't wait for more.

Tim said...

Great stuff as always, Foxxfur. Good start here, and I'm keen to see your other thoughts on the Mansion.

krueg said...

I seriously can't wait for you to update your blog. As someone who has been to WDW countless times, your articles bring to light so many things I have taken for granted over the years or even never considered. It sufficies to say I will enjoy my next trip greatly due to the new perspective that you have given me...THANKS and keep it up.

Biblioadonis aka George said...


Great historical commentary. I really enjoyed the comparison of how the development of the Mansion had a corollary with the development of dark rides overall, in relation to the evolution of theme parks.

It is also one of the least heavy-handed in its storytelling--if you just use the aural clues. Besides having two distinct feels: the museum of the weird at the beginning followed by Davis' humorous ghost gags; I have always thought that the general public saw nothing more than a series of tableau's. More was needed from the storytelling side to placate the average fan (not us Disney Geeks, per se).

So many rides were created throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's that evolved with the Omni-Mover concept and the Imagineer's experiences telling stories to a moving audience. What would you consider the ultimate evolution of the Haunted Mansion? Horizons? Spaceship Earth? Or the Phantom Manor?

Grumpwurst (Ray) said...

I can not help but come out edified after reading one of your posts. I cannot wait for the next installment

Chef Mayhem said...

What great insights, Foxxfur! Lately, I've been looking at the Mansion in an even larger context; while it's probably most accurate to view it through the prism of the history of the dark ride, there are interesting elements of the Mansion that were developed during four different centuries of entertainment: 18th (late 1700s "magic lantern" shows and phantasmagoria), 19th (the Pepper's Ghost effect makes its theatrical debut), 20th (robotics make audioanimatronics feasible actors) and 21st (digital projection, computer controlled audio, etc.) Each era's contribution is just as important to the show in general. It's definitely an attraction worth the hoopla that surrounds it. Thanks for the great perpective.

Falstaff said...

I wanted to tell you that microsofts mapping tool has "birds eye" helicopter views of the properties. You can see clear look down views of any building from the 4 cardinal directions.

With practice you can fly over the parks like you were actually there.

Falstaff said...


Here is that URL, made tiny

D E said...

I've read a lot about the HM over the years...this is exactly the kind of piece I've always wanted to see, but never have. Kudos.

Alex said...

Where did the picture of the young lady holding an axe come from. I've noticed an actual painting very much like it at the Pirates League in the Magic Kingdom and I was wondering if it had a history behind it.