Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part Three

What It Does: Back to Basics

“For about two or three years, [The Haunted Mansion] was kind of a ‘dead duck’ really. These guys worked on it, but they couldn’t sell the idea the way they had it… all that work on a story bogged the Mansion down to the point where it just wasn’t done.”

“What I remember was Walt’s attitude about these rides at the time. He felt they were a medium where you gave experiences… a flash of this and a flash of that… everything within a subject matter. I know that the Enchanted Tiki Room, for instance, was a place of great discovery for people. Here were people seeing something that they really did not expect. There was this element of surprise as first one object came to life, and then something else, and then the whole room was moving and singing. That experience told me an awful lot about what these later attractions, like The Haunted Mansion, should be. Rides should be what people don’t expect them to be, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with continuity of story. […] When we did Nature’s Wonderland, we didn’t have a story from beginning to end. What held the ride together were the animals and the interesting situations, and that made it work. That was what Walt believed and I never disagreed with him. He didn’t like the earlier direction [The Haunted Mansion] was taking when they were trying to tell a story.”

~ Marc Davis, to The E Ticket, Issue 16, 1993 (my emphasis)

The most significant piece of writing on the Disney parks in the last fifteen years is “The Myth of Story”, posted by Tangaroa at online journal Re-Imagineering, some of WDI’s most literate and astute critics. In it, the history of Eisner’s creative takeover of the possibilities of the medium is traced to the story-heavy attractions of today, where plotlines are complex and never necessary. Compared to WED’s output of the Golden Era proper, from 1966 to 1982, a very different aesthetic is at play, and the difference is similar to the lyricism of the late silent film vs. the awkwardness of the early talking film. WED was designing a totally different art altogether.

The easiest way to analyze the effect of the WED-era designs is to concentrate on the indivisible elements: to evaluate once something has been removed, whether or not the attraction still has artistic unity. Once you’ve removed everything you can, those essential items left over are the indivisible elements; they cannot be broken down any further and still yield an essentially similar result. The value of Coates’ supernatural void is that he was attempting to refine the attraction down to an essential, indivisible element: darkness, movement, sound, and very selective visual cues.

I’ve spent an awful long time describing the essential elements of design in the attraction because once you start to evaluate all of these in concert; to consider Crump’s swirley abstract patterns, Coates’ spatiality, Davis’ recognizable faces and figures; does it actually begin to become apparent that that is really all there is to it. Once one accepts the Mansion as a series of events which fulfill a mathematical formula of which we are given a thesis introduction to in the first room and which the last room fulfills by force of pure volume, does what the Haunted Mansion is all about come into focus. It’s not about ghosts or séances with head mediums or sounds or effects, and it’s not about dead brides or hitch-hiking ghosts or even Paul Frees’ narration. What the attraction is honestly about on the most basic level, the point where it cannot break down any farther, is the manipulation of gaze.

So let’s return to the thesis the show supplies us once again.

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…

All of these things the attraction has supplied, in pure form, by the time spectators disembark, and by announcing its’ intention, fulfilling a mathematical gratification which is set up early on (one ghost, two ghosts… …nine hundred and ninety-nine ghosts) does Atencio’s script become essentially a kind of footnote version of the attraction: often an annotation, never an explanation. Those angles and shadows and the ideas they create is the substitution of a storyline.

Or, to put it another way, the only plot of the attraction is event, not precedent.

A Model for Study

So what, then, is the basis on which we can analyze the work? After all, since an early age many of us have been continually exposed to mainstream ideas like the importance of story, the significance of story, the structure of story, and how stories are created and shared. According to these scholars of varying credibility, the Haunted Mansion oughtn’t be one of our key cultural experiences in the United States; it has no Joseph Campbell-esque plot arc which is supposed to be how ALL stories work. Yet here it is, totally self contained, plotless, and fully satisfying.

Therefore the Haunted Mansion may prove that things needn’t have stories, and the ultimate extrapolation of this, in a themed design perspective, could be that any object viewed from a stationary location and lit from a variety of shifting light sources - if presented in the proper order - would be as thrilling as any story: that stories, essentially nothing but a pattern of gratification, can be further reduced to being merely a pattern of raw information. Although this sounds extreme, think of something as innocuous as EPCOT’s Fountain of Nations, which holds spectators spellbound. Is it not a related, if not on some primary – indeed mathematical - level, an identical reaction?

This idea is, of course, an outlier in terms of actual attraction design, which is why I say that the two attractions which most embodied something close to an avant-garde aesthetic in their use of those indivisible elements were If You Had Wings and Adventure Thru Inner Space. But there has never been and never will be a wholly avant-garde attraction, a succession of nothing but indivisible elements and intentional contrariness; the public would revolt. Besides, the comparison between Disney rides and authentically avant-garde art isn’t really appropriate or desirable, since there are other artistic, cinematic modes which we may use as a model for understanding the pattern of comprehension which the Haunted Mansion conveys.

In the cinematic tradition of narrative, one possible model is later films of John Ford, where the story is a succession of small events hung along a line which is essentially purely conceptual, i.e., “Wyatt Earp is a sheriff” begets My Darling Clementine, a succession of small but potent pastorals of life in the old west. Because Ford’s interest was often rarely in the service of a plot and because he is never hurried with his camera, his work has often been called poetic, an impression mainly deriving from his preferred story structure, which is to say, as little of one as possible. But Ford, America’s greatest historian, had another trick up his sleeve, which is the identification and exploitation of a myth. Ford’s basic building block is an American event, figure, or idea, and the story is essentially a succession of riffs on the idea, either working with or against the myth. One model is Young Mr. Lincoln, another is She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and so on.

So if we see the Haunted Mansion as taking for granted a cultural concept – the default idea of a haunted house – and doing a succession of riffs on the idea - exploiting, inverting, or reassuring our idea of what may constitute a haunted house - then the Haunted Mansion is essentially of an identical structure of Ford’s ideas of story. These “riffs” are basically exactly Davis’ idea that rides should be what we don’t expect them to be, and the execution of the ride constitutes the part of his statement where they “don’t have a lot to do with plot”. A lot of ink has been spilled over John Ford, but despite his story structure, the dullest of the dull story pundits have never once called him out as being less than a great story teller despite his total abandonment of traditional modes of narrative.

Why it is important to have a model for understanding this structure is that The Haunted Mansion is its’ own model; it isn’t based on attractions, attractions base themselves on it. So if we can identity the organizable pattern of information as having a conceptual precedent, then the doors to further comprehension not only of the unit, but of its later progeny are opened.

And so, a model having been established and explored, let us apply that model to the attraction and really break down what it does. And the answer is: surprisingly little, and everything all at once.

Let us consider, for example, however briefly, Coates’ much maligned supernatural void concept. The thing that individuals who oppose this concept often miss which Coates - the design and layout man he was and the environmental design artist we think of him as - understood, is that darkness – utter, stark blackness – is not the absence of material, but the presence of all possible material. A badly exposed piece of film doesn’t turn transparent, it turns pure black because it has been exposed to the visible light spectrum, ie, all colors. Why his ideas on attraction design are unique is that he understood that darkness was not only the natural state for attractions to exist in, but that darkness held not nothing, but the potential for all things.

His supernatural void is the ultimate indivisible element because it was not a lack of information, but all possible information entering at once, unorganized. It may be not the ultimate, but perhaps the most astute, moment in an attraction which is nothing but an scrambled mass of information entering the consciousness of the spectator; the Haunted Mansion proposes a succession of visual questions to which there are no possible answers, no possible forms of gratification.

The problem (or the beauty) of this is that this just isn’t how people work, and spectators are likely unprepared to run into such a contrarian aesthetic in such a supposed vapid playground as Disneyland. The human desire to organize raw data and the data’s utter refusal to be organized in such a way means that the attraction suggests an infinite number of repercussions and relationships which simply aren’t intentional: we enter the Haunted Mansion and hear organ music, later we see a ghost playing a big pipe organ in the ballroom. Are they the same ghost? Of course not: the organ music in the entrance was non-diagetic tone, intended to be felt more than heard. This doesn’t stop any sane person from connecting the (illusory) dots.

Because these things are by and large unintentional, because the attraction is a raw stream of data which, due to its’ evolution, has a maddening fleet of cyclical ideas and images, means that these unanswered questions become a succession of open ends which aggravate the spectators in such a way that obsessive observation is the result; we ride again and again and look again and again for heretofor unobserved details because the whole structure of the attraction tells us “there can be more, there must be more” when all those dark corners can offer is black painted plywood and dust. It is a puzzle which cannot be solved because the makers never bothered to write the solution.

Further Confusions

The problem is that this artistic precept is anathema to WDI’s current cultural climate where Story is King, and it’s frankly opaque to much of the public who rides the Haunted Mansion looking for that illusory Something More. And so WDI seems to have made up WED’s mind for her and decided that the Haunted Mansion certainly does have a very complex story, that all those echoes and coincidences certainly are intentional, and they have allowed the fans to lead them.

Because the show does what it’s intended to - which is create a continuity of events with a mythic subject presented in an very precise order in order to create a certain conceptual and emotional climate – the result of all this is that fans, not understanding that their attraction may be no more complex than the sum of its’ parts, and their imaginations fired by the infinite possibilities of this visual pattern, have begun to formulate ideas about it - some natural, others rather bizarre.

One of these is that X. Atenio’s gravestone tribute to Yale Gracey outside, referring to him as “Master Gracey”, means that Gracey was the name of the ‘master’ of the house, and that since our Ghost Host naration in the attraction is omnipresent and welcomes us to the house, that he must be the master of the house, meaning that Master Gracey is the name of the Ghost Host who is the owner of the house (get it?). This idea has been validated by WDI in the last few years, helped notably by the mounding of earth in front of Gracey’s tomb, and the 2003 film’s use of the name “Master Gracey” for it’s Ghost Host role. All of this ignores that Atencio almost certainly penned the epitaph with an eye towards 19th century parlance, where “Master” meant:

“A youth or boy too young to be called ‘mister’” – Merriam-Webster

So although the Ghost Host may refer to himself as “the lord and master of this Haunted Mansion” in an improvised, rejected take, he is not necessarily named Gracey. Referring to the Dorian Grey portrait effect in Orlando’s foyer as Master Gracey is a little more acceptable, but Master Gracey is probably not the man hanging atop the stretching gallery – that’s the Ghost Host, and if you want to see what he looks like, both shows in America offer repainted versions of the piece of character art Marc Davis labeled “Ghost Host”, where he is identifiable by his long white hair, noose ‘round his neck, and axe.

This single misunderstanding is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including the most well intentioned of people, but is indicative of the kind of problem solving people tend to do for the attraction, rather than let it work on its’ own considerable merits.

WDI hasn’t helped matters by installing a new attic show scene where a bride, identifiable as being named Constance through a prominently-displayed wedding banner, has chopped off all of her husband’s heads and stands around with her axe amid all her stuff and gloats. The scene practically hijacks the entire attraction in favor of a tone not necessarily out of place, but certainly different than, the rest of the show. Davis supplied endless gags of wives murdering their husbands. One changing portrait concept of his had a woman embracing her lover suddenly knife him in the chest; in another concept (repainted for Walt Disney World’s moving eye portraits), a woman is standing behind her husband and starts strangling him. The portrait in the stretching gallery of the widow who has axed her husband is the strongest remnant of these ideas in the final show, so the new effect is not out of place in that capacity.

The problem with the scene is that it gives a single ghost a name, an identity, a voice, and a back story, something that never happens in the rest of the show (the unfortunate inclusion of the Ghost Host outtakes in the Anaheim show in 1995 where he identifies Madame Leota by name doesn’t count since they aren’t meant to be there). Worse, WDI has confused matters by replicating staging of the Marc Davis stretching portrait in one of the wedding photos, but the bride appears as a young woman, not the matronly widow seen earlier in the Davis piece, so she logically can not be the same character. And by the way, did she live in the house? Did she own the house? If it’s a retirement home for ghosts, how did all her stuff get up there? In name of increasing continuity, a simple gag has been mangled into a confusing contradiction requiring more thought, not less.

Constance replaced the enigmatic bride figure designed by WED, who at least was immediately visually identifiable as a lost bride in the gothic tradition through her lit candle. The original incarnation(s) of the bride figure retained her mystery and followed the rules of the rest of the attraction, but the new version destroys all the mystery which is really the heart of the show, the mystery that ironically begot the new version, leaving nothing to the imagination.


Story is antithetical to the Haunted Mansion, and all these ideas floating in the ether, promoted by WDI, created by fans, confused by later generations of designers, aren’t increasing our ability to appreciate the attraction; they’re destroying why people became interested in the first place. These ideas actually undermine the attraction they’re meant to support, but at the same time they are created because the attraction is successful at what it does. By feeding us raw information, by following Walt Disney’s artistic concepts about what a themed show should be, and by building a visual pattern which suggests much but reveals little, the Haunted Mansion has survived scrutiny by generations of spectators.

That thread of a concept which I spoke of, that Fordian through line of myth and mystery, cannot bear much weight before it will eventually snap; the mysteries of the show, the reason it works, cannot be elaborated. The show is a visual pattern and there is very much to be learned still from her very essential, indivisible elements: shape, direction, space, vantage and darkness. It is the show that does everything that themed design has been able to do in her 52 years, and the artistic unity of idea and expression in her should be maintained at all costs. Those things which were not intended by the design team cannot be taken seriously and must be rejected in our view of the attraction. In short, we should defend the Haunted Mansion against herself.

Disney journalist Jim Hill has recently said about one of the Haunted Mansion’s details:

“By the way, much has been made about WDI's decision to remove that wedding band used to be embedded in the cement near the Mansion's Mausoleum / exit area (Okay. I know. It wasn't really a ring. It was just a piece of a stantion that got snapped off at ground level that -- over the years -- people then began saying was a wedding band. Now let's not let the truth stand in the way of a good story, okay?)”

I say: let’s not let a story stand in the way of a good design.