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.


John Dedeke said...

This may be your best post yet. I don't know that I'm in complete agreement about the level of "threat" the new scene additions pose to the integrity of Haunted Mansion (I don't know that casual observers -- people that visit only once every few years, for example -- will necessarily see a storyline in the loose correlation of ride elements like the stretch room painting and the attic re-staging, and those who exhibit any kind of scholarly inclination toward the design and evolution of the parks will probably just reject it on the principles you've outlined), but your argument is incredibly engaging. Thanks so much!

Unknown said...

Great article, Chris.

I am still mentally digesting it. Lots of great points and very valid arguments.

So...what's netx?

Bill said...

I too have always thought of the Haunted Mansion as the living embodiment of Deems Taylor's "absolute music". A series of tableaux that merely exist, inciting reactions and changing moods, with a few motifs repeating here and there.

Still, I wonder if this might be your most controversial post yet. Especially to those still unravelling the mystery over at sites such as

FoxxFur said...

I can't really say my intent was to be controversial - the fan speculation on the internet wasn't really what I was trying to explode, but the whole way people tend to look at it culturally. I'm glad I'm at least causing some thought on the subject. Anyway I rarely like controversy - just analysis. If that causes controversy, well, oh well. =)

What's next? lol - something that won't require 8,933 words on a single attraction. ;) That's twice the length of what was previously my longest piece! Yikes!

Bill said...

I had dinner last night with a few close friends of mine, all fans of the parks, and your post led to quite the "spirited" debate.

You've got people talking about the state of the ...Disney... art. So I say brava!

FoxxFur said...

Awesome! If there's ever a food/fist fight over my ideas, I want a link to the YouTube video! ^^

Cory Gross said...

I like your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

I mean...

I would take your thesis on the Mansion and elaborate it out to the whole park. What are the best parts of all the rides? Well, they're the parts that best exemplify the idea of theme park as immersive environment: going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, flying over London and Neverland...

The story isn't the critical part... I know the story, having seen the movie. What I want is to enter the world myself. I want to go down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. I want to fly over Neverland. For that matter, I want to sail through pirate caves, visit the Dwarfs' gold mine, cruise the rustic frontier aboard a sternwheeler, enjoy a musical show by a company of tropical birds, etc. and so on.

What I don't particularly want to do is watch someone else do it. I believe it was Re-Imagineering that quoted the question of what you would rather do, go down the rabbit hole or watch Alice do it? (or watch Br'er Rabbit have adventures, or watch Mike and Sully rescue someone, or watch Pooh and friends have fun) The line of the story only needs to be strong enough to carry us from scene to scene.

That, as you note at length, is that visual dynamic... And all of my favorite rides, if they have anything comparable to a story, are ones that move through a geography rather than a plot (eg: Peter Pan's Flight, Mark Twain Riverboat, Snow White's Scary Adventure, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Primeval World, Temple of the Forbidden Eye [though that can be debated], The Matterhorn, The Haunted Mansion, and the pre-Depped Pirates of the Caribbean). They are the ones that most successfully do what a theme park is supposed to: be a park that immerses you in a theme.

Oh yeah, and props for sniping at Joseph Campbell... I'm so sick of that academic elitist and his hacknyed Hero's Journey ^_^

But all that said, I actually like Constance... I suppose one could see it as an attempted plotline, but I tend to look at her (and think most people do) as an elaborate Marc Davis-style gag. It's executed (excuse the pun) over a large parcel of space, but I don't think it's any fundamentally different than any of those ghosts in the ballroom or the graveyard. Why are those two ghosts in the portrait shooting eachother? What's the deal with the Executioner, the Headless Knight and Gus? Nearly every one of those figures and sets has an implicit "story" of some kind that reflects the gag. Constance is the same.

As a last note though, one of the worst criticisms of story-finding I heard was Jeff Burke's lambasting of the fans on the Extinct Attractions Club Phantom Manor DVD. Now, I could listen to the guy describe his ride all day, but for some reasno he felt compelled to tell fans to get over trying to figure out the story and just sit back and enjoy the ride... Well, besides the fact that looking into it deeply is a sign of people's appreciation for your work, you invited it by designing it to tell any kind of story at all!

Anyways, thanks for the article!

FoxxFur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FoxxFur said...

Ooh, a long response... thanks!

I really think two things could be done to level the playing field of the new bride (I don't have enough respect for her to use her name) with the rest of what she appears in: remove her name (fixes 75% of my problem with her) and remove her face (fixes the last 25% in addition to removing what is, let's be honest, a pretty bad performance).

The ghosts must and do imply backstories, being dead and all, and that isn't my problem: it's the extended duration of the joke which strikes me as un-Davisian and marks the effort as being only an overture towards his style. Davis could've done the same gag in about six feet of track; the new attic is strictly amateur night in the middle of Lawrence of Arabia.

It's still a lot of time to concentrate on one ghost, and it's not even the illusion that's carrying the scene, as in Leota, but this extended joke that's not as clever as it wants to be, and t all leads up to a disappointing illusion.

Depped Pirates in Anaheim screws up the finest attraction ever built; Depped Pirates in Orlando fixes one of the most screwed up attractions ever built. It's funny how it works, but suddenly Pirates has a beginning and an ending over here, something we never had before, and it even feels well paced out! That's the easiest way to tell WDI is bullshitting us when they claim that the changes were designed for DL in mind...

Anyway I'm glad to have you on board and commenting as well. I, of course, don't need to reiterate our mutual understanding of what good themed space does.

Cory Gross said...

Well thanks for having me! (and allowing me to jump into the discussion in the middle of the night, distracting me from an all-nighter on a paper!)

I see what you mean about the duration of the new attic bride gag, but one could also look at it as a recall of the early walk-through where more extended jokes or tricks had to be set-up. Perhaps Davis could have made it more economically, but there is, I think, a deliberate pacing out of the gag.

The name "Constance" does kind of beat you over the head, and perhaps it was amateur night at WDI (hard for me to tell, given the flaws I've voice previously about the Mansion), but I actually kinda' like her. Well, to be more precise, I personally would prefer a melancholic and mysterious bride over a black widow, but that's a matter of personal taste. I think the new attic scene is quite well done unto itself.

In fact, buried away somewhere on is my defense of Constance as an example in good plussing vs. the Depped Pirates as bad plussing (minussing?). I can exhume it if you'd be interested... I think it was mostly that Constance was good because it wasn't motivated by marketting, enhanced the realism in a ride that too often looks too obviously like a soundstage, and makes use of a recurring trick type (changing portraits, projections). This is vs. Pirates, which was motivated by marketting, damaged the integrity of the original story, contradicted its own source material, and utilized a character and an effect (the Davy Jones projection) that never recurrs in the attraction.

Jim Blynt said...

I haven't read much on this subject (the role of stories in Disney theme park attractions), but I have visited the Haunted Mansion at WDW several times, and I also know the work of Joseph Campbell. My understanding, from those visits, was that the story of the mansion went basically like this: I, an inquiring person, had entered a reputedly haunted mansion in the hopes of seeing ghosts. I tour the mansion, where, during the course of my adventure, I see the ghosts. I then exit the house, ready to share my experience with others, who may or may not believe that I have actually seen supernatural phenonema. If that is the story, then it does, indeed work within the framework of Joseph Campbell's thesis of the hero's journey, right down to the element of bringing back knowledge/insight and being potentially rejected for it. I would agree that some interpretations of story in this context (theme park attractions) may be overblown, but the experience of the Haunted Mansion is definitely a linear one (though not completely) with events unfolding more or less as they would in a very basic haunted house tale. The arrangement of archetypal elements, however imperfectly done, in such a fashion would seem to indicate the presence of story, even if it's not as elaborate as that intended by some of the original designers. It seems to me that the genius of Walt Disney was to tap into these very simple and basic stories, without getting too elaborate or actually challenging people on a high intellectual level--thank God!--and thus into the human predisposition to interpret the world through stories.

Omnispace said...

Thanks for another fascinating take on the Haunted Mansion. What I particularly find intriguing is your insight into the "nothingness" designed by Claude Coates. I agree that it adds dimension to the show, inferring a threshold onto a supernatural vastness.

The use of the "void" was extremely effective in Adventure Thru Inner Space where it not only conveyed the "vastness" of inner space, but was also used in clever ways to disorient guests. Upon passing through the Mighty Microscope, the Atomobiles negotiated a hairpin turn in total darkness but rotated to maintain the same orientation. The effect was to find onself suddenly moving backwards.

Spaceship Earth trys to use "nothingness" to convey being transported across time, but the poor show lighting provides too much illumination and the illusion is broken by seeing distractions such as drapery and the ride system track itself. If the show was properly lit, and the trackway and off-scene areas better finished, I could imagine the effect of drifting past historical tableaux in time would be much more apparent to the guest.

The latest Imagination ride also trys to harness "nothingness" for its in-between show scenes. In this case, it unfortunately has no relevance to what the show is about and most likely has been a cost saving means to transition from one scene to the next. At the most, it represents a complete lack of imagination.