Friday, October 19, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part Two

What Was Built

And so in 1968 WED set about inserting, into the 1963 façade Walt Disney originally built, their first attraction without him. Speaking of Walt, it may or may not be prudent here to say that much of the items in and around that ’63 shell may be the net total Walt Disney in the attraction: WED stayed true to his dictum that the inside look neat and well tended and that there be a stretching gallery of Marc Davis portraits. From there, the attraction spins off in another direction and the fact that these early scenes are limited to the opening minutes of the attraction shows just how little was concrete before the idea of the Omnimover was decided on.

The remarkable resultant attraction is strong for what everyone contributed, rather than the work of one individual. Possibly due to the atmosphere in WED post Walt Disney, work years and years old was revised and included… Ken Anderson’s bride survived, as did his ghosts in mirrors and vanishing ceiling gags. Rolly Crump’s great designs for his Museum of the Weird, whose only proponent was Walt Disney and which was hastily cut, were resurrected by Coates and Davis as a remarkable visual counterpoint to the more literal gag-based scenes presented throughout the ride. The rest of the attraction bides its’ time between Yale Gracey’s effects, Marc Davis’ gags and Claude Coates atmospherics.

Speaking of Walt’s Big Hollow House, although he was wrong about plenty of stuff in Disneyland including the idea that everything needed to look brand new (WED had begun practicing aging as early as 1965 on New Orleans Square), the original Haunted Mansion’s stately exterior is one of its’ primary assets. Intricate enough to be charming and inviting, large enough to be imposing enough to give the spectator second thoughts, ascending the steps to the front door of the house is like traveling back in time to the romantic old South. The tall iron gate contrasts the beautiful exterior, creating a disjunction which raises a question – why would such a beautiful place be closed off? - which has been vulgarized by the subsequent Imagineering generation’s addition of funeral bunting, a hearse, and even more gravestones. The Haunted Mansion is just inviting enough to be scary for no good reason – just like houses we’re afraid of as children often are.

Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, by contrast, plays with a different but no less valid set of aesthetics and has the considerable benefit of having been designed by someone who actually worked on the attraction that finally opened inside. Ostensibly based on Dutch Gothic style mansions in upstate New York, Claude Coates’ brilliant design modifies two elements of the style of the era: by moving one of the wings of the house forward rather than continuing both straight across, and by adding extra gothic decorative elements and extra corners and angles, the impression of a historically accurate mansion just this side of sinister is conveyed. Although no one element of the house is inaccurate or even implausible, just enough areas jutting forward on the edges of the house and just too many decorate elements on the roofline give what is actually a fairly restrained basic shape the impression of being jagged.

Early designs for the house showed an even more period correct Georgian mansion which gave the impression of being sinister simply by having too many terraces and chimneys along its’ roof, a nearly subliminal evocation of a mouth full of teeth. The final version has Federalist details like the ornate decorate touches on the roofline and above the front door, but is clearly a fantasy evocation with additions like a Victorian sun room and catwalks. Although, as at Disneyland, subsequent maintenance of the exterior has made far too obvious what was once subtle with its’ immaculately maintained façade and lawn, Coates included two subtle details as a clue for what was inside: a roofline terrace consisting of vaguely humanoid little shapes looking like skulls and spiders, and a bat weathervane on the roof. Oh yes, and that wolf howling from off in the distance. Today, with its’ weedy front lawn and heavily aged bright orange bricks, it’s total overkill.

1971: "What's that big house over there?" / 2007: "Oh, it's the Haunted Mansion."

Once inside and on the ride, the tensions between the ideas of Coates and Davis, and the necessity of Gracey’s effects, results in an attraction with a split personality, a front half frontloaded with place setting and atmosphere and a second half with a lot of gags and wild characters,

Davis’ gag sketches are constructed in such a way that the scenes have a number of compound jokes which are designed to play out in full for a certain period of time, something Coates and Gurr’s Omnimover design never really allows for, and which Davis would regret for years (all his subsequent attractions would be in slow-moving boats or on stages). As a result the spaces his ideas are allowed to appear in in the Haunted Mansion tend to be large, open areas where clusters of activity can appear in pockets, like a graveyard or a grand ball. In these scenes the settings tend to fade out significantly compared to the obsessive emphasis on details which marks the early portions of the ride. On one hand this is by intent in order to emphasize the gag structures; on the other it is such a huge disjunction that the Séance Circle is an utterly black void of a space where the two styles meet and we are allowed to essentially reset our expectations.

What’s interesting about this is that Davis drew a lot of gags which could’ve been included in the show, little details like a hunter’s rear end getting bit by a tiger skin rug and lots of different ideas for the Séance Circle, a show scene Yale Gracey would probably ultimately design. He also drew a lot of spooky characters which provided the basis for portraits throughout the first part of the ride; it’s as if the team wasn’t so sure what to do with his gags so they repeated the thing that worked in Pirates of the Caribbean: get the (ghosts, pirates) drinking and have them just all through a big decorative space where the eye can wander from one to the next.

The accumulation of Davis gags was probably always intended to be the payoff for the attraction. Tony Baxter describes the Haunted Mansion as “everything that ghosts do”, and the way the attraction is structured is that we enter expecting to see ghosts, get a lot of atmosphere, and then see ghosts doing things, and have therefore experienced a payoff which is essentially mathematical: we infer that there will be ghosts, there are ghosts, and then we see those ghosts in increasingly large quantities.

These scenes may be the most impressive in the attraction, but they are not the heart of why it works. As in Pirates of the Caribbean, the attraction is frontloaded with a massive amount of Claude Coates atmospherics and Yale Gracey “stunts”. Davis must’ve recognized this as being the key element as well for, given the opportunity to redesign Pirates of the Caribbean for Tokyo Disneyland, he more or less left in all the opening caves sequences, only abridging or revising a few short segments.

The opening few minutes of the Haunted Mansion is what makes it the Haunted Mansion; all of the establishing atmosphere and sense of place which gets put on the back burner as soon as Davis takes over is why we’re convinced we’re in a real old house and not just a lot of scenes of ghosts and effects. This is why the Walt Disney World version is even better than the Disneyland original; the Coates/Gracey effects sequences give the attraction a sense of structure and pace; of repeating elements which is analogous to the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean.

For example, although Disneyland’s portrait hall immediately before the load point does foreground the attraction’s interiors with a sense of physicality which is slightly sacrificed in Orlando due to the ethereal, gliding nature of the motion of the doombuggies, there is a serious design error in the room: the two negative bust effects at the end of the corridor are not only a traffic bottleneck, but are placed in such a way which allows the viewer to essentially figure the effect out rather shortly. Had the effect worked as intended Gracey and Coates and Davis would surely have kept them as a walk-by effect; rather, they have been relocated to an Omnimover show scene, placed at a greater distance, and placed in a room which is mathematically perfected so that no such perspective which would give away the illusion can exist. That the room is also subject to some minor but effective mechanical gags and a well written snippet of Atencio’s script, which the other versions of the show are poorer without, helps.

The Orlando show provides two neat structural repetitions. In an early scene, a floating candelabrum is seen high atop a stairwell under which the doombuggies pass. Later on, the Disneyland scene of a candelabrum hovering in an endless hallway is repeated. This short scene actually gives the sense that ghosts are moving about the attraction, a sense of a reoccurring character, something that Disneyland lacks.

Disneyland’s Endless Corridor is a save. Originally, sound effects of heavily footfalls and such would move down the corridor towards the buggies, causing a nearby suit of armor to rattle as the footfalls approached. The gag was probably too long in duration to actually work as the doombuggies sped by, so the sound effects were turned off and a floating candlebrum seen in the séance room on the attraction’s blueprints was installed in its’ place to distract from the not very effective Endless Hall scene (you can the model of the scene, sans candlebrum, in the Disneyland Showtime television show from 1970). This is why Paul Frees commands “Shhh… listen!” in this scene, referencing a removed effect, something which no doubt bothered Coates and his team to no end. So that first, short scene in Orlando is actually a setup for a scene which was never fully resolved to the designers’ liking in 1969. As for the Ghost Host’s dialogue, Coates moved a speaker playing Jimmie MacDonald recorded sound effects from 1963 to this area, giving guests suitably spooky sounds to “listen” to.

(A side note on “Shhh.. listen!”: in 1995 Disneyland added a number of Paul Frees dialogue snippets cut from the 1969 show to the Corridor of Doors. These were later removed in 2005, respecting the original designers’ wishes, but for ten years the Ghost Hosts’ “Shhh.. listen!” was doubly confusing as it was in Anaheim - for in the original version of the show where once there was an aural sound effect, is only a repetition of the entryway’s Gaylord Carter-performed funeral dirge. This, at least, was a setup for the rich tapestry of sound effects which followed in the Corridor of Doors, but by adding these bits of dialogue back in, the Ghost Host was commanding guests to listen intently to… an organ? It didn’t help that the writing and delivery of these lines was well below the standards of the rest of the show and utterly superfluous, and nobody was sad to see them go.)

The other pretty brilliant scene in the attraction is a short but effective corridor of Marc Davis concept art paintings which appeared immediately after the new floating candlebrum setup scene in Orlando; continuing the “haunted portrait” motif stolen from a dozen Gothic novels of the 19th century. The opening scene of the revised show is an allusion to Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Grey; followed by the stretching room scene of haunted portraits, and finally ending with nearly a dozen portraits of various inhabitants which actually follow you with their eyes.

The effect was subtle but disturbing, and placed in conjunction with the candlebrum set-up before, the library with perfected negative bust effects after, and then a short but potent transitional scene of a ghost playing a piano before picking up the Disneyland show, a more subtle sense of ghosts having to become accustomed to visitors is achieved: don’t forget that in the second scene of Disneyland’s ride we already see skeleton hands prying up a coffin lid, a visualization of ghosts the show hasn’t earned yet. At Walt Disney World, a number of subtle “did I actually see that?” effects lead up to a big moment of seeing a shadow of a ghost, then a larger moment of starting to hear the ghosts in the endless corridor and then seeing physical evidence of the ghost in the coffin’s attempted escape. The fact that the house is larger in Orlando is insignificant compared to the fact that the show is more textured and our experience of the haunting is better paced.

Speaking of that short scene at the piano, what follows is one of the most misunderstood in the show. It is pure Claude Coates, and is the largest expression of his ideas about the house being able to melt away into a black void. It is, basically, a big black room where there are some big spider webs, and the Load Area of Disneyland is basically the same show scene. The scene was perhaps relegated to the Load Area of Anaheim because, although easy to pull off, looking at nothing is hardly exciting or scary. On the other hand, Coates had achieved remarkable effect with next to nothing a few years earlier in Adventure Thru Inner Space, so the fact that an extrapolation of his ideas about minimalism appears in the Haunted Mansion is logical. Although the scene was not very effective, Coates was using the formal qualities of the ride system – it’s relentless, unnaturally smooth forward glide – to cause a sensation of ghostliness. Letting the house just vanish into nothingness is actually pretty interesting, if for no reason than that Coates did it and it worked. The Grand Stairs in Orlando were probably an attempt to make his ideas more accessible by adding big rubber spiders and a short-lived skeleton to the big webs which he put in Disneyland’s load area.

Strangely, these ideas are most effective in the Disneyland original at the moment where the ground begins to slope away before entering the Endless Hall scene; with no big spider web and no rubber spider to look at in the otherwise identical scene in Florida, there is no point of reference, and spectators find themselves suddenly turning and plunging down in total darkness while floorboards creak eerily (possibly those ones famously mentioned by Walt Disney) from the blackness. It’s the most frightening moment in the show.

Indeed, if the entire attraction can be seen, on a basic level, as moving through a succession of portals, through arches, and under curtains, then the most important variations in the attraction is mostly distance, height, direction and vantage. Throughout, our sense of direction is manipulated and directed up, directed down, directed into distances that recede into the infinite, directed very close to us (we look back into the dark graveyard and are startled by ghouls which pop up very close to us). The library in the Florida show is actually canted at a rather extreme angle and the props are anchored to appear as though the room is resting at a normal angle; the effect is subliminal but gives the scene a disturbing quality. It’s the same kind of effect seen in the caves on Tom Sawyer Island but there, it tricks your perspective on running water. Here, where the tilt is felt rather than seen, it’s for pure effect.

The Unfinished Scenes

Perhaps because the show was WDI’s maiden voyage into the great de-Walted wilderness, not every scene in the final show is as fully rounded as one would expect. Here, as in Pirates of the Caribbean, X Atencio’s assignment seems to have been to come up with a decent explanation of all the nonsense the spectators would be seeing. In Pirates he came up with a time travel story; at Mansion, it would be a retirement home for ghosts, allowing any and every ghost imaginable to reside there.

This freeness is indicative of the atmosphere of the creation of the show as these unfinished scenes are, as well as accounting for much of it’s’ effect. But the unfinished nature is part of what makes the attraction what it is. One such unfinished scene is the Endless Corridor, a concept which never fully worked and was abandoned. Another would be Claude Coates’ void with its’ giant webs and creeping fog: the scene never really worked, and he needed another evolution of the concept before it would. But there it is in the show, and although the original Grand Stairs scene is now gone at Walt Disney World, at Disneyland spectators can still enjoy Coates’ supernatural void in both the Load area and Séance room.

One element which veers towards the improvisational are Gracey’s projection effects. Rolly Crump describes how the effect was essentially invented by Gracey one day on lunch with a loop of film and a bust of Beethoven; although they’re in the model, there is no real concept art of the singing busts in that arrangement in that scene. Little Leota, too, may have been more or less an afterthought. The loop of film for this last effect is labeled “Ghost Hostess” and Paul Frees has an outtake where he continues, after his famous “999 happy haunts” spiel:

“If you should decide to join us, final arrangements may be made at the end of our tour. A charming Ghostess will be on hand to take your application.”

If this is a reference to the figure then the effect was almost certainly scripted, but then again Marc Davis confirmed shortly before his death that the hitch-hiking ghosts gag was a last minute addition. And of all of the mountains and mountains of concept art for the Mansion, there is no art of five singing busts singing lead in the graveyard, no concept art of a tiny woman at the exit, and only a few pages of Davis concepts for ghosts to follow you home – a half day’s output at his rate.

The most famous unfinished scene is the attic; a short transitional scene which has attained a level of infamy due to the ghost “too scary” to be included in the final show. That is, of course, the legend, and a more accurate description would be that it’s the effect that never worked. The removal of Davis’ hatbox ghost in the early stages of the attraction’s test and adjust period means that the attic scene was a complex lead-up to only the setup of a gag in the person of the bride, and one moved from its’ original position, at that. What was put in place was a lot of pop-up ghouls which, at least, provided one of the original most frightening things in the attraction: as the ghouls came up loud screams would fill the entire room and echo down the corridor into the ballroom vantage point. This authorette clearly remembers these screams echoing down the hall somewhere around the banquet table and the suspense they created.


The Haunted Mansion, merely by the act of being a haunted house, drags in dozens of cultural connotations and connections like one of Dickens’ specters dragging chains. Aside from the volumes of Gothic and fantasy literature and culture already absorbed into the ether and deemed acceptable content for ghost fiction – haunted portraits, Victorian mansions, coffins, hangings, and ghost brides – also invoked are a number of works of the period.

The Mansion is a remarkably “modern” – modern meaning circa 1969 – attraction, including gags on dunebuggies, referencing “swinging” wakes, and a theme song which takes the form of the sort of jingle one might expect in a Frankie Avalon beach movie, complete with funky guitars. Moreso than any other attraction of its’ period, The Haunted Mansion makes more overtures towards being what we today think of as “hip”.

These references at least seem to have aged well or are, at least today, impenetrable to us, but there are other, more overt references to outside work.

Above: the Cocteau, depicting ideas which resulted in the exit crypt lighting fixtures, moving busts, portrait corridor (an image taken from Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary, 1927), and Crump's 'living architecture'.

Below: Two scenic pieces found in the final show, plus a detail from a Crump concept.

Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, besides being the basis for a lot of the ideas found in sanitized form in the 1991 Disney version, was a major influence on the work of Rolly Crump on the attraction. Although his Museum of the Weird ideas retained a ghastly edge by using identifiable human limbs and faces, it was designed into more comical skulls and bats by the design team in control of the interior. Crump’s design legacy in the attraction takes the form of a number of humanoid faces worked into the interior elements as and the ghostly torch holders at the exit of the show, primarily derived from Cocteau, as well as the ghoulish Grandfather clock transitional scene before the séance room, strongly patterned on a Crump concept which itself seems to have derived from the 1933 Mickey Mouse short “The Mad Doctor”.

Certain elements of the dark humor of the attraction seem to have an antecedent in the good natured if slightly tacky films of William Castle, where ghosts and ghouls are presented in comic situations interspersed with more disturbing, serious stuff. Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump would’ve been going to see these spook shows in the late 50’s and early 60’s as primary sources. According to Crump, Walt Disney actually went with them to see 13 Ghosts, which offers as a plot device a lowering bed canopy, one idea retained in early stories for the attraction which featured a murderous Blood family as the source of the haunting.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydid are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself amongst its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of hill house, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959, and its’ film of 1963 directed by Robert Wise, seem to have been the primary source for the frightening Corridor of Doors scenes in the attraction. As realized in the Wise film the ghosts of Hill House move down corridors making a horrendous banging sound, turning door knobs, and, later in the film, a door “breathes” outward as the ghosts try to enter a room. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the design team seeing this and basically lifting the entire premise for their show.

The other significant influence is a scene where a paranoid woman imagines a textured wall resembles a hideous face while she hears strange noises in an adjacent room; it’s not hard o imagine this is the starting point for the famous wallpaper pattern credited to Marc Davis. Even the other wallpapers throughout the attraction seem to have been chosen for their resemblance to faces.


Next week: more Haunted Mansion stuff!