Friday, December 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Haunted Mansion

In my mind the ongoing, primarily unresolvable conflict regarding the nature of design in the Disney theme shows is regarding the nature of "authorship". The WED classics were collaborative efforts which arose from a group dynamic, and rarely were all parties truly satisfied except - perhaps - Walt Disney, in the end. Yet throughout these works, much like those films which Hollywood produced before the studio system broke down, we can find a thread of an individual voice and following it does invariably lead to some interesting places. Since my own natural predilection is towards artwork which is traceable to a single source, one of the chief efforts in my writings had been to hint at, lead to, or resolve issues of authorship in attractions where such things can be found.

For example, the dynamic between the design and atmosphere of Claude Coats and the character and appeal of Marc Davis in Pirates of the Caribbean is the conflict which absolutely structures the spectator's experience of that attraction; to my mind, Coats wins mildly at Walt Disney World and absolutely at Disneyland, yet the tension is never lost. Especially in light of the true Marc Davis 100% control shows like Country Bear Jamboree or America Sings, which are all character and no atmosphere, I think an argument can be made that within WED was the necessary environment for individual voices to be heard distinctly in individual attractions. I certainly feel the continuity of vision between Space Mountain and Horizons, for example, and so strong a grasp does Marc Davis hold on the 1971 version of the Jungle Cruise that it may as well be a totally different attraction from it's Disneyland crude-hewn original version.

And yet dozens of people lent talents to materialize Davis' bear drawings, and even The Jungle Cruise had its' foundation in an attraction designed by very different people some years earlier, and these other guiding voices have also left their marks on the show. Where and how the scales were balanced or tipped is the subject of much speculation, but WED was certainly more democratic whereas the WDI of today is more autocratic; only do voices like Joe Rohde or Tony Baxter outshine the apparent all-pervasive volume of the marketing department in rides and shows today. And yet the all-time balance, the final and absolute example of WED at their most democratic and encompassing, has to be The Haunted Mansion.

The balance between gothic horror and light humor in The Haunted Mansion is so balanced that the attraction must be termed brilliantly accidental. At every turn when the show seems as if it will tilt totally in one direction, a new element enters into the overall pattern which dulls the impact of the other. The portraits in the stretching room are reassuring in their humor but threatening in their design, an overall effect which the design and scripting of the room does nothing to counteract. The pre-show then follows with a strong suicide image and a total blackout, some of the strongest stuff in the show. Likewise, the disturbing Corridor of Doors and Endless Hallway contains a mild bit of humor right between them in the form of the coffin-escape ghoul and is followed by the serene Seance Circle. In short, the attraction is funny enough for children and scary enough for adults, and it is from this push and pull of different tonalities that the piece maintains something like dramatic tension, an escalating sense that things may indeed get out of control at any minute. There are funny visual jokes in the scary first half, and likewise the funny second half is the only portion where the attraction where the ghosts come out unexpectedly at the spectators.

I've always reconciled this dynamic as being principally the result of a front half of the attraction being developed separately from the back half; although Davis type gags are sprinkled throughout the pre-Leota Haunted Mansion and Gracey/Coats arrangements accent the scenes throughout the post-Leota show, the first part of the attraction can essentially be credited to Claude Coats, Yale Gracey and X. Atencio and the later half to Marc Davis. Atencio's script even drops out at the point where the Davis scenes, played for spectacle and humor, take over, whereas Coats and Gracey play strictly for atmosphere and horror.

The importance and utter impossibility of replicating this balance is the key factor that many clueless efforts to reiterate the same basic concept fail to perceive; even the Haunted Mansion move of 2003 brainlessly stages a mild family safe comedy in the environment of a haunted house and overcompensates for its inability to be both funny and scary in equal measure by throwing in grotesque imagery and lousy scares. The Haunted Mansion, the attraction, is never cheap or inauthentic in its' scary content, and does have the capacity to do "real damage" when it wants to. I doubt me or anybody who rode the attraction at an impressionable age will ever forget the very real fear of that incessant recorded screaming echoing down the balcony overlooking the ballroom from the attic scene, or the multiple tests of courage the attraction puts children through as you progress from room to room - the building from afar, the opening of the doors to enter, the invitation into the stretching gallery, and the fairly permanent feeling decision to enter the ride vehicle.

So here is another balance, between funny and scary, to go with the balance between Coats and Davis. Ironically, the recent refurbishment to the Haunted Mansion in 2007 has tipped the attraction very strongly towards the scary side of the equation, not just in the first few rooms but throughout the show. The stretching gallery, originally probably the most threatening part of the show, has added an arsenal of disturbing sound effects, not just fluttering bats and what may be the distant echo of an owl, but truly apocalyptic sounding groans as the room stretches, adding the implicit threat that the walls could collapse. Probably creepiest of all is the giggling chorus of voices which flutters around the room as spectators are shuffled out, commonly lost in the bustle of regular operating hours but still quite audible. It's pretty adult and subliminally disturbing stuff, and nothing that the original WED staff would've ever considered putting in their attraction of 1969.

Although now significantly dialed down, those of us there in the first few days of the attraction's operation post-refurbishment probably won't much forget how loud that groaning and rumbling in the stretch room was, or how the lightning strikes outside those new galley windows was originally loud enough to make you jump. At the endless hallway where once Jimmie MacDonald's "Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House" played, a new speaker system allows a cold, impersonal sonic whoosh to truly emanate down the hall and nearby, the nifty new scene of eyes in darkness transforming into the famous Crump-inspired wallpaper is given a genuine edge by low hissing and scratching coming from the shadows. Even the Corridor of Doors' hokey original sound effects have been turned off in favor of impersonal clanking and banging coming from behind those doors, making the scene even more disturbing and impersonal than its' original incarnation.

Curiously these changes do cast a long shadow over the spectators' experience of the Haunted Mansion but do not overall effect its' balance of tone in the way that, say, the recent changes to the Attic scene dramatically comprise its' artistic intergrity. When I was young the Haunted Mansion never really seemed dangerous but now it does, at least in the Coats/Gracey half where the strongest aural changes have been implemented. The dark tone of the new murderous bride tableau is actually less sinister overall than the original directionless attic full of leaping ghouls and featuring a bride who raised more questions than she answered (and wasn't prattling off a bad script). Thus overall the Davis half now seems a bit of a letdown after the considerable unease built by the Coats/Gracey half in its 2007 incarnation, which points to a third balance the attraction must overall preserve. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and remarkably despite the many changes 2007 brought to the definitive variation of WED's definitive attraction, the act is still going nicely.

Which brings us to the issue of authorship once more. Who can be responsible for the so-good-it-must-be-accidental balance of the Haunted Mansion, if anyone at all? Moreover, is authorship a wise or desirable thing to impose on any Disney, WED or WDI product, or moreover anything produced by an American studio system? Walt Disney is ostensibly the author of all the work bearing his name, and yet why then does the single animated film he did direct - The Golden Touch, one of many of the bland Silly Symphonies his studio produced - utterly without special merit? Yet his touch is discernible in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in Fantasia, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in Mary Poppins and in the Disneyland of 1955 itself. Disney ultimately functioned not a fountainhead of ideas like the truly creative Hollywood executives like Daryl F. Zanuck or David O. Selznick, but a censor - the final arbiter of what got through and what didn't. He relied on other, more talented people to produce his "signature" style.

Thus, I assign authorship of The Haunted Mansion to Walt Disney, and not fully without merit. Walt Disney had been dead for 24 days, 7 months and 2 years by the time the original Haunted Mansion finally opened, and by all accounts he had missed nearly the totality of the decisions regarding what the final shape of the attraction would be. Many of his ideas that seemed set in stone - like Rolly Crump's Museum of the Weird - were discarded or cycled into the homogeneous whole of the attraction. Without Disney to veto scenes and ideas, decisions were made by committee, and the Haunted Mansion may therefore be seen as the greatest camel ever created. It may then be seen as Walt Disney's creation, if only by circumstance. The net total Walt Disney in it after all may still be greater than the net total Walt Disney in, say, Atencio and Justice's stop motion Noah's Ark of 1959.

Then maybe this whole authorship thing isn't such a great idea to float after all, right?