Friday, May 07, 2010

History and the Haunted Mansion

I really didn't mean to start writing about that most over-covered of all Disney attractions again, honest. Just when I think I've written or seen or read or heard everything there is to write / see / read about the Haunted Mansion, new stuff crops up. This seems sort of impossible - I wish new information about, say, Country Bear Jamboree or Tom Sawyer Island cropped up every few months - but suffice to say my brain has gone back to mulling over that dusty old house on the hill.

Much like the ride itself, what follows will be a little here, a little there - all over the place really. But the Spooky House still fascinates and amazes while the luster of other attractions rubs thin, and every time I think I've brilliantly laid the old gal down to rest with my incisive observations she comes rocketing back up like a spooky rubber mask on a pneumatic lift. It's a welcome if inevitable return.

Those of you who have been following Chalet Foxxy (Passport to Dreams Old & New) since her inception may remember that one the the first questions I ever raised about the Haunted Mansion is why the heck it's in Liberty Square, an apparent skeleton in the closet of an otherwise masterfully realized park. I can put some meat on those bones now, but not yet - let's first discuss something nobody's talked about yet in relationship to the Haunted Mansion - historical reality on Main Street, USA.

Practically every Disney fan has a copy of Imagineering: a Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real, a now fifteen-year-old (!!) chestnut of the Disney Fan Library. As a result the fact that Disneyland's Haunted House was originally planned for Main Street is pretty well known now, along with Harper Goff's cool little drawing of a dilapidated old house behind Shady Rest cemetery. What isn't much discussed is why it was there and what that meant.

Harper Goff's original concepts for Main Street were not so rosy as what Disney finally built in 1955 - his Main Street was as much frontier as settled, with dirt roads, clapboard sidewalks, and such. Goff's view was as such not so upbeat as the midwestern boom town of Disneyland in 1955, and he may have included ideas floating around for a haunted house in his concept sketches in reaction to the economic realities of the time of his and Walt Disney's youth.

What I'm talking about here is what is formally known as the Long Depression, a succession of financial crises which began following the end of the American Civil War and lasted pretty much up until the turn of the century. The actual duration of these depressions is somewhat controversial. The depression began in 1873 following a series of worldwide wars and stock market crashes which led to many countries withdrawing currency from circulation. The United States took herself off the Gold Standard for six years, ending in 1879. Great Britian remained in severe depression for nearly two decades, which rubbed that nation of her financial strength. And although the United States entered a ten year boom period in the 1880's due to the railroad expansion and other corporate interests, the market again plummeted in 1893, thanks to failing banks and railroads. Just like today, mortgages could not be met, and many houses were left to rot. Over the course of the next few generations, as time and fashion passed these houses by, local legend took over and the popular American conception of the haunted house as a crumbling Victorian gingerbread mansion took hold.

(Right: U.S. Grant carrying the weight of the Long Depression on his back)

This is a fairly serious part of the Victorian period to take into consideration, and even if the economy did recover for another ten years until the next economic collapse (1907), allowing a neat little window of American economic and scientific and cultural dominance into which Main Street, USA neatly fits, Goff's idea of placing the Haunted Mansion right on Main Street - in a sense, bracketing the wealth and prosperity and success of the era with a reminder that it, like all economic bubbles, would not last - is a genuinely intriguing notion.


One of the reasons the Haunted Mansion holds our fascination today is that, unlike so many other rides, its' imagery is always evocative and seems to move with a precise but interior logic that is essentially unknowable. It cuts through our defenses and lodges itself somewhere deep in the unconcious where the damage can really be done. The most effective and unsettling image in the attraction is the grandfather clock with 13 hours, its hands spinning wildly out of control. Across the face of the clock, a shadow falls - a ghoulish clawed hand. Why a hand? To match the hands on the clock face? Is the hand about to descend on us to snatch us out of our cars? The logic is opaque, but the density of this image makes it one of the few times the attraction seems to be authentically moving with the logic of a nightmare, a play in light and dark of the subconscious.

The question of time allows us to open the door on another question which is perhaps instructive about the darker recesses of this attraction. When I was younger and more literal-minded, the question of what I called the "continuity flaws" of the attraction bothered me to no end - when you're in the stretching gallery, for example, lightning flashes outside the windows, but later, in the Music Room, there's nothing but ominous clouds and moonlight. Later, at the conservatory, there's a foggy landscape, in the ballroom we have lightening again, then in the graveyard there's thick fog, rolling clouds and twinkling stars. All of these weather patterns, of course, are even stranger depending on the weather patterns outside the show building - in the real world - when you enter, but this further complication is usually swallowed up by the trancelike state inside the attraction, where it is perpetually night.

The logical answer to this question, of course, is that all of these scenes were developed independent of one another and linked in an order that most made sense, the atmospheric effects of lightning flashing through windows is only dependent on what will enliven the scene and give the proper atmosphere. I'm not interested in the logical answer here however, but the poetic one, for no attraction is like the Haunted Mansion in seeming to be a genuinely expressive freeflowing harmony of light, sound and motion. I think we can see the Haunted Mansion in terms of its 1969 promotional image, especially that old LP, The Story and Song From the Haunted Mansion, and her threadbare plot of teenagers spending a night in an old dark house.

Are we spending a night in the Haunted Mansion? Undoubtably, but I think the key here is that things may not be happening in quite the proper sequence or in quite the proper chronology - it's a stay in a Haunted Mansion with only the most exciting parts left in, just like how the Jungle Cruise packs 2 - 3 weeks of travel downriver into a 10 minute ride. These highlights have been arranged to provide the most visually coherent flow which somewhat sacrifices logical coherence. This is why the Ghost Host narration is the keynote which ties it all together.

Which brings me to yet another point, which is that some of the most hypnotic scenes, those which really play on the imagination, didn't quite turn out how the original WED team planned - but their unresolved quality is what makes them so haunting and memorable. There is the Endless Hallway, which originally played host to a traveling sound effect that didn't quite play as anticipated at Disneyland during testing. A floating candlebrum prop was pulled from the seance circle scene and placed in the hallway to give riders something to look at, and the scene remains that way to this day (in Florida a second scene was devised to set-up this now famous tableau). For years the Attic scene was all setup and no punchline, which burned it quite indelibly into the imaginations of riders and of WDI, who fussed for years trying to inject things into the scene that just weren't there (Florida's Mansion opened with a more gruesome skull-faced bride who was later replaced, possibly in an effort to make the bride figure seem more like the point of the scene). Years later, WDI built a whole Haunted Mansion around the idea of the ghost bride - Phantom Manor.

"The bourgeois interior of the 1860's to the 1890's - with gigantic sideboards distended with carvings, the sunless corners where potted palms sit, the balcony embattled behind its' balustrade, and the long corridors with their singing gas flames - fittingly houses only the corpse." - Walter Benjamin
Those unfinished but imagination-firing scenes are a consequence of the attraction's painfully long gestation period, which ranged from before the opening of Disneyland until 1969, a space of some fourteen or fifteen years. Another consequence is that the facade of the Haunted Mansion in California was finished well in advance of its' interior attraction, and the result is that the interior of the Haunted Mansion is fairly unlike what one would expect. While the Disneyland version is an Antebellum mansion, with the possible exception of the entrance room which does have a very authentic Old South look to it, the bulk of the house while on the ride is a fairly generic Victorian mashup which is never really specifically Southern. No ghost in the ride is heard to speak with a southern accent and somewhat violent interpretative methods are required to see any of the ghosts as specifically southern - are the dancing ladies in the Ballroom, for example, Southern Belles on account of wearing large dresses or the ghosts in the portraits southern Gents on account of being duelists? Both large dresses and duels were quite common in the United States during certain periods, in both the north and south.

Now it's worth unpacking a few vocabulary terms here to start getting to the root of all this.

Antebellum is Latin for "before the War" and is used practicially exclusively in the United States to refer to the culture, fashions, and architecture of pre-American Civil War South. This usually refers to the period from 1787 to 1860 when the southern states were primarily agrarian.

Now Victorian of course denotes the period of architecture and culture which prevaled during the time of Queen Victoria of England, who ruled from 1839 to 1901.

Now there is an overlap there, an overlap of about twenty years, where a mansion constructed in the south could be said to be both Victorian and Antebellum, and indeed many of the most famous and still surviving examples of Antebellum architecture were built in the 1840's, solidly in the reign of Victoria. However, many of these were built to resemble even earlier houses - the Orton Plantation house in North Carolina, for example, has been standing since 1735, well before the United States even existed as a separate entity.

But the important point is that the actual historically Antebellum houses are quite different in interior appearance from what we characterize as Victorian - they are quite bright and open, made for large entertaining, built to impress. Victorian styles - with their dark woods, wallpapers, dark corners, and excessive textures, patterns, and knickknacks - do not invite company. Americans tend to think of Victorian houses and styles when thinking of haunted houses and ghosts for reasons I have outlined above, and the interior of Disney's mansion was designed to shout "haunted" from the outset. As a result there is a historical discontinuity between the inside and he outside of the house, which to my eye suggests that the original Mansion was quite probably heavily renovated by the late owners to its' current state. Such renovations were quite common and it's easy to forget that even the Executive Mansion in Washington DC was renovated in the style by Chester Arthur and his contemporaries (right, photo by Matthew Brady)

Still, to this author's eye the Haunted Mansion belongs more comfortably in a northern setting, which is probably why the people who actually designed the ride (rather than the exterior which was executed by a different team) placed it in a specifically northern looking house just two years later. Early concept art for the Florida version shows a stately Georgian home, but Claude Coats' brilliant gothic facade significantly ups the ante by seeming to place the Haunted Mansion in a house where the ride within could actually take place. There is an exterior conservatory to house the famous "coffin escape" scene and a tall belfry for the Ghost Host to hang himself from.

Now the house looks very gothic, and there was indeed a big Gothic revival smack in the middle of the Victorian period, but the house has other traces to me. To begin with the Victorians did not build private residences in the Gothic Revival style, but the heavy brickwork and castlelike contours of some of the house does recall the European influence in the colonies. On page 37 of his Haunted Mansion book, as official a source from WDI as can be readily found, Jason Surrell pinpoints "lower Hudson River Valley" as the supposed place of origin of the house, and indeed there are many historic homes made of brick and stone to be found there. The estate of Lyndhurt, in Tarrytown, New York, is both geographically correct and even more gothic in appearance than the Haunted Mansion itself.

But the Gothic revival houses were meant to recall castles, and although the house itself as well as the crypts surrounding it match the house quite well, certain elements do seem to be later additions. The conservatory, for example, looks built on rather than "original", and the green metal which it is constructed out of also traces terraces and wrought iron works which seem to be a Victorian addition to a brick gothic mansion. There are too traces of a renovation here, and perhaps the implication isn't so fanciful as it may seem.. folklore, superstition and tradition strongly link ghostly activity to renovations of houses, which either perturb or placate spirits - bodies concealed in walls has been a gothic tradition for generations, and early scripts for the Disneyland Mansion even include a grisly detail of a Disney workman bricked up in a wall.

Now we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Disney Haunted Mansion is a fanciful version of history, not an accurate one, and the 1440 date on one of the tombs outside the Florida version makes mince of all these efforts to nail down the house to a specific period. These likely reflect at best subconscious, unintended echoes of history and heritage in the Haunted Mansion, but they do point out the complex and beautiful web of influences and inferences and history and folklore which the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland are spun from, a real tapestry of American popular culture.


One of the most charming aspects of the Disney Haunted Houses is that in addition to the experience of the show itself, Disney keeps alive aspects of the oral tradition which led to those old houses being labeled haunted in the first place. Everybody in their home town had a house that everyone "knew" was haunted, with tales of murders and romantic liasons to back it all up, and this is reflected on the Riverboat attractions - the most famous of that genre of Disney attraction which primarily serves to orient the viewer with and show off the main pedestrian space (Swiss Family Treehouses and Peoplemovers are other examples of this genre). In these prerecorded narrations the pilot invariably talks about the Mansion being haunted and being a place one should avoid, which does neatly acknowledge the way that such places "become" haunted houses in the real world.

An additional texture informs the Florida version, where the pilot of the boat confidentially informs us that the house was built on sacred indian burial ground and therefore cursed. This does seem to be an odd aside, until one does a bit of geographic investigation. There is indeed a show scene of an Indian burial ground along the riverboat, and it's actually the last scene of the left side of the boat before the Haunted Mansion. It may be a design coincidence, but the Haunted Mansion is located directly south of the Burial Ground show scene... they may be plains Indians alongside the river burying their dead, but there does seem to be a certain interior logic to this!

"Rap on a table; it's time to respond!
Send us a message from somewhere beyond!"
And finally we return to where we came in, and I'm going to make good on my promise to revisit my old question of why the Haunted Mansion is in Liberty Square. But first let's take a peek at what I wrote over three years ago on the topic:

"A question which will probably haunt Walt Disney World for the duration of its existence is the rather baffling placement of the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square. Frankly, it simply smacks of desperation. Here was WED Enterprises, fresh off a triple victory lap with the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, New Tomorrowland, and The Haunted Mansion, stuck in a room and told to re-re-invent the wheel they had just spent the past 15 year perfecting. Liberty Square, or at least the idea of a Liberty Square, would rise from the dead and would be joined with the Rivers of America and Frontierland to create a vision of American progress and spirit. Wouldn’t it make sense to put The Haunted Mansion there? Yet the selection of Liberty Square seems almost arbitrary, after having ruled out Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Adventureland right off the bat. [...] And so Liberty Square it was. The building was shoved out onto the Rivers of America as far as it could go, to isolate it and make its’ appearance in colonial America less suspect. It could almost be a part of Fantasyland. Claude Coates designed a brilliant colonial-Gothic fa├žade and it was all systems go. Let’s just hope they don’t think about it too hard."

I've come to believe, suffice to say, that there is a higher logic to the choice beyond "it didn't fit anywhere else", albeit one that requires a bit of unpacking and extension. Disney themselves make a very eloquent case for it in Walt Disney World: the First Decade:

"Not far from the Hall of Presidents is a residence designed to scare up some early American fantasy and folklore... [in a] ...architectural style perhaps best described as early Edgar Allan Poe. On nights when the moon in a ghostly galleon and the sky is a cloudy sea, one might well imagine Ichabod Crane riding this way on his fateful journey through Sleepy Hollow."

Now that's lovely prose but if we go back to all of my carbon dating of exterior and interiors in the sections above, we find a major shift in the American social and political scene which neatly coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria and the War Between the States and which seems to have pointed echoes with the "text" of the Haunted Mansion itself: Spiritualism.

Spiritualism was an unorganized movement which straddled the line between faith and science and had great popular appeal in the mid-19th century. It had been in the air for a long time but the starting shot was fired in New York in 1848, when two sisters - Kate and Maggie Fox (left) - began to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler buried in the cellar of their house using a series of coded knocks which seemed to emanate from different parts of the house. Very soon, the notion of being able to communicate with spirits spread throughout most of the Western world and parlor seances involving levitating and spinning tables and knocks and taps became fairly popular and commonplace.

Now I don't want to get too far afield from the Haunted Mansion here and I don't want to ignite a controversy about the Spiritualists either, but I do think that a few points here about Spiritualism are worth recounting.

First is the astonishing capacity of the Spiritualists themselves to seem to materialize spirits at will; as the practice continued the medium would often sit in a "spirit cabinet" from which the ghostly revenants would emerge. In his book Passing Strange, Joseph Citro (admittedly an author more concerned with a good story than with citations) recounts an increasingly bizarre investigation by lawyer and politician Henry Steel Olcott in rural Vermont of two brothers who managed, over the course of ten days, to materialize hundreds of visions, and Olcott was quite unable to determine how the uneducated brothers could possibly have been able to fake such a performance. Olcott later helped found Theosophy, so he clearly put very real stock in what he saw.

But it's also important to point out that the above case is a unique one in that much of Spiritualism has been debunked. The Fox sisters later recanted and confessed that their knocks were accomplished with the cracking of joints and apples tied on strings; an attempt to revoke the confession the next year failed, they were discredited both in Spiritualist and Scientific circles, and the sisters died in poverty as Spiritualism continued on without them. The most famous debunker of spiritualism was Harry Houdini, who traveled extensively and revealed the parlor seances as what they often were: well worn stage tricks.

So Spiritualism was a strange mix of the unexplainable strange and the verifiable banal, and it reached its' greatest popularity after the American Civil War, with so many recently dead in a war where 25,000 men may have lost their lives in a single day. It look place in the flickering gaslight of the Victorian era, and the shadow it casts over the Haunted Mansion is a long one, especially in the seance room, where doombuggies encircle the table and the spirits are summoned. Knocking is heard, tarot cards are spread, and instruments float through the room - all earmarks of a Spiritualist seance. Indeed, at Disneyland, Madame Leota is even given a spirit cabinet that sits quietly behind her chair, half open, as if to let all the ghosts out.

The spirit cabinet is in the background on the left. It was

originally installed to hide a projector.

But does the shadow of spiritualism slip past the Mansion itself? I believe it does, because possibly the most famous maybe-a-Spiritualist in the United States was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's actual faith is much contested - he never joined a church despite being one of the most eloquent men in history to regularly refer to God and the Bible, and many of his rivals made quite a bit of a show of Lincoln's lack of denominational commitment. What is known however is that following the death of his second son, Willie, Abraham and Mrs. Lincoln held at least one documented seance, and there is of course the famous story of Lincoln having foreseen his own death in a dream.

The strange interpolation of Lincoln and spiritualism continues to this day, with those famous stories of Lincoln's ghost in the White House. There is much speculation that Lincoln's son Robert destroyed or hid documents relating to his father's role in spiritual sittings and / or his assassination; one colorful story says he sealed the documents away in the monumental pillars of Washington's Pension Building during construction (currently the National Building Museum). It's not hard to find claims that Lincoln was psychic; on a whim I pulled a Hans Holzer book off my bookshelf and in it we can find: "...on the whole Lincoln apparently did not need any mediums, for he himself had the gift of clairvoyance, and this talent stayed with him all his life." (Ghosts, BD&L, page 100). At the right in a photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln supposedly with the ghost of her husband and son Willie taken in the 1880's.

And so there is the not so obvious Hall of Presidents connection, even moreso in the original show, which could be more easily interpreted as "Abe Lincoln and Friends". There is something strangely appropriate, after all, that Liberty Square's two attractions are based around the concept of seeing the dead come back to life, either to frighten or inspire, and both do elicit a similar hypnotic wonder. And there is something poetic there, a strange line that seems to run from the Haunted Mansion direct to the image of Lincoln, framed in a window, whispering "I know there is a God, and that he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming and I know His hand is in it." It's a line that traces along paths laid by folklore, legend, history and fantasy. It is the sort of poetic, not literal, connection that perhaps is best actualized in a three-dimensional setting.

I've long claimed that the metaland of Liberty Square-Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom is a perfect creation that packs as much about America as you can possibly desire into one compact district: history, entertainment, food, vaudeville, capital, water, land, agriculture, settlement, industry... it's all there somewhere. And maybe mysticism and religion and a strange point where they meet is too.

...And that's why the Haunted Mansion must be in Liberty Square.

Passport to Dreams Old & New Haunted Mansion Archive:
"Thoughts on the Haunted Mansion" - who is responsible for the ride's balance of tone?
"Two By Yale Gracey" - Gracey's cloud and fog effects used in Mansion and Pirates
"Park Mysteries #5" - the 'original' bride?
"In Doorless Chambers: Part One" - planning & original conception of the ride
"In Doorless Chambers: Part Two" - technical details, influences on the ride
"In Doorless Chambers: Part Three" - artistic value of the ride