(animated gif by Boogafrito)
I'm interrupting our bride series because I'm hoping to get permission to use some very fine photos. Seems like as good a time as any to turn to the attic's other famous resident, her groom. Edit: Some exciting new film footage has surfaced since this blog post first appeared. See below. There are further small updates (July '13) in bright yellow.
The Hat Box Ghost: Fact and Fiction
If this were the mid-1990s, an article on the Hat Box Ghost would have to spend a lot of space (1) explaining what the heck the "Hat Box Ghost" is, and (2) arguing that such a figure once existed. It was a classic case of a "Long-Forgotten Haunted Mansion Effect."
What a difference 15 years makes—especially if a little thing that starts with "www" explodes during those 15 years. Now the problem with writing about the Hat Box Ghost is how to say something that hasn't already been said umpteen times, and how not to alienate readers who are tired of hearing about him. In some ways I can't blame them. When the merchandizing arm of Disney began planning how best to celebrate the Haunted Mansion's 40th anniversary (and how best to soak the fans for every spare nickel), they decided to make the HBG their main mascot and plastered his visage all over the place: HBG on posters, HBG on online announcements, HBG pins, computer-animated HBG hosting the Haunted Holidays website—you couldn't escape the HBG's evil grin if you paid any attention to the HM 40th at all. Frankly, I couldn't wait for it to be over and gone.
Well, what can I say here that hasn't been said everywhere else? How about a couple of eyewitness testimonies? Here's my lovely little tale, something I've recounted many times. If you've heard this one before, let it scroll, baby, scroll. Our family had our usual annual DL trip during the first week of August, 1969. On the Jungle Cruise, between Trader Sam and the dock, the skipper asked us if anyone knew what was happening this weekend. Nope. In a basso profundo, he told us that the Haunted Mansion was opening, wisecracking that as usual Disney only took ten years to build a ride. My brother and I went from ecstasy to despair in the course of about three seconds. We had been waiting it seemed like forever for that old house to open its gates. Now we had barely missed it and would have to wait a whole year to see it. Reasonably enough, we concluded that life stank.
Well, a week or so later, some business or other required us all to ride through Anaheim, and as we passed within eyesight of the park, my Dad suddenly asked my brother and me if we'd like to go in for a couple of hours (it was already late in the day). This was unheard of. Once or twice a year was about it for our family DL trips, and the visits were never close together. He knew how badly we wanted to see the haunted house, and—bless 'im—he just decided to indulge us this once.
Ka-chow. Speed, I am speed. I'm racing down Main Street, swinging through Adventureland, knocking over old ladies (kidding, just kidding), and getting into the looooooooong line. I've got some great memories from that day. I've told you about the hitchhiking ghosts in the mirror. But in retrospect the most valuable has turned out to be my memory of seeing the Hat Box Ghost. This was August 14th, Thursday of opening week.
As our doombuggy turned to scoot into the attic, the first blast-up ghost caught me just perfectly, just exactly as designed. It's one of those things that can only really surprise you once, and luckily for me the timing was exquisite. There were the other pop-up ghosts too, of course. The methodical screams and squeals every few seconds pretty much advertised their presence. Coming up soon on the left was this murky, bridal figure, back among the rafters and debris. The first time through I don't think either of us even recognized that she was a bride. And at the end of the attic scene there was this well-illuminated, creepy little old man in the corner on the right, wearing a cloak and top hat, and holding a...I guess that's a hat box?, with his hand quavering on top of his cane, as if he was a very old man. Very creepy, and unlike anything else in the attic. In the course of what must have been two or three or four rides that day I noticed that the hat box would slowly light up and had a head inside. I noticed nothing unusual about the other head. It wasn't disappearing and reappearing, like we learned later it was supposed to. You know, like this:
And that was it. On our next visit several weeks later (with a church youth group—we really got lucky with DL visits that year), the weird little old man was gone, and the bride was in his spot. I figured this was a temporary situation, that something was wrong with the little guy. Even at the age of 14, I knew that figures disappeared from rides now and then for repairs, but they always came back. For a long, long time—far longer than seems rational—I always looked for him whenever we visited DL, thinking he might be back. Not until 2002 and the discovery of Doombuggies.com did I learn enough about what had come to be called "The Hat Box Ghost" to know that he had never really come back.
In conversation with the one other trustworthy eyewitness that I've found (a guy who went on to work with Marc Davis for some 14 years, incidentally), more details emerged. He visited the park often in those early days. He tells me that the first time he saw the HBG his face did indeed disappear and flash into the hat box, but the next time the effect didn't work right: the face was continually lit, but the hatbox face continued to flash on and off. (This is what I remember.) Another time the face was completely blackened while the hatbox continued to flash away. He says that later on, at least once, they moved the bride out of his spot and tried the figure yet again.
Now, these are the recollections of one person from when he was 11 years old, so the usual precautions about the deceptiveness of memory apply, but the account is inherently plausible, and together with other testimonies, a tentative history can be patched together.
The HBG was definitely there for the "soft opening" and seen by Cast Members Aug 7—8. It was noticed immediately that the effect didn't work very well (catching problems is one of the reasons they have CM "soft openings," after all). They pulled him out before the HM opened to the public the next day, Saturday the 9th. Over the course of the next week or more, perhaps for a month, they tried to get the effect to work, reinstalling and removing the figure perhaps several times before finally giving up and permanently removing him. This explains why some early riders, even opening-day riders, have no recollection of the figure, and the false notion that he was never seen by the public became such common currency that it wound up in the first edition of Jason Surrell's generally reliable book, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (2003). Significantly, in the second edition (2009), this denial has been watered down to an admission that maybe the public saw him.
Update 7-29-13: Tony Baxter has found maintenance records proving that the Hat Box Ghost was definitely in use for at least a few weeks.
What was the problem? The face was probably painted with special ultraviolet-sensitive paint, which is not identical to the typical fluorescent paint that glows under a black light. It was supposed to disappear when the focused ultraviolet spotlight on it was turned off. The problem was that there was too much ambient light in the attic for the face to fully disappear on a figure so close to the track, and the illusion was unconvincing. After he was removed, the bride was shifted to his spot so that the attic would still have a climax of sorts, and that was that.
The Hat Box Ghost: Becoming a Legend
So.... how did this failed character become such a legend, almost a cult hero? Well, you can credit (or blame) the souvenir record albums, first and foremost. Both the "Story and Song" LP, intended for older kids and young teens, and the children's record describe him in some detail and feature him prominently in their artwork. These records were popular and were sold at the parks for years. This means that an entire generation of HM fans grew up hearing about the ghost and seeing his image. He is described in connection with the bride in the attic. Well, here's the attic, and there's the bride. This is where that ghost with the hat box is supposed to be. So where is he? The records ensured that he was never going to be completely forgotten. In short, you can credit a lot of the Hat Box mystique to these words...
The Hat Box Ghost on the Children's Record
The Hat Box Ghost on the "Story and Song" album
The other thing that kept the HBG flame lit was Disney's use and reuse of publicity shots for the HM featuring the HBG. It seems that early in 1969 Disney decided they needed some eye-catching promotional photos to include with press releases about the soon-to-be-opened Haunted Mansion. Special effects whiz Yale Gracey was recruited, and he struck a series of whimsical poses with HM ghosts, most of them reflected cleverly in a sheet of glass (the old "Pepper's Ghost" trick) or double-exposed. There were a lot of these, giving newspapers a wide assortment from which to choose.
- Night Must Fall (1937) remake: 1964
- Rear Window (1954)
- The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
- Crazy in Alabama (1999)
You go a little further, and just in case you missed it the first time, there it is again, this time on the left: a skull-like head jumping out of a round hatbox.