May 18, 2012: MAJOR addition to this post. Scroll to the end.
Yes, there are two. Imagineer Kim Irvine (daughter of "Madame Leota" Leota Toombs) came up with the idea for the first one in the early 1980's. Not a lot of time and effort went into the project. Kim just purchased off-the-shelf yard statues of a dog, cat, skunk, and frog (complete with mouth hole for squirting water) and had Imagineer Chris Goosman compose some macabre epitaphs for the pedestals. They were put in the vacant yard on the north side of the HM, alongside the wheelchair access path, reportedly to give them something to look at over there.
Here lies my good dog Jake.
Chasing a toad down a well was his one mistake.
In memoriam MISS KITTY
After losing eight lives you still had no fear.
You caught a snake in your ninth and that's why you're here.
You didn't drink, you didn't smoke.
I just can't figure what made you croak.
In loving memory of our pet STRIPEY
You may be departed,
But your presence will always linger on.
Everyone seemed to like this little HM secret, so in 1993 they put another one in the front yard.
It has proven so popular that they subsequently added similar pet cemeteries to the WDW and Tokyo HMs.
And so on.
Those are the well-known facts, familiar to most Mansionites, if not to the general public. Beyond that basic history, no one has bothered to say much. But Long-Forgotten readers are a tough and discriminating audience. They ask, nay, demand more. Pry up those rocks and see what's crawling around underneath.
As I said in the last post, I'm not a huge fan of the PC. I think most purists and traditionalists see it as an unwelcome intrusion of sheer fantasy before the attraction even begins and would happily see it gone. That's more or less been my position too, and yet I can't get worked up about it. Something about the pet cemetery is okay, and it's time to figure out why. Let's take a closer look.
Much of the front yard version simply repeats the formula of the old one. Once again you've got a lot of store-bought statuary sitting on pedestals with macabre epitaphs. In fact, two of the statues (the frog and the skunk) are virtually identical to their back yard counterparts, although they have new names and texts. The main difference out here is that some dates are attached. The frog is "Old Flybait" ("He croaked, August 9 1869") and the skunk is "Beloved Lilac" ("Long on curiosity...Short on common scents, 1847"). There's also "Rosie" ("She was a poor little pig, but she bought the farm, 1849") and a dog named "Buddy" ("Our friend until the end"). The latter may be a long-overdue tribute to Buddy Baker, the musical genius behind the HM score. The dating formula is obvious in the case of Old Flybait; it's exactly 100 years before the HM opening day, and this suggests that the other dates are really cryptic references to 1947 and 1949, probably the birth years of the Imagineers involved.
There's nothing terribly out of place in any of these examples. They are all of a piece. We can easily imagine one or several family members in the mansion's long history being animal lovers and burying their pets out front, complete with whimsical epitaphs. Even if the choice of animals is eccentric in some cases, there is nothing surreal involved, not even anything supernatural.
In one case, however, these conventional statues are arranged in such a way as to suggest that the animals involved have business to conduct in the afterlife.
There is a clever thematic continuity between this cluster and some of the relationships you encounter inside the house. Imagine the graveyard executioner, a man who in life wielded the power of death but who has now followed his victims into the grave. It's called irony. Better still, imagine the cat as Constance and the birds as her husbands, and you can feel the same chemistry at work. No one forms a partnership with Death so powerful and so lasting as to avoid the same fate as Death's other victims. It's a classic statement, made at least three times in the attraction, starting with this tableau. I think the cat-and-bird set is perhaps the high water mark of the pet cemeteries.
There is, however, a whole other set of grave markers. These are original WDI designs, and they have a more fantastical flavor. I suspect that it is these that rub some fans the wrong way. There's Fi Fi the dog, with her cruciform tombstone made of crossed bones and her portrait with crossed-X eyes (like in the funnies). This piece is significant for reasons that have nothing to do with the intentions of the designers. It represents a change in the general culture between 1969 and 1993, but that will be the topic of another post. For the moment, I'll simply note that it is the only cross-shaped headstone in the entire attraction, including all of the scale models and all of Marc Davis's concept art.
The other weird monuments are for a snake, a bat, a rat, a fish, and a spider. The pieces are nothing if not stylish.
It's a good deal harder to imagine these as simply the products of animal lovers in the Mansion's history. The style of the monuments themselves is too bizarre. Perhaps we are to imagine not merely animal lovers, but insane animal lovers, if we want to keep these within the imaginative realm of a real house with a history of real occupants—which is the starting point of the HM voyage. If imagining these pet monuments as items designed by crazy family members seems a stretch, then these freaky-deaky things simply don't belong here. For me, there are enough tales of nutball Victorians to keep it all in bounds, but yeah, just barely.
You wonder what the original Imagineers were shooting for. In one of the Long-Forgotten threads at Micechat, someone argued that pieces like Freddie the Bat were inspired by Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, which would eventually take over the whole Mansion every Fall and Winter, of course. If you compare concept art for Freddie with typical NBC artwork, the similar look and feel is indeed striking.
But the dating is against it. NBC was released the same year the pet cemetery was installed: 1993. Better to look elsewhere for inspiration for this fantastic and surreal streak. [Edit: But see new evidence below.] As a matter of fact, the original HM Imagineers did kick around some lunatic pet ideas for the HM. Ken Anderson toyed with having a man-eating octopus in a pit in the middle of a room in his 1957 Ghost House. Which is pretty . . . out there.
But if we're looking for justification for adding an element of the strange and fantastic to the Haunted Mansion, the obvious place to look is in Rolly Crump's unused "Museum of the Weird" designs. Do I detect a whiff of the Museum in the pet cemetery? (Or *sniff* is that just a dead fish?)
Very, very few people know this, but Rolly actually designed some bizarre tombstones for the HM. Where they would have been used, I can't imagine, but it must be admitted that Freddie the Bat has nothing on Velma Wingspan when it comes to eccentricity, and isn't the spidery lettering style used on the pet cemetery stones just a teeny weeny bit reminiscent of Rolly's "Museum" font?
"But even if Ken, Marc, and Rolly kicked these kinds of ideas around, they ultimately decided NOT to go in that direction, so even if the pet cemetery Imagineers were drawing inspiration from those guys, they also overrode their judgment by going ahead with this kind of thing."
Yeah, I hear that, and it's a good point, but I still take some comfort in the idea that the newer Imagineers respected and revered the original masters and sought to draw inspiration from their work. And anyway, since the pet cemetery, even at its most surreal, can be placed within the imaginative orbit of the Mansion, I've decided to call a truce on this one.
New Evidence for Tim Burton's Influence
One of our "Anonymous" commenters directs our attention to a short 1984 film by Tim Burton, Frankenweenie, produced by Walt Disney pictures. Reportedly, Disney fired Burton after making it, claiming he had wasted company resources and had produced a film too dark for Disney to use. It later had video and DVD releases.
Well, SOMEONE at Disney liked the film. There can be little doubt that it was a direct influence on the front yard pet cemetery. The film is a parody/homage to Frankenstein, so there are important graveyard scenes—in a pet graveyard. It appears also in the film's opening titles.