Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (NY: Disney Editions; 2015). That's the
re-named third edition of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY:
Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009). Also essential reading is Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized
Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Two Taboos

You don't often run into discussions about what isn't in the Haunted Mansion, and when you do, it's usually to note that there isn't any grue, or there aren't any big scares.  Otherwise, it's what's there that gets the ink or the bandwidth.

There are, however, two omissions that create openings for some interesting observations (interesting, at least, to Long-Forgottenistas, or whatever it is we call ourselves).

Children Not Admitted

There are no ghosts of children anywhere among the 999.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  The closest we come is a mute admission that children exist within the imaginative world of the Haunted Mansion.  Amidst the junk in the attic have been prams and hobby-horses at one point or another, perhaps an acknowledgment that some of the Mansion residents were once children.  Not exactly news that will make you spill your coffee.

No child ghosts.  It's not as though anyone is pretending that no one under 18 ever dies, so...where are the kids?  At one point I argued that it isn't possible to make jokes about the death of a child.  Well, actually, you can, you know, if your name is Edward Gorey.

But that humor presupposes a very different world, and don't expect to work for Disney if that's your total bag.  Disney's offerings always have an upbeat ending.  They "celebrate the human spirit," to use a typical cliché, and to do so they imagine a cosmos that is essentially hospitable to humans and normally rewarding to anyone who dreams big and beautiful things.  If you hold a blacker, more bitter view of the cosmos, you can grin grimly at Gorey's perishing innocents and say with Gloucester:  "As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' gods, — they kill us for their sport."

If your view of things is not quite that bleak, then there are rules.  You can turn almost any adult's death into a jest, because by then we have all bitten the apple, we are all guilty creatures, and we all kind of know deep down that mortality is the fate we probably deserve.  You can even get away with a suicide joke.  But a child's death is Something Else entirely, and it's just never ha-ha funny to anyone who believes that there are—and should be—better things.

And No Crosses, Either

Considering how the Imagineers rifled though traditional material in search of ideas for the Haunted Mansion, it is striking that there are no nuns, no monks, no clergy of any kind.  It's not as if there is a gap in this area:  holy moly, ghost lore is chock full of nuns and monks, both "real" ghosts and literary ghosts.  Monks are especially prone to be caught by the camera, it seems.

Some literary ghosts have left the pages and almost taken on a life of their own (or afterlife, I guess), like the Bleeding Nun, from the 18th c. Gothic novel, The Monk.  Here she is on an early 19th c. magic lantern slide:

But the Mansion has steered clear of all of this.  It's part of a general taboo that includes any traces of Christian symbolism.  You will hunt in vain for a cross anywhere in the original HM cemeteries.  They aren't there.  It's pretty easy to figure out who was responsible for this, too:  Marc Davis.  Paintings and concept sketches by other HM Imagineers have an occasional cross, like Ken Anderson...

.                        . . . or Collin Campbell . . .

. . . but Davis?  I've never seen a single cross in any of his concept work for the HM, despite the number of graveyard scenes he sketched.

If you look at photos of the scale model of the graveyard, here again there's not a cross in sight.

And the taboo is fully realized in the final attraction.  None of the headstones have a cruciform shape.  The winged head, frequently crowned, is extremely common on old New England headstones and represents the flight of the soul to heaven, but it's doubtful if many people know that, and few would consider it a Christian symbol per se since the idea it represents is scarcely unique to Christianity.

Davis was someone who had enough clout in this project to maintain a no-cross taboo all the way through, so all the evidence points to him.

But why this ban?  I rather doubt it was because Davis was so devout.  More likely it was because he was of the old school of thought that there was no reason to take any chance of offending religious sensibilities, especially Christian sensibilities, since that represents a mighty big chunk of the paying public.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a dictum that came down to Marc from Walt himself.  Believe it or not, kids, in the early sixties it was still possible to worry that some people might think a haunted house was making fun of death, which might be okay so long as you didn't make it irreverent by bringing symbols of genuine, real-world faith into the mix.  It wouldn't be inconceivable at all that a Council of Bishops or a Sunday School association might write a letter of protest at the sight of serious Christian symbols being used as part of mere entertainment, especially with a subject as inherently serious as death.  Why stick your thumb in their eye when you don't need to?

Times change.  In an age in which deliberate and angry forms of literal blasphemy are common shock elements in art and in popular entertainment, it is hard to believe that someone might have worried about irreverence at a level this low (unless it's Islam we're talking about, but that's another story; don't get me started).  In fact, I would be surprised if anyone—including the Imagineers involved—even noticed that the first ever cruciform headstone at the Mansion made its debut in 1993.

If you're searching for the point where the 1969 Mansion comes closest to stepping over the line, I'm going to say it's the inscription on the MEMENTO MORI headstone, one of the nine main designs used in the graveyard scene:  "Laudamus Te" ("We glorify thee") occurs in the Latin Mass.  Ah, but on a headstone, the line can conceivably refer to the departed, so the sculptor gets off on a technicality.  ("If I had meant God, I would have used the equally common but less ambiguous 'Te Deum Laudamus.' ")

The lesson you draw from all of this is going to vary.  Some of you will breathe a sigh of relief that we've emerged from an oppressive cloud into an era of greater artistic freedom, while others will sigh too, but it will be a sigh of mourning over something valuable that has been lost.  Fifi's headstone is a tiny, eccentric milestone on some road or other.  We probably won't all know what kind of milestone until we're closer to the end of that road.


  1. One of these Taboos was recently broken.

    In the brand-new interactive queue at WDW, there is a bust of twin children with sour faces. Their plate says "THE TWINS Wellington and Forsythia Departed life while in their beds With identical bumps on identical heads"

  2. Indeed, what a shame. I wish the imagineers had applied the same vigor in their studies of the Humanities, and even comparative religion, as they apparently did to their engineering courses.

    Subtle changes, perhaps, yet thematically weighty nonetheless. And the parks are all the poorer as a result.

  3. And they could avoid the problem by simply leaving the acknowledged masterpieces alone. Go make new masterpieces.

  4. What about the WDW exterior? Up on the the really tall tower, there's an indent or something, and it looks an awful lot like a cross. Trust me, it's really obvious.

  5. It's actually a fleur-de-lis on a long stem:

  6. OK, that makes sense. Thanks, and great post as always!

  7. I totally always thought the birthday girl was a child...I've been on the ride at least once a year since I was a baby but never noticed she was an adult! I am loving this blog!

  8. Why thank ye. While I'm revisiting an old blog posting, I can take the opportunity of pointing out that the Alice books have quite a number of child-death jokes in them, so you don't have to go as dark as Edward Gorey to find such humor.

  9. Both DL and WDW mansions, suits of armour have a cross (cross pattée to be more precise, worn by crusaders and templars) on the shield.

    The other design on the shield is diferent one both (DL has a lion, WDW has a griffin) but why keep the cross?

  10. The filigree along the top of the ballroom hearse is a row of crosses too, so you can find them. They didn't take the matter to an absurd extreme, they just made sure there were none in the graveyards, and elsewhere they are rare. The cross is so commonly used in heraldry and is so commonly associated with crusaders (as you point out) that they evidently didn't think that the one you mention was anything to worry about. It looks "knight-ish."

  11. I wonder whether a subtext existed for the reasons behind omitting crosses from the graveyards; to wit: the imperative of giving people a "proper" burial, so as to guard against roaming (i.e., haunting) and let the departeds' spirits lie at rest. Back in the day, "proper" burials meant *Christian* burials, evidenced with grave markers bearing crosses. The same went for burials in other faiths, in that a specific token (Star of David, Celtic cairn, etc.) would somehow designate that burial ground as hallowed, and therefore set aside from the other, ordinary earth right next to it. Perhaps the HG's graveyards, lacking religious symbols of protection, are more likely to foment haunting.

    I can imagine the uproar that might have ensued, were ghosts to arise from Christian (or other religion) graves, because such a situation would mock certain religions' ideas of the spirit going immediately to heaven (or other heavenly realm, or back into another new body, or etc.) upon the body's expiration.

    - FanOfWalt

  12. Hey, I just found your blog, and I'm loving it!

    Here is a little more insight into Disney's stance not to use elements of Christianity:

    "Walt Disney always called himself a Christian, but his biographers agree that he was skeptical about organized religion and rarely set foot inside a church. He insisted that any narrow portrayal of Protestant Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) in his animated features was box-office poison, especially in lucrative, overseas markets. More broadly, Walt's fear was that explicit religiosity might needlessly exclude young viewers, while a watered-down version might at the same time offend the devout. Yet the studio's founding genius also understood that, from the ancient Greeks to the Brothers Grimm, successful storytellers have needed supernatural intervention agents to resolve plots. So, Walt decided, Disney's cartoon protagonists would appeal not to Judeo-Christian religion but to magic, which was more palatable around the ticket-buying world. (It's no coincidence that Disney's marquee theme park is called The Magic Kingdom.)"

    From this:


    1. Welcome, Michelle.
      There is much sense in that analysis, especially in the recognition that the safest course is to avoid a stance that either offends unnecessarily or endorses too specifically a particular "brand" of Christianity (and we may as well be plain that that is the religion Walt needed to deal with. I don't think he sat up at night worrying about inadvertently offending Zoroastrians).

  13. Is the Birthday Girl not a girl? I've always assumed she was a child, like Hannelore commented before me. Looking at photos and Disney pins of her, it looks like her cake has about 11 candles(hard to count for sure). I say that makes her a child's ghost, but that's just, well, like, my opinion, man.

    1. She doesn't look like a child to me.

  14. After riding it again a few weeks ago, I counted 12 or 13 candles on the cake. I think the number of candles on a cake is usually a fair measure of one's age. Along with the fact that she is called "Birthday GIRL," I still say she's a child. Again, just my opinion. Really enjoy reading your articles by the way.

    1. Here's a blueprint. I think you might have a difficult time convincing someone that it depicts a child.

  15. That looks like how a 12-13 year old might blow out her candles. She's just a well developed one. And when she's dressed, you don't notice that at all. I'm still convinced she's a child.

    1. You can't see it, but it tells you what the Imagineers thought they were dealing with. Post-pubescent = no longer a child. "Childhood" ends long before 18 in the moral sense that I am using the term. Even a dead 13-year-old would not contradict my thesis.

  16. I remember reading an article a few years back, somewhere, that tried to prove that Master Gracey was not the Ageing man, or the Ghost Host, by claiming that X. Atencio intended the "Master" on the tombstone to imply that he was too young to be called "Mr. Gracey,” not that he was the Master of the house. Now of course the Ageing Man, the Ghost Host, and Master Gracey were never intended to be the same character, but did Atencio write “Master” to imply that this was tomb of a child, and if so, does it break the Taboo?

  17. No, X intended "Master Gracey" as a tribute to Yale Gracey, nothing more and nothing less. Yale was indeed a master of special effects, and that fully accounts for the word choice.