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, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY: Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009)
and Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014).

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Whistling Past the Graveyard: The Stretching Portraits

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This will be the first in a series of three posts dealing with the stretching gallery portraits.  This first one will deal generally and more abstractly with the whole set, and the next two will look more particularly at the artwork itself.

I mentioned 'way back here that what we are frequently doing at Long-Forgotten is explaining jokes, which is usually a bad idea since the jokes are killed in the process.  But let's face it, the Mansion jokes are so familiar by now that for most of us they hardly even function as "jokes" in the usual sense.  We enjoy them in a different way, and no amount of annotation at this point is going to spoil them.

So let's get out the scalpel and have at it.

Jokes are serious business, ironically.  Every joke is based on irony, and every joke can therefore be explained by pointing to that irony.  I'm not exaggerating.  Even a third grader's fart jokes are explicable in this way.  Don't believe me?  With bathroom humor, the irony consists in the fact that we humans aspire to something beyond our animal natures, but our bodies constantly betray us, rudely reminding us that while we live here below we are very much animals.  We may speak of noble things and have eternity in our hearts (cf. Eccl 3:11), but we still have to take a dump a couple of times a day.  In fact, to be even minimally polite and civil, it is virtually required that we pretend that these animal functions don't even exist.  But they do, so opportunities for bathroom humor never end.

As for irony, I define it as a perceptible gap between appearance and reality.  All jokes, then, are based on the perception of this kind of gap.  You doubt it?  I dare ya, I double-dog dare ya, I triple-dog dare ya to post a joke in the Comments that cannot be explained convincingly as predicated on a gap between appearance and reality.  Remember though, explanations typically ruin jokes.

With that long preamble out of the way, let's take a look at the artwork in the stretching galleries.

Marc Davis's four portraits are supposed to make people chuckle.  Very well then, they are jokes.  Where is the irony?  Or better, what is the irony?


For three of the four, the joke is clearly the same:  a normal, confident-looking person is revealed to be in imminent danger of sudden death.  (We'll deal with the exception presently.)  Why does the trio work so well as a set?  I think it's because they represent three classic strategies for denying the reality of death, and even though everyone knows they're false strategies, their popularity remains undiminished.  Ironically.

If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?  Yeah, I know, world peace, blah blah blah; now cut the crap and tell me what you really want, as betrayed by your actions.  We can discuss and discuss, but sooner or later we're going to come around to these:

  • Beauty
  • Wealth
  • Power

Sneer all you want, you know you'd take 'em if you could get 'em.  If someone from Mars were to judge what is most important to humans, based on what they strive after most consistently, those might well be the top three answers.

I can imagine two objections.  First, are these three really separable?  Don't people want to be beautiful so they can get rich, etc.?  Admittedly, these goals often bleed into each other, with one of them pursued as a means to the others, but at the same time there are whole throngs of people who lust after one of those three as an end in itself.  Each one of them commands the ultimate allegiance of a sizable chunk of the populace.  Second, some of you might have other candidates that you think have a better claim to the Top Three.  I imagine that many would put "fame" on the short list, but here's the deal:  there are a lot of people who would not want to be famous, whereas far fewer people would actually choose not to be good-looking, or wealthy, or in a position to give orders and be obeyed.  So I'll stick with beauty, wealth, and power as the top three idols in the public square.  [Edit: Check out some interesting discussion about "love" in the Comments.]

And that's what you get here in the stretching gallery, before the stretch.  You've got a lovely young lady, representing beauty; a political figure of some kind, representing power; and a well-dressed businessman, representing wealth.

I admit up front that my interpretations of the Dynamite Guy and of the Quicksand Men are not self-evident, but I think they're correct.  The Dynamite Guy has got a sash, which hints at official position or official recognition, and he's clutching a Very Important piece of paper.  It is true that an early show script by X. Atencio refers to him as "Alexander Nitrokoff...an anarchist who came to us with a bang one night," but with all due respect, I think X misinterpreted Marc's painting.  Neither the sash, nor the formal, claw-hammer coat, nor the Very Important piece of paper suggest the identity of an anarchist.  To me, those clues point to a high-level diplomat or political figure of some kind.  As for the Quicksand Men, I note that they are well-dressed and well-groomed, but not too much so, as if they had no practical dealings with everyday affairs.  They come across to me as successful men of the world, as prosperous businessmen.

So anyway, the joke?  What people think are the most important things in life are in reality weak and ephemeral.  People act as if power, wealth, and the things that go with beauty will protect them from mortal ills, and yes, in most cases it may be conceded that they do help you to avoid the Grim Reaper for a season.  But only for a season.  Furthermore, there's no guarantee of even that much.  For all your money and/or power and/or physical charms, you may still perish in a moment, in a ridiculous moment, in an unheroic and an undignified moment.  We know this is true, but we ignore it best we can.

Whistling past the graveyard, it's called.

Marc Davis would probably have balked at this analysis.  I hear an irascible voice from beyond the grave, "They're just jokes, dammit.  JOKES.  I wasn't thinking of any of that...stuff!"  But as usual, we're not dealing with conscious thought but inarticulate artistic hunches.  Whether it's a symphony or a painting or a limerick, when someone hits the bulls-eye you know it, even though you may have a hard time defining the target in so many words.  Imagine if instead of the Quicksand Men you had a young lady with a train bearing down on her.  Somehow, the set as a whole would not have been as good.  You would have felt that you were seeing the same gag twice (with Alligator Girl), and the repetition would have been unwelcome, despite the fact that you ARE seeing the same basic joke three times as it is, and yet it feels very satisfactory.  I submit, then, that the threesome works because Davis's comic sensibilities intuitively settled on three classic vanities that people chase after in their attempts to avoid the reality of death.

What about the fourth portrait, the widow?  That one is different.  She's now been retconned as Constance, but the original joke remains intact.


Instead of an unsuspecting victim of sudden death, she is herself the agent of sudden death for other unsuspecting victims.  And to judge by her portrait, she has evidently succeeded in this role.  She represents a more complex strategy for evading death, namely, forming a partnership with it.  The prize in this case is not wealth, or power, or beauty, but cunning, a cold-blooded, ruthless intelligence combined with a survivor mentality.  It's as old as the Bible:  "We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come upon us" (Isaiah 28:15).  Of course, this too is vanity.  In the end you find that the Reaper brooks no rivals, cuts no deals, honors no contracts.  You have been a dupe, a tool in the hands of something far colder and more ruthless than you, and all of your cleverness will not prevent you from following your victims into the grave.  As we saw in our discussion of the pet cemeteries, there are at least three places in the Mansion that illustrate this dynamic (Constance, the Executioner, and the Cat-and-bird set in the garden).



The widow portrait takes its place in the gallery quartet as a more interesting strategy, but a vain strategy nonetheless. "Your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it" (Isaiah 28:18).

I will agree with Mr. Davis's ghost about one thing:  the paintings should not be interpreted literally.  I mention it because there is a persistent tendency among some Mansionites to try to find a way to wrap a story around the depictions exactly as they are (beginning with X. Atencio's reading of the Dynamite Guy!), but to me any such effort is absurd on its face.  I don't know of any diplomats (or even anarchists) who stand around on TNT kegs in their underwear, or businessmen who go out into the swamp and form human totem poles.  These are jokes, and that's where they stop.  If you absolutely MUST carry the portraits beyond that threshold, then I suppose you can interpret them as allegories.  A sheltered young woman who behaved as if she were somehow immune from the dangers of life pays a steep price for her foolishness.  A crooked politician is assassinated in the middle of embarrassing circumstances ("caught with his pants down," get it?), robbing him of his dignity as well as his life.  A business enterprise goes south, ruining all partners in the venture, even those with little responsibility for the fiasco.  That sort of thing.  But in my opinion even this degree of literalism is unnecessary.  Even in the case of the widow (now Constance), you obviously cannot take things too literally.  You don't really suppose she commissioned a bust of George with a hatchet in his head for his gravestone, do you?

Long-Forgotten posts will be approximately one per month for awhile.  HBG2 is a busy boy.

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21 comments:

  1. Hm, interesting points for sure.

    As a European, I naturally tend to comparing the portraits to their Phantom Manor equivalents:
    http://www.doombuggies.com/images/phantom_stretch.jpg
    While the joke is essentially the same for those four, I think the mood is much darker and rather melancolic - maybe the fact, that they all show the same beautiful girl adds to this impression. While this clearly states that the pictures can't be taken literally, it gives the feeling of an unescapable fatality.
    On the other hand, I always thought that they were kind of redundant - usually, I only gaze at the flower girl, which is my favourite.

    When you have examined the Haunted Mansion portraits, could you maybe also tell your views regarding the Phantom Manor ones? I would be very interested!

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  2. Excellent analysis! Your insight and eloquence rivals Foxxfur.

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  3. I have to say that I don't think that much of the Phantom Manor versions. As you mention, they're redundant. They almost have to be, because they are all in service to the same backstory of PM. Unlike the HM originals, they are consciously intended as allegories, but it's simply one, character-specific allegory repeated four times: "Young Melanie's life is about to be ruined forever by malevolent and deadly events."

    Humor can be profound. Davis's originals speak as a set, expressing in an amusing way a genuinely universal insight into human nature. PM's? Not so much.

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  4. You make a great case for the widow portrait, but I'm wondering if there's a fourth wish in addition to Beauty, Wealth, and Power - namely, Love.

    The widow, with her pink rose and sweet smile, could be seen as the embodiment of the kind of romantic love we think will last us a lifetime and protect us from all the evils of the world. But that's shown to be as much of a false sense of security as that we derive from Beauty, Wealth, and Power.

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  5. Interesting idea. If it's valid, then the portrait is still a sort of reversal of the other three. In the other three both the subject and the observer are innocent fools. You think, "Ah, beauty (or wealth, or power); wish I had some of that." You're deceived, you're in the same boat as the three people you're looking at. But in the case of the widow, it is only the observer who is an innocent fool, NOT the subject. You see her as her suitors saw her, something that seems to offer love (which proves to be yet another vanity in the sense that it serves as a distraction from your consciousness of your own mortality). However, what looks like love is in this case death wearing a mask.

    To put it another way, in the widow portrait the alligator/TNT keg/quicksand is on TOP, in disguise, rather than on the bottom, waiting to be revealed.

    The idea has merit. It would explain why Davis's original widow is not old but still somewhat attractive (certainly not the old lady of later versions). This allows you, the observer, to see and feel a little bit what the smitten suitors saw and felt. At least you can believe that some guy might look at that and think "love."

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  6. Oh, and thanks, Mat. High praise indeed.

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  7. Interesting discussion. In an interview in the mid 90's with Marc (Davis) he mentioned he had explored other portrait subjects such as a sea captain who's gag would reveal a sunken ship, with the captain straddling a ships figurehead/prow protruding from the water around it. Also a Fire Captain surrounded by the remains of a burned down building. But Walt and everyone really liked the ones used. Has anyone ever seen renderings showing Marc's alternate portraits? When the attraction first opened, the prop portraits were refined paintings done very similar to Marc's concepts. later it was decided to create more realistic 19Th Century type portraits that were done by Clem Hall. these are basically the styles seen in the mansions today.

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  8. I've heard of other Davis stretching portrait concepts too, but I've never seen any artwork. Incidentally, both of those you describe fit in with the analysis of this post. The vanity in both cases would be "virtuosity," or "accomplishment." Both speak of pride in one's expertise in keeping lethal natural forces under control, forces which in reality cannot be fully controlled. As for your further comments, you've anticipating things I talk about in the next two posts (which are already "in the can"), so shut up! ;)

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  9. Very nice analysis. The stretching portraits are some of my favorite gags in the HM, and I really have to agree with your assessment of them. I feel like if you're creative enough, you could come up with a plausible story for why these people are in the predicament they're shown (and who they're supposed to be). But it's true; these portraits are simply to add to the big picture of the place. No matter what we do or what we prize, death comes for us all, and it doesn't always give us a dignified leave. Looking forward to the next article!

    P.S. Don't know if I said before, this is "Rabbi" from the Doombuggies boards!

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  10. Verry interesting post indead.

    I love both of the portraits, the ones in the Haunted Mansion and the ones in the Phantom Manor. And I know that the PM ones are there to just be part of the Melanie's story. But is interresting to notice how similar they can be to the original in the HM, if they are side by side.

    Like for exemple:
    Melanie with the umbrela or walking in the water - the young lady on the rope;
    The monster on the water - the aligator;
    The waterfall - the quick sand
    And for me the most similar: Melanie with the flower upon a grave - the widow.

    This can show how faithful they are to the originals even with a diferent story.

    But this post was very good... I've never imagine this kind of "interpretation" for these portraits. Congratulations.

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  11. This thought is still half-formed, but let's see where it goes and if it leads you to anything.

    While I was reading your list of top human goals: beauty, wealth, power, I was thinking there is a another goal that often trumps all three. In fact, the desire for those three goals is often as a means to acquiring the fourth: love (and/or sex).

    And then I realized the fourth painting (the black widow who has been retconned into Constance) deals with this very subject. Now whether Constance ever loved George we don't know (and I doubt it), but I'm betting he loved her, and certainly lusted after her.

    That didn't save him from death either.

    This still doesn't 100% fit with the other three as George isn't the initial subject of the painting, but the presence of the rose at least suggests the subject of love. Not a perfect match, but helps out the idea of the set a bit, I think.

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  12. Been thinking about "love," and why it didn't hit me originally as one of the top "must have's." I guess it's because I distinguish between selfless love that seeks the good of the beloved and selfish love (which includes lust) which seeks to possess for one's own benefit. When I go into an abstract discussion of "love," I gravitate toward the former as the pure expression of the word, and see the latter as a distortion or counterfeit. I wish the same word were not applied to these two radically different things. But having said that, I agree that the desire to possess another person for one's own emotional gratification would certainly rank very high on the list of things people crave, and I agree that the widow portrait is speaking to that. In this case, the object of gratification is booby trapped: it seeks to possess you, or better, your possessions. You've fallen in "love" with death, fool.

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  13. Love both this blog and this discussion, especially since it really challenges me to analyze the images that make up my favorite Disney attraction since I first glimpsed it through spread fingers-over-eyes at 4 years old. It may be too basic of an observation, but what has always struck me about the stretching portrait "jokes" is how the whole stretching room format allows these jokes to play out. You enter a gallery with seemingly normal, posed portraits. Then, the room stretches, and things get weird, revealing the first layer of each of the four jokes. The pretty posed girl is not in a garden, but balanced on a tight-rope. The pompous and grumpy official is formal from the waist up, but in his underwear from the waist down. The smug, arms-crossed business man is actually sitting on the shoulders of a more distressed-looking partner (shades of the Jungle Cruise pole?). And the smiling older women sits on top of a tombstone. Then, through futher stretching, the jokes become darker still, all death-related. The tightrope is frayed, with alligators snapping underneath. The disgraced man stands on a lit keg of dynamite. The lowest businessman on the totem pole is in panic as he sees his quicksand demise. And the tombstone on which the woman revealed as a seemingly-grief struck widow sits shows a man with a hatchet in his head. Is there a more cinematic, more layered reveal to any joke (let alone four jokes in multiple parts) in any theme park attraction anywhere? We laugh at the first reveal, then laugh, while questioning our own laughter, at the second, darker and deadly reveal. And none of this would be accomplished without the need to just disguise an elevator and get the guests under train tracks. Genius.

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  14. Excellent observation! Hadn't thought about it, but you're right. There are indeed multiple steps to the revelation. You go from (1) straight and serious to (2) ludicrous to (3) macabre. It's "here's an impressive specimen of humanity," then they get a pie in their face, and only then do we see why they kinda deserve the pie (viz, they appear to be in denial about their mortality). Again, the widow is sort of a reversal: she's an impressive sight, then we see that's she's more eccentric than she looks (sitting on a tombstone!?!), but we don't immediately know why she's there, and only as the portrait continues to unveil do we see what the nature of her eccentricity really is.

    Again, for the scoffers, all we're doing here is plumbing some of Marc's comic intuitions, not his "thoughts" but his instincts. It's enjoyable because everyone seems to nod in agreement whenever someone says, "Marc Davis was a comic genius," but explaining exactly why we are convinced of it is a different matter. I'm glad if posts and discussions like this one help us to see and articulate more explicitly why these examples of Marc's work have always smacked of comic genius.

    It's not that we're overexplaining a joke, it's that good jokes generally go underexplained, partly so that they'll stay jokes, and partly because this sort of thing takes effort and sustained observation.

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  15. Great, thoughtful and interesting observations all! @Dan - I agree with you - I can just hear Marc saying in his distinctive, gruff voice, "You're over-thinking this. They're just a bunch of gags!"

    That said - there is much more at work here - whether or not Marc would have agreed. The observations about the three step reveal, "Love" & that the gag itself would have never been needed had it not been for the elevator are all great points of discussion.

    You need to publish a book of all these posts!

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  16. Retconned as Connie? Wait - I thought a bunch of HaunTards were already trying to make the Birthday Girl ghost into the previously unnamed character in the portrait - via the specious reasoning that they both have their hair in buns, so they MUST represent the same character. How can the subject in the portrait(who looks nothing like that attic disaster) simultaneously be both Constance AND the Birthday Ghost? Hint: she isn't supposed to be either of them....

    Wasn't there also already some ridiculousness surrounding that painting where people were trying to say that the rose the figure is holding is the same as the fresh rose which could be seen laying on the "Gracey" tombstone in the queue line?

    PLEASE make them stop.

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  17. Truthfully, I've never heard of either of those fanfic fantasies. But the widow very definitely, very officially, is Constance. Remember the obvious: this is a ride, and all of it is made up. The only "reality" in there is what WDI says is in there. There is no other. Theoretically, Disney could rename Mickey "Mortimer," and if they were suicidally stupid enough to do such a thing, then Mortimer would be his name, like it or not. As I discussed in an earlier post ("Here Comes the...Never Mind, She's Here: Constance and the Hatchet Man"), I may not like the Constance stuff, but there's nothing inherently absurd in identifying her with the widow in the portrait.

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  18. I always liked the fact that if you swap the roses for the axe in the widow portrait,her hand positions/grip wouldn't change.

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  19. Before the retconning of the widow as Connie, I thought the widow was just mourning her husband, not celebrating a successful murder. I think that she may not have been originally thought of as a Black Widow Bride until Connie. This gives the "love" idea more credibility.

    -Mel

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    1. There's never been any doubt that the widow on top of the tombstone killed George. Without that, there is no joke. And she clearly isn't sad.

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