You know the drill. As the show winds down, you go past a set of mirrors, and in the mirrors you see one of the hitchhiking ghosts sitting beside you. But it was not always so, says I. If you rode the HM during its opening week, you would have seen something else in those mirrors.
This was the original "Long-Forgotten Haunted Mansion effect," and it remains one of the most intriguing.
I rode the HM on Thursday, August 14th, 1969 (I was 14). There's a lovely story about how I got to ride during opening week, but that's for another time. There has also been a mighty tempest over when exactly the HM first opened, but that's another post as well.
Going past the mirrors, what I remember seeing is clouds of faceless, wispy spirits surrounding and mobbing the doombuggy. They were undulating and following along with you as you scooted past. Very cool. But on my next visit, no more than a few weeks later, the wraiths were gone, and I was startled to see the familiar effect that we have there now. "Hey, that's different!" was my reaction.
Flash forward 35 years, and the Internet has provided a means for HM fans to discover and communicate with each other. I dipped my toes into Doombuggies.com at my brother's suggestion, and—what a cool site. Mansionology has been a secret vice ever since. Well anyway, here was my chance, I figured. Surely someone else remembers this effect, right? Wrong. I dropped an email to "Chef Mayhem" at Doombuggies.com and to Chris Foxx at the now-defunct grimghosts.com. Here's what I wrote to the Chef on Aug 4, 2002:
And the similar email to Chris six days later:
No luck. Neither had ever heard of my wraiths. Well, let's throw the question open, shall we? I started a thread on the DB.com chatboards and described the effect yet again:
"One of the things I remember from my first ride on the HM, opening week 8/69, was that the HHGs did not reappear in the mirrors. Yeah, they were standing there as always as you entered the crypt, but that was it. Instead, in the mirrors there were wispy ghosts much like the graveyard wraiths surrounding the buggy as you moved along." (I still have copies of the relevant sections of that discussion thread.)
All of this tedious stuff is necessary to show that I was making these wild claims well before...
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...came to my attention. One of the participants in that chatboard discussion mentioned a HM effects blueprint in his possession with some curious items on it. He graciously sent me a copy. Eventually I was able to get a much cleaner copy of the same b-print (thanks to Datameister at Micechat).
The HHG-in-mirror effect is produced by a set of 15 rod puppets on an oval track behind two-way mirrors. The room is oddly shaped, being custom built for the ghosty-go-round. Here's an old b-print that shows the set-up as it is today:
You can see the oval track and how it fits the room. But on the effects blueprint I got from the poster at DB.com, there is no track; instead, there are three projectors focused on a wavy screen marked CURVED BACK PROJ. SCR'N :
Whoa. This b-print is dated 4-8-69. The original date on the other b-print is illegible, but it was updated on Feb 7, '69, and its last update was 4-7-69, the day before the other b-print was produced. Thus, our projector system is on a b-print that was the direct successor to one which shows the effect as it is seen today. Even without this info, it is plain that the ghosty-go-round was always what was planned, since the room itself is obviously shaped around it. In contrast, the projector system obviously does not fit the room very well. Look at all the wasted space. So, what gives? Why does the effects b-print which is actually closer to opening day have this funky substitute?
Another source of info about the HM as it was in the beginning is newspaper reports and reviews of the new ride. Pre-opening publicity stories that mentioned the HHGs began to appear in the Spring of '69:
In a review published a day earlier (the 12th), Sandi Mosley in the Orange County Register describes what sounds like our current effect:
Okay, now let's superimpose them:
See? The wavy screen sits right in front of the HHG track, about where the low curtain stands in this photo:
The best explanation for X's flub is that the originally-planned HHG effect—the one that is there today—did not look like it was going to be ready by opening day. The problem could have been something as simple as an unavoidably delayed shipment of a vital part. So a temporary effect was worked out and constructed, something to have in the mirrors until whatever demons were ailing the Gus-Ezra-Phineas show were exorcised. (We now know that this backup effect was built in the middle of April.) But the Imagineers wanted to show the press what the permanent effect was going to look like once it was up and running, so they managed to get the ghosty-go-round jury-rigged and working for the midnight showing, and then they immediately went back to their backup. They were still using that on Thursday when this geeky teen rode. I suppose that X's memory of this frantic mess was a little hazy, and that's why he spoke misleadingly to Storyboard.
How did the backup effect work? If I may speculate, it was yet another example of Yale Gracey genius at work. The projectors were the same as the ones Yale invented for use in the Blue Bayou lagoon (the clouds moving on the "sky") and used again in the HM for the misty clouds moving along the wall in the Limbo loading area and on the scrims in the graveyard.
The wavy, curved screen was 40 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was back-projected with these moving ghosts. The curves made them undulate and gave them animation. They were bright enough to be seen in the mirrors against the dark outside of your doombuggy, but were washed out and therefore invisible against the much brighter interior where you sit. This delicate balance was achieved by adding new lights, both in front of the buggies (spotlights) and behind them (new fluorescent lighting). Records show that these were installed at the same time that the backup effect was constructed, as part of the same project. Thus, the ghosts looked like they were surrounding and mobbing you, but they were not inside the doombuggy with you.
There's a photoshop recreation of the effect HERE.
Whew. All that for that.