(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. (Please note that this post was written several years before the return of the Hat Box Ghost in May of 2015. That event is discussed HERE.)
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.
This photo simultaneously explodes two myths. It proves that he did exist and was installed in the ride, and it proves that the general public did see him. This shot is taken from a doombuggy. It is highly unlikely that Cast Members were allowed to take flash photos during their pre-opening preview (the "soft opening") or that one of them would have foolishly risked his/her job by trying to take one on the sly. This is not a professional photo either. Just about the only thing it can be is a tourist snapshot. Any remaining doubt, however, was obliterated forever in July of 2011, when some amazing home movie footage was posted at Disney History Institute It includes actual film of the Hat Box Ghost taken in August 1969.
That's exactly the sort of horizontal sweep that allows one to construct a 3D "magic eye" photo:
I'll be danged. The original Hatbox Ghost in 3D. Who'da thought we'd ever see that?
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. It is my recollection that 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:
(animated gif by maddartist Larry Higbee)
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 August 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, but he was already re-installed by the 10th. Thanks to maintenance records discovered by Tony Baxter in 2013, we know that the figure was certainly in use for at least a couple of weeks. They tried to get the effect to work. After removing and reinstalling the figure—perhaps several times—they finally gave up and permanently removed 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.
What was the problem? Various reasons have been given, but the most likely explanation is that the effect didn't work. The face was painted with fluorescent paint that glows under a black light. It was supposed to disappear when the focused black light 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
...and to these images:
Note that the "Story and Song" LP cover puts him smack dab in the middle, like he owns the place:
He also gets his own page in the 11-page booklet included with the 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 sometime in the latter part of 1968 Disney decided they would need 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.
At least eight different pictures from that particular photo shoot found their way into various publications.
(The prototype head had much more detail than the final production figure [see both below],
but they are the same head. The difference between the two is paint and nothing more.)
Disney used these photos in their own publications, naturally.
The significant thing is that Disney continued to recycle these, even after the HM had opened. The shot below appeared in a popular souvenir history book, Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, published in 1979, as well as in subsequent incarnations of the book (...The First 30 Years; ...The first 35 Years). In the book's treatment of the HM, the HBG was the only ghost shown, since this was the only "interior" HM photo in the spread:
Naturally, anyone familiar with the record albums recognized the HBG immediately and was set to wondering whether it had, in fact, existed. Look Fred! There it is in a photo! Thanks to this misleading photo, and perhaps others in the series, some people (including Tony Baxter at one point) concluded that the HBG effect was accomplished through the use of a Pepper's Ghost illusion.
So you've got the souvenir record albums and you've got the Yale and HBG photos. Last but not least, there was a groundbreaking article about the HBG in E-Ticket magazine #32 (Fall 1999), including never-before-seen photos of the actual figure. Imagineer Chris Merritt, a long-time HBG aficionado, can be credited with exhuming most of this new material from long-forgotten files in the WED/WDI archives. In turn, Jeff Baham and Doombuggies.com gave the Merritt/E-Ticket material wide exposure, recapping it for the Internet-savvy HM fan and adding a few new tidbits as well.
You often hear another detail that is supposed to deepen the mystery: All the original molds for the figure have disappeared without a trace! This claim may have been true when Tony Baxter first made it, but it's been false now for years. The original mold for the head was located and used in the creation of the new Hatbox Ghost (May 2015), and the mold is labeled "hatbox figure." Other than the head, there were never any exclusive molds to be lost. His hands are identical to the hands on the guy trying to open his coffin. His hat is the same thing the coachman and the picnic guy in the graveyard scene originally wore. There are no other molded parts to the figure, just aluminum tubing, wire, costuming, and wads of plastic wrap.
Put it all together, friends, and it's no mystery why a sort of Hat Box mystique began to develop. He was the ghost of a ghost, leaving an ongoing sense of his absence in the attic. He was a palpable presence there, made real only by memory. A mystery. An enigma. The perfect place for a ghost, living his unlife somewhere between your imagination and the solid walls of the Mansion. Best ghost in the house, some would say, because he's there but you never see him. Hey, who am I to disagree?
I came up with a photoshop to try to give some inkling of what he looked like, and now even that stupid picture has been sucked into the vortex of HBG misinformation. It has been taken as genuine by many people—including Disney, who used it at their Haunted Holidays website!
This thing was even included in a display at the Disney Gallery on Main Street in Disneyland, in July 2014!
It's a photoshop, people. It's. Not. Real. I even made some "magic eye" 3Ds out of it:
The Hat Box Ghost: The Background
Oboy, this is the good part. Shut up, it is too.
We have already remarked in earlier posts how the HM gags had to be instantly recognizable, jokes you could "get" in a split second. We saw how the Mummy tableau in the graveyard represented a rare failure in this regard. What about the HBG? What's the background there?
Dude, this one works. Let's say you're (1) watching a scary movie, and (2) the "OMG-something-horrible's-about-to-happen" music starts up, and (3) the camera directs your attention to a round hatbox sitting there by itself. What do you think is in it? Oh come on, this is an easy one. There's a severed head in there. Gotta be. This is a no-brainer (um, okay, that's probably not the best choice of words). Why is it that when you look at a round hatbox in anything like an ominous atmosphere, you CAN'T avoid the dreadful suspicion that there's a severed head in it? Well, for one thing, the motif is a Hollywood cliché, being used in a number of films. For example:
- Night Must Fall (1937) remake: 1964
- Rear Window (1954)
- The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
- Crazy in Alabama (1999)
For another, the motif is also found in pop-culture print media. Here's a 1968 paperback for your viewing pleasure (you sicko):
[Further examples of the same motif have been brought to our attention by readers in the Comments: "The Screaming Skull" (story) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (film).]
The main contributer among all these is probably Night Must Fall, which was first a play, then a film, then a radio adaptation, then a film remake. The stage version is still performed, and the films were international hits.
Still, I have to wonder how those relatively modest sources created such a universally recognized symbol. I almost want to go rummaging around in Freudian or Jungian categories, but I won't. Let's go back into the attic; that's creepy enough.
The original attic in DL's Haunted Mansion was a LOT more coherent and thematically sophisticated than it is given credit for. It's not uncommon for fans to point to the two major overhauls of the room as proof that the Imagineers were never satisfied with it, that it was the weakest room in the HM, etc., etc.
Bull-only. Back in the day, what was the first ghost you saw when you went into the attic? A skull-like head leaping out of a round hatbox, that's what. Here he is in glorious 3D, and if you think that's cool, check out the same thing animated. (Boogafrito, you rock.)
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.
Practically right behind that second blast-up stands the original bride in her original spot. (That standing screen wasn't there in the old days.) Her heartbeat fills the room, so her presence fills the room. Is she dangerous or just sort of sad? The attic also has three regular ol' head-on-a-stick pop-ups. They're probably a tribute to traditional spook houses, like everyone says, but they also add a touch of...I don't know...menace...to the atmosphere. Finally, you see the climax of the scene: the Hat Box Ghost. Holy crap, now you know what was being foreshadowed. It's the groom! Apparently, the Imagineers assumed from the beginning that you would assume—and correctly so—that this is the groom to the bride. How did he get beheaded, and how came his head to be hidden in a hatbox? The ride only gives you one real suspect to contemplate, and of course that's the bride. Remember, her presence fills the room, and the hat box head is hideously-mockingly flipping back and forth in synch with her heartbeat. You leave the attic full of dark suspicions. A grisly crime, a shadowy suspect, a perverse nuptial. Clues to something, but only clues.
The severed-head-in-a-hatbox motif dominated the original attic, and it worked because it is an instantly recognizable visual cliché drawn from the vast pop-cultural milieu of horror, crime, and mystery. Removing the Hat Box Ghost removed the linchpin of the entire presentation, taking away the unifying climax. It left the bride without any connection to the blast-up ghosts, and it left the blast-up ghosts without anything to distinguish them from the other pop-ups. The overhauls of 1995 and 2006 were essentially attempts to repair the artistic damage that was done mere weeks after the Mansion opened in 1969.
Just to clinch the fact that the blast-up ghosts are indeed foreshadowing the Hat Box Ghost, it may be noted that Yale Gracey originally intended them to be much more explicitly skulls. Compare his early sketch with the actual schematic for the effect:
He even built one like that. You can barely see the top of it in this photo of Yale in his workshop. It's at the bottom in the extreme foreground. If you can "magic eye" it, it's much easier to see. (I'm telling you kids, it's a skill worth acquiring). If that isn't a "rocket skull" in a leather hatbox, then it has something to do with the Hat Box Ghost himself, I'll bet.
Speaking of leather hatboxes, that one in the Yale photo looks like it could be the actual one used in the ride, which is curious because...
I suppose I could take that further, but I'll quit while I'm a head.
If you're paying attention, you might have noticed how little the attic of today has departed from the original, thematically. Next up, when we start taking a look at Constance, we'll see how closely related the old and the new attics are.