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: 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.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Mummy Speaks: "You know, telling a joke in half a second isn't as easy as it looks."

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Somewhere around the beginning of 1968 the Imagineers finally decided that the Haunted Mansion was definitely, definitely going to be a ride and not a walk-thru attraction.  Throughout the latter half of 1967, the Omnimover system had proven itself in the Adventure Thru Inner Space ride in the New Tomorrowland, and so the Imagineers knew that they had at last a ride system that could be successfully adapted to a haunted house.

No area was more radically affected by this decision than the show script.  Starting in 1959, Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey had worked out a series of delightful ghostly effects to be used in show scenes that would last perhaps several minutes, but practically all of that had to be scrapped when the walk-thru became a ride.  Now you had to have gags that for the most part would last a second or two as people boogied on by.

"For the most part," I said.  Before proceeding further in this vein, I need to digress and revisit my argument from a couple of posts back ("Things Fall Apart"), because a huge exception needs to be carved out for the Séance circle.  There you settle into a leisurely pace, listening to and watching the Madame without interruption for almost a full minute.  You'll notice that your doombuggy stops its squirming and encourages you to gaze toward the center of the room.  That's one of the well-known advantages of the Omnimover: it can direct your attention toward whatever the show designers want you to see.  Gee, at the Séance, I wonder what that could be?


This is one good reason why the original, stationary Leota was superior to the bouncing bubble we now have.  She's supposed to be a point of stability in between the frenzy of activity preceding her and following her (frantic terrors beforehand, boisterous celebrations after).  Compared with the menacing cacophony and the claustrophobia of the Corridor of Doors—culminating in a whirling clock gone mad and a grasping spirit trying to "better itself" by taking possession of you—the Séance circle is open, peaceful, boundless, and practically timeless.  Here, you have reached the eye of the hurricane, further evidence that this is indeed the true center of the ride.


Chill out.  Madame L will handle this.

You might think the Ballroom scene is also pretty slow and calm, but I don't think so.  There is so much to see there that you still have a sensation of hurry.  That's a lot of jokes out there, and each one still has to be told in an instant because your eyes are not going to hang around any one of them for very long, not if it means missing all the rest of the activity.  It's a happening party.

Getting back to the original point of this post, it was fortunate that by the time they decided to make the HM a ride, it had for several years been firmly in the hands of an instant-joke master, Marc Davis.  He had long demonstrated—most recently with POTC—that he could tell a funny story in half a second flat.

A famous Davis gag on the Jungle Cruise


An unused POTC gag.  According to my stopwatch, it starts being funny in an incredible .08 seconds.

If you think that sort of thing is easy, just try it.  What's the secret to this kind of entertainment?  For one thing, you rely on stock characters, clichés, broad personality types that are instantly recognizable.  For another, you frame those characters within situations that are well known in the popular culture.  Because the HM presents ghost figures in the dark, the characters are hard to read by their facial expressions, and so there is a tendency at the HM to lean more heavily on the framing element than we find in POTC.  An easy example occurs near the end of the ride.  Almost everyone has heard legends about ghostly hitchhikers, so it takes the typical viewer almost no time at all to figure out the context of the infamous scene.



Davis puts a couple of stock characters in there, just the sort of creepy figures you might encounter out on a lonely road:  there's the Mysterious Traveler (carpet bag and all), there's the Escaped Convict, and there's the...uh... Nondescript Sheet Ghost.  Hmm.  Obviously room for improvement there, and thank goodness (or should we say badness?), because we got Ezra.  Oh, and notice the exaggerated size of the thumbs, a detail intended to slam their hitchhikerliness in your face instantly.

BUT.

No one bats 1000, not even the master of the insta-joke.  The rest of this post examines Marc Davis's biggest misfire in the Haunted Mansion, and maybe in the whole park.  He gambled on public recognition of the cultural setting and lost.  Forget about getting the joke in under a second; most people haven't gotten this one even after 40 years.


Okay, this scene is goofy enough to keep it from being actually boring.  The idea of a mummy as a rather wimpy looking geek having a cup of tea, and hard to understand because the bandages are in the way, while a deaf old guy tries to make out what he's saying...yeah, I suppose it's funny in a theater-of-the-absurd kind of way.  But what's a mummy and his tomb doing in a cemetery behind a Victorian-era house?  And what sort of assumed relationship is there between these characters?

Davis's concept art doesn't do much to clarify things.  It has an additional character that was never used, but the joke is still obscure.


Some have speculated that the old man is Father Time and the woman is Mother Nature.  Doesn't make any sense.  I didn't know Father Time was deaf, and where's his hourglass?  Or something to identify him?  The very fact that such a desperate attempt at interpretation has been floated at all is an indication that we just don't get it.

The problem stems from misreading the context.  Mummies come down to us in horror culture in not one but two distinct forms:  the mummy as ghost and the mummy as monster.  Of the two, it is the monster that has come to completely dominate the public imagination, thanks to Boris Karloff's 1932 performance in The Mummy, an image which has only been reinforced by countless TV and film treatments, a good recent example being the 1999 remake of The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser.  We all know the monster mummy:  the leg-dragging, lumbering killer, fueled by some ancient curse foolishly disregarded by the soon-to-be victims.  He growls a lot, but otherwise has little to say.  Some might think that Marc Davis is satirizing this hulking figure with his Don Knotts mummy, but that doesn't explain the whole setting.

Davis's mummy is the mummy as ghost, not monster.  The context here is the Victorian mummy craze.  Many a 19th c. wealthy Englishman started buying up Egyptian artifacts, including actual mummies, which could be procured with relative ease.  England had a fevah, and the only cure was more mummies.  In fact, the West in general had a bad case of Egyptomania:



If you want to find a historical counterpart to the Victorian lady in Davis's drawing, you can see her in this painting on the far left:



But wait a sec...where's the ghost part?  So glad you asked.

Combine this Victorian fascination with mummies with the concurrent Spiritualism craze, and inevitably there was interest in contacting not only dead old aunt Martha but that much older dead guy you haul out for parlor entertainment.  And which would you rather hear?  Aunt Martha or someone with the lost, ancient wisdom of Egypt?  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called "Some Words with a Mummy" in 1854, in which a mummy is revived by shooting electricity through it, and it talks (great caesar's ghost does it talk).  Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle wrote mummy stories.  The latter wrote one called "Lot 249," about a British student who finds a magical papyrus with which he animates a mummy bought at auction.  Things eventually go wrong, and presto, the mummy as monster is born.  But the chatty mummies favored by Spiritualists didn't vanish without leaving some trace.  Even today, "The Mummy Speaks" is a minor league cliché, usable in any number of contexts, even political commentary.  Davis gambled that this image of the mummy would be instantly recognizable, but for once his comic instincts failed him.


The presence of an entire Egyptian tomb in the cemetery behind the HM reflects more of the same mania.  It became fashionable to use Egyptian motifs like obelisks during the Victorian age.


You know, there was originally going to be a large obelisk in the HM graveyard next to the King on the teeter-totter, but we didn't get it and have to settle for a small non-funerary one, inside, amidst the attic junk.




Sometimes a whole section of a British boneyard was done up like an Egyptian temple.  There is a famous example at Highgate Cemetery:



This sort of thing is most likely the historical background for our Egyptian tomb, and apparently some wealthy Victorian eccentric has furnished it with a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus for good measure.




We're zeroing in on our joke, and making fine progress, but we're not there yet.  Finish your lunch, and we'll continue...


Who is the deaf old guy?  Honest answer?  I don't know.  Neither Davis's sketch nor the maquette figure provides a clear identification.  He may represent a sort of quasi-druidic-priest-type guy, either a real one or a Victorian pretender, and naturally he's very interested in hearing what ancient Egyptian mysteries our mummy might spill.  A summary of the ride written by the WED public relations head in April of 1969 describes him as a "venerable, bearded oracle of the Renaissance period," if that helps.


"Wh-what's that?"  Heck if I know.

Why did they keep him and ditch the lady?  I don't know.  This tableau seems to have given the Imagineers unusual trouble.  Not only did they cut a whole character, but they had a hard time figuring out how they wanted to arrange the three who remained, plus the sarcophagus lid and other details.  The Effects blueprints don't agree with each other, and neither of them shows exactly what is actually there.  And the dog?  In Tokyo he's on the other side, sniffing the old man.  I guess their old man smells more interesting than ours.
 

Oh yes, the joke.  All this sombre, occultic interest in contacting the dead and hearing the ancient wisdom locked inside the mummy's soul is WASTED because the stupid bandages are making him mumble incoherently, and the old guy is too deaf to hear it anyway.

"After millenia of stony silence, at last the mummy speaks!  He speaks, I tell you!"
Oooooh, neato.  What did he say?
"Uh...well, I don't know.  He was mumbling."

It brings me no joy to point out one of Marc Davis's failures.  Pthhh, who am I kidding?  I'm loooovin' it.  It's heartening for us artistic peons to know that even the best sometimes botch things badly.

19 comments:

  1. Very good post once more, and as always, you "unearth" excellent visual aids. The Victorian mummy craze is very interesting subject matter all on it's own, and a shame it doesn't come across as intended in the HM. Alas...I still find the finished scene amusing in kind of a odd, existentialist way as you mention: it's like a very obscure joke from a surrealist film, as is. "Eh? What's that?"

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  2. We're so familiar by now with all of these scenes that we don't even notice when we get them and when we don't.

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  3. excellent post, as always.

    I just have one quick question for you. On the DoomBuggies forums (that's how I found your blog), is your profile picture the current green floating thing in the séance room at DL? I've been searching for a picture for ages.

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  4. Yes, that's what the picture is. I haven't heard any comments about the Face effect for awhile, so I don't know if it is still behaving the same way, rotating faces and such.

    Pretty good photo here: http://micechat.com/forums/disneyland-resort/56224-long-forgotten-haunted-mansion-effect-74.html#post1755808

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  5. Isn't the fact that the ghosts are from "all over the world" enough of a reason for the mummy to be there?

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  6. It is, but there is also some kind of joke going on involving hearing him speak. Combine that with the presence of an Egyptian-style crypt and the fact that the mummy is a ghost and not an animated stiff, and the Victorian mummy craze context becomes likely. The delighted Victorian lady clasping her hands with joy in the Davis drawing clinches it.

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  7. I think you are over thinking this a bit much.

    It's established that the Haunted Mansion contains ghosts from 'creepy old crypts all over the world' and that at the HM they intermingle. So why wouldn't a mummy and a ghost from another era be together?

    Also I can't say I see the "Victorian" undertones. There is nothing about the old man that says Victorian to me. He's a real skinny old guy wearing a skimpy robe. Hardly Victorian costume. The ear trumpet has been around since at least the 1600's and was widespread long before Victoria came to the throne, so it's hardly a smoking gun. Neither is the woman in the drawing. Her attire and costume is similar to many of the other ghosts and I think her appearance is simply another use of the standard HM ghost type. Her appearance and design is not unique enough for me to accept Victorian mummy craze undertones.

    As for the scene being a "failure," I wholeheartedly and strongly disagree. The joke is simple, it's not "existentialist" or surreal but very basic: an mummy who can hardly talk trying to communicate with a man who can hardly hear. I got that joke a long time ago. And even if there is a hidden reference underneath to Victorian mummy fads, how does adding a secret meaning to a simple joke for people to discover make the scene a failure?

    Are the various gags involving Inspector Kemp's wooden arm in "Young Frankenstein" any less funny if many people don't know it's a takeoff from another similar character in the third Universal Frankenstein movie "Son of Frankenstein?" No, because the reference has no bearing on the actual gags.

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    1. "As for the scene being a "failure," I wholeheartedly and strongly disagree. The joke is simple, it's not "existentialist" or surreal but very basic: an mummy who can hardly talk trying to communicate with a man who can hardly hear. I got that joke a long time ago. And even if there is a hidden reference underneath to Victorian mummy fads, how does adding a secret meaning to a simple joke for people to discover make the scene a failure?"

      I couldn't agree more.
      You said exactly what I had intended to post, except you did it far more eloquently than I could have hoped to...many thanks...;)

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  8. An international, intergenerational gathering of ghosts can explain why a mummy ghost is there, but it can't explain why this cemetery has a full-sized, Egyptian-style crypt in it, complete with sarcophagus. Only Victorian-era Egyptomania explains that. Why would anyone be particularly interested in hearing what a mummy ghost has to say, anyway? Same answer. The Victorian mummy craze setting is not an "undertone" or a "hidden reference" or a "secret meaning"; quite the opposite. Everyone is expected to recognize it immediately. It provides the context for the joke, explaining the characters and the situation at a glance. And only then is the joke recognized as a spoof. But the fact that very few, in fact, recognize this Victorian mummy craze setting means that much of the joke is missed.

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    1. May I point out, however, that the notion that the Mansion used to be a real house is more recent than it seems. The radio spots and commercials and all the advertising for the Mansion's opening implied that the Imagineers had BUILT the house, and invited/gathered ghosts from all over the world there, making it comfortable for them. So my theory is that they just built the tomb to suit the mummy, or alternately that the mummy brought it with him, when he moved to the Mansion.

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  9. I remember asking my dad what the joke was supposed to be with the mummy, and he said, "I think it was play on Edgar Allen Poe's 'Some Words with a Mummy' but I could be wrong. Let me get out my blackberry and look it up."
    I'm not sure that it's a complete failure, but it's certainly not as strong or recognisable as the other graveyard gags. The simple explanation of it being a parody of Poe's story is kind of obscure, but I thought it was cute. The context of the mummy craze is a lot harder to pick up on, though.

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  10. I did not read that much into the gag. I just thought it was along the lines of "thanks for the tea, I'm very dry [mummy]." or "thanks for the tea, I've been too tied up to get it myself [the wrappings]" or even "thanks for getting me out of there [sarcophagus], I've been bored [thousands of years]".
    May be that's why no one dislikes it... while the gag [Victorian mummy craze] might not catch on, there are other ones that people can read into it.
    ~Ann

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  11. I agree that the scene is pleasing and amusing even if the context is not recognized. It may be in part because the characters themselves are so comical in appearance: the thin, gangly mummy, the smiling old deaf guy, the skinny dog. They're funny-looking even without a context.

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  12. I saw it as the old Egyptian sphinx riddle. "What walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon and on three at night ?" The dog, the mummy and the old man, all representing the parts of the riddle and the mummy and sarcophagus making us think Egyptian.

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    1. Ooooo. Very good. It would only be a loose allusion, however, since the four legged creature in the riddle is, of course, a baby not a dog. But yeah, interesting observation.

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  13. Also: basically, the original sketch had a DIFFERENT gag. Because the mummy LARGELY opens his mouth in it. I don't see the sketchy mummy mumbling. Then, the gag there… I don't know if it's completely right, cause it doesn't explain the deaf guy, but the idea would pretty much be that (instead of "After millenia of stony silence, at last the mummy speaks! But...well, I don't know what he told. He was mumbling."), we would have "At last, these ghosts of Victorian-egypt-crazian guys CAN speak to the mummy, as they expected, but it has nothing solemn; they are eventually taking the tea with their mummy, and it's very likely that they are only chuckling, telling jokes and other banalities instead of learning the Great Secrets of Egypt". Then, the joke would be deeper (a bit like your reading of the Stretching Portraits in one sense, but less dramatic): they always hoped this moment to come, as a quasi-divine thing, the greatest event in the history of Humanity… but after death it is revealed that the mummy is not especially wiser or more clever than the people who wanted to talk to him. And is, actually, quite the same — he has obviously adopted the british teatime tradition — (then "Death makes all men equals").

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  14. Re, 'the historical background for our Egyptian tomb', remember that Walt himself also stated back when they were constructing the mansion that they were building it all specifically to attract the ghosts, to make them WANT to come and 'live' there...'we guarantee them squeaky floors and creaking doors', etc...they built the tomb to make the Egyptian mummy/ghost feel at home after he had signed on to reside there (after answering the infamous advert to 'sign up now')...

    ...'Tomb Sweet Tomb' and all that...;)

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    1. Once again, we have the two alternate possibilities: either like in old concepts the Mansion has been built in Disneyland, to attract the ghosts; or the Mansion was a real mansion that was haunted to begin with, and not BUILT by the Imagineers.

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  15. I never knew the Mummy character was a figure of confusion. He's actually one of my favorites. Going through the ride a few times, buying the cd, and reading about it on the doombuggies site. I was able to to eventually get the joke. But I missed out on wondering what he was doing there. After all Walt Disney did say he was going to bring in ghosts from "ALL OVER THE WORLD". So I assumed the mummy was just one of those ghosts.

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