For a May 2012 update to this discussion, read this.
When Yeats wrote that line of "The Second Coming," I think he had something a little bigger in mind than the subject of this post, but I'm borrowing it anyway. If the argument presented here holds up, it should go a long way toward convincing the skeptics that the HM is art, because dadgummit, it acts like art.
One of the best-known factoids about the HM is that Walt Disney himself nixed the idea of presenting it as a dilapidated old house. He did NOT want anything that looked shabby or neglected at Disneyland. The basic look of the building did not change much, but it went through a grubby stage before it emerged as the neat and pristine building you see today. That story can be briefly told with just four pictures, so why not throw it in right here?
The first Imagineer to do serious work on a haunted house at DL was Ken Anderson. Ken saw this picture of the Shipley-Leydecker house in Baltimore, liked it, and sketched it as an abandoned house.
Imagineer Sam McKim overpainted Anderson's sketch in 1958, and ta da, the first icon of the Haunted Mansion was created. For some, this is still the all-time classic image.
This is when Walt put his foot down: "We'll take care of the outside, and let the ghosts take care of the inside," he supposedly said. Sheesh. Okay, it's back to the kept-up look of the original Shipley-Leydecker house. For our fourth picture, any shot will do if it shows how neat and clean the HM looks.
Well so what? Well, if you're one of the original Imagineers, you now have to decide more deliberately how you're going to handle the theme of decay. How do you get to the cobwebs and the peeling wallpaper? I mean, you can't very well have people walk through those immaculate, freshly-painted doors and run smack into falling plaster and crumbling woodwork. Gotta ease folks into it.
Let's leave that problem to fester for awhile, as we abruptly turn our attention to a separate issue: The storyline of the HM. Many hardcore fans are adamant that there is no official backstory for the Haunted Mansion. And to a certain extent that is true. Marc Davis was indeed opposed to the idea of "telling a story" in a ride, insisting that a set of experiences is a better approach. Take Pirates of the Caribbean. There's no plot, only a set of scenes showing the sacking of a Caribbean port by a pack of pirates. And yet there is still some narrative logic to the show, beginning with the attack and ending with burning the town. The same it true for the HM. There's no plot, but it does act like a three-act play, as many have noted.
- Act One: Unseen ghosts try unsuccessfully to "cross over" from the other side.
- Act Two: Madame Leota lends her expertise and opens the gates, so to speak.
- Act Three: Finally able to materialize, the fun-loving ghosts decide it's time to party.
When you think about it, it's pretty clear that Mdm L is the central figure in this play and in the HM. She's literally the center of attention in the center of a big room in the center of the ride. Before her, no ghost is visible. That seems to be an ironclad rule in the show. After her, you can see almost all of them.
There's a joke built into all of this, too. The unseen ghosts of Act One are frightening. They seem hellbent on breaking through, and you wonder if they're angry at you and intend to do you harm should they succeed. So you're properly scared. But when they finally make it, you discover that they have no interest in you whatsoever, that they're just a bunch of fun-loving spooks, happy to socialize with each other once they are able to materialize. And you! You were so scared, you sap.
Within Act One, there is a noticeable progression. At first they are content to glower at you (Staring Busts) or to make ugly, scary faces at you (Changing Portraits) or to try to disorient you by manipulating the fabric of the building itself (Stretching Gallery), but as you make your way upstairs, they kick it up a couple of notches: making noise, banging violently, sounding angry. Act One actually climaxes with the shadow of a claw-like hand coming down on you, just before you enter the Séance circle.
If we look for a pivot point within Act One where things begin to turn really nasty, I would choose the Conservatory. There we encounter a ghost who is extremely upset at finding himself still trapped in his mortal frame, and so long as he is unable to break free of his physical prison, he is trapped by the physical confines of the coffin. I guess this is pretty sucky if you're a ghost, because he is in a state of panic and is trying to break through using brute force, ready to snap off the lid of the coffin if that's what it takes. (And just to clear up a misconception, he is a ghost, albeit a ghost having some unusual difficulty in shuffling off his mortal coil. He's not a zombie or some poor devil buried alive. In a now-deleted piece of narration originally heard at that point, the GH says, "All our ghosts have been dying to meet you; this one can hardly contain himself.")
Okay, let's go back to the issue we began with and trace the decay of the building, and as we go along let's take note of what is happening in the three-act structure of the ride.
The results are fascinating.
The foyer, the stretching gallery, and the changing portrait hall are all as clean and well-preserved as the exterior. (Our description follows the DL version; the WDW version is a little different, but the same general observations hold.) No tattered curtains, no peeling paint, not so much as one cobweb.
You know what? A Webster, a rag, and a little Lemon Pledge, and this place has possibilities.
The woodwork is rotting away.
"Inside and outside, and even between the walls of this possessed manor, are ghosts, brought here from the darkest tombs of the earth."
Is this getting too weird? Stick with me a bit longer. If the Haunted Mansion is serving as a surrogate body for a legion of otherwise disembodied spirits, that would explain why the building itself acts like an organic, living body. It has walls that stretch. It has doors that bulge and breathe.
Like any house, this one is a dead shell of wood, but unlike others, this one is alive with spirits. Kinda like the dead body in the Conservatory, isn't it? But by adopting the Mansion as their surrogate body, the spirits seem to have kept it in an unnatural state of preservation. Once they leave its walls, it immediately sinks into a normal state of corruption. Cool, eh?
A haunted house is a bad substitute for having one's own body, albeit a ghostly one. They hate it in there. After Madame Leota releases the ghosts from the building itself, and they are finally able to materialize, is it any wonder that the good spirits are in such good spirits?
So... what we have is a thought-provoking interplay and integration between (1) the simple task of showing a house falling into decay and (2) presenting a three-act play about grim grinning ghosts (finally able to) come out and socialize. The final product is far richer and more intelligent than a haunted house ride requires. I don't think the Imagineers consciously and deliberately thought through this whole thing as I've tried to explain it here, but I do think they relied on their artistic instincts as to what "felt right" and what provided the most satisfactory haunted house experience possible. To that end, they drew upon ideas running through the general culture and gave them fresh expression in a highly original manner. When you're dealing with talents of this caliber, that sort of thing just happens.
Humans are fascinated and mystified by the relationship between body and spirit, and here we see yet another proof of that interest, presented in a manner lighthearted and entertaining, but not thoughtless. It's getting difficult to avoid that l'il old "A" word, isn't it?