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, 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; 2nd ed. 2016).

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.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What is a Doombuggy, Anyway?


A trivia item known to most hardcore fans is the fact that the term "doombuggy" occurs only in the "breakdown spiel," when riders are told to remain seated in their halted "dooooombuggy," as X Atencio pronounces it (that's his voice).  Theoretically, you could ride the HM your entire life and never hear the word.

Breakdown Spiel

Less well-known is the fact that "doombuggy" was used in press releases given out for the grand opening, so it's been an official term since Day One.  It's a pun on "dune buggy," of course, firmly dating the whole business to the late 60's.

That is soooo groovy

Yes, but what is a doombuggy supposed to be?  When it comes to conveyance vehicles, the Haunted Mansion is admittedly inferior to the Pirates of the Caribbean.  The small boats you use to sail through an imaginary Caribbean port town are perfectly suited to the world you are entering, requiring minimal suspension of disbelief.  That's how you would do it, if you were really in a position to do it.  But I've never heard of a real haunted house with a string of pods snaking through it.

The Ghost Host refers to them as carriages, but I'm not inclined to take that too literally.  If they're carriages, where are the wheels?  Like the prohibition against flash photography and the mention of safety bars, it's a concession to reality that you're supposed to tolerate as part of the price of having an experience like this.  Guests need to be informed in advance that they're going to be getting into a vehicle and had better be ready to pair up with "two or three loved ones."  "Carriage" is just about as neutral a term as you could expect under such circumstances.  What else could he call them?  "Vehicles"?  "Conveyances"?

But within the imaginative world of the HM, the doombuggy must be something, right?  I've heard it all. "It's a hearse."  "It's a coffin."  "It's what he says it is, a carriage."  "It's a chair."

None of these is satisfactory.  If they had wanted them to be little hearses, it would have been easy enough to supply some appropriate decoration.  That's what they did, for example, for the Haunted Castle at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California:

(pix by RegionsBeyond)

Well, are they coffins, then?  X. Atencio's first impulse, as a matter of fact, had been to outfit the omnimovers like coffins:


You've got the same problem.  If they're supposed to be coffins, why don't they look like coffins?  Could they be chairs, then? They do bear a certain resemblance to what they call porter chairs:

But gimme a break, you're floating through a house in an armchair?  That's a bit . . . much. And if 
such were the case the GH could very well have invited you to "take a seat in the chair" provided.

What they really are is exactly what they look like:  nothing!  They're shapeless, featureless blobs, painted flat black, which in itself is a sure sign that you're not supposed to "see" them at all.

Nope.  Don't see nuthin'.  Blank.  Zip.  Nothing there.

To illustrate the idea, I like to point to Bunraku, a traditional form of Japanese puppetry.  The puppeteers are in full view, but dressed and hooded in black.  By the second act, the puppeteers often dispense with the hoods, because by then you no longer "see" them.

They often have several puppeteers working the same puppet, as in this 1935 photo.
Doesn't matter.  They aren't there.  

"Dum de dum dum, you can't seeeee us!"

It's really the same principle as ignoring the plainly visible strings on a marionette, just a more extreme application.  That's how it is with the doombuggy, except that you're the puppet.  Gulp.

Notice how, in this famous Claude Coats concept sketch, the back of the doombuggies is already "invisible" before you've even left the area. The "E" Ticket Magazine recognized this concept clearly enough, referring to the doombuggies as "colorless" cars and "nearly invisible vehicles" (#16/Summer 1993, p 5).

The earliest known reference to the conveyance system is in a press release from early in 1969, announcing the opening of the ride later that summer.  I have here a March 23rd clipping that says that the Mansion will provide "perpetual levitation for moving guests through the haunted halls...." There's your official explanation. Okay, you're only "levitating" if you can't see anything holding you up, am I right? No one would use the word "levitation" with reference to riding in a carriage or some other kind of visible conveyance, so apparently you're to imagine that you're being carried by some mysterious and invisible force.

We're getting carried away here.

Incidentally, you're not being carried by the Ghost Host himself. Remember, he leaves you at the end of the Séance ("I'll see you all a little later...") and finds you again near the end of the ride ("Ah, THERE you are..."). Whoever or whatever is doing it, eventually you are levitated outside through an attic window onto a small porch, and then you are dropped off the roof. You fall to the ground through a tangle of bare trees. Actually the ghosts are only teasing, and the so-called "fall" is apparently meant only to scare you, because you find yourself gently upborne by that same unseen force, landing uninjured.

We know that you "fall." Frank Allnutt, WED public relations manager when the HM opened, said so in a ride summary dated April 8, 1969:

Mortal visitors escape "outside" the mansion, only to suddenly "fall" backwards off the roof.  They descend past grasping, demon trees, then find a terrified night watchman and his dog, standing, frozen with fright, at the gates of a misty cemetery.

There is some uncertainty about whether you "die" from the fall and join the party or not.  Some people think so, but I doubt it.  The spirits continue to either ignore you or have fun trying to scare you (the pop-ups).  In other words, you're still not one of "them," not yet, anyway.

So pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  There's nothing there, even if it's nothing with a safety bar attached.


Monday, August 30, 2010

From Creepy Old Crypts All Over the World

The Haunted Mansion has a large cast of characters, but it's definitely a circumscribed group.  When the Ghost Host claims that they come from "all over the world," that's a bit of a sham.  They come from Northern Europe and North America, with the exception of three from the Mediterranean basin:  Caesar and two Egyptians (viz, the graveyard mummy and the Cleopatra-like lady on the chandelier).  Someone may ask whether even that is too generous a description.  Since a Victorian gentleman or gentlewoman who doesn't open his or her mouth could hail from either Old England or New England, how do we know there are any North Americans at all?  Well, we're in New Orleans, and whole flocks of wraiths are pouring up out of the graveyard, so presumably most of them are Americans.  We can thank Ken Anderson for that element (including how the effect is done—projections on a scrim).

"U. S. A ! . . . U. S. A ! . . . U. S. A !"

But better still, there is one ghost in there who is plainly North American: The Ghost Host (Paul Frees was American).

No East Asians, no sub-Sahara Africans, no Native Americans, no Pacific Islanders, etc.  Does it mean anything?  I suspect that it signals a restriction on what kind of ghost traditions we are supposed to presume in the HM.  Sure, cultures all over the world believe in ghosts, but spirits of the dead in China or among Native Americans are regarded differently and function differently within those cultural-religious matrices than do our familiar Euro-American ghosts.  Reportedly, this is one reason why the Hong Kong Disneyland isn't getting anything similar to the Haunted Mansions found in all the other parks.  Within the Euro-American world, we assume that spirits of the dead are normally gone and out of our sphere, in heaven or hell or somewhere like that, and if they come back it's because something is wrong somewhere.  Something needs to be done so that they can rest in peace like they're supposed to.  If you should happen to see one, it is normally cause for concern, for dread.

If you're a storyteller you have to draw the circle somewhere or you won't have enough common ground with the audience to tell any kind of narrative, however vague.  Without the usual Euro-American expectations about ghosts, the whole joke of the Haunted Mansion fails miserably.

So much for space; what about the other variable of existence, time?  Plainly we've got ghosts from many different ages cavorting before our eyes.  Apparently the afterlife opens up a pool of potential partners that can only dream of.  A medieval soldier is starting to get a little jiggy with that aforementioned Egyptian lass, the one with the Great Pyramids.

If we're looking for the oldest ghosts in the place, our three Mediterraneans easily take the prize.  There's this Egyptian gal, and of course our old friend Caesar down below her...

...but the obvious winner in this category is sitting out in the graveyard.

There are a good dozen or so medieval figures, but the vast majority of the ghosts we see appear to be 19th century vintage, and most of those Victorian, presumably because so many ghost stories seem to take place in such a historical setting, and because ghosts of that era no doubt feel at home in a house of comparable age.

A more interesting question is, which ghost is the youngest, the most modern?  The Imagineers seem to have restricted themselves in this area too.  There are no 20th century ghosts.  You might think that, well, what kind of distinctly 20th c. characters could have been offered that would have humorous potential and be instantly recognizable?  Plenty!  Where's your imagination?  A World War I doughboy, a flapper, a Chicago gangster of the Machine-Gun Kelly/Edward G. Robinson type.  Marc Davis could have spun out a dozen of these before breakfast, but they're not there.  I think it was a conscious limitation.

My vote for the youngest ghosts goes to the bicyclists.  They're a little loopy, but they're favorites with many fans.  Another Davis idea, too.

There are two single-riders and one tandem bike in the circle:

The tandem bike as we know it was invented in 1898, so there you go; they're perched right at the outer rim of the 19th century.  Lest you think this is pressing the details a bit hard,  I call your attention to a seldom-seen concept sketch by Davis showing that he was perfectly conscious of the late-90's setting of the tandem bike.

Call them the Cadaver Dans.

One of the brighter spots in the otherwise disappointing 2003 movie adaptation of the Haunted Mansion was the decision to recast the singing busts as a barbershop quartet and enlist the current incarnation of the Dapper Dans to provide the voices.  Who does NOT like the Dans, anyway?  I think it's a kick to have Davis's sketch before you as you listen...

Grim Grinning Ghosts - The Dapper Dans

So for what it's worth, there you go; there are the parameters for the cast of characters used to tell the Mansion tale.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Two Taboos

You don't often run into discussions about what isn't in the Haunted Mansion, and when you do, it's usually to note that there isn't any grue, or there aren't any big scares.  Otherwise, it's what's there that gets the ink or the bandwidth.

There are, however, two omissions that create openings for some interesting observations (interesting, at least, to Long-Forgottenistas, or whatever it is we call ourselves).

Children Not Admitted

There are no ghosts of children anywhere among the 999.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  The closest we come is a mute admission that children exist within the imaginative world of the Haunted Mansion.  Amidst the junk in the attic have been prams and hobby-horses at one point or another, perhaps an acknowledgment that some of the Mansion residents were once children.  Not exactly news that will make you spill your coffee.

No child ghosts.  It's not as though anyone is pretending that no one under 18 ever dies, so...where are the kids?  At one point I argued that it isn't possible to make jokes about the death of a child.  Well, actually, you can, you know, if your name is Edward Gorey.

But that humor presupposes a very different world, and don't expect to work for Disney if that's your total bag.  Disney's offerings always have an upbeat ending.  They "celebrate the human spirit," to use a typical cliché, and to do so they imagine a cosmos that is essentially hospitable to humans and normally rewarding to anyone who dreams big and beautiful things.  If you hold a blacker, more bitter view of the cosmos, you can grin grimly at Gorey's perishing innocents and say with Gloucester:  "As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' gods, — they kill us for their sport."

If your view of things is not quite that bleak, then there are rules.  You can turn almost any adult's death into a jest, because by then we have all bitten the apple, we are all guilty creatures, and we all kind of know deep down that mortality is the fate we probably deserve.  You can even get away with a suicide joke.  But a child's death is Something Else entirely, and it's just never ha-ha funny to anyone who believes that there are—and should be—better things.

And No Crosses, Either

Considering how the Imagineers rifled though traditional material in search of ideas for the Haunted Mansion, it is striking that there are no nuns, no monks, no clergy of any kind.  It's not as if there is a gap in this area:  holy moly, ghost lore is chock full of nuns and monks, both "real" ghosts and literary ghosts.  Monks are especially prone to be caught by the camera, it seems.

Some literary ghosts have left the pages and almost taken on a life of their own (or afterlife, I guess), like the Bleeding Nun, from the 18th c. Gothic novel, The Monk.  Here she is on an early 19th c. magic lantern slide:

But the Mansion has steered clear of all of this.  It's part of a general taboo that includes any traces of Christian symbolism.  You will hunt in vain for a cross anywhere in the original HM cemeteries.  They aren't there.  It's pretty easy to figure out who was responsible for this, too:  Marc Davis.  Paintings and concept sketches by other HM Imagineers have an occasional cross, like Ken Anderson...

.                        . . . or Claude Coats . . .

. . . but Davis?  I've never seen a single cross in any of his concept work for the HM, despite the number of graveyard scenes he sketched.

In 2019 a massive new book on Davis was published: Mark Davis in His Own Words (around here known as MDIHOW), and it includes a number of never-before-seen sketches by Davis, including HM artwork with graveyards and such, and again, there are no crosses anywhere in the new/old artwork.

If you look at photos of the scale model of the graveyard, here again there's not a cross in sight.

And the taboo is fully realized in the final attraction.  None of the headstones have a cruciform shape.  The winged head, frequently crowned, is extremely common on old New England headstones and represents the flight of the soul to heaven, but it's doubtful if many people know that, and few would consider it a Christian symbol per se since the idea it represents is scarcely unique to Christianity.

Davis was someone who had enough clout in this project to maintain a no-cross taboo all the way through, so all the evidence points to him.

But why this ban?  I rather doubt it was because Davis was so devout.  More likely it was because he was of the old school of thought that there was no reason to take any chance of offending religious sensibilities, especially Christian sensibilities, since that represents a mighty big chunk of the paying public.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a dictum that came down to Marc from Walt himself.  Believe it or not, kids, in the early sixties it was still possible to worry that some people might think a haunted house was making fun of death, which might be okay so long as you didn't make it irreverent by bringing symbols of genuine, real-world faith into the mix.  It wouldn't be inconceivable at all that a Council of Bishops or a Sunday School association might write a letter of protest at the sight of serious Christian symbols being used as part of mere entertainment, especially with a subject as inherently serious as death.  Why stick your thumb in their eye when you don't need to?

Times change.  In an age in which deliberate and angry forms of literal blasphemy are common shock elements in art and in popular entertainment, it is hard to believe that someone might have worried about irreverence at a level this low (unless it's Islam we're talking about, but that's another story; don't get me started).  In fact, I would be surprised if anyone—including the Imagineers involved—even noticed that the first ever cruciform headstone at the Mansion made its debut in 1993.

If you're searching for the point where the 1969 Mansion comes closest to stepping over the line, I'm going to say it's the inscription on the MEMENTO MORI headstone, one of the nine main designs used in the graveyard scene:  "Laudamus Te" ("We glorify thee") occurs in the Latin Mass.  Ah, but on a headstone, the line can conceivably refer to the departed, so the sculptor gets off on a technicality.  ("If I had meant God, I would have used the equally common but less ambiguous 'Te Deum Laudamus.' ")

The lesson you draw from all of this is going to vary.  Some of you will breathe a sigh of relief that we've emerged from an oppressive cloud into an era of greater artistic freedom, while others will sigh too, but it will be a sigh of mourning over something valuable that has been lost.  Fifi's headstone is a tiny, eccentric milestone on some road or other.  We probably won't all know what kind of milestone until we're closer to the end of that road.

A Postscript on Changing Portraits at the Cabaret du Néant

In discussing the changing paintings in the first room of the Cabaret, I've mentioned twice now that Albert Hopkins, in his 1901 book, Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, explains the effect as a thin cloth painted on both sides, with the back scene visible only when the painting is lit from behind.  Well, it's possible that Hopkins offered this explanation because such a gimmick actually existed, proving that it could be done that way.  I recently came across this interesting item:

It's a Parisian lithograph from about 1830 featuring a scene based on Henry Fuseli's 1781 painting, The Nightmare.  The little devil is visible only when the lithograph is lit from behind.  Notice also the night/day transition.  I still don't think this can fully account for the effect used at the Cabaret du Néant, but could this have been what Hopkins had in mind?  Regardless, it's an interesting example of a 19th c. changing portrait trick with a horror theme.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Death is a Cabaret, Old Chum...


Time to get our noses out of the Ancient Near East and back into the Victorian era, where we find more direct sources of inspiration for the Haunted Mansion.  Back HERE I discussed briefly the Cabaret du Néant, with a link HERE to Cory's treatment of the subject, which is largely given over to quoting a lengthy passage from Bohemian Paris of To-day (J.B. Lippincott, 1900).  It was written by W. C. Morrow from notes by Edouard Cucuel (the book also includes Cucuel's sketches).  It's very good, very interesting, and a valuable source, but buyer beware; it's a second-hand account, and in places it's inaccurate.  However, there are descriptions of the C du N published in other sources too, plus a lot of photos.

There is little doubt in my mind that the Cabaret du Néant was a direct source of inspiration for the Haunted Mansion.  My reasons for thinking so will emerge with a fresh description of the Néant experience, drawn from several sources, as well as a closer look at the special effects used in the Néant show.  I do not think these tricks have ever been explained accurately, so if you think you know the Cabaret well enough already—think again.

A bit of background.  The pub originally opened in Brussels in 1892 as the "Cabaret de la Mort" (i.e. the Cabaret of Death), but it soon moved to the Montmartre district of Paris, where it was renamed the "Cabaret du Néant" ("néant" = nonexistence, obliteration, nothingness, death).  The Montmartre district was THE place to be if you were an artiste in the second half of the 19th c.  It seems like all of the important Impressionist painters lived there or hung out there.  In the 1890's, it was bursting at the seams with cabarets and theaters, including fully-themed nightclubs.  Practically across the street from the Cabaret du Néant, for example, were the "Cabaret of Heaven" and the "Cabaret of Hell," side by side.  The waiters dressed as angels in the former and devils in the latter.  Guess which one this is:

The famous Moulin Rouge cabaret is still there, but otherwise these pubs and theaters are all gone.

. . . Come to the Cabaret.

Shall we pay a visit?  Oh, do let's.  The street façade of the CdN is like a house dressed for mourning in traditional French fashion, with austere black and white coverings, although there is a skull and crossbones on the front door.  There are two large, iron, torch-like lamps throwing yellowish-green light down on all who pass by.  That kind of colored light makes people look shockingly sick and corpse-like, so we're already getting in the mood.

The unsmiling doorman is dressed exactly like a croquet-mort; that is, a professional
pall-bearer or undertaker's assistant.  The same is true for the waiters inside.

The doorman leads you through the low, narrow front door and down a short, dark corridor.  He opens some black drapes, allowing you to enter the first room.  It's dark, lit only by candles.  A chandelier in the center of the room is constructed of (real) human bones and nicknamed "Robert Macaire's chandelier," Macaire being a sort of all-purpose villain and bogeyman in France.  Upturned coffins serve as tables, with small thin candles available for illumination.


The walls are decorated with skulls (which serve as dim lamps), sculpture, and posters with grim slogans such as "Life is a folly which Death corrects," "To be or not to be," and "Requiescat in Pace," as well as No Smoking signs, price lists, and notices that candles are available for 10 cents.  More importantly, there are paintings all over the walls depicting death and carnage.  Battle scenes, a guillotine in action, and in later times, a painting of an automobile with a demonic driver, running people down—at least I think that's what this is:

It's similar to a cartoon that appeared in Punch, in 1903:

(hat tip to Craig Conley)

By the way, this was actually a common theme among cynics and satirists in those days. These new-fangled automobiles were extremely dangerous, to the point that they betrayed a contemptible indifference to human (and other) life. They were depicted as instruments of death, glamorous only to the foolish and the callous. Here's a wonderful example from Puck. Behold the demon, "Speed Mania":

Puck 68/1756, Oct 26, 1910

Anyway, back to the Cabaret. Upon entering the room, you are met with "Welcome, moribunds," or "Welcome, weary wanderer, to the kingdom of Death," or "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity," or some other greeting striking the same tone as "Welcome, foolish mortals."   Better get used to it.  You and your friends will be continually addressed as "mortals," "coffin worms" (asticots de cercueil), and "Maccabees," the latter term being a slang expression for anonymous cadavers found floating in the river.  In an account from 1931, it says that the staff at that time received guests by chanting a mass for the dead.  The staff are all instructed not to smile or do anything else to break the solemn atmosphere, much like HM butlers and maids.  That includes the waiter, who seems to mean it when he says "Name your poison."  The mixed drinks and the beer are all renamed after deadly microbes and bacteria of various diseases.  The waiter will plop them down before you, saying something like, "Drink, coffin worms.  Drink these loathsome poisons filled with the deadliest germs."

A man in clerical garb eventually enters and gives a lengthy speech in morbid detail about the horrors of death, progressing from the variety of gruesome and agonizing ends awaiting individuals to the miserable fates of mankind in general.

Here the place gets interesting.

As he commences this portion of the lecture, the speaker points to a painting depicting a battle scene.  According to Morrow, it begins to glow, making its details clear (remember, it's pretty dark in there).  Then the glow fades away, and the painting has changed.  The human figures in it are now all skeletons.  The same thing happens with a painting of a guillotine chopping away.  When the glow fades, the figures are now skeletons.  Another painting shows a festive ball.  Glow and fade.  Now the dancers are all skeletons.

In my earlier treatment I quoted without objection Albert Hopkins' explanation of this effect (written in 1901).  He suggests that the paintings are transparencies with one scene painted on one side and another on the other, the second one becoming visible when illumined from the rear.  I now think that explanation is inadequate.  It doesn't really account for the effect as described by Morrow.  The paintings light up and then fade back down, revealing a skeletonized version of the same scene.  How would you do that with a single, two-sided cloth?  The effect could be produced, however, by having two paintings layered very close to each other, much like the panes in a double-pane window.

The skeleton one is in front, painted on a thin cloth or on theatrical scrim.  The "normal" one is in back.  The paintings are already moderately illumined from the back when folks come in, showing the back painting through the transparent front one.  The lighting is further turned up during the lecture, at the appropriate time, and then faded down and extinguished, leaving the front painting visible for the first time.  This would be perfectly do-able in the 1890's (the CdN was fully electrified).

In that earlier post, I drew a parallel between the CdN changing-painting effect and the attic wedding pictures and portrait hall paintings of the HM.  If the above explanation is acceptable as a more satisfactory accounting for the effect as described, then the parallel between the Cabaret du Néant and the current Disney versions is extremely close indeed.

If you bought a drink while in the first room, you got a ticket entitling you to enter the Chambre de la Mort.  You now take your puny candle and follow a man in Capuchin monk's garb single file through an arched doorway (painted to look like stone), down a narrow flight of steps, with green and yellow lighting once again, making everyone look cadaverous.

At the end of the steps is an antechamber where you wait your turn.  The show repeats about every half hour, and only 15 or 20 are admitted at a time.  To amuse yourself while you wait, you can look through holes or niches in the brickwork at gruesome tableaux, "studies of cholera patients, of persons buried alive, and similar cheerful subjects" (NYT Apr 9, 1894).  Morrow (Cucuel) speaks of "bones, skulls, and fragments of human bodies."  At last a cowled figure with only his eyes visible comes in and produces a large iron key, unlocking the spiked iron gate at one end of the room and opening it with a harsh grating sound.  The monks mournfully announce that you have arrived at the Gates of Death, and in you go.  There is an item inside, near the entrance:  "By a clever arrangement of mirrors one sees one's self on entering reflected lying in a coffin" (NYT '94), which seems like a good idea since you can then see for the first time what you yourself look like under greenish-yellow lighting.

This part of the Cabaret du Néant show is justly famous.  An upright coffin is visible in a narrow doorway at the far end of the room, which was hung in black in early years but later on left exposed, having been painted to look like stone vaulting.  Also in early years, a pretty young lady was already in the upright coffin when you came in. She would smile and wink and then grow silent.  While the monk guide kept up his groaning soliloquy about death and decay, she turned into a decaying corpse and finally a skeleton, right before your eyes.  The process was then reversed, but instead of the young lady a fat old man returned.  He would leave the coffin, and the monks would ask for a volunteer from the audience who would like to experience death.  In later times they went straight to this phase and skipped the earlier stunt.  Not missing a single detail, the Cabaret folks have a harmonium and an iron bell offstage somewhere, providing dirge music and solemn tolls at appropriate times.

There are a lot of pictures of this trick.

I especially like this last set because it really shows the excellent trompe l'oeil work in this chamber, transforming blank wall into convincing arches and stonework through skillful use of the paintbrush.

The trick is done, of course, using the Pepper's Ghost illusion, which requires only a big sheet of glass and careful manipulation of the lighting.  But here again, I think Albert Hopkins' explanation is inadequate.  He's got a simple two-chamber set up, turning the coffin occupant into a skeleton and back again.  With this arrangement, the sense of gradual transformation would be enhanced through the use of colored light.  The light on the volunteer goes from normal to greenish-yellow before fading down, while the skeleton is gradually lit up.

Below is a simplified pair of diagrams.  When the coffin-with-occupant (#1) is illumined and the coffin-with-skeleton (#2) is dark, the audience sees only the first.  When coffin 1 goes dark and coffin 2 is lit up, you see only the second, but it looks like it's in the place of the first.  This is simple, rudimentary Pepper's Ghost illusioneering.

The problem with the Hopkins arrangement is that it does not account for the descriptions of the effect.  Morrow describes a slow dissolving of the face into a corrupt state of decomposition before finally becoming a dried skull:

Her face slowly became white and rigid; her eyes sank; her lips tightened across her teeth; her cheeks took on the hollowness of death,—she was dead.  But it did not end with that.  From white the face slowly grew livid...then purplish black.... The eyes visibly shrank into their greenish-yellow sockets. ...Slowly the hair fell away....The nose melted away into a purple putrid spot.  The whole face became a semi-liquid mass of corruption.  Presently all this had disappeared, and a gleaming skull shone where so recently had been the handsome face of a woman.

Well, Morrow is giving a flowery, second-hand description based on Cucuel's notes, so maybe this is all exaggerated.  But the 1894 New York Times account also describes a three-stage process, although the stages are different: man, skeleton, vacant.  The shroud on the volunteer "by some trick gradually melted away, so did the flesh, or rather the man in the coffin, and a skeleton appeared in his stead.  There remained another experiment to be witnessed, namely, the crumbling away to dust of the bones."

There may even be a photograph of the intermediate, rotted-corpse stage as described by Morrow:

The CdN gang may have had a much more sophisticated set-up than Hopkins describes. One possible
way to add a step to the transformation is with two sheets of glass and a third, intermediate coffin.




For an alternate method, still using only a single glass, see the remarks by "John b" in the Comments (Aug 4, 2013). It involves rotating, back-to-back coffins. The only problem I see with it is that it would be hard to use genuine audience volunteers that way. You'd probably need stooges.

Why so fancy?  By the 1890's, Pepper's Ghost trickery had been in use for thirty years.  The Cabarets of Heaven and Hell, across the street from the CdN, used it in their floor shows.  Various traveling ghost show exhibits and theaters made heavy use of it, and Professor Pepper himself kept flogging it at the Royal Polytechnic Institute where he worked.


Furthermore, there was no shortage of Victorian spoil-sports eager to inform the public how the illusion was done:

It stands to reason that showmen would be searching for clever new ways to use what was now an old-hat illusion, something to bring back the "how do they do that?" element.  The CdN boys seem just the kind who would tackle such a problem.  Besides, two-sheet Pepper's Ghost illusions were known, even if this illustration doesn't show them making any particularly good use of it.

Originally, the coffin gag was the end of the show at the CdN, but in 1900 or 1901 they added a whole third room, set up like a small theater, with another Pepper's Ghost illusion onstage.

This one was played strictly for farce, to judge by descriptions and photos.  The poor volunteer could not see what the audience saw:  ghosts moving around, mocking, doing stupid bunny tricks, acting in a lewd and lascivious manner (this is Paris, after all).  "[T]he solemnity which the lecturers invoke is of a most mock sort, and the audiences are continuously convulsed with laughter" (NYT 1896).  Time to go.

Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey were professional magicians, as noted in an earlier post, and they did research into things like the history of Pepper's Ghost.  There can hardly be any doubt that they knew about the Cabaret du Néant, which is mentioned in any decent survey of Pepper's.  Earlier, Ken Anderson had incorporated a Pepper's Ghost illusion in his proposed haunted house walk-thru, using a 45º angled glass pane, much like CdN:

Eventually, this horizontal version of Pepper's would be used in Phantom Manor to make Melanie appear in the Endless Hallway.  By the way, the CdN coffin gag was reproduced very closely, except it wasn't at Disneyland but at Knotts Berry Farm:

Besides the technical gimmicks, the CdN used a winning recipe of horror + stage magic + laughs, essentially the formula used for the Haunted Mansion.

Some time in the 1930s the Cabaret moved to a different location on the same street (#64 instead of #34) and continued to operate there for a long time. In November of 2012 we made a major discovery: The Cabaret du Néant was still open in September of 1969, in other words, still operating when the Haunted Mansion opened.

As a postscript, I should mention the apparent discrepancy between the photos of the coffin gag, in which the coffin looks like it's standing right in the doorway, and the actual set-up, which had it much further back.  It's simple:  these are staged photos, intended for post cards and publicity.  They moved the coffins up for the photo shoots.