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 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.


  1. Again - I feel like I am reading someone's master thesis in progress! Really great & well-researched information, on a subject I know little about. Thank you!

  2. Superb!




    Congratulations on an amazing article. Long-Forgotten is becoming one of my favorites, after Passport to Dreams!

  3. Thanks and you're welcome, guys. I'll be starting a teaching assignment on Monday, so the pace around here will likely slow down, but I'll still keep 'er going.

  4. Thank you for this post and adding more detail to the material I copied and pasted ^_^

    Man, I so wish I could have seen the CdN in its full glory.

  5. We may not have missed it by much. I still don't know when the C du N closed its doors, but I came across an intriguing post on a discussion board, written in October '08. Speaking of the striking façades of the Cabarets of Heaven and of Hell, the poster said:

    "Both were demolished well before the Sixties. I was very often in this quarter of Paris, even in the mid-Fifties, and never saw these cafés. I only heard of them by my mother, who lived in Paris since the mid-Twenties. So I made some research and both were demolished in 1954. I missed them only by some months - alas - as in 1954/55 I started to go regularly in Paris (I was living in the suburb) to watch movies. But the "Néant" cabaret, on the opposite sidewalk, lasted until recent years."

  6. Wonderful, informative post!

    Would you happen to have former street addresses in the Montmartre district? Last time there we came up empty in our search.

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. The Cabaret du Néant was at 34 Boulevard de Clichy, just down the street from the Moulin Rouge. Across the street was the Cabaret l'enfer (53 Blvd de Clichy). Here's a then-and-now photo of the site of the Hell Cabaret:

    Kinda sad. Gives you a solid landmark, though, if you're in the neighborhood and wish to stop by and pay your respects.

  8. Terrifically entertaining! Thank you for this thoughtful, informative piece (and the whole blog in general!)

  9. I stumbled upon the Cabaret de la Mort (so to speak) in my research and then further searching led me to your post - absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for writing this, it was exactly what I was wanting to read, though I did not know it existed. Happily, it does.

    I am hoping to use the Cabaret in a Victorian New York mystery novel. I gather from Albert Hopkins' book that this was done in NYC, too - have not worked out just where though, but presumably before he wrote his book on stage illusions in 1898.

  10. Just found it in the NYT - in 1896 at the Casino Chambers (Broadway and 39th). I would like to write a post about this NYC cabaret and I will definitely link to you (I write about NYC history and am very interested in strange Victorian pop culture).

  11. Thanks and you're welcome, Lidian. If you do dig up more info on the American version of the C du N, I'm sure our readers would be interested in seeing it.

  12. Have you run across this: ? -- it includes a detailed description of a 19th century fantascope with cats-eye dissolving lenses.

  13. Yes! That whole website is a delight. You can get lost for hours.

  14. Thanks for every other informative website.
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  15. My god... This site. I- ... I'm home *teardrop*
    Just reading the front page I've lost myself in your findings and pictures. April-December, poor girl, being moved about and *chuckle* long-forgotten ;) And my mind was particularly blown at the Jean Laffite conspiratorial findings. Regardless of the reality, it's quite the marvelous notion. Seeing the comments from people like Eddie Sotto is an honor as well! ALL and EVERYTHING on this blog is so amazingly beautiful... After reading this "Here Comes the Bride", I've altogether lost myself in the beauty of what you're doing here. I started young, still am, and forever will be a hardcore Doombuggier, and the Haunted Mansion is the most beautiful thing in this world, and the non-living world for that matter! Disney and his parks will forever hold a place in my heart. I just can't wait to talk you up with my friends! To think I'll have NEW material to spout at my family when we go see the HM. They'll think I'm bonkers~

    As if we all aren't just a tad 'round the bend ;) Lost our marbles.
    Keep Grinning my Ghostly Friends.
    See you all... A little later.


    P.S. Sorry to have put this here on a particular post... I just really wanted to tell you how much I love it here. This was the closest comment box I could find!

    1. Wonderful, and thank you for the kind words. I'm confident that LF hasn't even come close to saturation level; that is, the point where everybody who would probably like it already knows about it, so I'm not terribly surprised when HM fans continue to "discover" it.

  16. Ran across this while researching graphics for an upcoming project - an 1870 broadside advertising Pepper's Ghost at the Royal Polytechnic as "That which is spectral and imaginary appears more real than that which is known to be reality." Check it out if you haven't seen it:

  17. Dear sir,

    Given your interest in the “Cabaret du Néant”, the following might interest you. Looking for some Cabaret’s memorabilia on ebay, I came across this menu:

    whose front page clearly reads the place was at 64, Boulevard de Clichy, on the corner of Coustou Street. Since its address was 34, Boulevard de Clichy, I did some further reading and found out that nowadays the address on the menu corresponds to a theatre and cultural center called “Les Trois Baudets” (The Three Donkeys), whose site

    reconstructs the history of the place. The second chapter, titled ‘2, Coustou Street’, roughly translates as: “The art déco building hosting ‘The Three Donkeys’ was built in 1927 by architect Charles Lemaresquier. It then hosted, under the name of ‘Radio’ hotel, a pub, a restaurant and a dancing hall. The adventure was short-lived because we find traces, since the thirties, of the ‘Le Néant’ cabaret and then of the ‘Cabaret du Néant’, of a Louis Leclercq, in this place”.

    And here they are:

    The second photo in this page shows the place hosted the “Trois Baudets” theatre as well. The building is still perfectly recognizable on Google Maps’ photos (2, Rue Coustou, Paris, France – or - 64, Boulevard de Clichy)
    So there actually was a Cabaret du Néant open for business in 1969, but either it was not the original one or – if it was – it had been moved to this new location during the thirties. Judging by a pic on this Belgian site (image n. 52089, 12th link from the top), the style of the entrance and the lettering are just the same.

    Hope this little research might prove useful!

    Diego Guglielmi
    Rome - Italy

  18. I did this effect in a haunted house I managed... and I actually thought it was an original idea. Thanks a million. You are horribly over-thinking this and I can tell you how it was done. The coffins are two-sided and rotate along the vertical axis. By two-sided, think if two coffins back-to-back.
    Lady steps into coffin side one.
    Light fades from side one to side two
    Rotting corpse phase one becomes visible.
    In the dark at side one, the coffin rotates and reveals rot 2
    Light fades from side two to side one.
    Rot 2 becomes visible.
    In the dark at side two, the coffin rotates and reveals rot 3
    Light fades from side one to side two.
    Rot 3 becomes visible.
    In the dark at side one, the coffin rotates and reveals a skeleton.
    Light fades from side two to side one.
    Skeleton becomes visible.
    To run it directly from person in the audience to a skeleton, just rotate the coffin in side one.

    1. That's very interesting! Thanks. But would you need a stooge? How could you rotate the coffin without the audience member inside noticing?