There's obviously a significant gap between the aquatic critters and bat-winged cats flying around St. Anthony's head in an old painting reproduced in an old book on the one hand and a Marc Davis concept sketch for the Haunted Mansion Séance Circle on the other, and there's another gap between that sketch and what eventually was built into the ride. By now, that's what we've come to expect around here. In many cases, the gaps are such that you can't recognize any traces of the original inspiration in the finished product.
Not here. Davis's squiddly creatures and airborne felines notwithstanding, for the most part the Séance Circle is the place in the Mansion where the line between source material and finished product is the thinnest. At times, the Imagineers merely reproduced an effect directly.
Hey, I wonder where they got the idea of hanging a bell by thin wires so it could float around overhead?
Our sources are 19th and early 20th century séances and ghost shows, of course. The period from about the 1850's to the 1920's was the heyday for mediums, spiritualists, and "spirit photography," as well as a heyday for theatrical and parlor magic shows—not coincidentally. It's hardly worth the trouble, for our purposes, to try to sort out the tangled continuum between real, sincere spiritualists and real, sincere attempts to contact the dead via séances at one end of the spectrum and openly-stated illusioneering for entertainment purposes by stage magicians (in the David Copperfield sense of the word) at the other end. There were those, and there was also everything in between. You had fraudulent mediums who insisted they were genuine even while admitting to using tricks now and then, and you had stage magicians who flatly denied they were mediums but also claimed that the ghosts they produced onstage were real. Harry Houdini was a famous skeptic and used his knowledge and expertise in professional stage magic to debunk spiritualists and mediums. These efforts did nothing to keep some people from believing Houdini was himself gifted with psychic powers. The blurring of lines makes sense if you think about it, since a good fraudulent medium is almost by definition a good illusioneer, a good magician.
Some of the Haunted Mansion Imagineers were card-carrying magicians (Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump), with a natural interest in all of that stuff. Is it really a surprise that apart from the spectacular Madame Leota effect (which nevertheless may owe something to 19th c. magicians like Harry Kellar), the main difference between the HM séance and a "real" 19th-early 20th c. séance is the fact that one is an honest fake while the other is a dishonest fake? Otherwise, they're both going about the same business: creating realistic-looking spiritualistic effects that could fool a gullible soul under the right circumstances. In fact, the HM version is historically realistic enough to require some annotation. And that's our job.
Begin with the ectoplasm ball floating around behind Madame L. It hasn't been seen now for a few years, and it's not yet certain whether that's a permanent deletion or a temporary one, but it was there from the beginning, and hopefully it will return.
(pic by Jeff Fillmore, SCL photography)
Ectoplasm was commonly produced at séances, usually manifested as a white-ish substance oozing from somewhere on the medium's body. In photos it looks suspiciously like chewed up gauze or paper, and even if you're a true believer, those photos are embarrassments. Real eye-rolling stuff. There's some ecto on the face of the medium in that earlier photo. In "spirit photography," you sometimes saw ectoplasm leaving glowing trails. Not much different than the Disneyland version, really, even if they couldn't figure out how they wanted to spell "ectoplasm" on the Effects blueprints.
Even when the Disneyland version started making faces at guests early in 2006, they weren't departing from tradition, since faces often appeared in clouds of ectoplasm at the "real thing."
The Davenport Brothers
So far we've been talking about the 19th-early 20th c. phenomena in general. If there was a specific historical inspiration for the HM Séance Circle, it was the stage act put on by the Davenport brothers. These are the guys who disclaimed being mediums while suggesting that the ghosts were real. They started in the 1850's and were a very big act throughout the '60's. It all came to an end when one of the brothers died unexpectedly in the 70's.
What they really were were top-notch escape artists and illusioneers, with an excellent staff of assistants who never got caught and never blabbed. The Davenports would be tied up good and tight, and then as soon as the lights went out musical intruments started flying around and ghostly hands and arms appeared, touching people and scaring 'em good. On with the lights, and there are the D bros, still tied up.
They invented the "spirit cabinet" for their act. It was a large cabinet in which they both sat, all tied up, sometimes with an audience member sitting between them. After the lights went out, the usual levitations and creepy manifestations followed.
It didn't take long for professional mediums to recognize the advantages of having a large cabinet to work with. The "spirit cabinet" very quickly became a standard fixture at séances. With perfectly straight faces the mediums spoke of the cabinet as a kind of "spiritual storage battery." Seriously. Most often, the "cabinet" was not a wooden chest but a tent or a booth in the corner of the room. The medium might sit in it or at its entrance or in front of it, while spirit manifestations appeared in front of the cabinet.
"And look how fast that button spins when I pull these back and forth!"
Wow, how do they do that?
It's easy to make fun of these phonies and the people taken in by such simple tricks, but many of these mediums were highly skilled magicians in their own right. It takes practice. I mean, how many people can control their urine stream like this?
Spirit cabinets are present at the Haunted Mansion séance, although it's doubtful if many guests recognize them for what they are.
Both types can be seen behind Madame Leota.
Both types can be seen behind Madame Leota.
It originally looked more like this under show conditions, of course:
As previously noted, the Séance room in the Haunted Mansion is yet another idea that goes all the way back to Ken Anderson, and if I'm reading this sketch correctly, the novel idea that the medium is herself a ghost is also his. Notice that she is emerging from a spirit cabinet, already in this early concept artwork.
Just like the real thing.
From Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena, Chung Ling Soo, 1898 (hat tip Craig Conley)
Or the real real thing.
Hat tip to Craig Conley. From Puck magazine (1884), perhaps a political cartoon
But getting back to the Davenport brothers, we know about them mostly from written accounts, of course, and one famous description of their act appeared in the London Post. Compare the description of the musical instruments at a Davenport show with what we find in that earlier Davis sketch and in the inner circle of the actual attraction.
The choice of instruments for Leota's inner circle seems anything but random, and furthermore, this trio was apparently still traditional down through the 1930's, at least. There are other instruments in the room, of course, but they're in the outer circle. Here's the Disneyland lineup as of 2021, when the blue chair was added. Orlando and Tokyo are slightly different:
Floating tables, even high-flying, large tables, are nothing new to séances.
"Great Caesar's ghost, look at all the old gum wads!"
Marc may have wanted flying animals, but I think even he realized that furniture and musical instruments were more authentic. He still couldn't resist throwing in a cat, though.
The musical instruments are the more interesting feature. Madame Leota refers to most of them in her incantations, as you can see right there in her open spellbook . . .
. . . or hear isolated in this sound file:
That gives us a bell and a tambourine. For the horn, drum, and some kind of stringed instrument, we have to cite two incantations that were recorded but never used.
Leota's Incantations Never Used
Horned toads and lizards, fiddle and strum,
Please answer the roll by beating a drum.
Harpies and Furies, old friends and new,
Blow on a horn, so we'll know that it's you.
No one knows why these weren't used. It could be something as simple as a head movement during filming that misaligned the face at that point.
If you examine the instruments in the posters for the Davenport brothers, you'll see four kinds, the now-familiar horn, tambourine, and bell, plus something to "fiddle and strum," a guitar. It doesn't take much thought to see why the guitar wasn't kept for the HM séance. That instrument has undergone a complete reinvention in popular imagination since the 19th century and now has utterly different connotations. It is no longer even remotely associated with the exotic or the quaint.
Oddies and Endies, out of the past, come to us now, and we'll deal with you last.
We've noted the connections between the Séance Circle and its historical sources; now it's time to wrap up a few curious odds and ends.
Madame Leota's wooden spirit cabinet originally served a very practical purpose. It was going to house the projector that produces her face. Back then, she was going to face in the opposite direction. You would see her face as you enter the room and swing around behind her. This was the plan up until three or four months before the Mansion opened, at most. It was probably ditched because you wouldn't be able to prevent people from seeing the projector at some point as they went by.
Looking at the outer ring of floating objects, here are some random observations. The wicker table is part of a set, and other pieces from the same set have been kicking around in the Attic for years and years. The banner on the longhorn says "X = ?" I think it's a sly tribute to X. Atencio, or maybe they're teasing him ("X? What the heck kind of name is 'X' anyway?"). The gong was originally going to be a cluster of three bells. Oh, and you know that floating candelabra back in the Endless Hallway? It was originally supposed to be here in the Séance Circle.
Disneyland's Séance Circle originally had a second drum, floating between the table-and-lamp and the gong, but it's been gone since the early 1990s.
Perhaps it will show up on Ebay some day.
Forget about the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth; what's the phantom drum overhead worth?