Whoops, Long-Forgotten's first anniversary slipped past while I wasn't looking, but it's not too late to say thanks to all the readers, and especially the commenters, for making this blog such an enjoyable project throughout this last year. Many have put kind words of praise and generous thank you's in the Comments sections, often without a direct reply from your Host. I assure you that I have seen and appreciated them all, even if I haven't personally responded in every case. Thank you all.
This seems like a good occasion to ask the question, What makes the Haunted Mansion so different? Why does it generate and how does it sustain this level of interest, the kind that can fuel blogs and sustain entire websites for years, to say nothing of books and movies? Pirates of the Caribbean is arguably a more perfect ride, but nothing else in the Disney parks produces anything close to Mansion mania.
I think the Haunted Mansion may be more psychologically seductive and intriguing than other attractions because, unlike most of them, it never asks you to stop being yourself in your own world. In your imagination, you do not have to go either backward or forward in time (Main Street, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, Tomorrowland). You do not move into a fairy tale or cartoon world (Fantasyland, Toontown), nor do you picture yourself in a remote, exotic part of the real world (Adventureland, the Matterhorn). You do not imagine what it would be like to be a cowboy, a pirate, an astronaut, a bobsledder, a fairy tale hero or heroine, or an animated mouse. At Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, you imagine only that you are in New Orleans, today, visiting a very normal-looking old house that is reputedly haunted. The only big imaginative leap you are asked to take is to accept the premise that ghosts are real.
(pic by Laurie O)
If you want to understand the unique and enduring fascination that the Haunted Mansion holds for so many people, it is essential to recognize that this attraction is an artistic representation of a real house in the real world as it exists today, and it's in a familiar locale, not off in some remote corner of Zanzibar. The only fantasy element in the presentation is the assumption that ghosts and ghostly activities are real.
What kind of ghosts? Friends, this is what the scary-vs-silly, Claude-vs-Marc controversy really comes down to: On the one side were Imagineers (Coats being the best-known) who wanted to restrict the HM to non-fictive ghosts. On the other side, Marc Davis wanted both non-fictive and fictive ghosts. By "non-fictive," I mean the types of ghosts that some people believe really do exist, the poltergeists and the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall types. This would also include literary and cinematic ghosts that are meant to scare you, as if they were—or could be—real. By "fictive" ghosts I mean the kind that are obviously invented purely for entertainment purposes. Casper the Friendly Ghost and that sort of thing. One place you find an abundance of those spooks is in comic songs, the kind that had their heyday in the 30's and 40's and of which Grim Grinning Ghosts is a good latter-day example. Including these patently imaginary spirits would help keep things light-spirited. Marc won that debate, and we got both kinds.
One result of this mixture is a quiet but important division in the audience:
If you believe ghosts may possibly exist, then about half of the denizens of the HM are sheer fantasy.
If you absolutely do not believe in ghosts, then all of them are sheer fantasy.
It's as simple as that. It will make a difference later, you'll see. First, let me give you my take on the ride.
(pic by monstersgoboo)
You enter what looks like a real house. Immediately you are met by a ghostly voice. Nothing coy about it: ghosts are real from the get-go and no apology. In short order you discover that the ghosts are able to manipulate the very fabric of the building, including its furnishings and artworks, so that you don't know whether you're hallucinating ("is it your imagination?") or these things are "actually" happening.
The ghosts are evidently bent on disorienting you and unnerving you. The top part of those portraits seemed real enough when you came in, but that lower, elongated portion, so ridiculous, so unrealistic—is that actually there too or just a ghostly trick? Those paintings are funny, but they're pretty macabre. Maybe they're an implied threat? The Host's mocking question goes unanswered. You don't know.
Egads, not only can they manipulate space, but also time. Look out the window. What, is it night already? When did that happen?
Dude, it's like Rip Van Winkle in here. Or is that all a trick too? You don't know. That Ghost Host sure is chatty. Can you trust what he tells you? You don't know. He explains that this house is a retirement home for ghosts, and it's jam packed with them. Sure, why not?
Before you know it you're being moved involuntarily along your way (What are these things we're sitting in? Oh well, it doesn't seem to matter much). It's getting scarier. The ghosts seem threatening, hostile. At one point they even seem to be attacking you. It happens in front of a clock that only confirms that your senses of space and time are putty in their hands. Thirteen freakin' o'clock? Where am I? If this were really happening, you would have bolted the house by now.
And yet, and yet...you're still curious, aren't you? You'd still like to see one of these ghosts, despite everything, wouldn't you? Come on, show yourselves already.
Well, as it turns out the ghosts are having some sort of problem, but whatever it is, that creepy Leota chick fixes it, so the ghosts can at last cross over. And the Host tells you that "they have received your sympathetic vibrations and are beginning to materialize." So, what does that mean? Was all of this a test? To see if your curiosity was greater than your fear? By resisting the temptation to panic and run—maybe the first living visitor ever so to do—were you, then, the key to finally setting them loose? You and those "sympathetic vibrations" of yours? You don't know.
Whatever it was, they're out and about now, all over the place, and it turns out they aren't angry with you after all. Hunh. Maybe you're okay in their book, what with those "sympathetic vibrations" and all. There's still some dark business going on in the attic. Based on what you see, it looks like some crazy bride took out a series of husbands. Maybe that has something to do with why this is a haunted house? After that you go outside and down to ground level. You pass the first flesh-and-blood human you've seen since you got here. As it turns out, he will be the only one. He's obviously the old caretaker, and he's not only frightened, he's astonished. Dumbstruck. He's never seen anything like this before.
Now, THERE'S a man whose flabber has been gasted (pic by Don Sullivan)
Well, I guess that answers the question, Does this happen all the time, or is this a big, one-time event? It's a party out here, and they're having a good time, and you're having a good time too. The spooks are playing for laughs now, and you see silly things like ghosts on bicycles.
It all winds down, and before you leave the grounds, they reset your clock to the real, daylight time you were in before they began playing their little head games with you. Or was it real? You know, one of those parallel universe things? You don't know. But one of them will "follow you home," which I suppose is believable in a weird sort of way, since really, it is THEY who have visited YOUR world, the world where both this home and your home happen to be.
Was that fun, or what?
But that reading has not been without controversy. Many people think that what you're seeing is the party these ghosts throw every night, or at least periodically. That interpretation fails to do justice to the utter astonishment evidenced by the caretaker. It fails to account for the frustration and anger of the ghosts before Leota works her magic and they are free to materialize. Some of the items put forward in order to show that the ghosts do this sort of thing all the time are the present tense verbs all through Grim Grinning Ghost and the Ghost Host's safety spiel, telling you that the spirits will materialize only if you remain quietly seated, with your hands, arms, feet, legs, butts, ears, naughty bits, prehensile tails, and lawyers inside. Of course, in English the present tense is used to describe things happening right now, as we speak, as well as habitual occurrences, and maybe the Host senses that Leota's really got her mojo on today and doesn't want you to potentially screw things up.
Besides, the notion that they have these ghost parties routinely is not Disney enough. On these rides, it's always your lucky day. You're always coming upon unique events just as they are happening. You come around the corner just as the rhino has treed the safari, you escape from the burning town just as it's about to collapse, your train makes it out of the tunnel just as it's caving in. And what do you know, you happen to be there precisely when Leota finally unplugs the clogged portal between this world and that one. Why, it may even have been your "sympathetic vibrations" that did the trick! I'm telling you, this is YOUR LUCKY DAY!
"Raven, it's time. Let's do this thing."
I have a hunch that people unthinkingly pick up the idea that this happens all the time because they've been on the ride so often. It's easy to forget that it's like watching a movie or seeing a play over and over again. You don't know what's coming, you're supposed to mentally rewind to the beginning each time.
Another point of controversy is whether this is a realistic world with ghosts in it, or a fantasy world with ghosts in it. This is far more subtle, but it's important. Perhaps it's easier to assume it's a fantasy world if you're an adamant disbeliever in ghosts. To such a one, saying that something is a realistic world, except that it's jam-packed with ghosts, is virtually the same as saying it's a type of fantasy world. If you have a more open mind about ghostly phenomena, allowing at least the bare possibility that such things could be real, then the distinction is clearer. Granted, the fact that brazenly unrealistic, silly spooks start showing up halfway through the ride complicates things slightly, but it's still reasonably clear that you're only being asked to accept one impossibility here, one fantastic element.
I'm convinced that apart from the ghosts and the ghostly phenomena, it's a realistic world that is put before you. Why? For one thing, it follows the rules.
If you are writing a realistic novel, or the script for a realistic movie or play, there are unwritten rules. First, you are allowed one big, amazing coincidence or one, bizarre, major occurrence. One. If you go over the limit, you risk having your audience bail on you. "Phony." "Unbelievable." That's just how it is. Second, you are allowed to cheat a little to avoid tedium. When the detective needs to jump out of his car and run into the building, there's always a parking spot available, even if we're in downtown San Francisco at midday. If we're at the beach, nobody objects if all the women and men in the background look mahvelous. When a band starts to play, their hands don't need to always go where they're supposed to and you may hear extra instruments in the mix if you know your stuff. (Before the Beatles era, when even kids started learning what an electric bass is, they were able to cheat a lot more in this area.) Third, audiences will forgive tiny logic holes and anachronisms, but if they start piling up, or if there's a whopper in there, they can and will hold it against you.
Filmmakers and writers know this stuff. When a realistic movie is being made, nobody needs to be reminded of these things. You don't have to "decide" to put horses in that pasture but no unicorns. Most of your decisions are made virtually by instinct. You know what the real world is like, since you live in it—duh, and you automatically aim at logical consistency as much as possible.
With a comical fantasy world, it's not nearly so tight. The gag comes first, logic comes second.
I love how exterior shots show the Flintstones' house as essentially a giant egg, but when Fred and Barney are having a conversation as they are running out of that house, that sucker is a quarter mile long (and amazingly repetitious). But who cares? They're cartoon characters in a cartoon world, where logic is a lot more flexible. Great Caesar's Ghost, they've got talking animals, so put away your measuring tape already.
Like I say, the Haunted Mansion is the realistic variety (ghosts excepted) and not the comic fantasy variety. To me, the logical consistency throughout this project never fails to amaze.
Q: Why are the tombstones in the graveyard scene all in the style of 16th-18th century New England gravestones, while the gravestones in the front yard family plot (alas, gone at DL) are of more recent vintage?
A: Because the house was built next to a much older, public cemetery, sometime around the beginning of the 19th century.
Q: Why are the ghosts invisible and scary before Leota, and visible and happy after (except for Connie et al., with their apparently separate melodrama going on)?
A: Because they're unhappy when they're dematerialized and frustrated because they can't seem to do anything about it. Leota is the one who enables the materialization.
Q: Yes, but why are we given the distinct impression that we're in danger before they materialize but not afterwards?
A: Because lacking their own materialized, aerial bodies, they would be more than happy to possess yours. This is garden variety demonology, and the HM apparently makes no ontological distinction between ghosts and demons.
Q: Oh no, now you're getting all theological. How about this: Why is the music done the way it is?
A: Because reality has no soundtrack. At the HM, you only hear "source" or "diegetic" music; that is, music coming from instruments and vocalists that are there onstage (within the cheating rules described above). With realistic films, this is not mandatory, but the HM takes the hard realism route. You hear an unseen pipe organ when you're in the foyer? Well, pipe organs are loud and the sound carries. There must be a pipe organ in the house somewhere. And so there is.
1969 pre-opening shot of the Organist
The instruments floating around at Leota's séance? They match up tolerably well with the music you hear there. There's a lot of drawn-out cymbal work (albeit distorted), and the "bung bung" muffled organ chords can be interpreted by the ear as the plucking of a harp. The music "from regions beyond" is drums and horn.
Sometimes the music is "only the wind" and no instruments need be present. The graveyard is jumpin' to a lively tune because there's a band right there. A distorted wedding march fills the attic. Sure enough, the piano and pianist are right there (lacking at WDW). Using the diegetic approach makes the task of adding music to the background a lot trickier. You'd be stupid to do it that way unless you were deliberately shooting for realism (and by the way, this restriction to source music is extreeeemely rare at Disneyland). Personally, I find this one to be a particularly compelling argument.
You can play this Q/A game . All. Day. Long. As in real life, answers are not plopped into your lap, but if you ask questions and look around, you find that plausible explanations come back to you time after time. Of course the Imagineers didn't consciously connect all these dots. They didn't need to. You go about creating a "realistic" environment, using gut-level, common sense choices all along, and ta da, a high degree of logical consistency shapes up almost automatically, at least if you're good at doing "realistic." The genuine logical holes I've found in the HM are few and piddly. For example, the cupola on top of the DL Mansion is a sloppy, inexact architectural match to what you see above you in the stretching gallery. The tubular bells you hear as part of the mix in the portrait hall and loading area lack an explanation. Forgivable stuff like that.
I have had people challenge this analysis, insisting to me that the HM invites you into a different world than your own, a fantasy world. In response, I have thrown down the gauntlet: Show me a significant logical lapse anywhere in the HM world, something that doesn't make any sense (excluding things done by ghosts, of course). Or failing that, show me repeated examples of things that require special pleading to explain them, things that take us beyond the quota of allowable eccentricities in a realist presentation.
So far I have had no serious takers. Believe it or not, the best that has been offered so far, even by Imagineers who disagree with me, is the "Haunted Mansion" plaque out front! I've actually had this cited more than once as good evidence that you're entering a fantasy world.
(pic by Dave O)
Weak. Every ride in the park has a sign out front, telling what it is. And these signs are themed so as to clash as little as possible with the surroundings. Ah, but they could have named it "Williamson Manor" or something if they wanted it to be a realistic presentation, right? Wrong. You have to have something telling guests this is a spooky ride, in case they don't want to go on a spooky ride. After all, once upon a time the attraction was not famous, and it does not look like a stereotypical haunted house. Yes, the plaques are beautiful, but they are like green EXIT signs, safety bars, stroller parking, and seating instructions. They are part of the price you pay in order to enjoy a presentation like this in the real real world.
You mentally screen all that stuff out as a necessary evil. It doesn't count.
The premise of the ride is exceedingly simple. It answers the question, "What if ghosts were real?" Real to whom? To you, fool. To keep things light and cheerful, Disney threw fun-loving, party ghosts into the mix, ghosts that nobody thinks are real. That prevents you from taking the question too seriously, see?
The main purpose of this exercise it to provide the basis for my upcoming in-depth review of the major changes and additions to the Orlando Haunted Mansion, which began to be implemented in April of this year. That post will be up soon. It is not going to be pretty.