We've done a lot of posts exploring the historical, literary, cinematic, and even musical roots of things that go bump in the night at the Haunted Mansion. There are some phantoms, however, that originate not in events or figures from the past but in universal psychological experiences. There is still a history to look at, but in these cases history is used to show that those experiences are indeed common to most or all of us and have been around for a long time. Today we're all about resurrecting and exploiting childhood fears. Hey, why not? That's as good a way as any to give folks the willies. Specifically, we're going to look at scary faces seen in abstract or semi-abstract patterns, the sorts of patterns used to decorate walls and furniture.
I wasn't going to devote a whole post to what seems like an extremely narrow topic, but Craig Conley, bless 'im, discovered this gem and brought it to my attention. It's from the November 1904 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. It proves that exactly this sort of childhood terror is nothing new.
Empire (1879), by Henry Vizetelly. It seems Mr. V. doesn't care much for German wallpaper. (This is another Conley find.)
"The wall-papers in many private houses and hotels are remarkable for their hideous patterns, which, in the case of nervous individuals are sufficient to induce an attack of nightmare. These papers are bad enough in the daytime, but at night—lighted perhaps by a trembling moonray—they assume a ghastly aspect. Great ogres' heads, with eyes as large as saucers, and mouths which seem to open wider and wider every minute, appear to stare down upon one; serpents twist and twirl in endless arabesques, as though about to spring; while little demons perch themselves here and there round the room with hideous grins stereotyped upon their features. No wonder that a stranger, with the indigestible Berlin cuisine lying heavily on his chest, should imagine himself encompassed by all manner of horrors, and engage in a more or less desperate struggle with the spirits of the air, in the course of which the hateful bag of feathers is certain to overbalance itself and topple to the ground, leaving him shivering in a half-sleeping, half-waking state during the remainer of the night."
It's hard to know how far back we can trace this particular bogey. I suppose that when the fires burned low and the shadows of night took over, cavekids used to shiver at the sight of knarly old trees turning into monsters, but if we want to stay indoors and talk about childhood terror triggered specifically by patterns in walls and furniture, I suppose we have to wait until the emergence of cheap, mass produced, decorative detailing. Before that, wall devils would have been a luxury known only to the lucky few, the children of the rich and powerful. If only he had been born a few generations further back, that unlucky kid in our cartoon would have been sleeping soundly.
For a 1989 exploration of this theme, there's a dandy episode of the New Twilight Zone, "Something in the Walls." It's yet another version of that hoary old horror cliché: a supposedly crazy person's hallucinations turn out to be real. But it's well written and refers to precisely the type of childhood fear we see above.
Here's a crucial sound bite:
Something in the Walls
Eerie faces that show up in wallpaper show up in highbrow literature as well. In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published "The Yellow Wallpaper", a novella now considered something of a classic. In it, an intelligent Victorian-era woman suffering from what looks like a pretty normal case of postpartum depression is confined to a room and deprived of any stimulation like books or artwork, deprived even of her child, so that she may "calm down" and recover from "temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency." Rather than improve, she goes from bad to worse. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper and begins to hallucinate, eventually descending into full psychosis.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" has often been interpreted as an angry feminist protest against Victorian attitudes toward women, as it most certainly is in the excellent 1986 BBC production for Masterpiece Theatre. The creepy atmosphere of growing madness is palpable, and there is one particularly horrific moment.
Gilman's own interpretation, however, was more prosaic: She had undergone a similar treatment for her own depression and had averted a mental breakdown by violating the two-hours-per-day restriction on her writing and drawing. She hoped her story would convince her physician of the folly of his asinine "rest cure." It is also the case that "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been classified and anthologized as first and foremost a crackin' good tale of terror, almost a ghost story. None of these interpretations excludes any of the others, of course.
The best-known use of creepy wallpaper as a horror device, however, may well be Robert Wise's 1963 film, The Haunting. We've discussed this one before. The scene in question features clever shifts in lighting on the wallpaper (and maybe a dab of black paint). This is combined with an eerie audio track of muffled voices, and that's all there is to it. It's one of the scariest scenes in the movie. (Don't turn up your volume too much or you'll have Julie Harris yelling at you. It's supposed to be quiet. Relax, there's nothing to be afraid of. Let it build up on its own.)
From The Haunting
going back to the 19th century, and no doubt more examples could be found.
Where Do They Come From?
Yoo hoo, readers. *waves* I've got a question. Is there anyone out there who did not find faces in the dining room wallpaper (or wherever it was) when they were little? It wasn't always scary stuff, of course. When you were at somebody's house as company and you were put on your Best Behavior and had to sit there silent and fidgetless while the grownups droned on and on about the most boring stuff in the world, what else could you do but find odd creatures in their wallpaper or upholstery? And the ones you had at home, well, those were as familiar as the family pets. Am I right?
The Demon-Eye Wallpaper
With all of that background, let's go back to the Mansion and to its famous example of the phenomenon we have been discussing. As that older post pointed out, The Haunting was a direct influence on the Haunted Mansion, and the possibility that the wallpaper scene may have served as an inspiration for the demon-eye wallpaper we find in the Corridor of Doors has been suggested more than once. That's still very likely, but as we have now seen, the concept itself is older and part of a broader human experience than The Haunting.
It is in symmetrical and intricate patterns like these that we are apt to find faces, especially as children. The whole idea of the demon-eye design is to suggest that those faces really were there, and they really were malevolent (or are there and are malevolent). It resurrects and confirms those long-forgotten childhood fears. In short, it plays off of precisely the thing you see in that 1904 cartoon.
One thing I have noticed in going through scores of damask designs is that they are not all equally amenable to the discovery of hidden faces. Oh, I have no doubt that with perseverance and an active imagination (and boring enough grownup conversation around you) you can find some strange countenances in just about any design; nevertheless, there are some designs that look pretty benign to me, that seem relatively resistant to the paranoid imagination. If you insist on a damask design in the nursery, then these, I think, might be acceptable choices.
So it isn't entirely subjective. Some designs do seem to generate scary faces more readily than others, and with some you can hardly avoid seeing them. Seriously, you could import that upper left design into the Haunted Mansion exactly as it is, and no one would doubt for a moment that it was a creepy face:
The portraits are not unlike the hideous transformations that flash in the normal paintings downstairs, but unlike those, these never change back to normal. The ghosts are no longer concerned to conceal their presence and are clearly turning up the pressure as we go along. If that is indeed what is happening, storywise, then inquiring minds may wonder if there is a normal, undistorted design on the walls when the ghosts aren't using it to make faces at us. It's sheer fantasy, of course, but all the same it's fun to speculate what the undemonized design would look like. Just for kicks and giggles, I fooled around a little to see if I could imagineer something.
But there are other faces that are so stylized that the Imagineers seem to be deliberately steering you into a fogbank, a place where you're not quite sure if the face you see is "really there" or if your imagination is starting to detect ghostly manifestations in perfectly innocent patterns. I think that's exactly the sort of paranoia they hope to inspire, as part of the overall experience. Are those sad faces on the triangular tapestries below the coffin really there, or are you imagining them? Hmm. They're probably "real," but ask me again tomorrow. The point is, they're that much creepier for the ambiguity.
The heavily stylized "skulls" all over the wainscoting in the portrait hall (load area at WDW) are also denizens of this twilight zone. Once it occurs to you that they're skulls, they're forever skulls to you, but I'll bet a lot of guests look right at them and don't see anything other than abstract geometric designs in the woodwork. (We'll pick up this topic again below.)
In their own weird way, they're like the changing portraits: normal one second but ghostly the next, in this case depending not on electronic illusions but on your mindset and perhaps the angle you look at them. Come to think of it, the staring busts oscillate too. They're normal when you're standing still but ghostly when you move. It's all so beautifully consistent, but what about the wallpaper?
[Be sure to see the July 2021 update below the original discussion, which follows, and let's all stay together, pleeeeze.]
When the Imagineers were flipping through samples, don't you think they would have been drawn consciously or unconsciously to designs of the third kind discussed above, the kind that practically plop their hidden faces into your lap? If you saw one of those designs in the Mansion, wouldn't you suspect that the choice was made precisely because that kind of design is starting to do what the COD paper already does? Like the wainscot "skulls" and the coffin tapestry, "found" designs of that nature would go into that murky, "real or imagined" category.
When you enter the portrait hall, you begin to really feel like you're being watched. You look down at one end and you see the two busts staring back at you. Most of the flashing paintings have figures looking out at you. Besides all that, there are the bat stantions grinning up at you, and a step below them on the subtlety meter are the "skulls" in the woodwork. Can we go even further? Do we dare?
Should it occur to you to look at the walls for faces, they fairly pop right out at you.
And heed this warning! Once you see these little devils, you may never be able to unsee them.
That hypothesis looks better when we remember how this area was originally scripted. You will recall from that earlier post that the Imagineers presumed a movement of guests past all of it at a much slower rate, a presumption made obsolete by the doombuggy, resulting in a last minute rewrite of the entire scene.