We've explored the cultural/mythical backgrounds of so many supernatural manifestations encountered in the Haunted Mansion that you'd think by now we must have covered them all, but not so. Here's one we have not discussed at all:
What we have here is not a ghost so much as a paranormal being, variously classified. If you Google "Shadow People," you'll be inundated with sites discussing this phenomenon. You'll read of demons, or you'll read of aliens, and nowadays "interdimensional beings" is a pretty popular explanation too. Belief in Shadow People seems to run independently of belief in ghosts. There are people who have never seen a ghost and even have doubts about their existence who swear that they have had creepy encounters with Shadow People.
These beings are no strangers to popular entertainment culture. A recent example is the 2012 horror film Shadow People, which claims to be "based on a true phenomenon." Gosh. (I'm sitting here trying to think what it would take to falsify the claim, "based on a true phenomenon.")
The Hat Man
The "Hat Man" is one particular variety of Shadow folk who shows up over and over, and I have to say that I find the hatted figure at least ten times scarier than the hatless types, and I don't even know why.
One of the better episodes of the new Twilight Zone series in the 80's was a Joe Dante directed piece called "The Shadow Man," about one of these dark fellows who lived under a 13-year-old boy's bed and was definitely up to no good. I remember that when I first saw it back in '85, it was just about the scariest thing I had ever seen on a regular TV program. It's up on youtube as of this writing, and if you haven't seen it, you should. Terrible music and utterly unconvincing performances by the young actors, but forget all that. It's got one of the best twist endings evah.
I am the Shadow Man...
In pop culture, the basic Hat Man image goes back at least to the early 1930's and the creepy anti-hero, "The Shadow," famous from pulp novels, comics, and an immortal radio program, where he was sometimes portrayed by Orson Welles. (That seems right; in later years Welles did indeed cast quite a shadow, as I recall.) The Shadow bears a remarkable resemblance to our Hat Man.
The Shadow Knows
as a prototype for Batman, although in this one he looks more like Bela Legosi:
We could chase this guy around all day. People continue to report sightings in the Santa Lucia mountains along the central California coast of what have come to be known as "Dark Watchers," black robed and broad-rimmed hatted specters. They're always in the distance, either staring at the visitors or off into nowhere in particular. If you approach them they vanish. They say. No one knows how long they've been reported, but they're mentioned in a John Steinbeck short story, so they've been around since the 1930's at least. There are supposed to be old stories about them among the local Native Americans, taking us back into the mists of antiquity, but *yawn* that's de rigueur with these kinds of things. It seems like any time any weird thing like this is reported anywhere in North America, it isn't long before someone makes confident claims about old Indian traditions in connection with said Weird Thing. (For the record, in this case, responsible anthropologists who have learned everything they can about Native Americans in the Santa Lucia area—those would be the Chumash Indians—haven't found anything there about the Dark Watchers.)
Nevertheless, I do suspect that the essential image here goes back a lot further than the 1930's. No doubt you've heard of the artist Edvard Munch? You know, the guy who did "The Scream"? Yeah, him. Well, here's an equally cheerful Munch piece from 1890, innocently called "Night in St. Cloud." Would you sit next to this guy? Hey . . . where's his shadow, anyway?
Shadow People in the Mansion
So now that we're a little more familiar with the territory, we may ask whether the Haunted Mansion Imagineers put any Shadow People into the house. And of course the answer is yes. Some of the early concept art definitely tries to tap into those vague, amorphous, SP atmospherics. Here are two sketches, most likely by Ken Anderson. Feast your eyes; they're extremely rare.