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.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Caretaker

Updated November 2, 2019

And make no mistake, "Caretaker" is his official name. It's on the schematics and the blueprints, not "gravedigger" or "gardener" or any other equivalent. The reason that matters will become clearer as we go along.

I've been slow to blog on this character, for several reasons. First, the significance of the Caretaker has already been discussed here at LF, but the most thorough treatment is buried in the Comments on a previous post, and I can't realistically expect readers to go through all the Comments in addition to the 120+ posts at LF (although I highly recommend it; sometimes some pretty neat stuff appears there!). Anyway, the main points of the argument belong out where all the world can see them. Secondly, there is very little history to report with this figure. He's hardly changed since the Mansion opened. However, he has changed in one small way, and no one has noticed it, so here too there may be something interesting to say. And finally, if I'm going to discuss this guy, I have to make one more trip to The Haunting, and you know how weary I am of that movie. But that's no excuse.

Caretaker of What?

History first. Like practically every other character in the Haunted Mansion, The Caretaker began life as a Marc Davis sketch—actually, part of a Marc Davis sketch. This is one of those Davis ideas that went straight into the ride. There is very little difference between the original concept and the finished figure.

This sketch is pretty direct evidence that he is supposed to be the caretaker for the graveyard he is standing next to, not a caretaker for the house who has apparently come out here into the back yard to see what all the commotion is about. This can be inferred anyway by the fact that he is heading into the graveyard with a shovel. And this graveyard is not a private cemetery belonging to the house but a public cemetery close beside it. There is a big iron fence around it, with a big iron gate through which we pass en route to the jamboree, leaving our hero standing there at the entrance, afraid to enter. As we have seen before, Collin Campbell's illustration of the scene clearly shows the sign for the graveyard on the gate post: "[ ? ] Glade Cemetery." No doubt this fellow lives somewhere nearby, perhaps on the cemetery grounds themselves.

Hair of the Dog

Virtually the only thing about the Disneyland HM Caretaker that has changed over the years is his hair. He started out with reddish hair, a little shaggy but not extremely long, and he had a thin, scraggily, almost Lincolnesque beard. Back we go to 1969:

The red probably wouldn't or didn't show as red under
show lighting. Here are more photos of similar vintage:

They may have altered this even before the ride opened, if we may trust the date assigned to this photo: August 21, 1969.

He now has substantial shocks of gray hair coming down in front of his ears. And friends, he stayed like that for a long,
long time. In 2003 we had a chance to examine him as closely as anyone would ever want to, in the Disney Gallery.

In 2010 his hair became even longer, and also less bushy:

But they shortened it again in 2011 or 2012...

...and still more in 2013 (Daveland rocks):

Let us hope this does not betray an unholy desire to conform
the look of Anaheim's Caretaker to the guy down in Orlando:

Barf, just barf. I've said it before and I'll say it again: He
looks like he should be toting a skateboard, not a shovel.

What impulse led them to lengthen his hair, anyway? Of course we can't be sure, but when
his hair is long on the sides, one thing it does is make him look a little more like his dog:

And that may not be accidental. You know how they say that people tend
to look like their dogs? Well guess what? It turns out that it really is true.

Yes, people really do tend to pick a pet that has a comfortably familiar look to its face, and as often as not, the familiar
look is the same one they see in the mirror every day. So it's not your imagination if your best friend looks like his pit bull.

This perception has long been exploited for its comic potential,
including at Disney. Remember the opening scene in 101 Dalmatians?

And no one exploited this gimmick better than Marc Davis. He used animals as a
way of reflecting the personalities of their human companions (or is it vice versa?).

Okay, maybe you're not convinced that the vicissitudes of the Caretaker's coiffure have anything to do with the dog's ears. It doesn't really matter; the important thing is that the dog's personality is an accurate reflection of the man's. It provides an instant clue to his character. (This is the sort of thing Marc Davis specialized in.) Besides being frightened, we can infer from the meek and harmless dog that the man too is meek and harmless, a rather timid old soul. Contrast the Caretaker and dog at Phantom Manor, where the caretaker turns out to be the Phantom himself:

"The Old Caretaker"

We're dealing with a stereotype here, a trope familiar from literature, film, and television, a stock character sometimes called "The Crusty Caretaker." He's always male. He's a loner, a quiet guy, elderly (or at least mature), often a gardener, sometimes a grave digger. With the Mansion's version, it is important that we see immediately that he's a nice man, because there are a couple of important subtypes within this stereotype. There are good caretakers and bad caretakers. (Harry Potter has both: Hagrid is the good 'un; Filch is the bad 'un.) The bad ones are generally in cahoots with the villain, part of the problem. The good ones further divide between grumpy and gentle. (For that reason I think "crusty caretaker" may be a little too specific.) All of the good guy caretakers are serious and simple. They always know the secrets of the old place and they always tell the truth. These guys show up everywhere, from The Simpsons (Willie the groundskeeper) to The Secret Garden (Ben Weatherstaff), from Wuthering Heights (Joseph) to Marvel Comics, where "The Caretaker" is the relatively mild-mannered identity of a super hero, at least super enough to warrant an action figure.

For some reason these guys always seem to be carrying shovels. In modern, urban settings, this character is often a janitor, and
in such cases it seems like he's always got a mop. (Question: What exactly do you do with an action figure with a shovel, anyway?)

What all this means is that the Haunted Mansion character is instantly recognizable, and you know quite a lot about him within less than a second of laying eyes on him. You know that he's a quiet, simple, guileless man who's been around the place a long time and knows it well. Marc Davis knew that in order to communicate character instantly, you had to deal in stereotypes, and this is a classic example of just that.

Once Again . . .

Is our Caretaker inspired by any particular Crusty Caretaker in literature or film? Yeah, I think so, and here we go again with The Haunting. Mr. Dudley only shows up in one scene, but he reminds me of the guy in the Mansion more than any other CC.

Hey Smiley, where's your shovel?

Why Do We Need Him, Anyway?

Unless you count the Butlers/Maids, the Caretaker is the only living human being we encounter in the course of the Haunted Mansion ride, and he stands like a sentinel at the literal entrance to the show's grand finale.

He feels important. Is he?

Yes he is, and I've said this before too, more than once. Because the stock character he represents is so familiar and so established, you know that he's been around for many years and that his testimony about what's going on is utterly reliable. And testify he does. His countenance tells us as plainly as any words that he's not just frightened; he's astonished. That right there is all the proof we need that nothing like this has happened before within living memory. Some people resist this conclusion, but I think that any attempt to avoid it requires us to violate the stereotype, and the Imagineers have given us no warrant for doing that.

It follows that you are witness to a unique event. If the ghosts had ever come out like this previously, the old caretaker would probably have known about it, because he is after all the old caretaker, but more than this, it is dead certain he would have known about it, because he's not just the old caretaker; he's "The Old Caretaker."

If you believe the world of the Mansion is logically consistent (and it
is), this character determines how you must interpret the entire ride. 

And now, hopefully, in 2019, we can finally end the debate which shouldn't even be a debate: We are now told point blank that the Caretaker's face shows his "wide-eyed shock at seeing that spooks of every size have risen out of their graves for their midnight spree." He's shocked because he's never seen this happen before.

Post Script: The Movie

The 2003 Haunted Mansion movie was originally going to include the Caretaker character, and rumor had it they wanted to cast Don Knotts in the role. Anyway, in an early script for the movie, the Evers family sees the Caretaker and his dog as they drive up to the house, and Jim tries to ask him if they've got the right place. He doesn't answer any of Jim's questions. All he does is stare at them, and eventually he says, "Do not go into the house. Only death awaits you." That was his entire part. They eventually scrapped this scene and decided to present the Caretaker and his dog later in the film as just two more ghosts at the graveyard party, which is pretty dumb, but then, so is the rest of the movie.


  1. In 1963, there was a movie called "Comedy of Terrors" with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorrie. Joe E. Brown's Graveyard Caretaker (His final role) reminds me a lot of the Caretaker from the Haunted Mansion.

  2. (Sorry if I've posted this twice, I wasn't sure if my comment got eaten by the board)
    Could Colin Campbell's cemetery sign read Whispering Glade, as in the name of the Forest Lawn expy from Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One? It was a satire of the funeral industry, and very much in the public mind at the time the mansion was being designed, premiering in 1948 and being adapted into a movie in '65. As a side note, I've always taken the way the Ghost Host overpronounces "loved ones" ("Take your...Loved the hand, please") as a reference, with Loved Ones in the book being a euphemism for the mortuary's deceased clientele.

    1. Yeah, "Whispering" is what we guessed back in the "That's My Queue" post. The connection with the 1965 film version of "The Loved One," where "Whispering Glade" stands for Forest Lawn, is perhaps made even stronger when one recognizes that Walt Disney was buried there in 1966. (The painting is probably no earlier than 1968.) But in the end it's guesswork since Campbell may not have had any word in mind at all when he painted that sign. It's true that with a little willpower, one can sorta kinda see "Whispering" in it, and if there IS a word there, that is probably the safest bet, but more realistically, I think it's more in the eye of the beholder than in the painting. As for "loved one," that was/is a common euphemism for the deceased in funeral-parlor-speak everywhere, so there's no point in trying to tie it to any one source. (I don't think they use it much anymore.)

    2. “Loved” is past tense … you, or they, may not survive this excursion.

  3. Interesting that you included Groundskeeper Willie. I was watching The Simpsons recently, and they introduced his cousin: Gravedigger Billy. It was a one-off character, but there was a shot that struck me as reminiscent of the ancient mariner painting:

    Probably a coincidence, but I suppose it's possible one of the animators was indirectly making a reference.

    1. I think you may be on to something. One of the Simpsons animators is an ex-HM butler, and he occasionally slips inside references to the ride into the cartoons, like the demonized clock:

  4. Warning: lots of rambling here!

    i've always thought of the WDW/TDL versions of this guy as the "Don Knotts archetype". You really don't get a great look at him at WDW and TDL due to the darkness of the Graveyard sets; at DL he's got that nice blue fill light around him and then the edge lights for the lantern he's holding; at MK it's just a sort of fuzzy flickering spot. It's enough to tell that it's a scared guy who just fled the graveyard but the details of his hair and hat are lost in the darkness.

    I'm OK with that because I really hate the baseball cap, but because they repeated the baseball cap and brown hair at TDL but changed his staging to be nearer to DL's version there must be something to it. Anyway. About the baseball cap.

    Do you have any idea what that style of hat he wears at DL is? It seems weirdly old fashioned. One the other hand the baseball cap seems inappropriately modern to me. It really isn't, and as i said it's not really visible from the ride track, which in my personal interpretive scheme of the Mansion makes it irrelevant, but the hat issue has always stuck in my craw because of a concept only Mansionerds would care about so deeply: when are we when we experience the ride?

    New Orleans Square clearly begs to be interpreted as some vague "once upon a time". Obviously if there's an old riverboat and a steam train passing by we're not meant to be in the 20th century. Liberty Square has lots of different eras represented inside it, but obviously we're well into the last half 19th century on the north end, and also literally on the border of fantasy, so it could very well be any time period at all.

    But obviously we're talking about a house that was remodeled probably post Civil War and then abandoned during one of that era's many depressions. Or, alternately, the occupants all died. Or fled. And now it's been sitting there long enough for everything to get all cobbywebby and parts of the place to start to fall apart. So give it another 20 years or so and we could be "entering" sometime in the 1890s. The Caretaker's hat at DL would be consistent with this era.

    For the MK version I've come around to thinking of the date we experience the attraction as vaguely early 20th century, perhaps the 1920s or 1930s. This is mostly because the FL house skews much nearer to the tropes of an "Old Dark House" mystery thriller than Disneyland's does, and I like the idea of it being set in that period. Also that's an era where a baseball cap could be appropriate.

    What do you think? Or does it matter?

    1. Get hold of yourself, woman, of course it matters.
      There is a general smearing of time periods in NOS (dixieland jazz in the Lafitte era?), and then there's the muddled copy of an old radio ad ("Something new is waiting for you at Disneyland. It looks innocent enough; just a big old mansion"). But despite everything, I think you're supposed to be visiting a building currently standing in your own time period. It's possible that you get to see glimpses of the past in the course of your journey through the house (cf. the 'Ghostland Around Us, Beneath Us" post), but I don't think the Caretaker is supposed to be seen as an apparition from the past. Nothing in his clothing pins him unmistakably to the 19th century, nor does the lantern, so I go with Occam's razor and see him as simply the caretaker of the public graveyard behind the house. I can't rule out absolutely a "time travel" element in the ride, but it seems unnecessary to me. We've got Constance as a young woman in the 1870s living to be an older woman before dying, so the house could not have been abandoned until around the turn of the 20th century at the earliest, and if we're supposedly visiting in the 1920s or 30s, that simply does not leave enough time to account the state of decay we observe. You pretty much need all of that time from ca 1900 to today to explain it.

    2. Just a quick google search on hat history doesn't turn up anything similar. But based on the closest I can find, it seems to have been a nod to the Confederate Kepi. It's not a kepi, but Colin Campbell's illustration and certain camera angles make appear to have been intended as one.

      There are other working-class hats from the late 19th-early 20th cent. that seem like they could have been an influence but nothing jumps out as a match. Other than French officer's caps or boating caps from that era but that seems unlikely. Maybe grave diggers had some sort of unique society style they maintained?

    3. Yeah, you can google "worker's caps" and find quite a number of roughly the same design.

    4. The main issue I have with the interpretation that the attraction takes place during the modern day actually centers around the caretaker. If this were an event happening right now today (even by 1969 standard), why is the caretaker holding a flickering lantern and not a flashlight? It feels to me as though WED wanted him to be read as old-fashioned, perhaps late 1800s or early 1900s.

    5. People still use kerosene lanterns. In fact, if you are going to do nighttime work in a lightless cemetery, you can hardly do better than a kerosene lamp. At least that was true in 1969. Battery operated lanterns today are good as, or better, but not 50 years ago they weren't.

  5. I've read that the lookof "Little Leota," the "Ghost Hostess," was based on that of the funeral home hostesses in the 1965 movie version of The Loved One. I can certainly see the resemblance. I highly recommend the film to all Mansion fans.

    My great-uncle (with my uncle and great-grandmother as seasonal assistants) was a cemetery caretaker and gravedigger, right around the same time the Mansion was being conceived and designed. Throw a beard on that guy, switch his hound for a beagle, and he's Great-Uncle Pete to a T (except he was more likely to scare visitors than be scared by them!) They were even still using a shovel and kerosene lantern in those days. My uncle has darkly hilarious stories of his summers working there as a teen. So, I've always had a fondness for the Caretaker.

  6. This isn't about the Caretaker, but I thought you would like to know that they've made progress in restoring the traveling light effect at Disneyland. It is now completely working in the window that's above the cast member door by the switchbacks. It is different from the old coffee can one, since the new one looks like a tiny, orange lights that bobs up and down. :7)

    Also, if you have time, I'd really appreciate it if you'd check out my new Haunted Mansion comedy/information Youtube show. I will definitely be citing your blog in some of my upcoming videos. :7)

  7. My wife always feels sorry for the little hound. They definitely captured the essence of "terrified" in both characters!

  8. As usual, an amazing post. If you're ever in Los Angeles, I'd love to have you on the Comedy on Vinyl podcast, in which we could talk about the Haunted Mansion LP. Either way, I'm saddened I just finished reading the back catalog of entries.

  9. yeah,,
    My wife always feels sorry for the dog too,,
    every time she passes him she wants to rip open a can of mighty dog and toss it to him/her.

    great post HB

    Leave it to you to point out the differences in this caricature,
    ,as I am always fixated on the exit door at the bottom of the stair landing before the omni mover approaches his spot.

  10. You mention it was rumored that they wanted to Don Knotts to play the Caretaker in the 2003 movie, but was the figure in the ride based on/inspired by Knotts at all? Because there is such a resemblance and similarity to Knotts' character in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" from 1966, and I thought that was one of the films the Imagineers looked at while developing the ride

    1. Interesting notion, but I doubt it. In the first place, anyone would be scared out of his wits if the situation we see were real, so their similarity on that score means little. Beyond that, one is young, the other old, one works there as a caretaker, one is an interloping reporter unfamiliar with the place, one encounters the ghosts outside, one inside, etc.

    2. Actually I meant the resemblance to Don Knotts physically, his eyes and mouth, plus his character in the main scene from the film walks around a haunted mansion carrying a flashlight, and the caretaker has the Victorian equivalent of a lantern and period wardrobe, and they are both terrified by hearing ghostly music.

      I guess that seemed like enough of a reason to want to cast him in the 2003 movie, and they did sneak Mr. Limpet into the new Mermaid ride, maybe the current generation of Disney just really likes Don Knotts

  11. This is sheer coincidence, but does anyone else see a bit of a resemblance to Christopher Lloyd in the Caretaker? I only ask because Lloyd played a woodsman cut from the very same stock last November in a miniseries called "Over The Garden Wall". It just came to me right now so I felt I had to ask.

  12. I get a strong Darby O'Gill vibe off of the DL Caretaker for some reason.

  13. Per the suggestion of Melissa March, I looked up "The Loved One." I mentioned the mortuary in the film is Whispering Glades Mortuary. My mom immediately said "Thats what the cemetary in the picture says." I checked the fourth picture in this post and indeed, it is possible the sign says Whispering Glades Cemetary.

    Jocelyn Martinez

    1. Yeah, in the "That's My Queue" post from a long while back, "Whispering Glade Cemetery" was my best guess too. It helps that Whispering Glades in The Loved One is modeled on Forest Lawn, where Walt Disney is buried, and that the idea of a "hostess" to make funerary arrangements may well come from that film as well. It comes down to whether or not Collin Campbell had any word at all in his mind as he put the brush to the surface for that first word (or possibly, whether any word was there in an unknown Davis sketch he may have been following).

  14. A (lanternless) cemetery caretaker archetype I noticed in the wild, in an 1892 issue of Chatterbox magazine:

    1. No dog or shovel either. And that hat? Obviously the man is an imposter.