Chapter Five: Developing a Spooky Soundtrack
Tying it all together
As the opening date for the Haunted Mansion crept nearer, the WED Illusioneers continued to hone and shape the storyline and presentation of the attraction. WED's X Atencio (pictured, left) was tapped to pull together a cohesive script from all of the pieces. Coming from an animation background (having worked on classics like Fantasia and various Disney short-subject films), Walt noted X's natural talent for storytelling and pulled him over to WED to start writing scripts for various attractions, starting with Pirates of the Caribbean.
Walt was well aware that the background in story development, artistic expression, and natural movement that the animation department offered would transfer naturally to a group intended to create three-dimensional entertainment, which is one reason he drew largely from his animation studio to create the Imagineering division of the company. But Walt also decided who to bring over based on natural talents he discerned. While X may not have been a writer to begin with, Walt saw his potential.
In a 1989 interview, X admitted that when he came to WED, "I said to myself, 'I don't know anything about script writing!'" In fact, he says that after transfering to WED, whenever he'd drive past the animation studio, he'd "get tears in my eyes" because he missed the department so much. Nevertheless, the grand success of X's script for Pirates made him the natural choice to pen a script for the Haunted Mansion. Although Walt chose him for the task, his untimely death came before Atencio really had much of Walt's personal direction for the project.
"After Walt went to the big studio in the sky, we didn't have him around to say 'this is the way it's gonna be,'" Atencio recalled in an interview with Persistence of Vision Magazine in 1997. "There were the two schools of thought on it... comical or scary. I was kind of leaning toward the scary part of it, but you've got to think of kids and stuff like that. When I got put on it, I kept thinking of probably the Japanese version of horror - decapitated heads and stuff!" So Atencio set out to create a comical script that also satisfied his darker side.
Atencio eventually completed the script that is heard in the attraction today. While he recorded many samples of various scripts to demonstrate the flow and cadence of his words, none of these recordings were used in the final attraction. He does makes a guest appearance in the Haunted Mansion as the voice of the "tour interruption" host, however. Incidentally, he is also the only recorded voice that you will ever hear referring to the ride vehicles as "Doom Buggies," a term he coined while writing the script. The narrator, or "Ghost Host," merely refers to the ride vehicle as a "carriage... carrying you to the boundless realm of the supernatural."
The (Ghost) Host with the most
Paul Frees (pictured, right), a popular Disneyland announcer and vocal talent (well-known as the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy, Ludwig von Drake, and Boris Badenov in the popular TV series The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), was called upon to provide the voice of the unseen "Ghost Host." Before the straightlaced, gleefully sardonic narration that exists today was settled upon, Frees tried a few different accents on for size, and recorded a few script variations (most written by Atencio) as trial versions.
An audacious medium: Madame Leota
Meanwhile, as Atencio polished the script, other characters in the Mansion were being auditioned and cast. Eleanor Audley (pictured at right), known for her audacious turn as the "Wicked Stepmother" in Cinderella and "Maleficent" in Sleeping Beauty, was considered for a number of vocal roles, including a hostess that would direct patrons as the began the tour, and the disembodied head of a psychic trapped in her crystal ball.
"Your Ghost Host will be here presently to conduct you on your tour of this sanctuary for the disembodied!" Audley reads, in a most villainous voice. Though the role of "hostess" was eventually abandoned as being unneccesary to the attraction, Audley did become the voice of the medium "Madame Leota," casting spells with incantations such as "Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat... call in the spirits, wherever they're at!"
Getting It Just Right: Trial and Error
The idea of narrating the ride was a guiding directive from the Mansion's initial concept as a walk-through attraction, and the give and take between how much information and verbage was too much or not enough was a constant question. But Atencio realized that some of the storyline would have to be explained, in order to provide a cohesive experience. While Atencio tried out a few different ideas, even going so far as to record sample scripts for some, it took some honing and fine-tuning to come up with the perfect script.
While Atencio was writing, he considered some additions to the script that never materialized, one of which was a talking mascot that would follow guests through the ride. Originally conceived as a cat, the role also took the form of a raven before being discarded almost completely (the raven still follows you through the ride today, but it simply squawks, and doesn't attempt to narrate.)
Meanwhile, well aware that music would also prove to be a critical part of the experience being created, Marc Davis incorporated musical gags into his ideas for the Mansion's sets, such as the early concept sketch of the graveyard band pictured below.
Grim Grinning Ghosts: A musical journey takes shape
Music is very important to the attractions at a Disney theme park, and the Haunted Mansion was no exception. Buddy Baker (pictured at right), a Disney legend who served as music director for the Mickey Mouse Club years before becoming music director for WED, was set to the task along with lyricist Atencio.
In an article for Persistence of Vision Magazine, Tish Eastman, a composer for Walt Disney Imagineering, points out that Baker avoided typical "horror" techniques when developing the tune for the Haunted Mansion. "A cliche Hollywood hooror film score approach is to use a melodic interval called the tritone, which is referred to as the 'Devil's interval.' However, [for the Mansion] Baker did everything but use tritones - his eerie little melody weaves in and around, always teasing but never actually using the 'Devil's interval.' It is a Disney song, after all!"
Baker agrees with this assessment: "Right! I went all around [the 'Devil's interval'], but all the way through I never land on it. It's one of those things; you sort of expect it to go here, but it goes to another place."
X Atencio recalls the process of putting the song together with Buddy: "Knowing that 'Yo Ho' was such a success in the Pirates ride, we realized that we'd have to have a song [for the Mansion] too. So I went to work [on the lyrics], and bounced my ideas off of John Hench and the rest of them - and then gave it to Buddy. It was amazing how Buddy just came up with the melody to fit it - with just a little adjusting here and there. People will often ask 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' Well, I would just come up with the lyrics and Buddy, the genius that he is, he made it work."
Pictured at left are some concepts that Marc Davis created to tie the music into the various scenes, including a singing bust similar to the ones that appear in the graveyard, and a ghostly string quartet, probably intended for the ballroom but never used in the attraction.
Baker's tune was used throughout the entire attraction. In the foyer, the song can be heard in the style of a funeral dirge on organ. In the loading area, an eerie flute with reverb, tubular bells and a vocal "wind" track perform the tune. In the seance circle, many tracks were recorded, though the only musical cue used in that scene is a trumpet and percussion track. In the Grand Ballroom, a "kooky" organ part was improvised by organist/composer Bill Sabransky.
For the graveyard scene, there were actually 42 tracks recorded, though Buddy and X ended up editing those down to five basic tracks (including organ, guitar, drums, bass, and contrabass) along with various featured instruments (a backwards flute, a trumpet, a harp, gravestone drums, and bagpipes) and vocals, samples of which can be heard in the media section of this web site.
Finally, in February and April of 1969, Baker assembled all of his musical talent and recorded all the tracks that would eventually be used in the Haunted Mansion. Not much musical notation remains from this period; it appears that Baker put some basic tracks down on a lead sheet, and generally taught the musicans their parts, then had them improvise around the basic harmony. "The crazy high soprano [in the graveyard opera scene] had the melody down, and she wouldn't get so far away from it so you couldn't recognize it. But I told her to just ad lib all over the place. I told her, 'You're supposed to be some kind of a nut here, so just do what you do best!' And that's what she did - she came up with it."
While the repeating one-minute refrain heard throughout the attraction is similar in concept to the repeating refrain of "it's a small world," Baker's tune avoids the curse of becoming too familiar and repetitive by significantly changing the style and feel of each instance that the song is played. Baker's "Grim, Grinning Ghosts" quite satisfactorily ties the entire Haunted Mansion experience together, leaving guests with the song dancing in their heads as they exit the ride.
Persistence of Vision #9
This magazine, apparently discontinued in the late '90s, billed itself as an "unofficial historical journal celebrating the creative legacy of Walt Disney." Issue #9 contained two articles on the Haunted Mansion. First is the cover story - Tish Eastman's thorough dissection of Buddy Baker's music from the Mansion and the recording sessions that he directed to create it. The article, which makes this issue a collectible worth hunting down, details each musical cue point in the attraction and describes in detail the accompanying soundtrack. Eastman also provides extensive detail on the recording sessions and musicians that took part in the process. The second article about the Mansion, by Paul Smith, is a colorful tour of Walt Disney World's Mansion, with some comparisons with Disneyland's original attraction. Click here to read Smith's article.