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"The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion"

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Haunted Attraction is a trade magazine for the haunted house industry, and it features Disney's various haunted attractions as subject matter from time to time. This particular issue features an article by DoomBuggies.com owner Jeff Baham, which is a fairly straitlaced summation of the Walt Disney World version of the Haunted Mansion.

Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion: Three Grim Grinning Decades

By Jeff Baham
Webmaster, DoomBuggies.com

Hinges have been creaking in doorless chambers for nearly three decades at the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom. The 999 "happy haunts" that are continually partying their afterlives away are soon to enjoy their 30th anniversary at the Orlando, Florida theme park (while their cousins, at a similar attraction in a little-known theme park in Anaheim, California, celebrated their 30th anniversary of providing "hot and cold running chills" last year.) "Thirty years -- and this old house still kicks Bob Vila's pasty white butt," sums up Geoff Carter of the Las Vegas Sun.

Even after more than a quarter-century of haunting, this classic attraction still amazes young and old alike. To this day, the average patron of the Haunted Mansion has no idea how those ghosts appear and disappear right before their eyes (as they have since the day the attraction opened) or how those singing busts can vocalize with such lifelike expressions. Even Disney's own Bill Nye, "the Science Guy," writing for a column that appeared in a ZDNet feature about Walt Disney World's 25th Anniversary, chalked the disappearing effect up to "holograms." The truth is that the Haunted Mansion owes its most spectacular effects to a combination of turn-of-the century stage effects and good theming. Holograms, while not unknown in 1969, would have been quite a remarkable technical feat to pull off in a theme park attraction 30 years ago, even by the high standards set by WED's "Imagineers," the engineering and design team formed by Walt Disney to create the magic behind his theme parks.

Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction owes its enduring appeal to more than just special effects. Dave Collier, a movie effects-industry professional working with Hunter/Gratzner, has also spent nearly 20 years in the field of Halloween events. "Atmosphere is the key to any successful Haunted Attraction. Disney's Haunted Mansion surpasses this expectation because they meet every single key element to make the experience one that will be remembered for years to come," explains Collier. From tiny architectural animistic details almost imperceptible in the shadows, to a remarkably versatile theme song that can transform itself chameleon-like from a mournful funeral dirge to an insane ballroom waltz to a jazzy graveyard jamboree without losing the melody, the Disney attraction stops at nothing to establish a perfectly kooky (and even occasionally spooky) atmosphere.

The Concept
Walt Disney had planned to have a Haunted Attraction in his theme parks from the beginning. The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was the first to open, and the original neat and trimmed plantation-style façade was built in the Anaheim park in the early sixties, where it sat, unoccupied, for six years. Many different concepts were bandied about during that time for the attraction's innards, as the building sat alone, deserted but clean as a whistle. While some designers questioned the tidy appearance for a manse rumored to be haunted, Walt did not want the theme park sullied with an uglified, ramshackle construction. (The Walt Disney World version of the attraction neatly sidesteps this issue by utilizing a powerful brick Mansion; neither tidy nor ramshackle, yet completely foreboding.)

"We'll take care of the outside, and the ghosts will take care of the inside!" Walt Disney, 1962

Many ideas for the original ride were considered and discarded, including a colonial-style encounter with the headless horseman, a museum of oddities and the supernatural, and a walk-through attraction similar to a fun house. "Generally, people working on this were trying to do something with telling a story," recalled late Disney legend Marc Davis, speaking at a 30th anniversary celebration for the Haunted Mansion in 1999. "But Walt Disney did not want to tell a story, or to do it like any of the [other park] attractions. So we tried different things." Because of this, the Mansion evolved into a collection of vignettes, without an emphasis on storytelling, and the result is a delightfully dreary selection of set pieces. The simple "official" story holding it all together: 999 happy haunts have come out to socialize… but there's room for a thousand. Any volunteers?

Of course, an attraction as popular and oft-visited as Disney's Haunted Mansion almost always attracts intense curiosity, and a wealth of rumors and supposed "official" back-stories have evolved over the past 30 years. This includes a few with some merit, and most with none. Apparently, there are a few truths that may be gleaned from stories considered by the WED designers. One of these goes something like this: There may have been an evil sea captain (Cap'n Blood, by some accounts) who met a self-inflicted doom, possibly after murdering his new bride, who haunts the manse in the attic to this day. The gruesome nature of this story seems to run counter to the quirky fun of the attraction as it exists today, so we can assume that this back-story did not play a large role in the final design of the Mansion (though in an oddly black and un-Disney-like moment, while patrons are in the room with the stretching portraits there is reference to the host's suicide, as lightning flashes illuminate his body, hanging from a noose tied to the rafters above.) Over the years, employees at the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion (called "Cast Members" by the Disney Company) still went on to create an intricate, involved history of every person, ghost, pictured character and inhabitant of the Mansion. This unofficial history has recently enjoyed wide circulation on the internet, so the myths continue to grow. To this day, certain Cast Members at the Walt Disney World Mansion might even show you the imprint in the ground that the young bride's wedding ring made when she was thrown out of the attic window by the Cap'n in a murderous rage.

Sidebar: The Biographies

The following is a sample of the highly detailed history contained in the "unofficial" biography of the Haunted Mansion and its residents, as concocted over many years by the Cast Members of the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion. You can find a link to the complete collection of biographies at www.DoomBuggies.com.

"The Mansion was built in 1671 by Ub van der Iwerks, a Dutch burgermeister. He chose the site on a hill overlooking the river despite warnings from the town elders that he was desecrating a sacred Indian burial ground. Construction was plagued by freak accidents, causing laborers to become scarce. The burgermeister finished the bricklaying himself, stubbornly seeing the project through to completion. He moved his family in on October 31, 1671. Details of what happened next are sketchy. Apparently Ub went mad and sealed himself in a tomb in the adjacent graveyard. What is clear is that the van der Iwerks family abandoned the house.
"In the decades that followed, the Mansion served as a pirate's hangout, a brothel, and an army barracks. Those buried in the Mansion's graveyard are only a sample of the many that died on the premises.
"In 1871, the deed passed to Colonel Ronald Stevens, a wealthy publisher, in the winning from a riverboat card game. The Colonel began an extensive renovation of the Mansion, which was as ill fated as its original construction had been. When Fred, a stonemason, was killed by a falling rock, Colonel Stevens took over the stonecutting himself. He moved his family in on October 31, 1871. Shortly thereafter, the Colonel lost his mind. Neglecting his lithography business, Colonel Ronald Stevens spent his last days carving his name backwards on tombstones. He finally died in a boiler explosion. The remaining bits of him were buried under each of the grave markers inscribed "SNEVETS NOR."
The Stevens family sold the Mansion to the American Spiritualist Society, which used it as a retreat. The Society converted one of the rooms into a seance circle, which was used nightly to summon departed spirits from far and wide. They had logged over 900 contacts by the time the Society was disbanded in 1914. The trustees then sold the Mansion to Master Gracey's father.
George Gracey, Sr., bought the Mansion for use as the Graceys' winter home. After George was murdered, his widow sold the Gracey estate, except for the Mansion, which Master Gracey inherited..."

The Attraction
Unlike the white plantation mansion of Disneyland's New Orleans Square, the imposing brick mansion of the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square invokes a formal colonial solitude. Although both Mansions were planned as the Disneyland version neared completion, the Orlando version (which opened in 1971, a few years after the Anaheim premiere) differs from its counterpart most markedly in the architecture. Along the rooftop of the Orlando mansion, observant patrons may note that the spires take the forms of chess pieces. In fact, if one were to take note of all the spires, all the chess pieces would be accounted for, except for the knight.

The cold brick façade is a near-exact replica of the Harry Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which currently plays host to weekend "murder mysteries," Victorian ballroom dancing, and romantic getaways. This real-life mansion was visited by Disney's WED Imagineers as they decided which type of building would best suit the planned attraction in the Liberty Square section of the Magic Kingdom. While Disneyland's Haunted Mansion is supposed to exist in the land of Dixie, the Walt Disney World version is intended to invoke memories of colonial New England, and the architecture and queue area reflects those impressions.

Once inside the façade, patrons find themselves immersed in a world populated by prankster ghosts. The entire experience is narrated by an invisible "Ghost Host" (voiced by veteran voice talent Paul Frees, who is also recognizable as the evil Boris Badenov from the TV classic The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.) Your Ghost Host sets the mood, leading patrons through a supernatural portrait gallery and eerie netherworld, where the guests board "Doom Buggies," another name for a Disney innovation known as the Omnimover system. This is an ingenious way of transporting patrons in the vein of the classic 'ghost train' (or dark ride), while directing their focus by spinning the vehicle on its axis. This gives the WED Imagineers a nearly cinematic control of the attraction, with built-in digital surround sound to boot. Patrons have virtually no choice as to where to direct their attention, allowing the attraction's designers greater flexibility and use of misdirection.

Once safely seated in their "Doom Buggy," patrons are ushered through a library with stern-looking statues that follow you, staring directly into your eyes as you travel the full length of the room (through an effect that is, quite literally, simply a trick of the light.) Books float in and out of the bookshelves as the visitors continue onward. The majority of the library is actually a detailed mural, but highly effective lighting makes the "real" books nearly indistinguishable from the painted shelves and book stacks.

Leaving a piano being played by unseen hands and some evil family portraits behind, patrons continue on past a conservatory containing a coffin and some moldering funeral wreaths (and is that muffled voice and knocking coming from inside the coffin?) Also appearing in the conservatory is an imposing raven, which appears again in various scenes throughout the ride. In early design stages, there was some thought to making the raven the being through which the Ghost Host's voice materialized, though that idea was deemed unnecessary and discarded. Nevertheless, the large black raven remains a reappearing character throughout the attraction.

Passing through a narrow corridor of shaking and rattling doors, the patrons emerge into a séance, led by Madame Leota, a glowing, disembodied head speaking from within a misty crystal ball. In response to her supplications, various objects and ectoplasmic lights are dancing overhead. Madame Leota is named after Leota Toombs, a veteran Cast Member who had worked at both Disneyland and, later, Walt Disney World, maintaining the audioanimatronic characters' cosmetic appearances. For the effect, a projection of a real actress (Toombs) performing as Madame Leota is projected from a 16mm projector onto a static head form, creating a startlingly realistic and eerie effect.

Andy Fielding, a Cast Member who played the piano at Walt Disney World, remembers speaking with Toombs about the experience of being the disembodied psychic:

"On a couple of occasions, I got to hang out with Leota Toombs at the employee cafeteria under WDW's Magic Kingdom. What a nice lady. She told me how funny it was when they did her lip-synch sessions for the crystal ball. She couldn't keep from moving her head, so they ended up tying her hair to a chair. Takes a bit of the romance out of it, eh? She never mentioned that she auditioned the dialogue, too [which she did, though the final voice used for Madame Leota is Eleanor Audley, another veteran Disney voice talent. -JB] Maybe she was embarrassed that it wasn't used. I think she just wasn't cranky enough to carry it off. No matter who ended up doing it, I'm sure it would've been recorded separately. You usually can't give your best delivery when your hair is tied to furniture."

Leaving Leota's chamber, the patrons are swept into a huge dining hall, where they witness a massive birthday ball in the Haunted Mansion's special effects showcase. Everywhere they turn, a ghost is disappearing or rematerializing. Waltzing ghosts fade in and out of reality, and with each exhalation a birthday ghost vanishes her guests along with the flames as she blows out the candles on her birthday cake. Dueling portraits which have come to life turn and fire, as two other ghosts unload coffins from a horse drawn hearse backed up to the French doors. Partying ghosts hang from the chandelier, and ghostly skulls fly from the organ pipes while an insane organist plays a discordant variation of the attraction's musical theme.

While this effect is the most grandiose (often bringing the aforementioned claims of "holograms,") it is also one of the simplest effects to achieve. It is simply an application of the popular "Pepper's Ghost" (or "Blue Room") effect, on an enormous scale. Pepper's Ghost is named for John Henry Pepper, a professor of chemistry at the London Polytechnic Institute, who in 1862 made the effect popular on the theatrical stage. All that is needed for this illusion is a piece of glass and a light source. At its simplest, this effect works because the viewer sees what is reflected off of the glass and what is behind the glass at the same time. Everyone has experienced this effect in action (in fact, many might rather call it "Pepper's Curse" when trying to drive at night and the spouse decides to turn on the overhead map light.) By traveling elevated in front of a second hidden ballroom containing the animatronic spooks, the patrons of the Haunted Mansion see the "ghosts" only when they are illuminated enough to reflect off of a large piece of glass, separating the two ballrooms. Simply by controlling the lighting, this 140-year-old effect continues to amaze guests at Disney's Haunted Mansion to this day.

Before the crazed waltz has faded into the distance, a heartbeat takes its place as patrons are carried into the Mansion's attic. Surrounded by derelict furnishings and antiques, guests may be startled by the occasional "pop-up ghost," a Haunted Attraction mainstay. Near the exit of the attic, an eerie, floating bride awaits, her heart glowing red with each beat. Then it's out the attic window, as the Doom Buggies carry patrons down the side of the Mansion between strange, gnarled trees into the cemetery.

The cemetery provides the attraction's strongest "Disney identification" by consisting of numerous highly detailed audioanimatronic characters. In order to maintain a ghostly appearance, the Doombuggy track is separated from the ghosts and props by scrim (a translucent screen material) stretched ceiling-to-floor that the patrons look through while viewing the scenery. This material gives everything a slightly hazy appearance, as if being viewed through a perfectly still fog. Props meant to appear more distant, are placed further back from the track behind another scrim, and further out there is a third layer of scrim, providing an enormous, apparent, depth of field. In addition, bicycling and flying ghosts are projected onto some of the higher scrims, making the graveyard come "alive" (so to speak) via the time-honored "Magic Lantern" effect, which is a stage effect made popular in 1798 by Belgian magician Etienne-Gaspard Robertson in displays in which he would project ghosts onto gauze which was thin enough to see through and masked by smoke.

Here, the musical theme by Disney veteran Buddy Baker with lyrics by Xavier Atencio (known as 'X') undergoes another variation, and is portrayed as being played by a funky colonial graveyard band. Some misplaced statuary joins along, providing the tune's lead vocals (with the bass lead voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who is probably best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger.) Once again, these static statues speak due to projections of filmed live actors, in another startlingly lifelike effect. "Grim grinning ghosts, come out to socialize," commands the lyric, and the ghosts obey, coming from all points in history and all walks of afterlife. The graveyard jamboree is full of Marc Davis' vignettes. A typical example: a befuddled mutt sniffs warily at the foot of a spilled sarcophagus, from which a mummy has emerged to engage in a spot of tea with a Victorian-era English woman. Each character is dressed in translucent clothing, which adds to the ethereal nature of the scenery and gives each character a transparent, skeletal effect. In fact, many of the characters were left without bodies placed over their robotics, and if a patron were to look carefully through the clear costuming, he or she might be able to see the metal armature of the bare audioanimatronic figure beneath. Each character also sings along with the jangling tune, in his or her own particular dialect.

Return to the Living
Finally, the Doom Buggies head toward a crypt to exit the cacophony of the cemetery, and pass a trio of glowing, hitchhiking ghosts (another Davis creation.) Just as the Ghost Host warns that "they may try to follow you home," the Doom Buggies pass in front of a series of mirrors, in which it appears that one of the hitchhikers has found his way into your carriage! A cute gag, the mirrors are 'two-way' and hide the fluorescent ghost props, which are lit with UV (black) lights. This crypt area represents the final leg of the patron's journey, but as they are leaving , a small projected mannequin beckons to the departing guests. While commonly thought to be a miniature version of Madame Leota, this last spook is actually officially known as the "Ghost Hostess." Her voice, as recorded by Leota Toombs, is heard to call out "Hurry back, hurry back! Be sure you bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. Make final arrangements now. We've been dying to have you!" The patron's carriage comes to a moving walkway that will carry them out of the crypt and back, squinting, into a Magic Kingdom of light and popcorn.

Jeff "Chef Mayhem" Baham is the webmaster of DoomBuggies.com, an unofficial tribute to Disney's Haunted Mansion attractions.

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