In Praise of… Haunted Mansion Characters
Last week, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to speak with former Imagineers.
This conversation enabled me to view theme park design from their perspective.
Something these experts pointed out to me is how reliant Disney has become on its own intellectual properties.
Walt Disney World’s most recent construction projects have focused on Ratatouille, Guardians of the Galaxy, Moana, and Tron.
Once upon a time, Disney empowered Imagineers to design their own characters, though. And the proof lies in a building hosting 999 happy haunts.
In this month’s In Praise of…, we’ll highlight the whimsical, macabre incongruity of Haunted Mansion.
The Bride and the Hatbox Ghost
While speaking with former Disney Imagineers Ryan Harmon and Joe Lanzisero of Zeitgeist Design + Production, I could sense their frustration.
These veteran theme park designers said the following about theme park design:
Ryan Harmon: “We want to start with a blank sheet of paper and create great experiences like Joe (Lanzisero) did with Mystic Manor.”
In their estimation, Disney has veered away from that too much, regularly saddling Imagineers with IP-based constraints.
When Walt Disney lived, he provided staff members at WED Enterprises with much greater leeway…sometimes too much.
For instance, Uncle Walt didn’t want to define the Haunted Mansion experience for his Imagineers.
Instead, Disney allowed his favorite co-workers to battle it out amongst themselves. What followed was a tug of war for the soul of Haunted Mansion.
Should this attraction entertain guests with quirky humor, or should it scare them like a classic haunted house?
In the end, Imagineers compromised and thereby created an attraction brimming with creativity.
Remarkably, you can witness both sides of the debate through two characters in the Attic: The Bride and the Hatbox Ghost.
The Bride is decidedly un-Disney. While virtually everything about the character has changed over the years, the lingering image remains.
A murderous widow hangs out in the attic, strokes her axe, and makes unsettling remarks. She’s a murder podcast disguised as a Disney character.
You…won’t find anyone like The Bride at It’s a Small World.
Meanwhile, the Hatbox Ghost takes a more humorous approach to beheadings.
This character can perform a magic trick: he can teleport his head into a box, leaving him, well, headless.
Would Disney sign off on either of these ideas today? Doubtful.
You really love them both, though, right?
Still, when you think about Haunted Mansion, The Bride and the Hatbox Ghost probably aren’t the first characters who spring to mind.
Instead, you’ll probably think about Madame Leota or the characters we’ll mention in the following two sections.
That’s what I find most impressive about Haunted Mansion.
You could argue that the top five (!) characters are among the ten most memorable ones at Disney theme parks, at least in America.
Sure, we’d all come up with the Yeti and Figment, and some of us could probably name a Pirates of the Caribbean character or two.
Jack Sparrow doesn’t count since he came later, though.
This statement speaks volumes about how much Disney has relied on its own IP since Disneyland’s opening day.
We’ve always had rides like Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which is now Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.
At Haunted Mansion, originality has carried the day since the beginning. No character exemplifies this more than Madame Leota.
The proverbial crystal ball reader comes with a unique Disney twist. She lives inside the crystal ball!
This character is vibrant, humorous, spooky, and truly unforgettable.
You don’t need to know much of anything about Haunted Mansion to recall the image of Madame Leota in your head.
The Ghost Host
Next, we have the most mysterious character at Haunted Mansion, our friendly narrator!
The Ghost Host welcomes us to the ride and then describes many of the scenes and characters we meet along the way.
His twisted sense of humor adds a touch of menace to the proceedings, as his words belie his affable nature.
One moment, the Ghost Host kindly welcomes you to his home and warns you about safety measures and flash photography. He seems to care about your health.
Then, his words grow ominous even though his tone remains calm, almost amused.
The Ghost Host acts as if he wants you to be in on the joke. Perhaps he thinks of your Doom Buggy ride as a sales pitch.
Your narrator is trying to persuade you to stay with the 999 Happy Haunts. As he states, “There’s room for 1,000. Any volunteers?”
In this way, he’s like someone on social media counting down until their follower totals reach a round number.
Of course, in this specific example, the Ghost Host isn’t trying to entice you to like and subscribe.
He wants you to enter a ghastly realm for the rest of your existence.
You should say no.
Still, the narration hides the underlying enigma of the character. Who is/was the Ghost Host, and why does he pass his time speaking to visiting mortals?
The origins of the Ghost Host remain shrouded in mystery, but fans couldn’t care less.
All we know is that he makes us laugh…other than that unpleasant business in the Stretching Room.
The Hitchhiking Ghosts
In a perfect story, the audience always leaves with a smile on its collective face.
With Haunted Mansion, this bit of lingering euphoria stems from the closing bit, which Disney has perfected over the years.
The Hitchhiking Ghosts promise to follow you home. Each one’s physical appearance tells a story.
We have the ZZ Top wannabe with the short stature and long beard, the tall, thin, balding gentleman, and the heavyset fellow who refuses to travel light.
The genius of these three characters is that none of them needs to do much. They merely need to look silly but somewhat insidious…like the ride itself!
Have you ever wondered why three people are leaving the Haunted Mansion if it’s such a lovely place as the Ghost Host describes?
Won’t their absence reduce the number of Happy Haunts to 996? These questions don’t need answers because nobody cares.
Disney’s in the business of happiness, and you’ll embrace it as you notice the final three ghosts at the Haunted Mansion.
A few years ago, Imagineers even added a trick wherein the Hitchhiking Ghosts perform a trick to entertain you on your way out of the mansion.
Sometimes, they’ll juggle your heads, which strikes me as copyright infringement of the Hatbox Ghost.
In other instances, they’ll throw a cake or lie down on your Doom Buggy.
These cartoon shenanigans are both silly and scary, just like the Haunted Mansion itself.
This attraction has stood the test of time because Disney empowered Imagineers to invent new characters, and those creations still entertain to this day.
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