Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Disney, Esoterror, and You: The Haunted Mansion (Esoterrorists)

I've been thinking about this ever since seeing some very evocative photographs over on the Long-Forgotten blog. The blog's creator is a long-time fan of the Haunted Mansion, and was lucky enough to be one of the first kids to ride it when it opened back in 1969. There aren't many people I envy, but I admit I'd have loved to have been on that ride. Imagine seeing it for the first time, so fresh you could smell the paint; or more likely, the brimstone!

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to visit the original attraction, the Haunted Mansion (First Edition) is part of the California park. The next version opened in 1971 in Florida, and is, broadly speaking, a copy of the original, though longer and more elaborate. Since then there have been other versions of the Mansion opened in Disney's other parks, but they tend to diverge significantly from the California concept. The Hong Kong version, for example, doesn't bother too much with ghosts and spooks, since that doesn't really fit with local lore.  If you're wondering what the ride looks like, take a wander over to YouTube.

As you can probably guess, the Mansion isn't really a Mansion at all; it's one huge elevator, leading down into the bowels of the earth. From there, you go on the ride, and your spooktacular tour begins. It really was a stroke of genius on someone's part, to mount a separate speaker system in each of the Doombuggies. Not only does it mean the Voice is coming from behind the guest, it also means that each guest has their own guided tour, making the experience seem more intimate.

There was a lot of discussion in the planning stages as to what, exactly, the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be. Was it meant to be scary? Funny? Ought it to incorporate existing Disney characters, like the Headless Horseman, or the spooks from Mickey's 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts? Ought it to be a ride, or a walk-through attraction?

Disney himself was adamant that the experience fit his personal vision, and that did not include anything that might detract from the park as he conceived it. His park was Mainstream USA, clean and neat; Disney didn't see a tumbledown shack as part of his grand conceit. That nixed much of the imagineers' first concepts, and meant that the Haunted Mansion as we know it became a rather clean and pleasant looking place, from the outside anyway.

As for the scare-vs-funny divide, the final decision was to split the difference. Rather than have a completely scary or completely funny experience, all the macabre thrills are put up-front, in the first few minutes of the tour. Later, in all scenes after the gypsy Madame Leota summons up the spectral inhabitants, the scenes are skewed towards comic relief. The final word is had by a character called Little Leota, based in part on cemetery arrangement hostesses seen in 1965's The Loved One. 'Hurry back! Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. We're just dying to have you.'

I do wonder what Disney does if someone decides to join the Mansion, perhaps by having their ashes scattered over the ride. Human nature being what it is, someone must have tried by now. If I were Disney, I'd be tempted to offer it as an ultra-private perk only available to special guests, say, members of Club 33. There will be people out there willing to pay over the odds for those bragging rights. 'Come visit me when I'm gone, I'll be in the Graveyard with the Grim Grinning Ghosts!'

The security's pretty tight - some of them even carry firearms, though it's very doubtful you'd ever see them if you visit the park - and for good reason. Millions of people pour through each park each month. With those people come the usual assortment of shoplifters, petty thieves and other ne'er-do-wells but, more to the point, with that massive crowd comes an equally massive crowd management problem. Disney's goal has always been to function like clockwork. Nothing is allowed to go wrong, and if by some chance it does, the problem can't last long. Achieving that kind of smooth functioning demands tight control over everything that happens on the premises.

Disney has its own lore. Yes, among it is the ashes-in-the-Mansion bit. Yes, there's the occasional ghost story. There's also one about someone having a heart attack on the Mansion ride because it was so scary. Now, I very much doubt that anyone was actually frightened to death by the Mansion, but it raises an interesting point. What does happen when someone dies at the park?

Again, life is like that: people die all the time, often on vacation, and the Mansion's been going for nearly fifty years. Odds are pretty fair that, of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who've poured through the LA Mansion day in, day out since 1969, someone's had a life-threatening incident. What happens next? There's probably a clinic in the park somewhere. Is there a morgue?

Walt's ghost is supposed to haunt the LA park, and while technically that myth focuses on his apartment, one of the Mansion myths is that Disney used to live there. This one springs from the Mansion's long build time. It took eight years from initial announcement till opening day in 1969 for the attraction to complete, and rumor had it this was in part because the Mansion wasn't intended as an attraction at all. It was a ruse; Disney wanted somewhere he could live in peace, without being distracted by visitors all the time. Or perhaps Disney's frozen corpse is kept safe in the park, and though that particular legend is tied to the Pirates ride, we know where Disney would really rather be ...

Or here's a good one: whose hearse is that outside the Mansion? It's not Brigham Young's ... could it be someone else's final carriage ride? After all, it was a working hearse at one time, which would make it possibly the only part of the Mansion that's actually come into contact with a dead body at some point in its career.

Now with all that in mind, let's leave reality behind for a moment, and talk about how this can be used in an RPG scenario. While the Esoterrorists are the most obvious bad actors in this story, there's really no reason why this couldn't also be a Fear Itself setting.

Assuming Esoterrorists, then the cell is almost certainly made up of Submissives for the most part, led by either a Dominant or an Attention Seeker. If an Attention Seeker, then one interesting concept would be a rogue Imagineer determined to restore the Mansion to its intended, spooky glory. A Dominant could be a park supervisor, perhaps one who's been working with Disney for many years. Someone who's been there since the Mansion opened in 1969 is probably facing retirement by now, if they haven't already retired; perhaps that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Or the group could as easily have nothing to do with the park; they could be uber-fans of the Mansion, or Disney-obsessed folklorists, conspiracy nuts, what have you.

As for the rumor, what about this:

Every year, at Halloween, if you're lucky, you'll find the Mansion as it was meant to be. Only a few people each year get to visit it, and of those few, only a handful get out alive. Imagineer Ken Anderson had great plans for the Mansion, but Disney nixed 'em; now, each year on Halloween, Anderson gets his revenge ...

The great thing about this scheme is that Anderson's original concept drawings still exist, and are easily found. The internal schematics show it as Anderson originally designed the attraction, as a walk-through exhibit, perhaps with Tiki Magic. We also have excellent exterior elevations by Sam McKim, showing the old, dilapidated New Orleans mansion as it was originally conceived. The Keeper almost doesn't have to do the work at all; the whole thing could be an improv romp, with these drawings as the impetus. Blogger HBG2 really has outdone himself with Long-Forgotten. Kudos!

On that note, let me bring this tour to a close. I hope you enjoyed your visit! Remember to tip your guide. Unpleasant things may happen if you don't ...

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