Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic

The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic

One of my all-time favorite rides at Disneyland, like many folks, is the Haunted Mansion.  It has that perfect mixture of elegant Victorian style and wacky design, that combination of humor and horror that transcends the decades. Most of all, it doesn’t tone down the scary bits for the sake of the little ones. It reminds me of this quote from Maurice Sendak:

“. . .from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.” 

I believe that Old Walt understood this on some deep level. It’s okay for your children to be frightened sometimes. They’re going to be scared off and on (often for excellent reasons) for the rest of their lives. By sheltering children from all fear, you’re not protecting your children, you’re crippling them. Hence, the Haunted Mansion ride.

For the next couple of weeks, I will periodically review and discuss The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (and hopefully blog some about Scrooge McDuck comic books, or maybe just Marvel/Disney comic books in general). Let’s begin by judging this book by its cover:

Sadly, the glowing-in-the-dark paint wears out quickly
As you can see, it’s the classic 1969 poster (it’s driving me crazy that I can’t find the names of the artists; I wrote them down and promptly misplaced the note). What you can’t see is that the three hitchhikers are glow-in-the-dark. Is this a reason to buy the book? No. Does it look cool on the coffee table when the lights are off and you’re watching TV? Heck yes it does. 

The author, Jason Surrel, has a wealth of experience writing about Disney, including a previous book about the Haunted Mansion (which looks cool, but is out of print and very expensive from secondary retailers), books about Pirates of the Caribbean, books about imagneering in general, and being the showrunner for half a dozen theme park rides and attractions. His prose is clear and informative. My only real criticism isn't so much of his writing, but of the layouts. The pictures aren't always labelled very well, nor do they always fall where expected. Much of the time, I'm not sure what I'm looking at.

The history of the ride is interesting and clearly presented. Short version: it was planned for the original Disneyland park in 1955, but due to several curious complications (creative differences, the death of Walt, the World's Fair, and others) it wasn't completed until 1969. Being an instant classic, it was exported to other parks when they opened or soon after, but all underwent modifications from the original Disneyland. A French-style mansion didn't make a whole lot of sense in Paris, for instance, so they changed it to an Old West mansion in Frontierland and the ride finishes in a ghost town called Phantom Ranch.

Why does the French ending vary so much? The book doesn't say, but the truth is, the Old American West is weirdly popular in France and Germany (and I presume in the rest of Western Europe), and has been for a hundred years. To me, the American West is where I keep my stuff. To many Europeans, it has the same allure and mysteriousness that the heart of Africa might have. Cowboys and Indians have been the subjects of thousands of books, movies, and songs; one TV miniseries from the 1950s or 60s inspired a yearly parade in some German towns; there are entire museums devoted to America's First People (and proudly still displaying scalps taken as war trophies, but that's a different blog post entirely).

Hong Kong's Mystic Manor seems like the place to go (music by Danny Elfman!), but I'll write more about that later. If you're curious or impatient, you can buy the book (published by Disney itself and targeted at D23 members) here.

You can also check out Doom Buggies, home of the Haunted Mansion Fan Club and source for another HM book, The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion. I'll read and review that one as soon as I get the chance, but you should know that there's a lot of cool stuff going on at that site!

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