THE FOLLOWING IS a slightly revised version of an anthropological dissertation about the Disneyland ride, the Haunted Mansion, and its yearly transformation into an unusual sort of holiday attraction; and a look at the implications of that change. The original paper was produced for a college class, Anthropology 104: Magic, Religion and Witchcraft, conducted by Professor Wendy Fonarow at Glendale Community College in Glendale, California. In this holiday season, it may be of interest.


 

THE WALT DISNEY organization has made much (and much money) from the homogenization and simplification of myths, fairy tales, and tall stories of our culture -- and others. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and other film and television presentations have stripped out much of the subtext and meaning behind the stories, in the name of "wholesome family entertainment". This may not be a bad thing for American culture, though the overwhelming pervasiveness of Disney's view may have obliterated the originals in the minds of the masses.

One of "Uncle Walt's" last projects for Disneyland was "the Haunted Mansion", a light-hearted guided tour through assorted tableaux tapping into the fear of the dead and presumably dispelling said fear through laughter.

Several years ago, Disney Pictures brought out The Nightmare Before Christmas, an animated feature telling of what would happen if the spirits behind Christmas and Hallowe'en clashed.

In the film, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Hallowe'en Town, accidentally finds adjacent Christmas Town, the land of Santa Claus (and very much not of Jesus Christ), and, on a whim, tries to do the toy-delivering job of the man he calls "Sandy Claws". But he soon learns that his Hallowe'en sentiments of what constitutes gift-giving do not sit well with the terrified recipients. Being basically a good-natured fellow, Jack restores the holidays to their proper management and everyone lives Happily Ever After (it is a Disney film, remember).

The picture was a hit and led to the Imagineers -- the Disney designers -- deciding to jazz up their standing attraction, the Haunted Mansion, with a special "Holiday" make-over.

Now, each year, the attraction closes for about two weeks in late September, while the team performs its magic. When the ride re-opens in October, Jack Skellington and his friends and foes have over-run the place.

In 2004, I went down to Anaheim to explore this holiday attraction, making two trips through, and to sample the reactions of the other visitors to the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland.

 

AS YOU APPROACH the Haunted Mansion, you see that the usually run-down looking Old Southern-style fašade is now festooned with Crepe Myrtle and orange fairy-lights. A radio Disc Jockey's broadcast lulls you with Hallowe'en carols as you come up the walk.

Once inside, you, with perhaps forty other brave souls, wait in a foyer, decorated with holly and mistletoe -- and skulls and cross-bones. Here, despite the atmosphere engendered, the guests this night mostly just chatted among themselves, with no noticeable feeling of anticipation. When a ghostly voice began to speak, relating briefly the tale of Jack Skellington, the crowd settled down, quietly filing into an elevator-car when the doors opened and the cast-members (Disney employees) bade them enter.

As the elevator descended, the ghostly voice resumed its speech, punctuated by sudden darkness and, above, a huge grinning head of Skellington, crying out, "Happy holidays, everyone!" On my first visit, this only elicited laughter, though the second time several girls and children did scream in momentary panic.

The elevator debouches the guests into a strange Portrait Gallery, where pictures change before your very eyes: a snowman becomes a stack of jack o'lanterns, Jack switches from his regular outfit to his "Sandy Claws" suit, and so on. The guests this evening wandered by, never giving the display more than a passing glance. (Later, returning through the gallery, I was left all alone. Seeing the room go through its paces with no audience at all was like being alone on an abandoned movie set, and with good reason. When the elevator arrived, a woman, mistaking me for, I suppose, a waxwork figure, started in surprise when I moved.)

In the next room, the Boarding Area, people began to get excited, pushing and crowding to climb into their "doom buggies" (as the ride's designer dubbed the chair-like coaches in which the guests are carried through the mansion). But again, the ambiance is lost on the crowd: ornate bat-like chimerŠ, holding the ropes that guide the visitors, go unnoticed.

Once in a conveyance, the guest is motored through the ride proper, along hallways where alien flower buds sing, Jack's ghost dog Zero capers along a transverse corridor of seemingly infinite length, and Oogie Boogie -- the villain of the film -- appears in many forms, from a frightening wreath to a Tarot-card image, one of the "thirteen days of Christmas" as recited by Madame Leota, a woman's head in a crystal ball (whose voice is that of Eleanor Audley, who portrayed Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty).

The doom buggy passes along a balcony, providing the guest with a bat's-eye view of a banquet hall, all decked out for Christmas, where ghosts cavort, dueling, drinking, and dancing to music from a haunted organ. (Guests probably don't know, and might not care, that the organ was originally used in Disney's 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, refitted and properly spookified for its new home.)

Then through the attic, where the guests see gifts neatly wrapped in orange paper decorated with black bats, and where a huge snake is greedily gobbling up Sandy Claws' list of Good Little Children.

Next, the coach comes out onto the roof, and descends into the mansion's back yard, where Jack -- in the red-and-white garb of Sandy Claws -- and Zero greet them once again. Then, it's through the conveniently adjacent graveyard next door, where spooks and spirits, mummies and a quintet of jack o'lanterns serenade the guests with songs that combine well known Christmas carols with songs from the regular non-holiday edition of the Haunted Mansion.

Returning "indoors", the guests pass Oogie Boogie, making one last try at scaring with his "trick or treat" game wheel. The winners -- and this is a loose interpretation of the word -- find that ghosts and monsters, visible in a row of mirrors, have joined them to follow them home.

Then the guests escape onto a moving walkway and a ramp that leads them past Jack's movie girlfriend, Sally, a stitched-together corpse who urges them to come back real soon (taking over for "Little Leota", a beautiful wraith who does the same job in the off-season).

At this point, I lost the crowd, for I stayed in my doom buggy and went around through the (boringly undecorated) back-stage to the Boarding Area again, to return to the outside via the elevator (which is how I came to be waiting in the empty Portrait Gallery). When I first emerged into the Boarding Area, I played dead, abruptly springing to life, but no one noticed.

 

STEPPING AROUND TO the ride exit, I watched and listened to the other guests as they emerged. Already their conversations were not on what they'd just seen, but on what they were going to do next. The singing bears of nearby Splash Mountain seemed the winner if there were kids in the group. Adult couples favored Big Thunder Mountain, a roller-coaster that had recently on two occasions broken down, causing injury and death (so perhaps ghostly high jinks were on their minds, after all). I spoke to a random assortment of guests leaving the Haunted Mansion, soliciting their answers to the following questions:

"Do you come to Disneyland often?" About half (five versus four) answered yes. All affirmative answers were from people who held annual passports, making multiple visits cost-effective.

"Do you come more during the holiday season? (understood to mean Hallowe'en through New Year's)." Of the five above, three came more often in Autumn.

"Which version of the Haunted Mansion do you prefer?" Including kids, most (eight against two) preferred the holiday edition. One couple liked both, one fellow had no opinion (it was his first visit to the park).

"Do you celebrate Hallowe'en at home, trick-or-treating or partying?" Five did, three did not, and the responses do not tally with the holiday preference, and cut across family/young couple lines.

(The disparity of volume in the responses is due to the added answers by children, many of whom piped up while I was questioning their parents.)

It seems that the novelty of the holiday version of the Haunted Mansion attracts as much attention as the actual fact of it; that is, even people who don't think much of Hallowe'en appreciate the "intrusion" of Sandy Claws to the ride.

 

I WAS STRUCK by several ideas during the evening. The Disneyfication of Hallowe'en, like that of fairy tales and legends, mimics and suggests ritual and custom, while stripping the event of its psychological importance. Ignoring the symbolism behind the icons of Hallowe'en blunts the point, as indicated by the rather blasÚ attitudes of the visitors, who only get into the spirit of the ride once the singing starts.

As Hallowe'en opens the "Holiday Season", with its basically liminal qualities and tacit sanctioning of the taboo, moving life from the outdoors of Summer to the indoors of Winter, Christmas becomes very much the zenith of the new seasonal custom, with (ideally) the family gathering in the homestead to feast and exchange gifts and comraderie. Gathering for Mass, as many do, represents merely a different view of Family gathering indoors. (In this narrow context, Thanksgiving is almost a rehearsal for Christmas, drafting the more complicated operations of preparing and serving the meal. New Year's Eve, with its now common dual celebration [some indoors at parties, many outdoors in venues such as New York's Times Square] would reverse the Hallowe'en transition, were it not followed by three more months of a chill that drives people back indoors.)

Blurring the line, stretching the single celebration to encompass both Hallowe'en and Christmas, bridges the gap between the arcane and the domestic, bringing to the mind a conjunction of the holidays (bolstered by the humorous mathematical observation that 25 in decimal [ten-based] notation is the same as 31 in octal [eight-based] notation; that is: 25 Dec = 31 Oct).

One could see Santa Claus as a reverse trick-or-treater, visiting down the chimney instead of at the threshold, and leaving gifts instead of taking them. So people -- especially children -- could easily lose the important distinctions between the two celebrations, combining them into one, er, monster holiday.

Thus losing sight of the actual message of The Nightmare Before Christmas -- that mixing up the holidays messes them up. Hallowe'en is best left to Jack Skellington, and Christmas to the real Santa Claus.

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