Updated May 24
In an early post on this blog, I presented my reading of the three-act play that everyone seems to agree is the basis of the Haunted Mansion ride.
....Act One: The ghosts can't seem to materialize, and that ain't right.
....Act Two: Madame Leota applies some psychic WD40 and fixes the problem.
....Act Three: They materialize and socialize before yer eyes.
There's crisis and resolution. Their scary behavior in Act One makes them seem hostile, but we discover in Act Three that actually, they're not. Ghouls just want to have fun. Oh yeah, they're going to put the boo in boogie, you just watch.
In that post, I observed that the building itself and its furnishings are in excellent condition throughout Act One but badly dilapidated in Act Three. I theorized that the house was kept in an unnatural state of preservation when it was possessed by spirits as a sort of surrogate body, but once they were free, the house fell into the state of decay you might expect of a neglected, 100-year-old house. In support of this idea, I noted that literally the first tear in the fabric of the house is the anomalous pair of broken window panes in the Conservatory, tellingly juxtaposed with the first sign of ghostly frustration about breaking out of the material world (here, the coffin and its mortal occupant). That same frustration seems to be echoed throughout the Corridor of Doors and confirmed by the Ghost Host's reference to all of them having "trouble getting through." It's almost as if the house itself were both the body and the coffin, confining the ghosts.
Incidentally, the similarity between the coffin guy's hands as he tries to flip his lid and the hands that used to be found on a door in the WDW Corridor of Doors (still there at Tokyo) certainly does nothing to discourage drawing such a parallel.
I argued that this whole scenario reflects common notions about spirit possession. Quite simply, wicked spirits are out to get you. They want to take possession of your body. Failing that, they'll take an animal or even a building, but they want to move up to humans if they can. I found direct support for such notions in X Atencio's 1968 show script. You will recall that the Ghost Host was going to warn us that we needed to be wary of the raven, since the spirit now possessing the "wretched raven's mortal being" may want to "better itself." Significantly, it was not felt necessary to explain what the GH meant by that. I further noted that the basic idea cluster concerning hostile spirit possession could be found in the Gospels, and it may well be that in the 1960s you could safely assume that a significant percentage of the general public had at least some cursory familiarity with that material. (Alas, no more. I teach a Bible survey course at a local college, and you can't even depend on kids knowing about Noah's Ark these days.)
In the Haunted Mansion, we see that the spirits are quite happy once they're able to materialize in their very own, visible, astral bodies. This is the ride's comic twist on the idea cluster that serves as a premise for the whole.
Call this the Spirit Possession paradigm.
But there are other ways to look at it. There is one interpretation in particular that I think has enough going for it to warrant a close look. Fellow Mansionologist Mike S. suggests that what we have here is an example of another well-known ghostly phenomenon: ghosts inhabiting a former building on the same site as the present one. What happens is that we see the place more and more from their point of view as the ride progresses, including its past history and even its past location.
Mike points to one of Ken Anderson's many concepts for the Haunted Mansion, back in 1957-58. According to this version, the house is actually a hundred-year old Southern mansion relocated in its entirety to Disneyland, supposedly intended as an innocent historical set piece for New Orleans Square. But as luck would have it, the house is haunted ("Bloodmere Manor"), and all restoration attempts are thwarted by the unhappy ghosts. Not only that, but it always remains night within the house.
Without committing to the whole Bloodmere Manor storyline, Mike thinks this basic concept was kept. Come to think of it, it is always night inside the house, isn't it?
Unlike Anderson's original concept, however, the mansion obviously was successfully renovated some time ago, and this is the immaculate house that was brought to New Orleans Square. The older building only shows through during encounters with the ghostly presence that still possesses the place. The deeper we penetrate the house, the more we see it as it once was, as the ghosts continue to see it. That's the concept in a nutshell.
Call it the Parallel World paradigm.
Certain advantages come with PW. For one thing, the architectural inconsistencies between the house we see on the outside and the one we see on the inside are all explained at a single stroke. When the lightning flashes in the garrett of the stretching room, we see the site of the Ghost Host's suicide, but what we see doesn't match the outside cupola very well. That's because it's a glimpse of the old house. But other than this one early glimpse, you're still in the house you saw from the outside until you get to the limbo area, where we board our buggies (we are, as usual, following the Disneyland model). There, a transition takes place, which explains, I suppose, why we need something like a limbo area. From that point forward we see the original house, the house as the ghosts see it. We discover that unlike the remodeled house, the old house had a windowed conservatory and a multi-storied ballroom with two tall windows in it and French doors beneath, and if you look back at the house after exiting the attic, you see the gables of a building that is entirely different from the one you entered. We soon find out that behind the old house in its original location there was a public cemetery, and the Caretaker you see must really be a figure from the past, analogous to the figures Scrooge sees when he's visiting his own past under the guidance of a ghostly escort. This explains why there are no 20th century figures among the graveyard ghosts (or anywhere else on the ride).
We don't know the circumstances of the remodeling of the building. Perhaps it was rebuilt after a fire around the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps it all had something to do with the reason the house became haunted in the first place. We don't know.
Another advantage to the PW interp is that very little needs to be "screened out" as stage management realities. You really are in a house at Disneyland, it really is called "The Haunted Mansion," and there really are people there to make sure you go through safely. I guess they've figured out that the ghosts aren't going to hurt anyone, and most of them don't seem to mind if living guests pass through. Of course, you still have to pretend that ghosts are real in order to enjoy the show, but very little more than that must be pretended.
Is one more inherently plausible than the other?
Before Leota (1) the place looks great, (2) the ghosts are unseen, and (3) at least some of them are paying attention to you and seem hostile, out to get you.
After Leota (1) the place is a wreck, (2) the ghosts are visible, and (3) they seem to have lost all interest in you (other than a few popup pranksters and the tagalongs at the very end).
The Parallel World theory assumes some kind of general acquaintance with a different idea, the idea that ghosts may sometimes live in a universe reflecting a former time, which sometimes overlaps with ours. Here's a typical explanation of this idea from a 1978 book for kids, World of the Unknown: All About Ghosts:
The motif is known from supposedly "true" ghost accounts as well as fiction. For example, in the book Strange Happenings (Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), author Paul Bannister tells about the experience of Harry Martindale, a police officer and former heating engineer. While repairing pipes in the cellar of York's old Treasurer's House, he saw a troop of Roman soldiers march by and then disappear. They paid no attention to Martindale, and he noticed something strange: "The oddest thing was that they were all marching thigh-deep in the floor. Only in one spot, where someone had dug away a part of the floor could I see their feet." Martindale described what he saw to a local historian, who happened to know that the excavation in the cellar floor was the work of archaeologists digging down to a section of the old Roman road below ground. Martindale described the clothing and gear of the soldiers in great detail, and most of it was accurate, but nevertheless the historian dismissed the vision as fantasy, because Martindale claimed that the soldiers carried round shields, and that wasn't correct. Roman soldiers didn't have round shields. Seven years later, however, a pair of archaeologists working in the same cellar saw exactly the same apparition, and it so happens that during the intervening seven years it had been learned that the 6th Roman legion had been moved out of York in the 4th century, and that it had been supplemented by auxiliary troops who did indeed carry round shields. So there.
That story may or may not impress you, but it does illustrate the notion that ghosts may continue to inhabit the world that was there, regardless of what is found there now. People seem to grasp the concept without much effort.
Update. You know how the most obvious things are sometimes the things you miss? In the original post I overlooked a strong piece of evidence that the PW dynamic is consciously in use at the HM: The ballroom dancers swirl right through the furniture as if it weren't there. This is intentional; this is right in your face. The only good explanation for their behavior is that the furniture wasn't there when they were alive.
At one and the same time, the dancers shoot down a major element in the PW theory: They prove that we are not seeing the ballroom that once was but the ballroom that is there now. We can see the furniture that isn't there for the dancers, so we're not seeing this broken-down room through their eyes.
The architectural features of the building form a slippery set of data, but they cannot be ignored, since they are critically important to both SP and PW. In the first place, we have the evidence of the stretching room that the ghosts can either manipulate the fabric of the house or our perception of it.
This gives the Spirit Possession theory and other theories a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card, usable whenever an architectural contradiction may arise. When we were discussing this at the Long-Forgotten Micechat thread, contributor anazgnos ("perhaps he knows too much") made some good comments along these lines:
Add to this the surprisingly flexible limits of "realistic" presentation under any circumstances, not just haunted houses, and things really become loose. Few films or rides concern themselves too much with reconciling inside and outside architecture. Someone with a perfect sense of architectural space may wince once in awhile, "knowing" that if the character really did turn left down that hallway, he should by rights walk smack into the outer wall of the house, but for the most part such concerns are ignored. This includes size considerations. With the HM, even if we discard about a third of the show building as housing an outdoor scene (the graveyard), the square footage of the house we experience is still much larger than anything that could pass for the "original" house remodeled into the current Mansion.
Speaking of size considerations, the façade building is a masterpiece (and the WDW model even more so, arguably), because in truth, it is a small house. The wraparound porches make it seem much bigger than it is, and there are no other buildings near it for comparison. As a result, it definitely leaves you with the impression of being, well...a mansion. It may look like this to the eye...
There is also the important fact that you can't see the back of the building, and the north side only partially, and that much only with some effort. One can always wave a hand and say, "Maybe the house looks different from the back, like it was only partially remodeled or something. The conservatory and the ballroom with its big windows and French doors? Back there somewhere, on the other side of the house." I think many people find that to be a perfectly satisfactory explanation, if the question occurs to them at all.
As a matter of fact, Disney artists have always taken advantage of this principle. Most people probably assume automatically that the building is symmetric, with the north side much like the south, and practically all of the HM artwork encourages such a perception by depicting the house that way.
As the aerial photo above plainly shows, this is a lie. But if you can't see it, or can only see it with considerable effort, it doesn't count. The two sides you do see match this perception, so that's how 99% of the people see it in their heads.
In the same category, I have always thought that the berm is a passable representation of the thicket of trees and underbrush you pass over and through en route down to the graveyard, so out front it's easy enough to imagine that "back there somewhere," hidden from sight, is a public cemetery. Since a graveyard obviously would never have been transplanted to Disneyland, the PW interp places that entire outdoor scene in the Mansion's past, reflecting its original location before being brought to Disneyland.
That explanation seems more complicated than necessary. If you prune back the PW theory by dropping the "transplanted to Disneyland" element, you can simply imagine that this is a house in New Orleans that was remodeled at some point, and that the ghosts still see it the old way. And as it happens, there is a public cemetery back there, hidden by the berm.
What have we got so far? The PW paradigm explains a host of architectural oddities, but so do options b, c, and d. No knockout punch there.
The case for the Parallel World as the dominant paradigm is stronger when we examine architectural elements that clash with reality but did not need to. First up is the cupola, the interior of which is glimpsed for only a second or two at the end of the stretching room scene.
It must have occurred to someone that people were naturally going to associate the garrett in the stretchroom with this cupola, so it would be better to give it a shape that matched. But here comes discrepancy #1. Why did they make it a hexagon, when the stretchroom is an octagon? I think the answer to that one is easy. If they had made it an octagon, the facets would have been too small and the windows would have looked cramped. They need that little extra room. Besides, you can only determine that it is a hexagon by walking around in a deliberate effort to answer exactly that question—how many sides does it have? Only geeks are going to figure out this discrepancy, and their discomfiture is an acceptable price to pay for nice, big, clear windows on generous wall facets.
Discrepancy #2 is the number of windows. All sides are windowed on the cupola, but only four in the garrett, with blanks in between. I think that this too has a pragmatic explanation.
Originally, there were going to be eight windows up there, one on every wall:
Why the reduction? I suspect for the same reason that the ruined roof you see above in the artwork was eliminated: too much light. You are supposed to be looking at the corpse, you know, not counting nails in the roof beams. In tests, they probably determined that the figure needed more of a dark background when he was illuminated by the lightning, and that eight windows produced too much flash.
If this is correct, the deviations from the concept artwork are for practical reasons rather than thematic ones, and the discrepancy in the number of windows is another one of those geek things they decided to ignore.
We must remember that the kind of photos we're scrutinizing were not possible with most (or maybe any) cameras that a guest might be likely to have in 1969, so the only visual impression of the garrett you could ever get was whatever you took in during a brief couple of flashes, during which you were presumably looking at the corpse, not the architecture.
What about the steep pitch of the walls? That's discrepancy #3. The outside cupola is straight upright. Well, first of all, those walls are at a ridiculous angle. Imagine standing up there on the (momentarily invisible) floor and looking out those slanted windows! What we have here is an example of forced perspective, trying to make the space look much taller than it is. From down below, you're not really supposed to notice the pitch at all during those brief flashes. Again, the concept art tells the story:
What about the overall size? The garrett looks much larger than the cupola. Do we have a discrepancy #4? Actually, the cupola is bigger than you may think. From floor to the peaked tip is twelve and a half feet. In this case we have two needs working at cross-purposes, and the Imagineers had to compromise. They would want the actual cupola to be on the small side, if anything, to help make the building look bigger. But if they made it too small, the size difference between it and the stretchroom garrett would become noticeable. Finding the right compromise between these two needs may actually have driven the decision to build a six-sided cupola rather than an eight, thereby allowing large windows on a smallish cupola. Clever.
The Attic Exit
You exit the attic and you look around you. As you descend to ground level ("fall off the roof" is the official explanation), you see the gables of the attic windows through the trees to the right. The design is like this:
That doesn't look anything like the Mansion out front. Well, like we said earlier, maybe the mansion is an architectural mishmash, and maybe the back was never modernized. Yes, but in this case, wouldn't it have been just as easy to do it in such a way that there would be no need for such an explanation? If the Spirit Possession paradigm is the overriding dynamic, why wouldn't they have simply made it look like the same building, but falling into decay? Something like this:
When the attic exit was designed, the façade building had already been standing for years. The look of the building was long established. I see no practical reason why they could not have made the attic exit match architecturally, and it's hard to think of a thematic reason why they wouldn't want to do so. After all, this isn't a mere afterthought we're talking about; it's a carefully designed section of the ride.
During the process which led up to these blueprints, you have to think that it would have occurred to someone that hey, y'know, this doesn't look much like the outside of the house, does it?
So it probably isn't an absentminded goof. Perhaps it's a case of ghostly manipulations and head games à la the stretching room? That doesn't make sense either. What's particularly disconcerting about this? And by now they're through with that stuff anyway. You've left the house, so really, what would be the point? Well, maybe the Imagineers wanted to provide solid visual proof that the back of the mansion really does look different than the front, thereby legitimating that explanation for such things as the ballroom and conservatory. That's possible, but honestly, it sounds kind of lame to me. I agree with anazgnos (see above). Leaving apparent architectural discontinuities such as the conservatory and the ballroom without a clear explanation only makes the place that much more uncanny, so why settle the issue by picking one explanation and making it official? Weak. I have to admit that in this case the PW explanation looks to me the simplest and best of all the options. You're seeing a different form of the same house. Add to that the ballroom dancers' disregard for current furnishings and it's pretty hard to look at PW as a trivial sideshow.
Uh oh. What have I done? I've let the camel's nose into the tent. Now the PW explanation of other things can never be ruled out entirely. I still think that Spirit Possession paradigm offers the best overall explanation of the three-act show, but the Parallel World option is going to be available to dissenters.
Inside the Haunted Mansion, Does Disneyland Exist?
There is one element of PW as Mike has articulated it that must be jettisoned, in my view. That's the "transported to Disneyland" thing. It's ingenious, but (1) it obviously forms no part of anyone's idea of common ghost lore, and (2) it is not explained to guests anywhere. It's an idea only accessible to geeks who have read old Ken Anderson ride concepts. That won't cut it.
The real purpose of that part of the theory anyway is to eliminate the need to screen out the Disneyland tags. With it, the queue switchbacks, the front plaques, and anything else that points to Disneyland and not New Orleans can be taken as intended parts of the show rather than concessions to the real-world necessities involved in creating an attraction of this nature. For my part, I think that the general public is quite capable of screening out such noise when they know they are in an entertainment venue. At Disneyland (or any theme park) you have to screen out gobs and gobs of stuff in order to enjoy an immersion experience, and people do it without effort. I see no reason why the Haunted Mansion has to be noticeably freer of such static than other rides.
I know that Mike sometimes cites here the sign in the hearse out front saying, "Reservations Accepted, Ghost Relations Department, Disneyland," which seems to be both Disneyland-bound AND a part of the show, but for me that's just one more reason to dismiss the whole hearse gag as an ill-conceived idea from the beginning. It would be tolerable if they got rid of the suspended harness and the sign.
With the "transport" part of the theory gone, it turns out that PW and SP are not mutually exclusive theories. From the Spirit Possession point of view, I would suggest that in its descent into decay, the bones of an older form are revealed, so to speak. It's a tantalizing mystery left undeveloped.
There are two stories (or at least two) with the Mansion, providing two kinds of ghostly residents. One type is the retirement home gang, coming here from all over the world. The other is more mysterious. Some of the ghosts did NOT come here as retirees but have some kind of unexplained, organic connection to the house itself and its history. Those older ghosts would include the Ghost Host and the attic bride Constance, and probably any that can be established as being interred in the family plot(s). It is their presence that makes the Parallel World paradigm a natural and reasonable part of the mix. It is they who would have known the house from way back when.
Unroll Those Eyes. Do it. Now.
It may be a good idea to add something here for newer readers who haven't read everything that goes before and may be raising anew an objection that we have dealt with in older posts. You know who you are: you're the ones whose eyes are rolling so far back in their heads that they're in danger of going all the way around and back up in the front again. I can hear you out there. "Oh PLEEEZE! This is so ridiculously over-analytical. The Imagineers didn't think through all of these 'theories' and 'paradigms'; they just built a haunted house ride and did what they thought was funny and scary. You're making it WAY too complicated and reading WAY too much into it."
Harrumph. Your error is in assuming that all (or any) of this theory was consciously thought out. Of course it was not. But remember this: you can't tell even the simplest joke without implying a whole world in which such a joke makes sense. You don't think that stuff out consciously, you intuit it (which takes about one-millionth as long to do). This is especially true with artistic creations. You can reverse engineer them and find a philosophical outlook on reality that makes the created thing work, and it will take gigabytes to lay out what the artists' instincts told them in a split second. All we're doing here is exploring the possible bedrock foundations in ghost lore that have been assumed for this particular ghost story, a story which seems to work very, very well. And the better it works, the more certain you may be that there is a coherent universe behind it and around it.