There is an old, unanswered question that will today be given a definitive answer, an unquiet spirit finally laid to rest after nearly half a century of restless haunting. Don't misunderstand. It's not what anyone would call an earthshaking discovery; frankly, it's more of an earth-yawned-rolled-over-and-went-back-to-sleep discovery. But even though it's a minor mystery, it's a prominent mystery, so I suspect that a lot of you have wondered about it now and then, even if it isn't something that has kept you awake at night. If it serves its purpose, this post performs the respectable if unheroic task of scratching a little itch you've always had. Merry Christmas.
As it happens, solving this mystery only reveals another one. In addition, the whole topic revolves around a familiar fixture found in most spooky old manor houses and haunted castles. In fact, when it comes to haunted furnishings, that fixture is the cliché of all clichés, and yet it's rarely discussed. So we will. A little, anyway.
I am talking about that ubiquitous prop, your friend and mine, the suit of armor. With movies and TV shows, it seems like the cheaper the gothic horror story, the more likely it is that these guys are going to show up, since they're easily acquired from practically any prop house, probably don't cost much to rent, and they never fail to get the job done. If you're a set designer with a tight budget trying to create an old haunted house, one or two suits of armor are as indispensable as cobwebbing.
The 2003 Haunted Mansion movie wasn't low budget, so it went whole hog and gave us an entire armory, a suite of suits. Set design is just about the only aspect of that film that everyone seems to agree was excellent, and the armory was no exception. It was very menacing, very effective.
Avoid a Void (especially if it carries a mace)
It isn't hard to explain why suits of armor are scary. First of all, they're ancient and unfamiliar, from another time and place, and often they are holding wicked-looking weaponry. Armor, after all, is supposed to look intimidating. Second, they present you with a human-shaped vacuum that could easily be a hiding place for a prankster or a villain—you can't tell by looking. Since you don't know for sure if anything is in there, when you see one your fight-or-flight instinct is automatically put on low level alert (otherwise known as the jitters). Funny, but you can't help imagining them starting to move, however vague or backgrounded or foolish this anticipation might be. Third (and best of all in my book), despite any misgivings you may have, it is nevertheless presumed that suits of armor are likely to be empty, which is to say they contain nothing, they define a void, they create a something-that-isn't-there, and this "nothing" is in the shape of a human. See? You've practically molded for yourself a ghost, instantly and automatically! With a suit of armor, it's all so easy that it's practically cheating.
By including an armory, the Haunted Mansion movie actually made a radical departure from the attraction, which is surprisingly restrained in using this prop. When Marc Davis did his concept artwork for the "Great Hall," he did put a pair of giant suits of armor at the entrance and another pair at the exit, but they were never used.
If you think about it, it would have been easy to put armor in both the changing portrait hall and in the limbo loading area at Disneyland or along the walls in the corridor and load area at WDW and Tokyo, and it wouldn't have looked half bad, but the Imagineers chose not to. There are, of course, a few depictions of knights in armor—the Black Prince near the beginning and the Decapitated Knight near the end—and in the Disneyland Mansion there are a couple of suits in the background of the attic as random junk. While we are at it, I suppose we should also mention the well-known experiment in 1985, when they put an actor in a suit of armor in the Corridor of Doors, frightening guests the easy way.
When yours truly saw him, he was like the above, unarmed, and he stayed well back from the buggies, mostly just striking poses. That's because guests had reacted unpredictably and even violently at first, so the actor backed off and chilled out a bit. Eventually they equipped him with a device like a garage-door opener so he could stop the ride when he saw guests engaged in chemical or zoological activity inappropriate to a Disney park. According to the concept art, he was originally going to be armed with a huge axe. One supposes that he could have put the kabosh on smokin' and pokin' just as efficiently with that, but legal issues and blah blah blah.
A Knight to Remember
But all of that is piddlesome trivia. When most people speak of "the suit of armor in the Haunted Mansion," they mean the one standing to the right of the Endless Hallway. He's really the only one that counts. In true haunted house fashion, he's animated, just enough to cause a "what was that?" reaction. Originally he was going to be on the left side, and one or the other of his arms was going to jiggle in conjunction with booming footsteps walking up and down the hallways, an effect never used (and discussed HERE).
inspiration for that funny headgear. Well, your days of wondering are over.
Armor for Albert
The Archbishop of Mainz from 1514-1545 was one Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545). He is mostly remembered today as an early foil to Martin Luther at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
It was Albrecht who commissioned John Tetzel to sell indulgences for the Church. Famously, Tetzel went about this task in an exceptionally crass and mercantile manner ("when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"). This so infuriated Luther that he nailed his famous Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Albrecht thought they looked a little heretical and forwarded them to the Pope, and bang, the Reformation had begun. For a time Luther hoped that he might find an ally in the Archbishop, who was known for his broad education and generally liberal views, but in the end Albrecht came down firmly on the side of the Church and against Luther.
Anyway, in about 1526 Albrecht had a set of "costume armor" made (i.e. armor not for combat but for show). Today it stands in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. One glance at the helmet (below right) and there is no doubt that we have found the model for
the one used in the Haunted Mansion (below left).
and now you've seen it, so we're done.
Don't you have some Christmas shopping
to do or something? You shouldn't be
may be stupider looking suits of armor in existence, but there can't be many. I feel like Ralphie's mom:
There. I've said it.
Now that we've broached the subject, can you imagine what would have happened if they had copied the whole thing, not just the helmet? I'll tell you what would have happened. We would all be wasting time talking about an Endless Hallway with a Donald Duck chair on the left and what is obviously Donald Duck armor on the right. We would wonder if we should start looking for "Hidden Donalds" around the Mansion. And undoubtedly we would start finding them. Someone would start a blog.
looks simply ridiculous. Maybe it would look better in a more haunted environment?
Okay, I guess not. I wonder if Albrecht had an armored purse to complete the ensemble?
It's understandable that someone would take notice of this armor in a catalogue of photos in an old book somewhere. No one can resist looking at a car wreck. But why did they linger? Seriously, why did they spend the extra time and money duplicating this helmet when a standard issue could easily have been found in Disney prop storage somewhere? I haven't a clue.
A New Mystery
So now the mystery is why they borrowed anything at all from this . . . thing.
I don't know who was responsible either. Ken Anderson did a very cool sketch of a haunted suit of armor when he was working on the Haunted House in the 50's, but the armor itself is normal looking enough.
I wonder if Rolly Crump is responsible? Was this his way of rebelling against the utilization of the hoariest cliché in the book? a way of turning it into something no one had ever seen before? As we know, that was what he thought the Haunted Mansion should be: a place full of things no one had ever seen before. Maybe.
Or is the helmet part of the Imagineers' efforts to emphasize the gryphon imagery in this part of the ride (discussed HERE and HERE)? Maybe.