In most discussions of the Haunted Mansion’s origins, the attraction’s dynamic comes down to spooky vs goofy. If you know the history of the two men credited with the final designs of the mansion (if you don’t, check out yesterday’s post), you know that the overall concept is Marc Davis presenting a lighthearted romp through the spirit world while Claude Coats is described as advocating a dark, atmospheric encounter with the great beyond.
Certainly, there is a good bit of merit to that characterization. All you have to do is ride the attraction to see the rough three-act progression: creepy transition from reality with unseen spooks, séance room allows spooks to manifest, spooks appear and invite you to the party. At first blush, it’s pretty didactic. The opening section of the ride is spooky because it’s Claude Coats design. The last part of the ride is playful because it’s Marc Davis design. The two parts are held together by the séance room and X Atencio’s amazing score. Wham, bam, there you have it.
But it’s not that simple. Not at all.
Marc Davis was, unquestionably, a specialist in quick character scenes that could be “read” on the fly. He understood the value of humor, telling an interviewer “it’s easy to do the heavy aspects, but it’s hard to do the funny stuff.” And, indeed, many of his Mansion design sketches are cartoony and at times downright goofy. Many of his final designs are, however, quite decidedly not silly, or at the very least hold something more sinister behind their initial impression. Marc Davis’s contribution to the mansion goes beyond goofy; it shows guests the face of madness and in its own subtle way suggests that they might want to think about their own grip on what they consider reality…
There is no doubt; Marc Davis did not expect the Haunted Mansion to be a fun, playful dark ride. In an interview published in E-Ticket in 1993, Davis commented that he interpreted Walt’s instructions about the attraction to mean “we could be scary inside the ride if we wanted to. And you know when you’re in the ride that you’re not in there for some ‘sweetness and light’.”
That scary factor is aggressively visible in elements like the design for the infamous Hatbox Ghost or the portraits featured in the mansion’s endless hallway, but there’s a more subtle side to Marc Davis’s design, one that has partially been lost due to “updates” to his characters and one that may easily be missed. That scare factor rises directly from Davis’s gift for capturing character in a few quick strokes. His Haunted Mansion images may not all be gaunt ghouls, but some of them remind riders of a different kind of monster – the human kind that deals in madness, shadow, and chaos.
Take, for example, the stretching room into which guests are ushered by their friendly butler or maid. The portraits on the walls depict rather mundane folk who, as the room “stretches,” are revealed to be in a variety of grotesque and goofy situations. Cute, right?
No, not at all. Although the stretching room portraits have been updated, a look at Marc Davis’s original designs for them reveals his gift for capturing character, and, in the case of the portraits, setting the stage for the inherent wrong-ness and insanity that characterizes the house. It’s not an in-your-face classic dark-ride scare like the graveyard’s pop-up heads; it’s something more subtle. Yes, you may have chuckled at the silly situations of the stretches, but take a good look into the faces of Davis’s original characters, and ask yourself if they’re sweet or sane…would you spend an afternoon with these people? (for more images and information on the changes to these portraits, check out this post)
That threat only deepens as you progress into the mansion. From the Sinister 11 portraits to the Hitchhiking Ghosts, there’s something more than cartoon fun at work. Davis specialized in creating character, and his contribution to the Haunted Mansion is a masterful mixture of madness and macabre. Even in his funny “gags,” there’s a hint of insanity – those two duelists in the ballroom? What kind of madness keeps them killing each other over and over, caught in a single obsession? What kind of royalty, rulers of men, would while away their afterlife on a child’s playground toy?
And, as guests sail through Disney’s dark ride, part of what creates the creeps is the subtle suggestion that the ghosts here, friendly or fearsome, are a bit mad…and whatever made them that way might get to you too. As the world of the Haunted Mansion drifts away from concrete reality, it takes guests into a realm where there are more than playful spooks – there are echoes of mad laughter.
So, yes, Marc Davis did have a cartoon style and a sensibility for sight gags, but to write him off as the silly part of the Haunted Mansion team is to tragically underestimate the contribution of a great imagineer. Next time you enter the haunted halls of the mansion, look into the faces of the characters you encounter, and ask yourself…are those smiles vacant? Is this the face of madness?
And remember, as the ghost host reminds you at the very beginning of your adventure; the very premise of the ride is that you are trapped, put into a maddening situation that requires you to find a way out. When that door panel opens to take you to your doombuggy, have you really escaped, or are you just taking your own way out?
Of course, remember, there’s always his way…
What do you think of Marc Davis’s designs? Is there an element of insanity that’s important to the Mansion, or is it really about fun?