It’s that slow crawl of skin across the back of your neck as if you can feel someone watching you. It’s seeing something out of the corner of your eye and trying to silence the fear that when you turn your head…it will still be there. The fear of the unknown, the unseen, is a powerful force. So often, it is not the things that we can see that haunt us – it is the things we imagine, the forces beyond our vision but well within the scope of our dark imagination. Those ghosts are the ones who haunt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, and those are the ghosts conjured by the Imagineering of Claude Coats.
Claude Coats, the gentleman giant of WDW Imagineering, is usually lauded for his work in backgrounds and settings (see our earlier post). He is credited with the “spooky atmosphere” of the opening scenes of the Haunted Mansion, and usually portrayed, as his fellow imagineer put it, as “framing” Marc Davis’s characters and vignettes.
|The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. -HP Lovecraft|
But just as caricaturing Marc Davis’s work on the Mansion as merely “silly” underestimates the imagineer’s skills, viewing Claude Coats as a set designer fails to acknowledge his contribution to the attraction. Claude Coats did not just create sets; he populated those sets with unseen characters who embedded themselves into the reality of the viewers’ imaginations. Claude Coats made the mansion come alive, honoring the ideas of Rolly Crump, and populated its environs with the greatest terrors of the human imagination – the ones we cannot see but know are there.
From the floating candelabra to the corridor of doors, Coats’s creations are more than just backgrounds waiting to be occupied – they are places which are, irrefutably, well, un-dead. Rather than serving as a seamless, integrated frames supporting and facilitating story elements (as in Pirates of the Caribbean), in the Haunted Mansion, Coats’s designs make the Mansion come to life and fill it with a different kind of character – the kind best left up to the imagination.
In his excellent audio guide to Liberty Square, Disney guru Lou Mongello notes that the first time the Haunted Mansion ghosts can see guests is in the graveyard scene, but I believe that Claude Coats’s designs make that statement dubious. From the endless hallway to the library, I have no doubt that the spirits can see me, although I can only see the things they touch.
That focus on the half-seen or implied is the realization of Claude Coats’s brilliant design, taking a different approach to populating the Mansion. In his concept drawings for the attraction, Coats consistently uses his understanding of space and light to focus attention on the implication that someone or something is there, unseen, waiting. That concentration can be seen in his rendering of the ballroom. The undead orchestra, quite visible, are completely upstaged by the organist and dancers, figures realized only in shadow, left up to the imagination of the viewer, yet rendered central by staging and lighting. That implication is powerful and interactive (in an age long before motion detection and digital mapping); it engages the viewers by drawing on their imaginations, focusing attention on where something is, and yet cannot be seen.
And then there’s the chair. For me, that darn chair creeps me out more than anything else in the Haunted Mansion. In Coats’s original sketches for the room that would become the endless hallway, a chair sits, back-lit, framed in billowing, wind-blown drapes (in the shape of ghosts?). That chair, rendered ominous and occupied by the framing of the image, was eventually transformed into the blood-red chair that repeatedly appears in the Mansion. Called the “Donald Duck chair” by some fans who see a stylized duck face in the pattern, the chair has ties to the “living chair” design sketched by imagineer Rolly Crump in his Museum of the Weird idea for the mansion. But it’s not merely the design of the chair that makes is so much a part of the haunted ambience; it’s the fact that it moves. That chair, with its implied face, appears throughout the mansion, and almost every place it appears, it seems to harbor an unseen occupant waiting, watching as guests move past. Like many of the other elements emerging from Coats’s concepts, it engages the imagination, creating a character through focus and implication.
That ability to focus viewers’ attention on where something might be, to use light and space to make guests believe that, although they might not be visible, the spirits are quite definitely present, was Claude Coats’s great gift to the mansion. Far more than “framing” for Davis’s characters, Claude Coats created his own set of unseen characters out of shadows and light, a cast whose appearance and intentions emerged from the fears of those passing by.
What do you think? Have you noticed the “unseen” ghosts of the mansion? Do any of them still make you shiver?