Although the haunted mansion was on the drawing board from the beginning of planning for Disneyland, it didn’t open with the park – or any time soon afterward. The structure itself became part of Disneyland’s New Orleans square, with the stately exterior following Walt’s dictate “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.” (Famously, Ken Anderson’s sketch of a dilapidated plantation house was nixed by Walt, who didn’t want any unkempt structures blighting the appearance of the park).
But the Haunted Mansion remained unfinished until after the greatest ghost had gone on to retirement. Walt Disney died in 1966, and his death left the haunted mansion unfinished and, perhaps more importantly, without Walt’s leadership. Walt Disney had many gifts and shortcomings, but as Tony Baxter said, “when Walt was alive, he was able to pull everyone together, and I think that was his great talent: to be able to get everyone to work together in harmony.” Walt’s gift was seeing the potential in his people, drawing out their talents, and coordinating them to create a breathtaking final result.
Perhaps the greatest witness of that is Pirates of the Caribbean. In creating the attraction, which has won the hearts of millions and spawned a hit film series, Walt drew together the talents of two diverse imagineers – Claude Coats and Marc Davis.
Claude Coats, a gentle, gracious imagineering giant (literally, at 6’ 6” tall), had gotten his start in background paintings for Disney animated films. Transitioning to attractions, however, Coats demonstrated an utterly breathtaking skill for turning sketches and paintings into three dimensional environments. Creating a three dimensional space that captured an environment, transported guests to another time and place, and worked in practical show terms was a nigh-impossible holy grail. Claude Coats made it look easy.
Marc Davis had grown up moving from one town to another and in every new town, he would “amuse myself by drawing,” creating character sketches that relied on sharp observation and sought to encapsulate the essence of the people he saw. As an imagineer, Davis honed that skill. His gift was for creating characters and situations that were immediately intelligible to viewers. He understood how to create characters whose outside told audiences everything they needed to know about the inside. From Maleficent to “the Redhead,” Davis knew how to tell visual stories through the medium of people.
Working together, those two remarkable men had managed to create one of the most memorable attractions of theme park history, Coats creating a world that encapsulated guests dreams of adventure in which Davis’s characters told a hundred different stories as visitors rode by.
With Walt gone, however, things weren’t that simple. Richard Irvine, WED president, felt that the talents of these two remarkable men should once again be combined to create the Haunted Mansion.
But this time, Walt wasn’t there to create that harmony and have the final say.
The tension between Coats’s and Davis’s visions of the Haunted Mansion is legendary among fans of the attraction. Everyone knows Coats envisioned a spookier attraction while Davis focused on the lighter hearted potential of the ride, and the final result is a hodgepodge of the two approaches.
But there’s more to it than that.
In his 2008 book on the Disney Imagineers, Jeff Kurtti documents both men’s comments about the creation of the mansion. Coats’s gentle nature comes through as he notes that “Marc Davis had made a whole lot of interesting drawings, so many that we weren’t able to use them all.” Davis calls Coats work “commendable,” saying that “he would do the settings for things…he did the framing, and I did the dancers within the frame.” The relationship, in Kurtti’s words, was a “gentlemanly détente.”
There was a good bit more than settings and dancers at work in the two men’s visions of the mansion, however. There was a basic difference in concept for the attraction. Rather than a tension between setting and character, the division was between otherworldliness and empathy – between creating a ride that took guests into a place where the unseen reigned supreme and a ride that created connection and character for the denizens of the afterlife.
In the end, as visitors well know, the Haunted Mansion provides visitors with a little of both. The opening sequences of the mansion, so deeply steeped in environment and the unseen are largely the result of Claude Coats’s vision; the character-filled closing of the ride after the ghosts appear relies more heavily on Davis’s vision. Funny enough, most guests are as polarized as the imagineers, preferring one portion of the ride over the other.
For Claude Coats, the Haunted Mansion was a study in the unseen. It transported guests into a place only one step to the side of the real world, a place where reality is bent and shaped by imagination just enough to make guests question their grip on reality and ask themselves “did I really just see that?” It is a study in implication and imagination. If you have any doubt of that, riding through the first portion of the attraction without the ghost host (a ride glitch that does occasionally occur) alone with the ambient sounds of the mansion will confirm the power and…well…other-ness of Coat’s unseen spirits.
For Marc Davis, the Haunted Mansion was a presentation of the afterlife as a spooky but accessible continuation of experience. Its denizens might be ghoulish, but they were just as caught up in the vignettes and activities of their afterlife as any of the living in their lives. From the ballroom to the graveyard, audiences respond to the brilliant characterization and character driven storytelling that were Davis’s trademark.
Who created the Haunted Mansion? In the end, Walt Disney Imagineering did. The final attraction, careening between scary and personable, is anything but cohesive, yet it satisfies both sides of guests’ desires, showing the terrifying unknown of the afterlife, and then taming it into something accessible. The mansion is a series of loosely-interlocking pieces, but those pieces are so beautifully executed that we treasure each one.
Next, The Face of Madness: The Haunted Mansion Characters of Marc Davis
Which part of the mansion is your favorite? Do you like the unseen (and slightly malevolent) spirits of Claude Coats or the fun, memorable characters of Marc Davis? Do you think the balance is good or would you like to see it one way or the other?