Pop-up ghosts and the Haunted Mansion: transcending a spook-house tradition

Passport to Dreams Old and New — the smartest Disney blog I know of, and some of the best design criticism I've ever read — discusses the role of pop-up ghosts in American spook-houses and ghost trains, and how the original designers of the Disney Haunted Mansions incorporated them into their design, borrowing from the tradition and ultimately transcending it.

So what separates the pop-up ghouls in the Haunted Mansion from the Jersey Devil lurking in the dark corners of some Pretzel ride seventy years ago is context. Unlike rides with names like Pirate's Cove and Laff in the Dark, the Haunted Mansion seems to pull all these disparate elements together into a tightly woven tapestry which combines a lot of distinct ideas, styles and methods into a single unified whole, something which has structure and life. Even those pop-up ghosts have meaning and form, you know, and I'd like to demonstrate why these simple gags deserve your respect…

I'm not pointing all this out to be pedantic but to establish that far from being careless "scare-em" afterthoughts to the texture of the Haunted Mansion, these simple gags were carefully thought out and integrated into a fully realized environment. In fact, the pop-up ghouls are a far more important part of the attraction than they currently appear to be…

Even in Florida, where there never was a Hatbox Ghost for the bride to menace, the connection was perfectly clear. Dastardly deeds were afoot in this house long before the other ghosts moved in, deeds seemingly confirmed by the presence of the ghostly bride. Bodies stuffed in trunks forgotten in the Attic is as firmly established a gothic tradition as phantom lovers, and indeed in some folk stories these two strands intersect where the phantom bride is trapped in and suffocates inside a trunk.

The Attic always seemed to be the dark heart of the attraction, the room you were never supposed to see where the secrets were hid. It is the only part of the attraction where you are without the Ghost Host, who leaves you while you unwittingly uncover the scariest room in the house. This was confirmed by the sudden appearance of the apparently malicious leaping ghosts and the mournful, mysterious bride. After passing through this room, we flee from the house through a window – as clear a sign of escape as you can ask for – and stumble into the graveyard party to rejoin our host. The room is supposed to be a turning point in the attraction.

As clever as all this is, the part that blew my mind is when the author discussed her time working at the Haunted Mansion and spending "a good deal of time under the Graveyard with flashlights and old maintenance book" — which is just about my idea of heaven.

Start to Shriek and Harmonize