Friday, March 18, 2011

The Haunted Mansion's new queue Part II: Grave errors

On Wednesday, we talked about how the Haunted Mansion has always been presented. The micro-version again: approach creepy house, experience apprehension, threats of danger, and then relief! A logical flow of emotional storytelling.

This week, Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion began testing big changes to the queue, set for official opening later this month. The new queue is strongly focused on the Disney company's latest favorite buzzword: interactivity.

My friend Ricky Brigante over at Inside the Magic has been leading the way in thoroughly documenting these new additions. Check out his many pictures and videos.

Before I dive in to my complaints, though, there are a couple of details about the update that I like. The old queue passed a modest family plot featuring headstones that paid homage to the designers of the Haunted Mansion. "Grandpa Marc" refers to Marc Davis, the artist responsible for most of the Mansion's character design and gags; "Master Gracey" is Yale Gracey, creator of the Mansion's masterful illusions; "Frances Xavier" is X. Atencio, writer of the attraction's wonderfully wordy script; and so on. The new queue adds several more tributes to the Mansion's planners, including original conceptualist Ken Anderson, maestro of the weird Rolly Crump, and even voice talents Paul Frees (your ghost host) and Thurl Ravenscroft (lead singer of "Grim Grinning Ghosts."

Excellent. Well done, and executed in the spirit and style of the originals. High marks for this.

The three specific headstones mentioned above from the old queue are all back too, but they have strangely been placed right along fencing between rows of the line. The way they're placed now, there's no way to pretend that these headstones actually mark the place where a body is buried! They've become little more than decorative fence posts. I'm glad they weren't thrown away, but the new placement is mind-bogglingly illogical.

Uh... was Grandpa Marc three inches tall?

Now to the interactive additions:

One very prominent feature is a crypt, apparently housing the spirit of the Haunted Mansion organist. On one end, a stone marker in the shape of an organ. On the sides, stone relief images of several musical instruments. A refrain of "Grim Grinning Ghosts" plays endlessly and when guests touch an image of one of the instruments, that sound joins in. By itself, it's a nifty toy, but all that whimsical noise* really ruins the quiet, creepy ambiance outside of the mansion.

The organist's incredibly multi-colored tomb.

Nearby, another huge crypt houses the remains of the a character previously known as the sea captain (seen in painting inside the mansion), now officially named Captain Culpepper Clyne (aside: Captain Culpepper, for me, will forever make me think of Spencer Tracey in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). Water leaks from spots in the crypt and you can occasionally hear the captain singing sea shanties or gurgling within. Bubbles even float out from the tomb when he gurgles. Some Haunted Mansion fans justify this choice by talking about how many whimsical, cartoonish elements are found within the Haunted Mansion itself - even the old queue headstones had humor in their epitaphs. Accepting this kind of whimsical humor in the queue profoundly misunderstands how Davis and his contemporaries used comedy in the initial creation of the mansion.

Yes, there was humor from the get-go, but the all jokes present in the old queue and throughout the first two thirds of the attraction had a darker, more threatening edge to them. The stretching portraits are a perfect example of images that are both comical and disturbing at the same time. Anything that suggested the spirits were content or even joyful in death (like the sea captain's silly singing and bubbles do now) were reserved for the last third of the ride - the part where you're meant to feel relief from the tension that had been building.

Even worse than the leaky crypt is another tomb - that of Prudence Pock - a poetess buried in the new queue. Guests can peer inside her bookshelf-shaped tomb and see a book with words magically appearing on the page. Never mind that tombs with windows and items within don't sound like any kind of tomb I've ever seen before, the terrible part is that you can hear Prudence's cheerful voice asking passersby to help her find the last words for the poems she writes. The voice is sweet, gentle, playful. It sends a clear message to anyone waiting to enter the Haunted Mansion: Don't worry! The ghosts inside are all playful spooks! We're all lots of fun and won't harm you at all!

A window into Prudence Pock's chatty tomb.

Sure, that turns out to be the case, but it's also meant to be a surprise! That's the twist in the Mansion that we only learn we pass through the ballroom - and moreso - the graveyard finale! All this playful, comical, reassuring nonsense in the queue stops the tension from building right when it's supposed to start!

Not only does this demonstrate that the modern day Imagineers who designed this don't understand the emotional flow of the Haunted Mansion, it shows they don't understand the logic of it either.

Yes, the Haunted Mansion is chock-full of ghosts. 999 of them to be exact. As we enter the house, they react to our presence, stretching one room, bending doorways, making unintelligible moaning sounds. Aside from our Ghost Host, that's all they can really do until we reach Madame Leota's séance room.

Leota then performs an elaborate incantation, calling the ghosts out to visit. It's only after this magical summoning is performed that we can see and understand the residents of the Haunted mansion. It's only then that we learn they're just silly spook and grim grinning ghosts.

This is the basic plot of the Mansion! It's very, very simple: You enter an eerie mansion, the building behaves strangely, Madame Leota's magic allows the ghosts to appear and communicate and you learn they're all fun spirits.

Not just a pretty face, Madame Leota has a real purpose in the attraction.

The ghosts cannot communicate with you before Madame Leota performs her spell. They sure as hell cannot chat with you politely or sing sea shanties for you in the broad daylight of the line for the ride!

Once again, the Haunted Mansion was a masterpiece created by true artists at the absolute height of their creative and artistic powers. It's hubris for modern Imagineers to believe they can improve on the works of Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, Ken Anderson, X. Atencio, and the rest. Beyond technological improvements to enhance the appearance or sound of what is already there, please stop monkeying with the Haunted Mansion. You're painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The Sea Captain may be singing shanties in his grave, but Marc Davis is rolling in his**.

The way things were.

* I can say one other nice thing about the new Haunted Mansion queue. It is (at least for the time being) optional. Before getting to it, there is a fork in the line and guests can either choose to enter it or stick to the old path. Here's hoping it stays that way (and that the unwelcome noises of the interactive queue can't be heard from the old one).

** Well, he would be
if he had one anyway.


  1. As the saying goes, "Less is more." The new line queue is perfect for those with ADD.

  2. ...which they apparently think everyone has now.

    I wasn't the most patient child in the world, but I always found reading the old headstones was plenty of entertainment while I waited in the relatively fast-moving line for the Haunted Mansion.

  3. Nice review. The point about letting the cat out of the bag that the spooks are friendly is a good one. The whole time they're invisible, they're threatening.