Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hatbox Ghost

Talking to a few people about the announcement of Guillermo del Toro's new Haunted Mansion film, it dawned on me that not everyone has read Jason Surrell's amazing book on the Haunted Mansion.  Of course, everyone should run out and buy it,  but for those who can't, I wanted to disseminate Mr. Surrell's description of our friend the Hatbox Ghost for those who saw del Toro's comments about the Hatbox Ghost being central in the film and went "what's a hatbox ghost?"  

And I quote...

In a departure from some of Ken Anderson’s early stories, Imagineers did not originally plan to leave the bride stranded at the altar.  For a short period of time, she did have a groom – the infamous hatbox ghost, whose very existence fans have theorized and argued about for years.  The sinister groom character did, indeed, exist, but unfortunately for the bride, the honeymoon was over before it could even begin.

“He was originally going to be where the bride is now,” Imagineer Tony Baxter explains.  “The bride was going to be in the exact opposite corner.  In fact, for years, the Doom Buggy turned you directly that way so you could see her, but there was nothing to see because we had moved her to the other end of the attic.  Now, that spot is occupied by the playing harpsichord. The Hatbox Ghost just disappeared – the molds, the figure itself, everything, so all we have are photos and renderings.”

But why? Was he just too frightening? Was it his chilling visage that caused a reporter to have a heart attack, to tie him to another unfounded urban legend?  The true story isn’t nearly as ghoulish. The Hatbox Ghost effect simply didn’t work.

As originally planned, the Hatbox Ghost stood near the Attic’s exit, leaning on a cane in his right hand and holding a hatbox in the left. “With every beat of his bride’s heart, his head disappeared from his body…and reappeared in the hatbox,” as it was described in The Story and Song from The Haunted Mansion. The illusion was created by a carefully timed lighting effect. The standing ghost’s head was illuminated by black light, and the head in the hatbox was lit by a small pin spotlight. When the black light faded down and the pin spot came up, it did, indeed, look as though his head had vanished and reappeared inside the hat-box.  The effect was then reversed on the next beat of the bride’s heart.

Due to guests’ proximity to the figure and the Attic’s ambient light, it could never be dark enough for the effect to be truly convincing.  The speed at which the Doom Buggies moved by the figure also ensured that there would never be enough time to run the entire gag.  It was removed by the time The Haunted Mansion opened to the general public, never to be seen again.

Surrell, Jason.  The Haunted Mansion: from the Magic Kingdom to the Movies. New York: Disney Editions, 2003.
Buy the whole book on Amazon!

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