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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Haunt a House: Part VI

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion

Walt Disney can teach the author of horror fiction a thing or two about how to haunt a house. After all, he and his Imagineers have done so on more than one occasion. A residence in Anaheim, California, a residence in Paris, France, a residence in Orlando, Florida, and a residence in Tokyo, Japan, are all haunted. How they came to be haunted is instructive to writers who want to create their own haunted houses, as I have done, for example, in my novels Mystic Mansion and The Madhouse.

The Disneyland house in Anaheim was the first project, and its chief Imagineer, Ken Anderson designed an antebellum mansion based on his study of plantation residences. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t like the result because the exterior of the mansion was dilapidated, and he did not think its appearance matched the rest of his pristine park. Disney knew that the part should complement the whole, a principle that should also inform the work of the horror writer.

A solution was reached. The Imagineers would keep the exterior of the house looking good, but leave the condition of the interior of the house to the care--or carelessness--of its ghostly residents. “We'll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside,” Disney declared.

Whereas Anderson had researched the mansions of the antebellum South, Disney himself conducted research for the project by visiting the famous--or infamous--Winchester Mystery Mansion. He was impressed with the immensity of the house (which, by the way, inspired the mansion in Stephen King’s television mini-series Rose Red) and its many oddities (stairs to nowhere, doors which open upon blank walls, windows that look upon nothing more than one another, the number thirteen as an architectural and decorative motif, among many others). Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, the Imagineers assigned to produce the mansion’s special effects, researched reports of allegedly haunted houses, Greek myths, and movie monsters for ideas, and both their, Anderson’s and Disney’s own studies of various aspects of the project demonstrate that research is important in the designing of a haunted house, another principle that the horror writer should adopt in creating his or her own haunted domicile. (I did research for Mystic Mansion and The Madhouse by familiarizing myself with architectural terms and by reviewing photographs and reading descriptions of mansions and architectural features typical of the various styles of such homes.)

Where to locate the haunted house is an important decision, too. Disney and his Imagineers decided to locate the Anaheim park’s haunted mansion in New Orleans Square, which is why the house is an antebellum mansion. Disney understood, as horror writers should, that it is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.

Anderson created a series of stories that unified the various sights and sounds that the haunted house featured. The “ghost host” who greets visitors as they enter the house is the spirit of a sea captain who hung himself after killing his bride. The lesson here, which should not be lost to writers of horror fiction, is that a unifying back story is needed for their fiction.

Two of the projects’ Imagineers, Marc Davis and Claude Coats, disagreed as to whether the haunted house should frighten or amuse; in the end, both got their way, when Davis’ desire for amusement and Coats’ wish for frights were both honored in the mansion’s final features. Writers of horror fiction, when faced with contradictory impulses should consider the Disney resolution: it may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.

Writers of horror fiction can also profit from the care that Disney’s Imagineers used to let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house. Each of the house’s many rooms becomes a staging area, so to speak, for its sights, sounds, and special effects, so that there is variety in the attraction’s chills, thrills, and chuckles. In addition, the exhibits often have a delightful, unexpected “extra,” such as the grandfather clock that manages to strike 13! Wikipedia’s article concerning the attraction features a section devoted to describing “the basic attraction” which does a good job of summarizing this room-by-room variety. The odd capitalization and the bold type are the anonymous encyclopedia authors’, not mine:


The following scenes are common to all versions of the attraction except The Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, and taken as a whole form the basic ride experience.

After entering through a pair of ornate gates, guests find themselves walking through the mansion’s well-tended gardens and courtyards. A cemetery featuring tombstones bearing humorous epitaphs adorns the grounds. A pet cemetery is also seen nearby, with marble representations of some dearly departed critters. Guests are led into a Small Foyer by Cast Members dressed as maids and butlers.

After a few minutes, the guests are brought into an Octagonal Room (also known as the Portrait Gallery, the Stretching Room, the Secret Room, or the Expanding Room), and encouraged by the staff to stand in the “dead center.” The door they entered through then becomes a wall, and the chilling voice of Paul Frees introduces himself:

“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host--your 'Ghost Host.’

. . . and taunts them:

“Your cadaverous pallor betrays an aura of foreboding, almost as though you sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Or is it your imagination, hmm?”

As the voice speaks, the audience's eye is drawn up to four portraits on every
other wall of the octagonal shaped room. The walls quietly stretch upwards,
elongating the Marc Davis-designed paintings on them to reveal the comedic fates
of previous guests:

A bearded man (Alexander Nitrokoff) is seen in the dress of minor nobility... and red and white striped boxer shorts. . . while standing on a keg of dynamite with a lit fuse.

A demure young woman holding a parasol. . . and calmly balancing on an unraveling tightrope... above the hungry jaws of a waiting crocodile.

An old lady (Constance Hatchaway) sits. . . atop a tall gravestone... which features the bust of a man (George Hightower) with an axe through his head.

A man with sideburns sitting. . . on a fat, mustached man who is sitting... atop a lean, pale-looking gentleman... who is chest-deep in quicksand.

“And consider this dismaying observation: this chamber has no windows, and no doors... which offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, there's always my
way. . . .”

The lights go out, lightning and thunder effects fill the gallery and, in a rare instance of Disney “dark humor,” a glimpse of the earthly remains of the Ghost Host is shown hanging from a noose high above in the cupola. The ceiling above is a piece of fabric called a scrim, which conceals the hanging body until it is lit from above. The Ghost Host apologizes for frightening the guests so early, and a wall mysteriously opens, leading the guests further into the Mansion.

Guests are then led down a dimly lit hallway with thunder crashing from outside the windows to the left while the portraits of several people on the right wall mysteriously transform from the image of them in their original states into their doomed appearance. At the far end of the hall, two statues which depict one of a man and another of a woman are stationed. As the guests move about, these two statues follow whichever direction they take.

Next, guests step into the dusty and deathly cold loading station room, where they are led around to be placed in their Doom Buggies. Stepping on a moving carpet synced to the motion of the Doom Buggies, guests are seated and ride to the next scene. The Doom Buggies point guests down an Endless Hallway. A lone candelabra [sic] floats down the hallway, and a suit of armor (which moves) stands at the hallway's entrance.

Turning away from the endless hall, guest peek into the Conservatory where a long forgotten funeral is taking place. A large raven perches next to a dead plant-adorned coffin, with a corpse trying to break free.

The ghosts become more restless and try to escape from their hiding places, which results in a Corridor full of shaking, knocking, moving, and breathing doors. Demon-faced wallpaper adorns the walls as well as black and white photos of goblins and ghouls. A demonic grandfather clock chimes 13 as the hands spin wildly backwards, the shadow of a claw passing over it.

Guests enter a dark Séance Room full of floating musical instruments. Madame Leota, a medium appearing within a crystal ball, summons the mansion's spirits while levitating above her table. Madam Leota says the following:

“Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat/Call in the spirits, wherever they're at./Rap on a table, it's time to respond/Send us a message from somewhere beyond./Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween/Awaken the spirits with your tambourine./Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond/Let there be music from regions beyond./Wizards and witches wherever you dwell/Give us a hint by ringing a bell.”

Next, guests pass onto the balcony of a magnificent Ballroom where the happy haunts begin to materialize. Translucent couples waltz to the music of a macabre organist. A ghostly birthday party appears to be taking place at the dining table (a dinner plate and two saucers on the left side of the table combine to make a “Hidden Mickey”). Some spirits sit on the chandeliers, gorging themselves on wine, while other ghosts enter the hall from an open coffin in a hearse. A ghost wraps his arm around a woman bust, and two portraits of men with guns come to life, shooting each other with their pistols.

The Attic is an irregularly-shaped room that the Doom Buggies enter immediately after the ballroom scene. It features a collection of gifts, personal items, mementos, and wedding portraits. In each portrait, a common bride is featured with a different groom, whose heads disappear to the accompaniment of a hatchet sound. Just before the Doom Buggies leave the attic, the same ghostly bride from the pictures is seen floating in the air, intoning wedding-related vows. As she raises her arms, a hatchet appears in her hands.

The Doom Buggies fly out a window, turn around, and plunge backwards down a fifteen percent grade surrounded by dark, ghoulish trees with knotted expressions. On a branch overhead, a raven caws at the guests. (This gag is from an earlier idea, which was to have the raven narrate the tour.)

The Doom Buggies reach the ground, and turn towards the gate of the Graveyard. There stands a caretaker, the only living person in the entire attraction, his knees shaking in fright and an expression of terror on his face. Beside him is his emaciated dog, whining and whimpering. Around the corner, a ghostly band of minstrels plays a jazzy rendition of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

Ghosts pop up from behind tombstones, a king and queen balance on a teeter-totter, a young princess swings back and forth from a tree branch, and a hellhound growls from behind them. The Doom Buggies travel down a hill and turn to see five singing busts continuing the song of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

Next, guests encounter a tea party of sorts, where ghosts are having a "swinging wake" and singing along too. An arm protrudes out of a crypt with a tea cup in its hand, while ghouls ride bikes in the distance. Next, guests see a mummy and an old man. The old man tries to listen to what the mummy is saying through an earphone, but the mummy is just too hard to understand underneath its bandages.

Before the Doom Buggies turn to face two opera singers to the right, they see the inside of a tomb, where there is a phantom dressed in a robe-like outfit. The Doom Buggies turn to face the two opera singers, blasting their voices up into the night. Beside them are three other ghosts--a headless knight, a prisoner, and an executioner--who also join in the song.

A brick tomb can be seen at the graveyard's exit, and a cadaverous arm protrudes from an opening in the wall where a couple of bricks are missing. A trowel in the spook's hand implies that he is actually walling himself in. At last, guests pass into a Crypt where they encounter the attraction's unofficial mascots, the three hitchhiking ghosts. Passing by three large mirrors, guests discover that one of the trio has hitched a ride in their Doom Buggy.

As the vehicles prepare to convey guests out of the Crypt, a tiny ghostly figure--“Little Leota”--is seen above the exit and encourages you to:

“Hurry back… Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. Make final arrangements now. We've been [snicker] ‘dying’ to have you…”

This tiny woman in a bridal gown (though referred to as the Ghostess in early versions of the attraction script), is commonly known as “Little Leota” because her voice and face are those of Leota Toombs (who also provided the face of Madame Leota.)


We’ve culled these six additional rules for creating a haunted house by considering how Walt Disney and his Imagineers created their haunted houses:
  1. The part should complement the whole.
  2. Research is important.
  3. It is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.
  4. A unifying back story is needed.
  5. It may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.
  6. Let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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