One of the points I keep making around here is that there is very little fantasy in the Haunted Mansion. It's not like a movie or a show depicting a make-believe world or a world remote in time and/or place. Nor is it a world that you are watching like God from some unseen vantage point. Quite the contrary; if you stipulate that ghosts exist, everything else about the attraction is presented as if it were a real-world location that you yourself are physically visiting. As I've said before, I've said this before.
Another, related point that I have made now and then is that the notion that ghosts are real is presented in the HM as truly a fantasy element by anyone's measure, even by people who really do believe in ghosts, since these ghosts turn out to be fun-loving spooks intent on nothing more serious than having a big party. Even true believers don't think that the spirits of the dead gather in retirement communities and are just itching to come out and boogie. Without giving it sufficient thought, I have suggested elsewhere that this comic twist is original. Um . . . not quite. I've changed my mind about that, and this post explains why.
Zest in Peace
Already in "The Skeleton Dance" (1929) you had a cartoon about the dead coming out at midnight for a musical romp, and of course "Lonesome Ghosts" (1937) has impish spirits who scare people for laughs. Those are perhaps the most famous ones, but there are other early cartoons in the same vein. They certainly contain elements of the HM formula, but in all cases the jolly spooks are simply characters in a comical fantasy world, so the frolicking doesn't come as any big surprise. By the time the dancing skeletons and jokester ghosts show up, we've already accepted anthropomorphic cats and talking mice the same size as ducks, so it isn't much of a leap.
Besides those, we have already seen (or heard, I should say) that before the Haunted Mansion came along, the basic "silly spook" idea was already there in comic songs about midnight jamborees and swingin' séances and the like. In my original post on the topic, I overlooked what is perhaps the oldest example of such songs and only added it to the end of the post after it was brought to my attention by faithful Forgottenista Melissa. It's "When the Night Wind Howls," or Sir Roderick's song, from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse (1887). After adding it to the post, I didn't give it any further thought, but I should have.
As far as I can tell at this point, Ruddigore is the earliest clear example of a popular entertainment presenting the audience with reasonably well-adjusted ghosts who carry on a social life in our world much like the living and materialize at midnight for the sole purpose of having a good time. Importantly, they manifest themselves in a world that is supposed to mirror our own—within the conventions of comic opera, of course. Liberal as such conventions are, there are not and could not be talking animals or people blithely defying natural laws in Ruddigore. Furthermore, the ghosts are altogether frightening at first, and their predilection for merry-making comes as a surprising new revelation. We have something close to the whole formula here.
I think it not at all unlikely that the Disney Imagineers were familiar with Ruddigore and that it may well have been a seminal influence on people like X Atencio and Marc Davis. At least in Long-Forgotten land, that qualifies as a big deal.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ruddigore, it's a comedy bordering on farce, burlesquing many of the conventions of stage melodramas. For our purposes, all you need to know is that the plot involves a family curse that requires the head of a noble family to perform some dastardly deed every day or else die in agony. The current baronet, Robin Murgatroyd, is too timid and too virtuous to fulfill his duty properly, and it falls to the ghosts of his ancestors to pay him a visit and see that he begins to take his destiny more seriously. Apparently they can still suffer if the current baronet is negligent in committing his daily crime, and the spirits are prepared to torture him into compliance if necessary.
The critical scene opens with the ancestral ghosts making their appearance by stepping out of their portraits, and their spokesman is a certain Sir Roderick Murgatroyd, Robin's uncle. After Roderick identifies himself, Robin exclaims, "Alas, poor ghost!" Roderick's reply is our money quote:
The pity you express for nothing goes;
We spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose!
"We spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose."
Isn't that the whole Haunted Mansion show in a nutshell?
I can't think of a more succinct or a more apt summary.
Roderick and his ghastly company then break into a song about lively spooks come out to socialize. To the best of my knowledge, it's the granddaddy of them all. You will recall from our earlier post that this was a popular genre, with exemplars stretching down through a heyday in the 30's and 40's to a last gasp in the 60's with "The Monster Mash" and "Grim Grinning Ghosts." * The lyrics to "Sir Roderick's Song" are strikingly similar to GGG in both form and content, so you might say the genre ends where it began. As for the tune, I have to admit that it took awhile to grow on me, but I've come to like it. (Yo, all you guitar heroes out there: it isn't hard to imagine a Metal arrangement. Get busy.)
Sir Roderick's Song (When the Night Wind Howls)
When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
As uncle Roderick strolls about onstage singing about "grisly grim" good-nights and "the welcome knell of the midnight bell" in a booming baritone, it's like seeing a more mobile version of "Uncle Theodore," Thurl Ravenscroft's singing bust.
There are clips of several different performances of this scene on Youtube as of this writing. THIS ONE is particularly good and includes the entire ghost scene. In productions like this one, it's difficult NOT to think of the graveyard jamboree in the Haunted Mansion.
For Ruddigore, Gilbert and Sullivan borrowed ideas from their own earlier work. The device of having ancestors step out of their portraits had already been used in Ages Ago (1869), as we have seen elsewhere, and the lyrics of "When the Night Wind Howls" were inspired in part by a Gilbert poem published previously in Fun magazine:
The flowery, lovesick mood of the poem is unlike anything in the Mansion, but many of the concepts are similar, such as the idea that there are myriads of ghosts running around having a good time, and that they get a bang out of scaring people, and the idea that they greatly appreciate morbid, cold, and corrupted things that we mortals find appalling, which is milked for humorous purposes. One recalls the Ghost Host's comments about how "delightfully unlivable" the place is, with "wall to wall creeps and hot and cold running chills."
As Puck Would Have It
Another remarkable precursor to the grim grinning premise of the Haunted Mansion can be found a few decades later. Just as we have in the wake of Ruddigore a string of novelty songs about reveling revenants, so too we have a subsequent graphic presentation of the same basic joke, dating in this case to 1906.
We see a group of happy ghosts in 18th century attire, drinking punch and celebrating at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. Some old walrus in then-contemporary dress is looking on, unperturbed. His artistic function in the cartoon is to represent us the readers, not terribly different from the sketchy figures Claude Coats put in his concept sketches to represent the Disneyland guests.
Let's crop him out, leaving only ourselves as observers.
You know, that could almost pass for a Marc Davis concept sketch (and Conley is certainly justified in calling it a precursor to Davis's work). You can easily imagine this little group at one end or the other of the Grand Ballroom. Of course, the Mansion is up and operating all year round, so Christmas is a poor choice for a celebratory occasion, as it is tied to one spot on the calendar (Tim Burton notwithstanding). Anonymous celebrations without predetermined dates, like weddings or birthdays, work better in a ride, so we make that simple substitution, and voilà.