Welcome, foolish mortals, to the second part in our weeklong exploration of the Hatbox Ghost and his gloriously ghoulish return to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. For part 1, drag your body here. For more otherworldly stories from the Haunted Mansion, check back all week.
Room For One More
As the Haunted Mansion narration famously states, it’s home to 999 happy haunts (and there’s always room for one more). But when the Haunted Mansion opened there really was one more ghost: the Hatbox Ghost. This was a character designed by Marc Davis and developed by Yale Gracey; he had skeletal face, a shiny gold tooth, a thickly bunched coat, and carried a cane in one hand and a hatbox in the other. As originally conceived by Gracey, one of the “Illusioneers” who took the effects and lighting from the original walkthrough attraction and applied them to the reconfigured ride-through version of the Haunted Mansion, guests would come upon the Hatbox Ghost and a flicker of light would create the effect that the Ghost’s head would disappear from its body (and reappear in the hatbox). It perfectly fits with the ride’s goofy/spooky tone and would have been a dazzling effect… had it worked.
According to Tony Baxter, the legendary Disney Imagineer who, at the time of the Haunted Mansion’s long-delayed opening was a ride operator, the Hatbox Ghost was a feature of the initial version of the ride. He was perched in the attic, across from where the bride stood, behind a wrought iron gate. (It’s where the playing harpsichord now sits.) The effect was supposed to be seamless but the placement of the ride vehicle, in relation to the unwieldy figure (plus the ambient light that filtered into the attraction), muddied the illusion. It wasn’t a pepper’s ghost effect, like the dancing ghosts in the grand hall, but a simple lighting trick: the main Ghost’s head was illuminated by a black light, while the head inside the hatbox was lit with a tiny spotlight. The spell was cast when one light would go down and the other was illuminated. Or at least that was the plan.
In the definitive history of the ride, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies by Jason Surrell, Surrell states that the Hatbox Ghost was actually the Bride’s husband. This doesn’t gel with the ghost’s appearance (the Bride seems quite young while the Hatbox Ghost, with his curved spine and skeleton grin, comes across as elderly) or the overall “narrative” of the rest of the ride, but it’s an intriguing theory nonetheless.
After several weeks of operation (most sources cite it as less than a month), the Hatbox Ghost was quietly removed from the attraction. What makes this story even stranger is that all traces of the Ghost disappeared shortly after. According to Baxter, the Hatbox Ghost vanished after it was removed from the Haunted Mansion (again from Surrell’s Haunted Mansion book: “the molds, the figure itself, everything”). After its removal the Hatbox Ghost only existed in a series of promotional photos (including shots of Gracey manipulating the figure), early renderings, and in the memories of early Haunted Mansion visitors. It would be decades before photos and creaky film footage of the ghost would appear online. Until then the Hatbox Ghost was the source of endless speculation, hearsay and some truly delicious rumors.