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Why the Haunted Mansion?

By Richard Kaufman

I've been asked twice why I collect memorabilia from The Haunted Mansions at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. The first was when my girlfriend nearly had a heart attack at how much I'd spent after the Mansion's 30th anniversary event in 1999. "Why are you collecting this stuff," she inquired loudly. The happy ending to that short story is that we got married and I still have my stuff (and then some). I could not answer the question at that time – why was I spending thousands of dollars on memorabilia and souvenirs related to a theme park attraction?

The second time someone posed the question is now, when Jeff Baham (the friendly Chef Mayhem) asked me to write about the same thing.

Why.

I still can't tell you, but here are some things that have been encoded into my brain in the past 49 years that may account for it. Growing up, all I wanted to do was watch horror films on TV. In Queens, New York, that meant Creature Features on WNEW during the day on Saturday and Chiller Theatre on WPIX later that night, where I had the crap scared out of me on a regular basis and frequently ran screaming into my room at age 7 or 8. This completed my weekly inhalation of horror, but it was quickly followed by a regular dose of Abbott and Costello films on Sunday mornings (also on WPIX). By the time I was 10, both the horror films of the 1930s and '40s and Abbott and Costello's silly exploits (all produced by Universal) were old friends – I watched them endlessly and nothing made me happier. But the movie among all of these that intrigued me the most was, and is, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Here in one 83-minute black and white package is everything I loved: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, all integrated seamlessly together in a flick that's both scary and funny at the same time.

Both scary and funny at the same time. Done with respect for the monsters, so they're scary, but also giving the comedians their due, so they're funny. When I've exited the Haunted Mansion, the only thing I've missed is Lou Costello stammering at the ghosts in the graveyard. And I think that's where it all comes from. It has been noted that the Haunted Mansion is an uneasy hybrid of the scary, from Imagineer Claude Coates, and the humorous, from Imagineer Marc Davis. As pointed out by Jason Surrell in his entertaining and informative book, The Haunted Mansion, From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (2003, Disney Editions), Walt Disney was heavily involved in the design of the Haunted Mansion from Ken Anderson's early designs in the late 1950s all the way through Marc Davis's cavorting ghost concepts in the mid 1960s. But, Disney died before everything could be pulled together, leaving the Imagineers to figure out the final form of things unknown. The project was drawn simultaneously in two directions by Coates and Davis and the final attraction reflects this. While some see this as a deficit, for me, however, it is this very schizophrenia that makes it so appealing – it's both scary and funny at the same time.

Another part of it is the visual magic – the fact that a number of magician's techniques are used to produce illusions in the Haunted Mansion. I've been interested in magic since age five and have been writing and publishing books about magic tricks for decades, and now find myself as the editor and publisher of Genii, the oldest independent magazine in our field. And while there are many wonderful magic shows performed all around the world by talented magicians, I don't think there's anything as amazing as the optical tricks Yale Gracey and his team put to use in the Mansion. Few things any magician performs embody the essence of magic as fully as when you lean forward in your Doombuggy and peer down into the Grand Ballroom where there are transparent ghosts cavorting before your eyes.

And it's important to note the truly inspired graphic design, beautiful artwork, and architecture that is so much a part of every centimeter of the Disney parks.

So, for me, I think that's the "why." Because it's scary, funny, bizarre, magical, and beautiful … and every time I sit in a Doom Buggy and hear Paul Frees start to talk it's like I've just arrived at my vacation home.

Now for the "what." The stuff. I've been a collector for almost 20 years, and have collected various things at various times. It's in my blood … to buy, to acquire, to own, to fondle. As I remind my wife as she gazes with dismay at the Visa bill, I'm not addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or myriad other things which generate woe and drain finances with only bad things to show for it. While it's certainly an addiction, at least it's benign! And the money is still here, just not in its familiar green form.

For many years, I never met another person who collected Disneyana. None of the people who've come to my house could, frankly, seem to care less. The looks on their faces are priceless – eyes widening, confusion, followed by a short look to the right and left. Appreciating theme park souvenirs is not in everyone's heart – in fact it's not in most people's hearts. You just have to face the fact that most people will see your collection of Disneyana and think you're crazy. I collect Disneyana because it gives me great enjoyment and, since my collection surrounds me in my office (actually what might have been the family room of our home), it makes working here a pleasure.

There are two fairly distinct areas of Haunted Mansion collecting: things which Disney manufactures specifically to be sold, and things which were made to be used in the parks rather than sold. The former includes all souvenirs (and pins, oy … the pins) and limited edition pieces, many of which have been sold at merchandise events in the past eight years. The latter includes the really cool stuff that few outside the company have, such as the original silk-screened attraction poster, signs that hung in the park, the butler's and maid's outfits which the castmembers who work at the Mansion wear, and actual pieces from the mansion itself.

The world of Haunted Mansion collectibles was pretty quiet until the 30th Anniversary Event which took place at Disneyland in the summer of 1999. Until then, you would see sporadic releases of souvenirs, but the 1999 event began a systematic release of large groups of limited edition resin figures, lithographs, lenticular portraits, jackets, CDs, watches, paper sculptures, buttons, pins, pin sets, mugs, t-shirts, and much more. This surge of merchandise into the marketplace made for frenzied buying at the events and on eBay. However, as the events have been repeated in 2002, 2003, and 2004, the demand for much of the merchandise has been diminished by the sheer number of pieces available. Even the most dedicated collector will find it difficult to keep up either for lack of cash or lack of space or both.

I just collect all of it (except T-shirts – I gave up on T-shirts). The search for the earliest Haunted Mansion ephemera is difficult. (I might add that it's far easier to find many 150 year-old antique children's toys than it is some 42-year-old Mansion souvenirs!) One expects early promotional pieces to be hard to find, such as small knick-knacks given to the press or printed pieces for promotion, but you do not expect some of the actual souvenirs to take 10 years or more to find – it doesn't make sense for items that were sold at the parks on both coasts to exist in such small numbers, but they do. The small "Haunted Mansion Portrait Gallery" glow in the dark changing portraits, just pieces of printed cardboard which originally sold for $1 and exist in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions, now sell for $125 if you can find one. And they're hard as hell to find – I only have one after searching for years. Making this more difficult is that the fact that, until now, there has never been a true guide for the collector so you know what you're looking for and when it was made and sold.

Seven years ago many wonderful and rare things turned up regularly on eBay – this is, for example, where I have purchased several Haunted Mansion signs which hung in the park, as well as a head from the Haunted Mansion (and one from Pirates of the Caribbean, too). But items like these now turn up rarely and private contacts have become important once more – as they were in the days before eBay changed the world of collecting. With the demise of both the Disneyana conventions and the Disney Company's alliance with eBay, the best stuff is once again only available through mostly private transactions.

The most recent extravaganza of Haunted Mansion merchandise was produced for Disneyland's 50th Anniversary Celebration, and it is perhaps some of the finest, most imaginative and detailed collectibles ever brought to market. As a sign of the times, they were offered only via the Internet at Disney Direct, as it was then called, or through its sister catalogue (which has now, alas, also vanished). Not at the theme parks. The merchandise is stunning, but where the heck am I going to put it?

If I put the Hatbox Ghost big fig on my desk, will I still have room for my computer monitor? Where are my cats going to sleep?

If I put the Ghost Bride big fig next to the Hatbox Ghost (the happy couple reunited), the cats will really get pissed off.

My wife wants to paint the house … that's out – definitely forget that.

Now, where am I going to hang that Rolly Crump arm sconce?

As Dr. Smith would say, "The pain … oh, the pain."

Cory DoctorowRichard Kaufman is the editor and publisher of Genii, The Conjurer's Magazine, an acclaimed magicians' journal. He has written and edited many books on magic as well. Kaufman wrote this piece for DoomBuggies.com. Copyright © 2007 Richard Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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