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Long before there were hitchhiking ghosts or merry ghouls frolicking in a ballroom, there was the tale of a sea captain — a sea captain who murdered his wife and buried her in a brick wall.
This sea captain was once destined for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, but this gruesome tale of a ship commander has largely been forgotten.
To delve into the Haunted Mansion’s past is to discover perhaps the greatest whodunit in Disneyland history.
Since it opened in 1969, the hows and whys of the Mansion’s story are a thing of myth and fan speculation. Did the house once belong to a bride in the attic? What about those singing ghosts in the graveyard? And just who is this Hatbox Ghost?
He’s still wearing an ominous cape, and sometimes he is seen with a head, sometimes without (thus the handy carrying case). He was there when the ride opened, then mysteriously disappeared just days later, only to return this year for the park’s 60th anniversary. In the decades in between, he became a cult figure, one that would show up on Disney merchandise despite not having a home to call his own.
“The Hatbox Ghost was one of those things that really nobody got to see. He was a forbidden fruit,” says Daniel Joseph, a principal special-effects designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s highly secretive arm devoted to theme park experiences.
Unlike Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland or even today’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion is the rare Disney ride without a strong plot. Stories that might explain a visitor’s journey through the stretching chamber, the hallway of shape-shifting portraits or the graveyard in full swing are as fleeting as those ghosts who promise to follow you home but don’t. It’s a melange of scenes filled with oddities, be it a coffin in a conservatory or a disembodied head in a crystal ball.
But if Disneyland is a temple to one’s imagination, then the Haunted Mansion is the one ride that truly requires visitors to use it. To string the different acts of the Mansion together is entirely up to the guest. Often, no two theories will be the same. Sites online, such as Doombuggies, analyze nearly every square inch of the Mansion, and some knowledgeable fans (they go by the name the Disney History Institute) even created a seven-minute video just on the questions surrounding the Hatbox Ghost, a clip that today has more than 360,000 views on YouTube.
Not even insiders are privy to his tales of woe. As his head disappears and then reappears inside of a hatbox, all along it carries an exaggerated grin that foreshadows devilish desires.
“That’s spooky,” says Tony Baxter, who in 2013 left his senior position at Imagineering for a creative advisory role. “I want to know what the story is here.”
What the story is has a tendency to change based on who’s doing the telling.
“It’s always been a mystery to me,” says Rolly Crump, one of the first Disney Imagineers to work on the Mansion, when asked about the Hatbox Ghost.
Today the Mansion is perhaps best known for its whimsy — the floating musical instruments, the painting that stretches to reveal a man in his underpants. It’s the haunted house at its most humorous, where singing busts serenade rather than spook.
But is it possible to get to the bottom of the Hatbox Ghost and, in turn, the Mansion itself?
To try to unravel the story of the Haunted Mansion is to discover a rather macabre past. There are nods to it today.
Just look up at the Mansion’s decorative rooftop. Inexplicably, there’s a weather vane in the shape of a sailboat. Could this signal that this is the home of a sea captain?
And pay close attention in the attic to unfurl the tale of a “black widow” bride, who appears as a gauzy silhouette. Just beyond the bride on a balcony is that poor fellow who keeps losing his head.
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