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Disney's Inferno 

To hell and back

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
Of the thousands of people from around the world who make sacred pilgrimages to the Happiest Place on Earth, few devote much thought to the mystery of what exactly makes them so damn happy there. Perhaps the answer can be revealed by delving into the dark side of Disneyland, with its many connections to popular paranormal phenomena. Throughout the park - from the Haunted Mansion's ghosts and the Pirates of the Caribbean's diabolical animated skeletons, to the Matterhorn's devilish, Bigfoot-like creature and the Submarine ride's Loch Ness Monster - fairies, witches, demons and sorcerers abound.

The structure of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, for example, correlates precisely with the "Inferno" section of Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy. You enter Mr. Toad's world through a tunnel. Once inside, you drive recklessly through town, almost running over a number of people, then narrowly avoid crashing into a big pile of TNT. You are arrested. You appear in court and are found guilty! Somehow you escape, but as you drive down a railroad track you are hit head-on by a steaming locomotive. You are dead! For a moment, everything is black. Inescapably, you are drawn through the portal of Hades - that huge, gaping mouth of Satan. You feel a blast of hot air. In the underworld, cute little devils try to jab you with their pitchforks. Finally you are allowed to leave hell, and you are transported back to the Earthly plane.

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In the poem, Dante, guided by Virgil, enters the gate, boards a vessel and sails across the putrid river Styx into the underworld of Hades. There he descends a series of rings leading to the very bowels of hell. On his voyage, Dante witnesses damned souls receiving punishments for their sins - people who committed suicide are turned into gnarled tree stumps; blasphemers are forever rained on by fire; flatterers are smothered in excrement; traitors are immersed in ice up to their necks. In the deepest pit of hell, Judas Iscariot is crammed into the mouth of Lucifer, whose gnashing teeth tear him eternally to bits. (There's a similar scene in Fantasia.) From this heinous hellhole, Dante is allowed to exit through Satan's anus onto a path that leads back up to the mortal world.

Broken down into its essentials, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride entails going into a cavern where your sins are exposed, your judgment is decreed, and your punishment is death. Your damned soul descends into hell, then returns to the mortal world. Both Dante's and Mr. Toad's voyages through the underworld also correlate with trips through the human digestive system: Organic matter enters through the mouth; it is chewed and swallowed into the pit of the stomach; it is then digested (i.e., value judgments are applied), and the waste is sentenced to the bowels, until it is finally expelled through the anus.

A great portion of the rides at Disneyland follow an underworld/gastrointestinal theme. On the Pirates of the Caribbean, you board a Stygian vessel that enters a cave and descends a waterfall into a vast netherworld. At the banks of the river, you see swarthy pirates sinning and running wild in the streets, raping and pillaging (although recently the scene showing the pirates chasing women has been slightly altered - the women now carry plates of food, in theory to give the impression that the pirates are chasing women because they're hungry for dinner). Off to one side, straight from the pages of "Inferno," a mechanical pirate endlessly struggles to push a huge, bulging bag of loot up an incline. Farther down the river, the entire town is consumed by a hellish fire. Next, you see the pirates locked up in jail. Finally, only skeletons guard the pirates' treasure (gold and riches are often associated with excrement). At the end of the ride, you miraculously ascend a waterfall and disembark into the Mardi Gras atmosphere of New Orleans Square.

The theme of the underworld is equally apparent in the Haunted Mansion. On the front gate, a brass plaque bears the horned image of Satan himself. Visitors enter into an elevatorlike art gallery where, as you descend, the ghoulish portraits stretch, exposing the sins of each. You then board a hearselike vehicle and travel through a haunted house until you reach a vast subterranean graveyard. "The lid of every tomb was lifted up,/and from each tomb such sorry cries arose/as could come only from the sad and hurt" ("Inferno" IX, 121-123). Disney's netherworld is haunted by 999 ghosts (the mark of the beast turned upside down). You witness a scene reminiscent of the biblical Last Judgment as you see souls rising up from their graves. At the terminus of the ride you ascend an escalator like a stairway to heaven, while a sexy little Vampira ghoul beckons, "Come back - and be sure to bring your death certificate."

Near Disney's Alpine Matterhorn there is a captivating cast of a Bigfoot print allegedly found on its snow-covered a slopes. (Before someone came up with the term "Bigfoot," the beast was called "Mountain Devil.") Adventurers ride bobsleds into the Matterhorn's caves. The frozen interior is riddled with ice caverns, similar to the ninth circle in Dante's "Inferno," where hell literally freezes over. This frigid world is populated by Yeti, or Abominable Snowmen. (These apelike creatures are actually purported to live in the Himalayas, not the Alps.) The Matterhorn Yeti creature recalls the vicious baboon demon of the Egyptian underworld.

Similar netherworld themes can be found in the Submarine ride, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and the Indiana Jones Adventure ride, as well as in Disney's kiddie rides. In Alice in Wonderland, you go down the rabbit hole to an underground domain. In It's a Small World, you take a hellish boat ride through an abyss of maniacally singing dolls. In Storybookland, you float through the gaping jaws of a whale. In Pinocchio's Daring Journey, you are swallowed up by Monstro the whale, taken from the biblical lesson of Jonah and the whale: "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). Both Jonah and Pinocchio were swallowed by the whale because they disobeyed their master (in Jonah's case, Yahweh; in Pinocchio's, Gepetto).

These rides that descend into the underworld and then ascend heavenward are allegories of salvation, correlating with Christ's death and resurrection. It is written, "For Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). According to the Apostle's Creed, Christ "was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven."

Terrestrial Disneyland is like a paradise on Earth, but subterranean Disneyland is hell itself. Luther wrote that "God leads down to hell those who he predestines to heaven." At the Magic Kingdom, each ride is a biblical morality lesson in which we are repeatedly redeemed. We pilgrims - like Jonah, Christ and Dante - can take a rollicking roller-coaster ride to hell, with the assurance that we'll be resurrected and return to heaven ("The Happiest Place on Earth"). That's why Disneyland is so damn fun - it takes us to hell and back.

One in a series relating to "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing Disney's Theme Parks" at UCLA/Armand Hammer.

  • To hell and back

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