When Grim Ghosts Grin
On a recent weeknight, fans of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, who normally get together on the DoomBuggies.com Web site, meet face to face in the gathering twilight for dinner at the theme park's Blue Bayou restaurant. After the rest of the park closes to the public for the day, the group will head over to the white-columned mansion to essentially worship the ghostly ride.
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The DoomBuggies devotees know nearly everything there is to know about the Haunted Mansion, every specter lurking behind every dusty cobweb, all its quirky minutiae. They've memorized the blueprints for the coffin in the conservatory. They know where to buy the lush, Victorian Gothic wallpaper in the foyer and that its color is "Ashes of Rose." They know that the reclining Egyptian lady in the long hallway of the sinister portrait gallery used to morph into a slinky black panther but, as of a few years ago, now mysteriously turns into a tiger.
They are preternaturally aware of subtle details that you and I might miss on our eight-minute journey: that the gargoyles grasping flickering candles, one in each hand, or rather, each claw, all whisper "Stay together" as the guests exit the Stretching Gallery, then giggle like evil little children; that Madame Leota's illuminated spell book in the seance room is turned to page 1313; or that the books in the library move in and out of their shelves as if shifted around by invisible hands.
The DoomBuggiers discuss these important matters at dinner in between bites of filet mignon, sips of "Bride's Beating Heart" red-pepper bisque and little coffins of chocolate mousse. Beneath the chorus of frogs and the lapping of water across the bows of the pirate boats you sense but can't see - it's a trick of the light - the lazy, melancholy sounds of a banjo float in from somewhere off in the darkened bayou, played by persons unknown. Walt was nothing if not a genius with the shape of mood.
Jeff Baham (a.k.a. Chef Mayhem), who organized the event, wanted to host the dinner upstairs at the park's Club 33, which would have been an amazing coup since the waiting list to get into the secret restaurant is 14 years long, but at just more than a hundred of us, the group is too large to fit in the club's dining room. "They said no video," says a young man, one of the lucky few Doomsters invited up to the club for a conciliatory tour, "but I shot some video. This is an animatronic vulture, and this is the women's restroom ... "
"You were in the women's restroom?" says his sister.
The "Swinging Wake," as they're calling the evening, is not just a meeting of like minds but a recognition of each other's secret souls. Certain people are Space Mountain people, who crave speed and the future and want their lives to be like Star Trek. Others are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom people, who long for adventures in tropical jungles with cannibals lying in wait around the river bend. Still others are strictly Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Steer clear of those guys: They're weird. But only slightly more so than those of us who love the Mansion, with its shadows and elegant, idiosyncratic ghouls.
"I've been on the ride over one hundred times, easily," says Shelby, a wraith-thin girl in a short white dress, who looks a lot like the bride in the attic, and who'd come to the dinner with her father.
As we eat, Jeff Smith, whose family manufactured the souvenir skulls and headstones sold in the Disneyland gift shops, talks about his house in Anaheim where the toys were made when he was growing up. You bounced the skulls on strings like shrunken heads. Thousands of skulls glowed so bright in that house, you could read a book by their light.
"Can you tell us about the tombstones?" someone asks.
"Ah, there were so many of them," Smith says. "We used to use them for target practice."
Some of Walt Disney's original cronies are also here tonight: Bob Gurr, designer of the ride's clamlike DoomBuggies. (Their shape was inspired by a candy apple sitting on his desk.) Harriet Burns, who made the first Enchanted Tiki Room bird. And X. Atencio, who wrote the script for the Haunted Mansion, including the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" graveyard song.
We are like kids running through that graveyard on the ride by ourselves, away from the maddening crowds in a mostly deserted park in the middle of the night. It's strange, thrilling and genuinely scary to glide through the mansion under these conditions, with animatronic spooks popping up from behind gravestones and eerie talking busts, followed by all those empty DoomBuggies; decades ago, Gurr imagined them as a "chain of elephants" moving through the space.
Yet there is always something new to catch the breath, some creature crawling up the leg of a table, some creepy face peering out of the wallpaper. Asked about the process of designing the Gothic southern-plantation mansion, Walt is rumored to have said, "We'll take care of the outside, and the ghosts will take care of the inside."
Tomb, sweet tomb, indeed. It's apparently not too tough to find a good interior decorator in the afterlife.
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