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Does ‘The Haunted Mansion’ Need a Villain? (And Didn’t It Already Have One?)

Disney’s second trailer for Haunted Mansion (the “The” appears to have been sent down the Endless Hallway) has confirmed what many fans suspected/hoped for: the studio has decided to keep at least one concept from the abandoned Guillermo del Toro version, and has elevated Hatbox Ghost to the status of Disney villain.

There are strong signs that Disney is at least trying to do right on its second stab at bringing one of its most iconic attractions to the screen. It definitely passes the Easter-egg test: in the five-minute trailer we see Rolly Crump’s chair-with-a-face (a lonely relic from his lamented “Museum of the Weird”), the animated suit of armor, the hungry clock eternally striking thirteen, a Ghost Host cameo, the library busts, the dueling ghosts, and the looming trees that haunt guests on their way to the graveyard. And these are just the deep cuts. All of the fan favorites have big parts to play—Constance Hatchaway/The Bride, Madame Leota, the Hitchiking Ghosts, and of course Hatbox Ghost himself.

Every Disney movie needs a Disney villain. But before we decide how Hatbox fits into the company of Jafar, Ursula, Chernabog, and Mad Madam Mim, it seems worthwhile to ask what a Haunted Mansion villain is even supposed to do. As with everything else connected to the ride, the answer lies not in one place but in nine hundred and ninety-nine others. Starting with the first time Disney tried to bring the Haunted Mansion to the screen.

I don’t like talking about the 2003 Eddie Murphy version any more than most people like reading about it, so I’ll stick to talking about what went wrong in their choice of villain. The original 1969 Disneyland attraction doesn’t actually have one, and it doesn’t really need one: the ghosts are happy to go on being ghosts and nothing seems likely to interfere with it, least of all us. And there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that (as opposed to The Pirates of the Caribbean, in which just about everyone we’re rooting for is a murdering sex trafficker). They have zero problem with the living: they even have a song about it.

When director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter David Berenbaum went to work on the 2003 version, they decided that something had to be wrong with being a ghost or they didn’t have a story. So they went with the tried-and-true trope that the happy haunts are lost souls that someone is preventing from going into the light. None of the ride’s existing ghosts seemed right for the role, so they invented one. Raimsley the butler (played with droll spookiness by Terence Stamp) ticks all the Disney villain boxes: he has a master plan, he has a British accent, he drops a lot of ironic hints—though he doesn’t chuckle to himself nearly enough—and he murdered somebody. All so that he can keep Master Gracey from taking the Tangina exit to the afterlife along with all his servants. There’s a classic Disney villain motivation for you: job security.

The 2023 movie seems to have taken the opposite tack: this time it’s not so much that the ghosts want out as that they want us in. While our four ghost hunters (played by the unlikely quartet of LaKeith Stanfield, Danny DeVito, Tiffany Hadish, and Owen Wilson) have been hired to rid the Mansion of spirits, they soon get back-footed and discover that they either have to fight their way out or “we’re stuck here for eternity.” This keeps faith with some of the original ride’s sly jokes about a quest for “volunteers.” It also helps preserve the balance between humor and chills that makes the ride work—and, I hope, the new Haunted Mansion.

So who wants to trap us mortals with them for eternity? There are two candidates, and they both just happen to reside in the attic. Constance Hatchaway, aka The Bride, has evolved from victim to villain over the past five decades. At some point in the 90s she traded in her withered bouquet for an axe, and in just about every adaptation (including Muppets Haunted Mansion) she’s gleefully on the hunt for the next head of the family. The other is the Hatbox Ghost.

Because he was removed from the ride days after it opened in 1969 (the Imagineers were reportedly unhappy with the execution of their effect) and only restored in 2015, Hatbox Ghost didn’t acquire any of the lore that’s built up around Tightrope Girl, the Organist, or any of the other characters that fans have endowed with names and backstories. Since little is known or even speculated about him, he carries an air of mystery and offers a blank canvas for screenwriters. Added to which he kinda looks like a villain, with a classic top-hat-and-cape look straight out of Jack the Ripper movies and a face clearly inspired by Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight.

But if he is a villain, then what exactly does he have to be villainous about? In the ride, he doesn’t seem to want anything more than to perform his little trick for us: head comes off, head comes back; head comes off…  Standing as he is next to the Bride and her swinging hatchet, he seems to want us to know that getting your head lopped off isn’t so bad. Like all the other haunts on the ride, he’s telling us that Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Which leads me to a third possibility that the 2023 filmmakers don’t seem to have considered: why not use one of the villains that’s already in the ride’s backstory? Some of the ecto-DNA of Euro Disney’s Phantom seems to have found its way into the new movie’s Hatbox Ghost: the aura of genuine malice, at least. But I think there’s an even better candidate, and he’s been waiting for his cue since the ride was first conceived. I’m referring, of course, to Captain Gore.

Captain Gore—aka Captain Gideon Gorelieu, Bartholomew Gore, and Bartholomew Roberts—was the heart and soul of Imagineer Ken Anderson’s concept for the Haunted Mansion, back when it was originally proposed as a water ride a la Pirates and Small World. Since our boats were supposedly drifting within a semi-submerged Louisiana mansion, it made sense to create a ghost story wraparound featuring a pirate captain who’d murdered his wife Priscilla after she discovered his illegal activities (which, not for nothing, also helped inspire The Bride). After sending his wife to the afterlife, Gore hanged himself, a setpiece that was later assigned to the Ghost Host.

Small touches of the Captain Gore backstory still exist in the ride: the ship weathervane that still adorns the Disneyland mansion; the “ghost ship” changing portrait in the gallery; his tombstone in the Florida mansion’s queue; and the “Mariner” painting of a harpoon-wielding fisherman (now rechristened Culpepper Clyde), which actually seems to make an appearance in the 2023 trailer.

Considering how much the filmmakers did their homework (there’s some seriously deep cuts in the trailer), it’s hard for me to believe that they simply didn’t know about Captain Gore. Which leaves me wondering why they didn’t find some way to use him. He’s actually a perfect villain. His actions explain how the Haunted Mansion got haunted to begin with, and his Bluebeard-like story suggests that he could still be hungry for new victims. I suppose someone could ague that he’s too obscure a character… but then he’s actually been a staple in multiple graphic novel adaptations over the years. In Disney Kingdoms he even gets to be the boss villain, and his final comeuppance is getting trapped inside the Hatbox Ghost’s hatbox (!).

Short of any statement by the filmmakers—which I do not expect to get—I have to assume that Hatbox Ghost got the nod for the simple reason that he’s riding a trend. The legend of his removal inspired a generation of fans to press for his return; and, having put their money where their morgue was, Disney decided that they needed to get a return on their investment. That’s the simple and probably correct answer.

My preferred answer—which I also suspect will never be confirmed—is that Captain Gore was sidelined because he’s been traded off to another franchise. As we discover in Anderson’s original treatment, one of Gore’s many aliases was Bartholomew Roberts. He shares this name—and, in at least one draft, his identity—with a real Welsh pirate who was the supposed author of the Pirate Code referenced in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (also, coincidentally or not, the inspiration for The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts). The shipwrecked ship in the original ride (piloted by a skeleton lashed to the helm) is known as The Royal Fortune, which is also the name of Roberts’s flagship. Roberts shows up in several Pirates graphic novels and video game adventures. And while I have no way of proving a connection, I can’t help but notice how much Gore’s original concept drawing looks like the Auctioneer Pirate from the original ride. It wouldn’t be the first time Disney has reused old material.

Assuming the screenwriters delved into any of this, it’s possible that Gore was rejected for the same reason he was created in the first place. He was summoned into being to help create linkage between Pirates and the Haunted Mansion, seeing as they lived side-by-side in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. That’s a great idea for a theme park, and frankly one I wished they hadn’t abandoned. But when you’re talking movie franchises, it can confuse audiences to blur the lines: it would be like having Star-Lord show up in Star Wars. Still, I wish they could find a way to resurrect Captain Gore as a villain. Apart from his many other fine qualities, he’s spooky fun.

And that is exactly what The Haunted Mansion is all about.

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