Darcie spends her free time going down research rabbit holes and occasionally writing down what she finds.
The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland
The Haunted Mansion is one of the most beloved Disney attractions of all time, and throughout its existence, there is one resident who has become particularly infamous. This Happy Haunt takes the form of an older gentleman wearing a top hat and cloak. In one hand he holds a cane and in the other, a hatbox.
The Original Hatbox Ghost Figure
By now, the story of what happened with the original Hatbox Ghost is likely familiar to most fans of the attraction, but let’s briefly review anyway.
The Hatbox Ghost effect—in which his head vanishes and then reappears in the hatbox—was initially achieved through a lighting trick. The Ghost’s head would glow under black lights, and as a light was turned on and off, the head would seem to appear or disappear. While the figure performed fine during testing at WED Enterprises, once placed in the attic scene of the attraction, two issues became apparent.
The attic had ambient light that wasn’t present at WED Enterprises, and riders in the Doom Buggies came very close to the figure during the scene. The combination of these elements meant that to riders, the head on the Hatbox Ghost’s shoulders never completely disappeared from view, rendering the effect entirely unconvincing.
Imagineers very quickly decided that it couldn’t be fixed and ultimately decided to remove the figure not long after opening. It was likely only present within the attraction for a few months at most, but of course, this was far from the end of this Happy Haunt.
Before the Haunted Mansion even opened, it was thought that the Hatbox Ghost might serve as a mascot of sorts. Because of this, the Ghost was prominently featured in promotional materials and merchandise, most notably in a souvenir record album titled The Story and Song from the Haunted Mansion recorded before the attraction’s completion. So it wasn’t surprising that guests who didn’t make it onto a Doom Buggy before the figure’s removal got a little curious about its absence.
Ironically, considering the rather mundane reason for his removal, the Hatbox Ghost would go on to gain an almost mythic status, developing a fan following which spawned numerous rumors as to his fate. One such prominent rumor was that the Ghost was removed for being too frightening, causing one guest to have a heart attack upon seeing him. Needless to say, this wasn’t true.
Perhaps the most interesting rumor was that the Hatbox Ghost never actually existed within the attraction in the first place. Thanks to some archival footage that made its way online relatively recently, we now know for certain that this is also untrue. However, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to believe this, as prior to the footage’s discovery, all there was to go on were the anecdotes of people who had seen him during the early days of the attraction.
Obviously, the Hatbox Ghost had been built, but the famous photos of Imagineer Yale Gracey with the figure were actually taken with a prototype, and not the figure ultimately placed in the attic. Incidentally, because these pictures were the only ones most fans could look at, there was also a rumor that the disappearing head was somehow achieved using a Pepper’s Ghost illusion.
What Became of the Original Hatbox Ghost?
So what actually became of the original Hatbox Ghost figure? One popular theory is that it was eventually recycled into a Sam the Eagle audio-animatronic for America Sings, and then later into a Br’er Fox animatronic for Splash Mountain once America Sings was closed.
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It’s not clear why this became so prominent a theory, but it is known that this couldn’t be the case. In early 2009, a reference manual for the Haunted Mansion showed up on eBay. Within the manual is a schematic for the Hatbox Ghost figure, showing that it was primarily made up of metal tubing, with the only moving part being its hand, which trembled on top of the cane. It was too simplistic of a figure to be reused for the more advanced Sam the Eagle animatronic.
Officially, no one really knows what happened to the original Hatbox Ghost. But given his popularity, it is probably no surprise that he would eventually return to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
A new Hatbox Ghost animatronic that achieved the disappearing head effect through the use of projections was placed in the Attic on May 9, 2015, as part of Disneyland’s 60th-anniversary celebration.
Changes to the Story
So what was this “cloaked figure with an evil, grinning face”—as he was described in The Story and Song from the Haunted Mansion—doing in the Mansion’s Attic anyway? Originally, the Hatbox Ghost’s story was intertwined with a nearby figure, that of the Bride. As stated on the souvenir record, “With every beat of his bride’s heart, his head disappeared from his body and then reappeared in the hatbox.”
In the book Boundless Realm, author Foxx Nolte gives an in-depth analysis of the Attic scene as it would have originally appeared. As Nolte writes, “At Disneyland, all of the Attic pop-ups came up out of hatboxes or trunks. This was a visual setup for the murder mystery represented by the Bride and the Hatbox Ghost.”
Though the Bride appears to have gotten away with several murders in life, in death she is revealed. As Nolte writes, “We understand that dark deeds have been done in the creepy old place, and right here is a scary skull-faced lady with a candle who looks like suspect number one. And her heartbeat—the beating heart that we can see flashing red in her chest—fills the room in the same way her crimes do. The confirmation came when the Hatbox Ghost appeared, holding up a hatbox and grinning.”
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion has undergone a lot of changes since it first opened, and the story of the Bride and the Hatbox Ghost that could be experienced in its early days is long gone. The Bride has been given several makeovers, most recently transforming into Constance Hatchaway and given a new backstory. Though the Hatbox Ghost can still be made to fit into her story, the way they were deliberately intertwined originally is absent.
On the subject of the Hatbox Ghost animatronic currently residing within Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, Nolte has this to say:
“The Hatbox Ghost returned to Disneyland in 2015, and while the figure is amazing, he’s now up on the roof in his own little scene, technically part of the Graveyard Jamboree. This means that any connection to Constance is, officially, entirely hypothetical, and should not reflect on our interpretation of the Constance bride tableau.”
Longtime Fan Favorite
The Hatbox Ghost continues to be a fan favorite to this day. It’s still featured fairly prominently in merchandising, and in July 2010, when Guillermo del Toro announced at Comic-Con that he was involved with a new Haunted Mansion film that will likely never be made, the promotional image used was that of the Hatbox Ghost.
There was even an animatronic of him made as a demonstration and featured at the “Journey to Imagineering” pavilion at the D23 Expo in 2013. Not bad for a figure that was removed not long after opening due to a less than impressive effect.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.