It's common knowledge that those things that terrified us as a child eventually become the neuroses that plague us as adults. And one thing that clearly stands out for me as a child was being led into a small dark room, the only exit quickly closing behind me while a scary-sounding man mocked me:
“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host – your ‘Ghost Host.’
Then the paintings on the walls started growing as the whole room seemed to be growing with it. Or was I shrinking?
“Your cadaverous pallor betrays an aura of foreboding, almost as though you sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Or is it your imagination, hmm…?”
It didn't help any that some of the people in the room with me seemed to be tittering, as if this was funny. Couldn't they see that this was NOT FUNNY. Something was VERY WRONG HERE!
I wanted out. Simple as that - mom, get me outta here ok?
“…And consider this dismaying observation: this chamber has no windows, and no doors... which offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, there's always my way...”
Lights go out. NO WAY OUT? WHAT!!!?!?
Some people start to scream and then BANG!!! With a flash of lightning a hanging man is revealed RIGHT ABOVE MY HEAD!!
Pure animal instinct flows through my veins and hits my adrenal glands like molten electricity.
Flight or fight. I choose flight.
GET ME OUTTA HERE!!!
I'm told I cannot leave. It's just make-believe. Get in the moving car and enjoy the ride.
Flash-forward a few decades as my family and I visit the Happiest Place on Earth. I have not been back since that fateful night. This is also the first time for my two boys, ages 4 and 7. As an adult I want to re-experience some of the demons that haunted me as a child. This place is full of them. I want to see with adult eyes what was so scary to me as a child. Maybe I can gain some insights into what dark alchemy makes something "scary", and use that in my movies.
Maybe I can sleep better at night.
Let me state this unequivocally. I was right to be scared as a child. This place is designed to trigger every neurotic panic button in your body:
Scared of the dark? Check.
Scared of being under water? Check.
Scared of heights? Check.
I'll throw in some claustrophobia for free. Check.
How about creepy characters? Check.
Wild animals? Check.
Lions? Tigers? Bears? Check.Check.Check.
Let's spin you around until you spew your lunch? Check.
How about some G forces and stomach lurching drops after that corn-dog? Check.
Now lets top it off with endless long lines and the constant reality of getting separated from your family forever as the massive throngs of zombie-like Disneyfiles engulf you and take you away to Never Never Land.
Sounds like fun - sign me up for some of that.
We started off slowly with our kids to see how much Disney "fun" they could handle. All my older son could talk about was Jedi Training!!! Jedi Training!!! since his buddy had just been there and told him how cool it was. Ok, so since I know my life in no way can continue until this kid has had his fill of Jedi training we eventually find our way to the spot in Tomorrowland
What could be scary about that?
After we fought through a crush of humanity to gulp down some horrifically bad pizza, we decided to walk through the Castle - the very symbol of Disney enchantment - and view the dioramas depicting the story of Sleeping Beauty. Of course, as with most things Disney, this involved travelling through a dark maze and peering at dimly-lit images of witches, spells and general mayhem. My 4-year old was immediately apprehensive. I couldn't blame him.
I figured, let's go to the ultimate happy-place and get these kids used to the Disney experience of mechanical wizardry - It's Small World. As promised, the kids loved the seemingly never-ending parade of blissed-out puppet children and their Mobius-strip chant of a song. I was convinced that by showing them a ride where they could more easily see behind the facade to the inner-workings of how it was all done, that they would be better prepared to handle the scarier rides later on - Pirates, and maybe even The Haunted Mansion.
Next, we meandered our way to the Pinoccio ride. Sounded innocent enough. Once again, we were pulled through a dark maze of nasty images and scary sounds. The ride was like 75% scare-tactics with a little bit of a happy-ending thrown in right before you were re-introduced to the glare of "real-life". I was noticing a trend here. This was supposed to be a "safe" ride to take a kid and yet my younger son was terrified. Disney was offering up promises of fantasy and storybook lands and then bitch-slapping my kids with terror and panic before pushing us out the swinging doors with a malevolent "Come again soon". Thanks a lot Disney - if I wanted that I could've taken my kids to see SAW IV or something...
So, of course next we ventured over to Pirates of the Caribbean - one of my favorites as a child even though it freaked me out, mostly due to the unexpected drop in the beginning. As an adult, I still do not like roller coasters, especially the terrifying sensation of falling, so I was a little trepidatious to experience the ride again and made a purpose to let my kids know about the drop before hand so they wouldn't be blind-sided by the jolt. It turns out of course that my kids (especially my 7-year old) are not at all scared by roller-coasters (my son even went on the insanely-fast California Screamin' with no problem), and so although the drop was no biggie, the rest of the ride was.
My younger son spent the entire ride crammed next to my wife, barely watching. Even my older son, after we had been through It's a Small World, and I had explained how the mechanical puppets worked, was still convinced that the pirates were real. When we left that ride they were both shell-shocked.
At the same time as I was watching my kids cower in fear however, I as an adult I was in awe at how effective these seemingly innocent rides were at eliciting a response from them. They are, still to this day, amazingly crafted dream-machines. Using mostly mechanized puppets and a couple of optical tricks, Disney's imagineers managed to tap into some major dark Jungian recesses in our brains. The combination of the dark, the dimly lit images, the life-like animatronics, the sounds that follow you as you move through the narrative, the actual physical experience of being drawn through the story in a moving car, or especially gently rocking in a boat is so utterly dream-like that it convinces your senses that you are experiencing another reality - a reality that is governed by different laws of physics - a reality where anything can happen - and you are NOT IN CONTROL and never know WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT. These last two items for me are the key as to the amazing effectiveness and terrifying nature of these rides - especially for children.
Eager to stay out of the dark for a while, we decided to visit the Jungle Ride, which I remembered as a fun adventure as a child.
Oh that's right, I remembered as we made our journey through the river, this ride was mostly about the river guide making light-hearted remarks about feeding the children to the animals as we saw a parade of angry hippos, hungry crocodiles, a rhino about to engorge some unlucky safari group, topped off with pithy remarks about the cannibals proudly displaying their shrunken head collection.
What's not to like about that?
The next day we made our way to California Adventure to check out the action over there. We were told to definitely spend time in the Bug's Life area as there was a bunch of stuff to do with the kids. We walked down the path to the underground theater to see the "It's Tough to be a Bug!" 3D adventure. I looked on the map and noticed that there was a little exclamation mark icon next to the listing. Hmmm. I looked at the icon legend on the right side of the map, and below all the icons for restrooms, first aid, warnings for pregnant women and folks with heart conditions, I found the yellow-circle exclamation point.
This attraction may be frightening for children
HUH? WHAT? Let me get this straight... Haunted House? No exclamation point. Pirates? No exclamation point. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? No exclamation point. California Screamin'? No exclamation point. The only other exclamation point in all of Disney was (drumroll please...)
...the newly reinstated Michael Jackson Captain EO.
This attraction may be frightening for children
I think I'll just leave it at that...
Anyway, so I'm just dumbfounded. Why would they make a 3D Bug's Life movie attraction specifically for kids, that is so terrifying that they have to issue a warning on their map. What are they thinking? What am I thinking, insisting my kids tough it out and watch the movie. How bad can it be?
We entered the theater, being reminded multiple times that if your children were freaked out, please use the exits to the right. After donning our 3D glasses, the movie started innocently enough, with some moths on the screen. After that it was complete non-stop insectoid mayhem with 3D simulated bug attacks by way of slingshot bombs exploding in our faces (with actual air blasts to complete the effect), stink bombs, stinger attacks (while being jabbed in the back), and huge black widows dropping from the ceiling. My kids "survived" the experience, but I began to wonder... at what cost? Why was I doing this?
The final day, the only thing left on our itinerary was the Haunted Mansion. As we approached the New Orleans style estate I was looking forward to facing my childhood fears and finally putting them to rest. I knew my youngest son wouldn't want to go in, but my oldest seemed willing to try. I was proud of him for being so brave and encouraged him to come with my wife and I. "It's just make-believe" I told him, "just like Halloween." As we got closer to the entrance I could see his courage wavering. "Don't worry, nothing is going to be thrown at you or touch you like that stupid Bug movie", I reassured him. "If anything scares you, just close your eyes." As we got to the door, a teenage girl started giggling nervously, turned around and tried to get away but her friends wouldn't let her. My son saw this and I saw his eyes feverishly scan for an escape route. "I'm not sure I wanna go on this..." he said, but being the father that needs to encourage his children to face and overcome their fears, I pushed him forward. "No turning back now", I said.
As we entered the vestibule my mind flashed back to me as a child. What seemed so scary then was simply an ordinary room. I was determined to experience this with ultimate detachment - without the fog of fear clouding my vision. As the lights went out and the teenage girls tittered, my son really began to panic, but I was still experiencing this through adult eyes, seeing all the engineering behind the veil and found myself tittering too.
"Dad I want to get out of here NOW!" My son was falling apart as the lightning cracked and the hangman dropped above our heads. I could do nothing but push him towards the Doom Buggies as the doors opened. "You can't go back buddy - the only way out is to get in the cars."
My wife and son got in one car with me, alone, in the one following. I could still hear him crying but was hoping that he would soon relax and be able to enjoy the ride as I had as a child, eventually realizing that it was all make-believe - just like Halloween. I sat back in my Doom Buggy and admired all the amazing engineering and craftsmanship that had gone into this fantastic achievement of camp horror. My son was having an altogether different experience. I would later find out that he had spent the entire ride with his head buried in my wife's armpit, his eyes tightly shut and his hands plastered against his ears. See no evil, hear no evil.
As we made our way through the graveyard, the unthinkable happened.
Or should I say, the cars stopped, but all the ghostly animatronics and sounds continued in a crazy, unending loop. Now, I tend to get claustrophobic anyways, but add to that being stuck for an unknown amount of time in a cacophonous, haunted graveyard and I could feel all the old fears licking at my neck. My heart immediately went out to my son who I knew was having an infinitely worse time of it. I was stuck in the car behind and could not get to him to comfort him. For the first time I considered that I had made a grave error forcing him in here. What was I thinking?
Just about when I was considering lifting up the damn bar holding me hostage in my Doom Buggy (a la Jurassic Park), the cars started moving again and we made our way through the ride.
As we exited the Mansion, I could see that my son was still a wreck. I put my arms around him and let him know it was ok - it was over. I was sorry I had put him though that. He looked at me with a pained expression and said his side hurt. I coached him through some breathing exercises, recognizing the tell-tale signs of a panic attack. He finally calmed down a little, but I was now the one with the pit in my stomach.
OH NO! What had I done - what had I done to my own son!
What kind of a sick mind could create this wretched place? This place where children are terrorized and then grow up to inflict the very same pain upon their children. Only a very sick mind - the kind of twisted mind that could dream up visions of horror, of witches and pirates and brooms that dance on their own; the kind of twisted mind that could entice children into dark places and then kill off the mother in all of his movies from Bambi to Nemo.
Damn you Disney! Damn you to HELL!!
P.S. - Of course we'll probably be back in a couple of years - when our youngest son is tall enough to go on all the rides.