The Haunted Mansion is a favorite attraction for many attendees at Disney’s theme parks, each one filled with numerous ghosts and hints as to their varied stories. Of these, there is a notable ghost who, for most of his history, was actually never in the Haunted Mansion, yet went on to have one of the largest followings and intriguing stories of all the 999 haunts.
The Hatbox Ghost was originally supposed to be installed in the original Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, California when the ride first opened. Located in the attic, the Hatbox Ghost’s face would disappear from his shoulders and reappear in the hatbox, before disappearing and reappearing on his shoulders again.
Like many of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, the special effects required pushed the boundaries of what was possible and, unfortunately in the Hatbox Ghost’s case, the effect couldn’t be done. As Imagineer Chris Merritt explained:
“The gag was based purely on lighting. The ghost’s head was illuminated by black lighting. A light inside the hatbox he held would rhythmically illuminate and hide the head in the hatbox, while, in tandem, the actual head on the ghost’s shoulders would be hidden by extinguishing the black lighting.”
Essentially, the ghost’s head would be present on both his shoulders and the box, and the use of lighting would make the head look like it was switching places. The switching would also be kept in tandem with the Bride’s beating heart. However, during cast member previews on Aug. 7 and 8 in 1969, it became immediately clear the trick wouldn’t work because the ambient light in the attic prevented the Hatbox Ghost’s head from totally disappearing. After a few months, the ghost was removed from the ride despite attempts to correct the problem.
What happened to the physical Hatbox Ghost figure remains a mystery to this day. After it was removed from the Haunted Mansion, the figure was apparently lost since no definite record has ever been published indicating if the figure was reused, trashed, etc. A second figure of the Hatbox Ghost had been built for the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World in Florida but never installed. Like the first figure, what happened to the second figure remains a mystery.
Despite never actually being successfully implemented on any of the rides, the Hatbox Ghost somehow remained an extremely popular character with audiences. Merchandise throughout the 60’s was produced featuring the Hatbox Ghost, from publicity photos featuring the figure to records with artwork of the ghost.
In 2009, art and merchandise featuring the character were created to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Haunted Mansion due to fan interest in the Hatbox Ghost, and he has appeared in many Disney comics as different people. Later on May 9th, 2015, a new animatronic figure of the Hatbox Ghost was installed in the Haunted Mansion, finally marking the ghost’s official appearance within the ride. On this animatronic, the ghost’s eyes move from side to side, before his face magically dissolves into his rib cage and reappears in the hatbox. There is also the added effect of an occasional hiss or sinister laugh.
At the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, 999 attendees were given a special poster depicting an updated Hatbox Ghost’s face, and were informed that director Guillermo del Toro was working with Disney on a remake of the 2003 film The Haunted Mansion. Although the Hatbox Ghost was absent from the 2003 film (odd for such a popular character), del Toro announced that in his version the Hatbox Ghost would be a the main haunting, suggesting he would an antagonistic presence.
Years have since passed without any substantial news on the remake, though del Toro did state at one point they had worked on maquettes of the Hatbox Ghost over the body and face of Doug Jones, known for playing Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. While the remake still remains in development, it is a fair bet when the remake is finally released the Hatbox Ghost would play a major part.
In terms of the ride, there is much discussion as to what role the Hatbox Ghost plays in the overall story of the Haunted Mansion. Generally, the mansions in each Disney theme park have a unique overarching story, while clues throughout the mansion provide hints as to who the ghosts are or what brought them to their fate.
As for the Hatbox Ghost, it could be he was an undertaker or the groundskeeper for the mansion since his top hat and high-collared trenchcoat suggest he spent much time outside, although his location within the mansion also lends some clues to his past. The Hatbox Ghost, both originally and today, could be found in the attic, where the only other ghost was the bride.
The original bride, the Beating Heart Bride, was a corpse-like figured with a glowing, beating heart. Since the original Hatbox Ghost’s head switch was timed with the bride’s heartbeat, there has always been an implied connection between the two ghosts. Later incarnations of the bride replaced her blank face with a tragic expression, suggesting the bride may have been murdered by the sinister-looking Hatbox Ghost.
In 2006, the Beating Heart Bride was replaced with a new figure altogether called Constance Hatchaway. Hatchaway was originally featured as one of the stretching portraits, depicting her sitting on a bust of her husband who has a hatchet buried in his head. The figure of her in the attic continues this story, showing she had married at least five husbands with numerous wedding gifts surrounding her, all the while she holds her hatchet and recites somewhat distorted wedding vows.
Going off of this evidence, it would seem the Hatbox Ghost was actually the bride’s victim, rather than the murderer himself. This also explains the Hatbox Ghost’s ability to switch his head into the hatbox; he may have been beheaded by Hatchaway at some point.
Overall, if there is one thing that should stand out about the Hatbox Ghost it would be the character’s continued popularity despite not actually being in the ride itself for decades. It could be the character’s backstory or the iconic and sinister appearance, but it nonetheless fits in well with the Haunted Mansion and will likely continue to be a fan favorite for years to come.
For another article on the Haunted Mansion, check out this article on the cancelled Museum of the Weird which would have served as an addition to the mansion had it not been scrapped following the death of Walt Disney. And as always, thanks for reading.