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Positioning the observer

The Haunted Mansion at WDW.

The Haunted Mansion at WDW.

How different would Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride be if people walked through it instead of riding through it? If visitors to the attraction could follow corridors looking around them, turning for a full 360 panorama, how would that change the experience?

That might seem an odd set of questions, especially if I tell you they came to me after some readings from a photography and public history class. But the readings  made me think more about the position of the observer. And being pragmatic about it, I thought of the Haunted Mansion, for reasons that will hopefully become clearer below.

I only read a small part of Jonathan Crary’s book Techniques of the Observer as an assigned reading, so there’s some context missing. Plus I’m not a student of visual culture, so a lot of this is new. What struck me, though, was his examination of the position of the observer. He uses the phenakistiscope and stereoscope to explain how human sight was reshaped, or how vision was reorganized in the 19th Century.

In fact, the very physical position required of the observer by the phenakistiscope bespeaks a confounding of three modes: an individual body that is at once a spectator, a subject of empirical research and observation, and an element of machine production.

I am really keying in on one small part of the chapter I read, that being  the idea of the observer being an element of machine production. Perhaps I focused on that because of what Crary wrote lower on the same page:

Unlike the static panorama painting that first appeared in the 1790s, the diorama is based on the incorporation of an immobile observer into a mechanical apparatus and a subjection to a predesigned temporal unfolding of optical experience.

What struck me was the idea that, with these devices, the observer became a necessary part of the machine. In a manner of speaking, the human body became part of the visual experience. It made me think back to another reading, “The Visual Order of the Nineteenth Century” in Suren Lalvani’s Photography and the Production of Modern Bodies (Ch. 5). Lalvani speaks of train travel and panoramic perception.

Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception no longer belongs to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveller sees the objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moves him through the world.

I might be making a bunch of leaps here, but my mind melded together the ideas of the “predesigned temporal unfolding of the optical experience” with “the apparatus which moves him through the world.” If you’ve ever visited a Disney theme park, then you might understand where I’m going next. Disney Imagineers, in many ways, are masters of vision and illusion, whether they’re using something as simple as perspective to make buildings look taller (the castles, for example) or they’re  using a complex array of devices within a mechanical ride to control the observer vis-a-vis the observed.

The Haunted Mansion is a great example of this. And I don’t say that simply because I live with a Disney aficionado who loves the Haunted Mansion in particular. If you’ve never been on the ride, here’s a video you can skip through to get an idea of what I’m talking about (I strongly suggest skipping through it at intervals unless you have about 26 minutes to spend watching it). After going through a bit of theatrics to set the mood, riders end up on a “Doombuggy” (aka Omnimover).

Technical stuff aside, these are important for how riders view the “moving picture” that unfolds before them as they travel in a loop through the building housing the ride. According to the folks over at Doombuggies.com, “by directing the rider’s focus, the scenes in the Mansion could retain some detail without concerns about where the rider would be looking.” These buggies control the line of sight, so the technical elements needed to create the illusion can’t be seen. The lighting, projectors, wires and who knows what else go unseen. It’s really quite effective. The buggies turn the riders to specific points of interest throughout the ride, and since the buggies are curved it’s difficult to look around to the sides and behind, unless you really lean out (I know, I’ve tried). The view of the rider is dependent on where the buggy is turned at any given time, which is determined by some pre-programmed sequence. The placement of the observer becomes as important – if not more so – that what is being observed.

What unfolds is a fun, dark ride that relies on projections, shadows, and many other techniques I won’t pretend to understand. It works because looking up and to the sides or even behind is impossible. But if it was a walk-through, or even if the doombuggies were open, the illusion as it stands now wouldn’t work. So we, as riders, willingly allow our vision to be narrowly defined for us. We hop into the doombuggies with a willing suspension of disbelief. It’s like the train meeting the diorama, but with some technical advancements to make it more interesting.

Categories: HIST 5702X
  1. Gordon Little
    January 31, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    “The lighting, projectors, wires and who knows what else go unseen.”

    •I• know what else…

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