Following up on my thread regarding exploring the real life Caribbean locations used for the attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, I thought I'd take a closer look at just one section of the Haunted Mansion in some of the Disneyland parks - Madame Leota, and the seance room.
The word séance comes from the French word for 'seat', 'session', from Old French seoir, 'to sit.' In English, the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people to receive spiritualistic messages (a sense first recorded in English in 1845). In French, it is much more general: one can say une séance de cinéma.
Belief in the ability to communicate with the dead was part of a religious movement called Spiritualism, which flourished, and was hugely popular, from the 1840s until the 1920s.
Séances were conducted in dark or semi-dark rooms with participants seated around a usually round table. Some say this is to help the medium use tricks to fool the participants. Sometimes the table would lean and tilt, participants (sitters) might feel a cold breeze on their faces, items could materialize apparently out of thin air and musical instruments might play mysteriously. During the course of the séance, the medium would speak under the apparent control of a spirit, relaying messages from the dearly departed. Other methods of spirit communication included automatic writing, writing on sealed slates, writing with planchettes (similar to the Ouija board), impressing images onto photographic plates which had been kept in sealed enclosures, and painted images which gradually appeared upon previously blank canvas. Of course psychics have long been associated with crystal balls, as well, and you'll find one in this room also.
This particular room bears the artists marks of two men in particular (who had, it was reported, opposing viewpoints on the mansion as a whole):
Rolly Crump-- An artist and magic aficionado. His love of stage magic and illusions inspired effects such as the "Pepper's Ghost" trick used in the Grand Hall and hitchhiking ghosts scenes.
A mechanical genius and animator, he was a tinkerer who loved to play around with technology. Gracey and Crump together developed the "Leota effect" that brings Madame Leota to life in the Seance Room.
In this part of the mansion you'll note three things in particular - Madame Leota, a disembodied head projected inside a crystal ball, the musical instruments that spirits play at her command, and a newer effect, the spirit writing and face.
Madame Leota: Madame Leota's face is that of the late imagineer Leota (Toombs) Thomas, and the voice that of Eleanor Audley, who also provided the voices of other well-known Disney movie characters like Maleficent and Cinderella's stepmother.
Leota Toombs Thomas, (Leota's Face), and
Eleanor Audley, (Leota's Voice)
Most people know that Leota's head used to be static, that is, stayed in one place, and had an internal projection device. The head was projected internally in 1995, and as of October, 2001, Leota's head has external projection, and moves about the room.
Madam Leota says the following while in the room:
Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat
call in the spirits wherever they're at.
Rap on a table, it's time to respond,
send us a message from somewhere beyond.
Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween
awaken the spirits with your tambourine.
Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond
let there be music from regions beyond.
Wizards and witches wherever you dwell
give us a hint by ringing a bell...
(photos are credited to doombuggies.com)
It's been reported on trivia websites (which means treat as "unconfirmed") that there's a pentagram inlaid into the "client" stool opposite Leota's chair in the Seance room, and cast members have reported that atop the table in the Seance room is a shawl. This shawl belonged to Eleanor Audley.
Also, as further trivia, there are 13 tarot cards depicting such things as "Seven Lucky Charms," "Twelve Signs of the Zodiac," etc. Number three is "Three Lifelines."
As you can see above, inside the crystal ball is a blank face, very similar to the type used to support wigs in department stores. This prop wears a long white wig and was taken from a life cast of Leota Thomas, who worked in the Disneyland costume department at the time of the attraction’s design. Thomas was used for a rough test of the effect, and was so good that they used her in the final attraction. Her voice, however, was high and girlish, and was dubbed by the formidable Eleanor Audley, whom Disney fans will recognize as the voice of Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and of the memorable Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.
Onto this blank bust, a video projection of Ms. Thomas is projected from the front. Although these used to be 16mm film loops, these projections are now stored on laserdisc and loop indefinitely. The projection itself comes from directly in front and below of the buggies. Disney lore has it that Ms. Thomas had so much trouble keeping still during the recording of the footage to be used in the attraction that the Imagineers had to tie her hair to the chair! Later recording sessions used vice-like contraptons to keep actors’ heads still.
A small point of light created by the projector can be seen reflected in the crystal ball. This is why, at Disneyland, there are four candles on her able casting misdirecting points of light into the glass around her.
In the 1995 Disneyland overhaul, Disney Imagineers changed the effect of Madame Leota to be more similar to the version installed at Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, where the head is hollow and projected into the interior of the head via fiber optics. Although this allowed them to animate the table to float and tilt as if hovering above the floor as well, the image tended to distort at the edges and was replaced in 2001, when the image was changed again to a front projection.
Disney was also granted a patent for this projection system, the blueprints of which you can see at the two links below:
The Musical Instruments: By the mid-1850's, mediums had advanced far beyond just rapping on tables. One of the most famous and successful mediums, Scotsman D. D. Home, had "spirits" play an accordion during seances. Tambourines, drums, even trombones were used to convince an audience that the spirits were present.
The photograph below was taken in December, 1948, in total darkness, and shows a medium using a device to play a musical instrument while still keeping contact with the hands of those around her. She later claimed that what was shown in the photograph was ectoplasm.
But spiritual powers often weren't the actual cause of the phenomena produced at séances. Fraud abounded, and theatrical tricks and sleights of hand successfully convinced sitters they were seeing and hearing spirits in darkened rooms, especially in times of war and hardships when séance guests so desperately wanted to receive proof of an afterlife and were willing to believe. A mail-order catalog of the late 1800s even provided customers with séance necessities such as fake hands and rigged spirit slates, going so far as to offer instructions on how to produce tilting tables, sounds from seemingly nowhere, and thought transmission.
To prove they weren't frauds, many mediums underwent test conditions, letting skeptics bind them with ropes and handcuffs and lock them in sealed "spirit cabinets," demonstrating that paranormal activity would still appear despite such restraints. Magicians soon showcased the same feats as entertainment, claiming that the mediums' so-called test conditions were simply another example of séance trickery.
Back to the seance room, as further trivia, you'll note that the trumpet has, or at least used to have (I haven't noted it lately), a banner that says x=?
In the 1920s, legendary escape artist Harry Houdini embarked upon a zealous crusade to expose crooked mediums. He grew famous for his exposés of spiritual con artists and even traveled to séances in disguise, revealing himself to unsuspecting hoodwinkers when they produced evidence of fraud.
Houdini's most controversial attempt at unveiling a scam came in 1924, when he joined a committee to judge mediums vying for a prize offered byScientific American magazine. The first medium who could produce authentic paranormal phenomena would win $2,500, and the most likely candidate was Boston medium Mina Crandon, known in her spirit circles as "Margery." Like her predecessors, Margery too gained empowerment through her séances: formerly the bored wife of a prominent surgeon twenty years her senior, she suddenly created glamorous social events via her sittings and spoke through the voice of a witty, often-vulgar "spirit control," her dead brother Walter.
The highly publicized investigations of Margery often kept Houdini from concentrating on other aspects of his career. Plus they directed attention away from other mediums around the world--ones who might have proven to be more legitimate than Margery, who was ultimately denied the prize due to too many indications of fraud. Nevertheless, Margery went to her deathbed refusing to confess she was a sham. And, after his own death, Houdini failed to return to the world of the living through séances--as he promised his wife he would do if spiritualism were indeed genuine after all.
The Margery and Houdini eras seems to have slowed down the practice of seances to a crawl (although I attended one in Las Vegas earlier this year, and there are occasional ones in London and in Hollywood).
Séances will undoubtedly live on as long as literature and films continue to dive into haunting stories of the paranormal and bizarre tales of visitors from the other side--even though spiritualism is indeed a case where truth is often stranger than fiction.
"The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies," by Imagineer Jason Surrell.
Goldsmith, Barbara, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Doombuggies.com and grimgrinning.com are also excellent websites for further information.