Spectres of Race and Real Estate: Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” (2003)

haunted posterDisney’s film Haunted Mansion shares with Pirates of the Caribbean the common trait that both films were released in 2003 and are both filmic representations of Disneyland theme-park rides. It was a clever conceit by the studio to give new life to its aging and technologically dated attractions, both of which were first opened in 1969. But the similarities end there: Pirates would go on to spawn four sequels, led by Johnny Depp whose character Jack Sparrow plays a queer pirate who faces down a vagina dentata, has serious daddy issues and in one brilliant image possesses a kind of sexual synecdoche: a spinning compass that can’t settle on true “north”. Where the gender politics and sexuality fit the theme of an epic watery adventure of (stereotypically homosexual) pirates, slippery squids and underwater caves with hidden treasures lurking inside, the historical sensibility of the series is inept. Orlando Bloom’s plebeian hero “Will Turner” longs after the daughter of the Jamaican port city in which he plies his trade as a blacksmith, but this being Jamaica in the 17th/18th century what we have is one of the more brutal slave societies ever known, a Caribbean political economy that is mostly overlooked by the series. Where Will Turner’s blacksmith is supposed to evoke a sympathy for his petit bourgeois craftsmanship, all I could think was that he must be spending the majority of his time fabricating iron shackles and chains for the thousands of slaves who work and die on the sugar fields. Downer!

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The Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, with its spectral theme is fertile ground to explore the ghosts of our historical past, and shockingly it does. The first “uncanny” element of the film is that it foregrounds a successful African-American middle-class family whose only “problem” is the usual “white” problem that devotion to work has gotten in the way of family time. Eddie Murphy’s character and his wife form a harried, but well-remunerated real-estate broker team who decide to take a weekend trip to escape the demands of a booming business. This dated emphasis on the real-estate market also serves as a reminder that the film was created before the mortgage crisis and braids in a version of American success that we now realize was mostly fictional– an asset bubble waiting to burst. Before the family can escape for some R&R, however, they must visit one more house after a strange phone call asks that Murphy’s wife come alone to visit the mansion for a prospective seller. haunted familyAlready this is strange territory as the black American family is usually pathologized, and broken in Hollywood films that are not specifically marketed to a black audience and rarely allowed to simply “be”–Not that the Haunted Mansion will leave this family alone or give it a vacation from history because it won’t, but for starters this is an intriguing scenario that reminds us of the cultural lacuna that opened with the disappearance of the Huxtables (The Cosby Show) and the Banks mansion (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

What is even more unexpected (to me at least) is when the plot begins to directly confront the blackness of the family and pin the haunting of the house to a story of cross-racial love which ended in a double suicide (shown as a flashback in the opening credits). This fact is a small spoiler, but I imagine that with a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes this is not a film that most people would be interested in viewing anyway. “The Master” of the mansion (a man in 19th century attire who speaks in a British accent) it seems has seen a photograph advertisement of real estate agent Sara Evers (Murphy’s Wife) and has become obsessed with her… Is Eddie Murphy’s wife some sort of reincarnation of a 19th century “mulatto” woman who fell in love with a rich, white young man? Who would argue that the ghosts that haunt the mansion America are not in the main those of the African slaves and Native Americans, the desire, the rape, the blood, the historical trauma–but do we really trust Disney to remind us of this? And is it salutary or abusive that this model African-American family must be dragged into this mansion, dragged back into a past which they don’t remember?

haunted love 2At this point it is the historical erasures that the film creates, how it eschews a geographical and temporal specificity that is most interesting. The fact that Master Edward Gracey, owner of Gracey mansion, speaks with a British accent I can only understand in that Disney wished to push this narrative away from a specifically American racism. Were he to speak in a dignified Southern drawl the movie would immediately move into another register, hackles would be raised and the escapism the movie (and Disney) promises would be “ruined” by cultural commentary. But arriving almost as a non sequitur, the final shot of the film is unmistakably the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and is underscored with a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” So we are in New Orleans but this important fact is only barely apparent at the last instant, and only apparent if you have driven a car in Louisiana or can put two and two together. Murphy’s family also has no discernible accent either; for most of the film they are simply “Americans” who could live anywhere, and who happen upon a spooky mansion owned by a man whose accent is British, a clever red herring.

What do we make of this strange film? Does the 13% Rotten Tomato rating really speak to its quality? Or is this the usual critic’s unconscious anger at seeing too many unpathologized black characters on screen at once? There is no white savior here who is poised to help this family and congratulate the white audience who love to be indulged with racial condescension. haunted family 2Instead in The Haunted Mansion the Evers family become the *black saviors* for a historical trauma that has festered for more than a century. Correctly and for once it is the “white” characters who are pathologized and in need of cathartic release. So here we have an African-American family as saviors–It really is not too far a leap to see something of the Obamas in the Evers family–A father played by Eddie Murphy who is devoted to the intricacies of his job, but also a man who teams professionally with his successful and beautiful wife. This relationship is not too far away from the teamwork and ambition of Barack and Michelle and even the Evers’ two children, an arachnaphobic son and his plucky elder sister have something in common with the yin and yang of Sasha and Malia

So Disney’s The Haunted House, released in 2003 is a prophetic film in more ways than one and like most perplexing and critically-reviled films is capable of telling us more about our country and the future than any Oscar contender. If we acknowledge that New Orleans is the setting, we must also realize this is a pre-Katrina New Orleans, one before “The Saints Go Marching In” became a stand-in national anthem for a certain traumatic period. The Haunted Mansion thus probably flooded, not to mention the problematic real estate market which quickly crashed along with the American economy soon after. The black home owner would see herself not only lose homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans which is now a kind of haunted suburban landscape, but also become the scape-goat of the entire financial crisis. Right-wing commentators continue to blame the collapse of capitalism on loose credit markets extended to “undeserving” communities who couldn’t pay their mortgages —Mort gage: A “dead pledge”, meaning the deal dies when the pledge to pay is fulfilled or ceases to be paid. The loan, the mortgage is a debt that haunts us with the “American Dream” while the real dream is more like a scary nightmare. There are deaths and debts yet to be paid. History continues to leave its residue.

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