BACKSTORY: The Hatbox Ghost is a character that appeared originally in The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland but was removed shortly after the attraction's debut. Located formerly in the ride's attic scene, the figure is described as "an elderly ghost in a cloak and top hat, leaning on a cane with a wavering hand and clutching a hatbox in the other."
The idea behind The Hatbox Ghost was for his head to vanish from atop his shoulders and reappear alternately inside his hatbox, in time with an adjacent bride figure's beating heart. According to Imagineer Chris Merritt in an interview with DoomBuggies.com, the effect was never completely successful due to the illusion's close proximity to the ride vehicles:
"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."
The Hatbox Ghost was installed inside The Haunted Mansion and in place for cast member (park employee) previews on the nights of August 7 and 8, 1969. Almost immediately, it became apparent that the effect had failed, as ambient light in the attraction's attic scene prevented the specter's face from disappearing fully, despite the turning off of its designated spotlight. Attempts were made to remedy technical problems, but the effect wasn't convincing enough, and the ghost was decommissioned after a few months. A photo of the figure in situ is featured on the Doombuggies.com website. And on the DVD, "Disneyland Resort: Imagineering the Magic," former Senior VP of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering Tony Baxter displays an attraction maintenance slip that lists the original Hatbox Ghost.
While it is unknown what became of The Hatbox Ghost, there are speculations as to his fate. One report claims that its parts were recycled into one of the Eagle Sam audio-animatronics used in the America Sings attraction which opened at Disneyland in 1974. But this seems unlikely, in view of the simplicity of the design and construction of The Hatbox Ghost. A second Hatbox Ghost was produced for but never installed in Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion. The whereabouts of this figure remain a mystery as well. However, the head on the pop-up ghoul that is seen as guests depart the Disneyland Haunted Mansion's interior cemetery scene is identical to that of the original Hatbox Ghost.
Because the Hatbox Ghost featured prominently in artwork and narration for popular Haunted Mansion record albums sold for many years at Disney parks, and because Disney continues to market the ghost's image, he has never been forgotten and has become somewhat of a legend, complete with cult following. Many fans of the ride wish to see him returned and have gone so far as to circulate petitions calling for the figure's restoration.
In 2009, the Hatbox Ghost appeared repeatedly in art and souvenirs created for the 40th anniversary of The Haunted Mansion, in response to fan interest in the character. Artists Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily crafted their version of a life-sized replica of The Hatbox Ghost that was auctioned for $9,400 at the first D23 Expo, held in September of the same year. In addition, The Hatbox Ghost was the official "spooksperson" for Disneyland Resort's 2009 O-pin House pin trading event and Haunted Holidays celebration.
In July 2010, director Guillermo del Toro, participating in a panel discussion at Comic-Con, announced his involvement as cowriter and producer in a new film based on The Haunted Mansion attraction. He stated that, in his version of the ride's story, The Hatbox Ghost will be a pivotal character.
On September 24, 2010, live from Disney D23's "Destination D: Disneyland '55" event in Anaheim, California, MiceChat Correspondent Dustysage reported that the Hatbox Ghost will be returning to The Haunted Mansion attraction. The news was obtained from a conversation between Imagineers.
In August 2013, at the 2013 Disney D23 Convention, a new Hatbox Ghost animatronic was displayed at the Journey Into Imagineering exhibit. Contrary to the original figure's hunched over appearance, this figure stands straight and tall, and does not hold a hatbox. [Note from Daveland: this figured was hacked together by some enthusiastic employees, but was never intended to be put into the Mansion]
The Hatbox Ghost finally returned to the Mansion (and brilliantly, I might add) on May 9, 2015. See the photos here.