Wednesday, August 14, 2013

To all who come to his happy place: kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot!

Wanna hear a story from the Happiest Place on Earth?

A man conquers Death, itself, and returns to life! Unfortunately, when he wakes up, he finds himself in a coffin that's been nailed shut. Unless he can muster enough strength to pry off the lid, he’ll be buried alive as quickly as grief will allow.

This sounds gruesome, yet when the Haunted Mansion tells it, it’s not only funny, but it’s also appropriate for all ages. Check it out:

Believe it or not, the Haunted Mansion lightens this dire scene by telling a GIF Story. That’s one of the benefits of this narrative structure. It can make dark content accessible for all ages.

In other words, yes, I’m proposing that this vivisepultural tragedy is, in fact, funny because we know that this poor bastard will be stuck inside his coffin forever.

If it were any other narrative structure, it wouldn’t be. If it were any old GIF Story, it wouldn’t be. But a GIF Story like this functions with an additional rule: after it dooms the protagonist, it freezes them in the last moment of hope.

Let's consider the prisoners at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean.

A jail cell catches fire, and the inmates can't escape. Fortunately, a dog has retrieved the key--but unfortunately, he refuses to come anywhere near them. Without the dog’s help, the prisoners will burn to death.

Imagine if we were writing this GIF story for an all-ages park, and we had to decide which moment to repeat.

We could choose the moment when the prisoners first spot the fire, as it ignites on the other side of town. Maybe their knees could all tremble in synchronicity. That might be cute, but the stakes are too low. It’d be more unsettling than enthralling.

So let's aim for something more dramatic--like the moment when the prisoners really go up, but just before they collapse from heat-stroke and thermal decomposition. Picture it: three clunky, blazing animatronics...their plasticky skin bubbling with realistic sheen...flailing and scrambling like Kermit the Frog, in search of relief they will never, ever find.


Okay, maybe not.

Let's split the difference, and choose the moment in the story that’s most compelling, yet least traumatizing--the last moment of hope. The prisoners will do anything to coax that dog over: whistling, offering treats and even has a leash.

A leash! What could he possibly do with a leash?! Does he hope to use it as a lasso? Or maybe as a disciplinary whip? Or maybe he's indicating that he'll to take the dog for Walkies?

My guess: he has no idea, himself! Who cares?! He's in the last minute of hope! You name it, he'll try it!

A GIF Story like this treads a delicate path. If we say that--given the right context--getting burned alive can be appropriate for all ages, then how about getting skinned alive? Is genital mutilation okay? Can we adapt Quills into a dark ride for the France Pavilion?

Among jintle spiwits of zee air, my Fwance awakens wiss zee early don.

Conversations like this get tricky, and differ from case to case. For now, we won't delve into any of those ambiguities.

We can say for sure, however, that there's no appeal in watching someone get traumatized. An effective GIF Story knows how despicable it is to laugh at a victim, and doesn't ask us to do so.

Instead, it makes light of an absolutely hopeless circumstance--and the absolutely hopeful character who keeps fighting, anyway. It's funny in the same way that the last line of this scene is funny:

Seriously, look at these GIF Stories that Walt, himself, oversaw. They're about water torture, violent sodomy, and the protagonists who refuse to submit. Here they are:

All of the injustice, cruelty, and futility is pushed to the background in order to portray the protagonist as an absurd hero. Through their suffering, we see the humor and integrity of delaying Fate, itself, with an action that's so mundane, it can be conveyed in a single GIF.


  1. Or a single poorly filmed Vine, as the case may be. :/

  2. Fascinating. I never equated the repetitive Animatronic dramas in Disney's rides to gifs before, but that's a totally apt comparison.

    1. Thanks, David!

      Yeah, for a while I was calling them "Sisyphusian stories," so I was grateful to think of something less immediately laughable.

      Does that mark the first time that an internet world has been less laughable than real-world terminology? I'll have to check.

  3. Just curious, what about the constantly morphing bride in Haunted Mansion? I got stuck there once. She kept on flipping back and forth and singing "here comes the bride." It was weird.

    GIF-animatronic worthy?

    1. Great question!

      I quite like the Bride, and I think she provides a satisfying conclusion to the scene in the attic--but I don't think she tells an effective GIF Story. Let's analyze her using the guidelines I’ve discussed in the last few posts!

      The Bride's repeated action is bragging about her crimes.

      I haven't done a comprehensive study, here, but generally, characters whose action is "talking" don't convey effective GIF Stories. It's a predominantly visual medium.

      Audio helps, but chances are, we'll either hear too little or too much of it. That’s why we feel robbed when we pass by Scuttle without hearing the end of his pontificating, and why it’s obnoxious to get stuck on ‘the Seas with Nemo and Friends.’ Anyway.

      Content-wise, the Bride is the protagonist. Presumably, her objective is to do us psychological (and / or) physical harm. As such, we are her antagonists, because, y’know, we don't wanna be harmed. Okay, cool, that works. That’s effective.

      Chronologically, I'm a bit stumped. The attic scene has a clear chronology--presuming you believe the popular theory that we fall out of the balcony at the end of it. We see the props that indicate a murderous rise to fortune, we see the Bride confessing to the crimes, and then we’re either (pushed / spooked / happen to fall) off the balcony and into the graveyard. That’s effective.

      But the Bride, by herself, has no discernible motivation to confess her crimes to us. Moreover, she's dead, so she has nothing to gain from harming us. So she’s just standing there, implying a course of action that she’d like to take but--inexplicably--won’t. There’s no escalation being implied from either end.

      So I don't think her action implies a story.

      Nor do I think her action repeats for a reason. If we get stuck in front of her, like you were, it won’t be long before we start wondering, “Is she gonna attack us, or what?”

      Which leads to the question, “All right, Einstein, how would you do it properly?” And my answer, I’m afraid, is a cop-out. I don’t know how I’d re-write the Bride to tell a GIF Story without starting over from scratch.

      The first step would be adding an antagonist that prevents her from achieving her objective (harming us). As it stands, we’re her antagonists--but we’re fairly inactive in the ride, and “slowly drifting past her in a Doom Buggy” isn’t the most compelling escape.

      The next step would be making that antagonist strong enough to prevent her, but not strong enough to stop her altogether. That would help it repeat.

      It couldn’t hurt to dream up a motivation for her to want to harm us, but rides don’t always need to explain their motivations to be effective.

      I hope this has been interesting, and not pontification. Either way, great question! It really got me thinking.

    2. That's a great way of looking at it-- thanks! I'm a student who works odd jobs in the themed design industry and it's always fascinating to read your site. I've gotten into the habit of checking a few times a week!

    3. I'm honored to have flatterers like you among my readership. I hope I keep your interest!

  4. It's not a leash, it's a noose, which he's hoping to catch the dog with.