When former Disney artist RJ Ogren left the Mouse, he began his journey in the macabre, designing haunted attractions across the country, from hayrides to the Queen Mary. Armed with black-light paint and his fiendish imagination, RJ bent his Disney training to the design of fear.
While working at Walt Disney World, RJ did what most of us would love to do: he walked through attractions like the Haunted Mansion before the park opened, when the rides were running but empty of guests, looking for imperfections or damage that he would repair in his on-site studio.
From there, RJ went into business for himself as a "fear designer", specializing in custom-painted, 3-D, haunted rooms and attractions, some of them in places, such as the Queen Mary, already haunted by their own ghosts — and RJ isn't ashamed to admit that he may have run into a few of those ghosts himself.
The Design of Fear is a diary-like account of RJ's career, starting with the Haunted Mansion and continuing through indoor and outdoor "scare zones", through the boiler rooms of ocean liners and under the flapping folds of tents pitched in the wilderness.
If you're ready ... walk this way....
Chapter 1: Something Wicked Is Here
Chapter 2: I Started Life in a Fireplace
Chapter 3: Screams, Groans, and Moans
Chapter 4: And Then a Dwarf Called
Chapter 5: An Optical Delusion
Chapter 6: Blood Red Hand
Chapter 7: The Dog Saw It—Ask Rascal!
Chapter 8: Selling Myself in Chicago
Chapter 9: Sonny Acres
Chapter 10: Scream Zone
Chapter 11: Into the Jaws of a Clown
Chapter 12: We Really Are in HELL!
Chapter 13: The Queen in Long Beach
Chapter 14: In a Walnut Grove
Chapter 15: Hallucinations—and Fantasy
Chapter 16: Hey, Fred, Bring a Hammer!
Chapter 17: Back and Forth on the I-5
Chapter 18: Pissed-off Parrots
Chapter 19: I Do Believe in Ghosts
Chapter 20: Work, Work, Work—And Then Fun
Chapter 21: The Maw
Chapter 22: …And Beyond
R.J. Ogren is a former Walt Disney World management audio-animatronic artist who painted all the attraction figures, murals, and props at the Magic Kingdom in the 1970s. He has had a varied and successful career as a freelance artist, scenic artist, writer, illustrator, and guest speaker. He lives near Chicago, with his wife, Suzanne. They co-authored, Together in the Dream available through Theme Park Press. His website is rjogren.com.
Sometimes the "something wicked" is just, well, let RJ tell the story.
Pitch black—no moon—and something just brushed past my ankle.
“Try it again,” said Brad.
Ignoring him, I kicked with my feet, hoping to frighten whatever had touched me.
“Try it again.” I didn’t reply, so Brad asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” I turned on the flashlight that dangled from my belt, and aimed the beam downward. Seeing nothing, and breathing a sigh of relief, I turned off the flashlight, as I repeated, “Nothing.” The flashlight had made me night blind, so I said, “Wait a second. I need to let my eyes adjust to the darkness and the black light.”
My assistant Brad and I were in the middle of the woods, on a farm west of Chicago. We were in the process of installing a gigantic monster figure, to surprise guests on a Halloween haunted hayride. The claws of this creature would extend outward, above the heads of the guests and appear to reach for them.
The monster had a four-foot tall skeleton-like head and eight-foot long segmented arms, with bony hands and claws for fingernails. A wispy, gray cloth covered the figure.
This “thing” was suspended above me, in a huge oak tree, and I was standing on a five-foot high platform. I grabbed the one-inch square aluminum bars attached to the arms and pushed outward, causing the glowing figure to extend over the dirt path for the hayride. This would be how the operator (puppeteer) would maneuver the creature over a hay wagon when it drove by. The puppeteer could move the hands and arms up and down, or left and right—if it worked properly. It had worked in my studio in Virginia when we first built it.
I could just make out Brad on the ground; the gray stripes on his black shirt emitted a soft glow. “Perfect!” I yelled to him.
“Yeah, except it needs to be a bit higher. Not a good idea to take out a guest in a wagon.”
“Rats! You’re right. That would really scare them though … RATS!!!” I yelled louder. “Damn! Something is up here on the platform. It just brushed my leg—again!” The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I had visions of something with red eyes biting my ankle. Quickly retracting the monster’s arms, I began jumping around on the platform, hoping to scare away whatever this wicked thing was.
Brad turned on his flashlight and aimed it at my feet.
“See anything?” I yelled down to him.
“Wha … what?”
“A black cat.”
“Oh, great! Really?!”
Brad laughed. “Yeah, right there.” He pointed with the flashlight beam, and I looked over to see a black cat sitting near the corner of the platform staring at me—with yellow eyes, and greeting me with a soft “meow.” Then, the feline calmly came over and rubbed against my leg.
As my heart rate slowed, I said, “Meow to you—you, you….”
Brad laughed again. “Does everything scare you?”
“No,” I laughed with him. “Just some things.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yeah.” Brad said. “So, what does scare you?”
“You really want to know?” He nodded. “Okay: darkness, rats, spiders, snakes, zombies….”
“Yeah, zombies! Also horror movies, and giant ants.”
“I thought you liked horror movies.”
“You’re very strange.” Long pause. The cat continued rubbing against my leg, and meowing. Then Brad laughed again.
“What now?” I asked.
“Yes … giant ants. And chimneys.”
“Oh, come on! Now you’re messin’ with me!”
Continued in "The Design of Fear"!
At Walt Disney World, one of RJ's jobs was to make sure the Haunted Mansion stayed intact — and properly haunted. To do that, he ventured into the mansion alone, on foot, each morning before the park opened.
I open the huge, wooden doors, and enter the low-lit parlor. I check the wallpaper for any damage by guests. If a piece has been scraped or pulled off, I mix colors from my paints so I can match the design and colors of the existing wallpaper to repair the damage. I look at the framed painting over the mantel between the doors that lead to the twin stretching rooms. The man in the painting ages and turns into a skeleton in seconds.
Next, I enter a stretching room and close the door. Four large paintings hang on the walls, above where the guests will stand. As the room stretches (many guests think they are in an elevator going down, when, in actuality, it is the wall stretching upward), the paintings lengthen, revealing the comical “deaths” of the subjects on the canvas. The artwork for these paintings was created by Marc Davis, a legendary Disney artist and animator, and one of our bosses from the Disney Studio. Because the paintings are on a roll, like a window shade, they can tear if anything is slightly off kilter. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence, but, if it happens, we can repair and repaint the damaged area. In four years, we’ve only had to replace two stretch paintings.
A dismembered voice is heard, stating that the chamber we’re standing in has no windows and no doors—but! He further says that “there’s always my way.” Suddenly, the lights go out. It’s pitch dark. Lightning strikes at the top of the high ceiling, there is a thunder crack and a scream, as I view a body hanging from the rafters above.
Everything in here looks okay. Good. Don’t want to go up there. Only had to do it once. Working on that body means climbing up to the attic of the mansion and leaning out over the stretch room to pull the figure up, then clean it, check it, repair any damage, and lower it down again. Very dangerous; one slip and I could fall through the painted scrim to the floor below, roughly twenty-five feet! Ouch! I do the same checks in the second stretch room; all appears okay there as well.
Having two alternating rooms allows for more guests being moved in a steady flow to the loading area, where you board your Doom Buggy. (By the way, to avoid a long wait time at this attraction, get to it when the park first opens, just before park close, or during the times when a parade is in progress. Another fun tip: when you enter the stretching room, try to stand under the portrait of the young woman holding the parasol and stay there, because that is where the Ghost Host will open the sliding door that leads to the loading area.)
I love the sounds as I walk through the loading area. The attractions are always turned on long before the guests arrive, so that checks can be made to be certain everything is working properly. The Doom Buggies are stopped, awaiting their first passengers. I walk safely between them and onto the stairs leading to blackness. Huge, multi-colored, black-light spiders twitch on over-sized, glowing webs. Lee, Tom, and I paint these in our studio black-light room, trying to outdo each other with the ugliest, scariest creation! (Note: these spiders are long gone now, replaced by incredible, glowing, moving staircases. The experience is like being in an Escher painting—wonderful effect!)
The suit of armor and the endless hallway come into view on my right. The lighting is now low-level regular light. Looking at the suit of armor, I do a double-take and laugh. A cigarette dangles from the armor faceplate. A cast member, possibly Jeff, has left a little joke. I remove the cigarette, wrap it in paper, and put it in my art knapsack.
Next stop is the coffin. The emaciated corpse inside is trying to get out; one bony hand grabbing the lid and pushing it up and down. Hands looks good. A few weeks ago, someone had managed to break off one of his fingers. I had to make a new finger and paint it to match the hand. I never found the missing finger. Whoever broke it probably took it as a souvenir.
I walk past the hallway doors, with knocker knocking, groans groaning, and doors bulging. I check the grandfather clock, the hands of which rotate backward. We are still in regular, low light here and my eyes have adjusted to it. A few more steps, and we’re back in the darkness and black light.
Guests ride their Doom Buggies around this horseshoe-shaped room as they view Madame Leota’s talking head inside a crystal ball. Musical instruments dance in the air above the guests, as discordant music plays. The lines holding these instruments are normally invisible, but dust has gathered on them, so they can be seen as dull grey attachments. I make a mental note to call Custodial. They will clean the support lines after the attraction closes. I look at Madame Leota and say, “Hi!” She ignores me.
Leota Toombs—another artist from the Disney Studio, known for her sculpture and painting of numerous Disney figures—was filmed for this projection in the crystal ball. She came to Walt Disney World in the early 1970’s, to train the other three artists. When it came time for her to return to the California studio, I was the fortunate artist chosen to take her place at WDW, in the Animation (Audio-Animatronic) Studio, located behind It’s a Small World.
The illusion in the crystal ball was created by projecting Leota’s filmed image onto a molded head form, similar to a form used to hold wigs. The form had to have molded features: indented eye areas, a nose, etc., so that the projected film loop on the form would appear real. If the form was flat, the face would look as if her features were smashed onto a flat surface.
There are some guests, unfortunately, who think they can jump out of their Doom Buggy to steal something inside the attraction. What they don’t realize is that there are sensors, and other devices, that immediately alert the attraction hosts (by means of monitors). The Doom Buggy movement is halted, and a recorded voice requests that you remain in your seat until the ride resumes.
Three occurrences can cause this, or any other attraction, to stop. The first I’ve just told you about. The other two are safety issues, one when a wheelchair guest is being loaded or unloaded, and the other is when a guest is too slow to enter or exit their Buggy, or if they should fall as they try to get seated or are exiting the attraction.
I was told that, before I began working at WDW, a misguided guest got out of his Doom Buggy and climbed over a railing in an attempt to steal something—and fell through an opening to the basement below, fracturing his leg in the process. His screams and moans could not be heard above those of the other 999 ghostly sounds. He was eventually located and handled by paramedics. I can’t verify whether that story is true, since I wasn’t there, but it’s a good lesson about remaining in your vehicle as instructed.
I look closely at Leota and her crystal ball, to make sure there are no problems. Not long ago, the crystal ball was shattered, by one of those misguided guests, resulting in a new one being made by an aircraft company. It has never worked as well as the original. The projector’s light reflection was never seen on the original ball, but on the replacement, a light spot appears on the front of the crystal ball. It ruins the effect, I think.
Continued in "The Design of Fear"!