It’s a reflection. The best illusions are always incredibly simple once you know the secret. That’s the big secret of the Haunted Ballroom. If you’ve never been to a Disney Park it’s a big room where translucent specters appear then fade back out again. They do the typical Disney shtick with paintings of duelists shooting each other, drunks on the chandeliers and beautiful couples waltzing. The basic trick is that all the animatrons are clicking and clacking away underneath where your ride car is passing. A giant plate of glass is placed at a 45 degree angle that reflects the ghosts when they’re lit up. The most complicated part of the trick is that the glass must be kept as clean as humanly possible.
It’s an illusion called Pepper’s Ghost but the effect had been around long before Dr. Pepper amazed Victorian audiences with a phantasmagoria stamped with the seal of the Royal Polytechnic. (Yes there was an actual Dr. Pepper) A 16th-century Neapolitan called Giambattista della Porta who’s credited with inventing the optics of camera obscura described a Pepper’s Ghost effect in 1584. Can you imagine seeing the Haunted Ballroom in a world that was about to accuse Galileo of heresy for suggesting the earth orbited the sun? It must have been an existential fright.
The big secret of the Haunted Ballroom wasn’t ever all that big a secret. Do you know the secret of the spider web that has clued in generations of know it all kids like me into the illusion? If you watch carefully you can see a spider web that is the clue that you’re looking at a huge plate glass window. I always thought it was a clever tip of the hat to all the amateur magicians out there. The truth is even stranger.
Sometime during the summer of 1974 someone with a gun snuck into Disneyland and fired it at exhibits. The dinosaurs of the Primeval World diorama were shot at and so was a snowflake on Adventure Thru Inner Space (Closed in 1987 to make room for Star Tours) At least two shots were fired in the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion. Bag-checking and incognito security guards were fashionable in Disney Parks long before 9/11 because of this incident.
That huge piece of plate glass for the Pepper’s Ghost illusion had to be installed with a crane. There was no way that was going to be replaced because of the two .22 caliber sized holes. Disney’s solutions were the spider webs. It was either that or destroying most of the building to put new glass in. If you don’t believe me look for that spiderweb on the glass. It’s there just before you enter Madame Leota’s room at the end of the ballroom scene with dancing ghosts.