Ever since Disneyland mythologized itself as the happiest place on earth, people have been looking for the tears. You can see it in The New York Times’ coverage of Disney parks, where headlines are more likely to use words like “grim,” and “gloomy” than “princess” and “magical.” In the horror fantasy film “Escape From Tomorrow,” filmed on the fly by an amateur director at the Magic Kingdom, the animatronics on “It’s A Small World” look like minions sent to do their bidding by a maniacal overlord. “You can’t be happy all the time,” one character says later in the film. “It’s just not possible.”
Perhaps it’s the sense of forced cheer that inspires us to peek behind the curtain for evidence of dead dwarves. A search for “Disney theme parks dark secrets” reveals 1,370,000 results; meanwhile, on YouTube, for every Splash Mountain GoPro POV there’s a morbid video set to eerie music with a title like “10 Shocking Facts About Disney World” (2 million views) or “6 of the Worst Deaths at Disnleyland and Disney World [sic]” (1.1 million views).
Prolific vloggers like Shane Dawson and Mackenzie Marie have recorded videos about deaths that took place on Disney-owned soil as well as gross rumors like the one about people dumping their loved one’s ashes on the animatronics at the Haunted Mansion. A popular podcast called “Creepy Kingdom” is dedicated to the darker side of Disney, with episodes about the ghosts that live on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride and how “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride” literally takes you to hell (and back). The one thing people like more than talking about Creepy Disney Things is reading about them.
Some weird but true things you can learn about the House of Mouse from these sources: Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, is supposedly a huge fan of Tokyo Disneyland, which apparently contributed to a “bad reputation” within his family; drug lord Pablo Escobar had a wonderful time at the parks in the ‘80s; Hitler drew his own versions of Snow White; and Walt Disney was an antisemitic FBI informant (actually that one’s debatable).
But the mere existence of all this doesn’t explain why we are so obsessed with Disney’s dirty laundry. What is it about this specific brand of internet chum that compels us to click?
According to Kevin Shortsleeve, a professor of English at Christopher Newport University and an expert on children’s literature, we’re not only obsessed with the chinks in Disney’s utopian facade but also the perceived disconnect between the company’s cookie-cutter image and the ruthless, business-savvy way its parks are run. In his 2004 article, “The Wonderful World of the Depression: Disney, Despotism and the 1930s. Or, Why Disney Scares Us,” Shortsleeve explains why Disney parks haunt us so.
“Achieving and maintaining great commercial success via an Orwellian-style management, while selling utopian dreams of agrarian, monarchical kingdoms in its films, has impressed, entertained, and subliminally frightened audiences for nearly seventy years,” he writes. “In an attempt to divert attention away from its totalitarian tendencies, Disney has overcompensated with maudlin and insincere ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ attractions. It is this ‘fractured experience’ that specifically haunts us. Orwell and Jefferson do not dance well together.”
I called up Shortsleeve to find out if he really believes the studio that brought us the multicultural celebration Zootopia also brings about real fear. He told me that while Pixar has brought more progressive social ideas to Disney films in recent years, the theme parks continue to induce an unnerving cognitive dissonance. There’s a difference between what we see in theaters, what lives under the Disney brand, and its theme parks.
“It’s a little bit unsettling to visitors because they sense the disconnect, subconsciously, between all this freedom-loving American flag stuff like the Hall of Presidents and the Carousel of Progress and the fact that there’s a surveillance and security apparatus monitoring you at all times,” he says.
He refers to the 2001 paper, “All-American Image v. Limited Freedoms at Disney,” by his former student John Elderkin. In it, Elderkin writes, “There can be no doubt that visitors are being observed and manipulated by Disney at, all times… High tech-looking security men patrol the area wearing earpieces and dark sunglasses. Entering the park, some guests are required to insert their fingers into ID-check machines and once in Main Street, the piped-in music follows the visitors wherever they go as they move through architecture….”
One could argue that Disney’s current security apparatus has grown much more extensive since Elderkin’s paper. Earlier this year, Disneyland’s local police force was caught flying military-grade dragnet phone spying equipment over the park, the sort that can break encryption on hundreds of cell phones at once; this followed a mostly laudatory article from The New York Times about Disney World’s new wristband payment system, which tracks every movement theme-park visitors make.
Shortsleeve isn’t surprised stories like these receive a collective shrug. “There’s a lot of resistance to understanding Disney from a critical point of view,” he says with a sigh. “My students have this idea that ‘Disney raised me, Disney is good, Disney is sweet.’ Because it’s from childhood and our parents gave it to us, it seems to be beyond criticism.”
Matthew Gottula, a theme park reporter based in Southern California, has a name for folks who hate to hear any bad news about Disney theme parks: pixie dusters. “They cannot handle anything that doesn’t correlate with their worldview (probably beginning in childhood) that Disney is perfect and can do no wrong,” he says.
Whenever Gottula tweets something about Disney park minutiae, the reactions are polarized and intense. He thinks it’s because Disney occupies more space in our collective subconscious than other brands.
“There’s the difference between Disney the company and Disney the fantasy world cooked up in our imaginations thanks to great storytelling. So when something happens in real life at Disneyland that has real-world implications — big things like deaths or even boring things like routine attraction breakdowns — it receives way more attention in the news and conversation than it would if it happened to a different company.”
Gottula notes that while stories about brain-eating amoebas at Disney water parks, cast member deaths and gator attacks get clicks, less sexy issues like Disney’s dismal employee compensation are more deserving of our attention. This past May, Bernie Sanders made headlines when he called out Disney CEO Bob Iger for paying Disney World employees poverty wages. “Disney pays its workers wages that are so low that many of them are forced to live in motels because they cannot afford a decent place to live,” he said.
Employees who serve turkey legs at the most popular theme park on earth should be paid a living wage; the fact that they’re not is more disturbing than the rumor that Disney’s head is kept in a freezer under Pirates of the Caribbean.
As Elderkin writes in his paper’s conclusion: “If Disney actually were a recognized nation-state subject to the agreements and mores of international relations, the State Department would probably issue travel advisories.”