Disney's Inferno

To hell and back

Of the thousands of people from around the world who make sacred pilgrimages to the Happiest Place on Earth, few devote much thought to the central mystery of the place: what exactly makes them so damn happy there. Part of the answer is revealed by delving into the dark side of Disneyland, with its many connections to popular paranormal phenomena. Throughout the park-from the Haunted Mansion's ghosts and the Pirates of the Caribbean's diabolical animated skeletons to the Matterhorn's devilish, Bigfoot-like creature and the Submarine Voyage's Loch Ness Monster-fairies, witches, demons and sorcerers abound.The structure of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, for example, correlates precisely with Dante's epic Inferno. You enter Mr. Toad's world through a tunnel. Once inside, you drive recklessly through town, almost running over a number of people and narrowly avoiding crashing into a big pile of TNT. You are arrested, appear in court and are found guilty! Somehow you escape, but as you drive down a railroad track, you are hit head-on by a steaming locomotive. You are dead! For a moment, everything is black. Inescapably, you are drawn through the portal of Hades-that huge, gaping mouth of Satan. You feel a blast of hot air. In the underworld, cute little devils try to jab you with their pitchforks. Finally, you are allowed to leave hell, and you are transported back to the earthly plane.In the poem, Dante, guided by Virgil, enters the gates of hell, boards a vessel, and sails across the putrid River Styx into the underworld of Hades. There he descends a series of rings leading to the very bowels of hell. On his voyage, Dante witnesses damned souls receiving punishments for their sins-people who committed suicide are turned into gnarled tree stumps; blasphemers are forever rained on by fire; flatterers are smothered in excrement; traitors are immersed in ice up to their necks. In the deepest pit of hell, Lucifer chews eternally on Judas Iscariot. (There's a similar scene in Fantasia.) From the heinous hellhole, Dante is allowed to exit through Satan's anus onto a path that leads back up to the mortal world.Broken down into its essentials, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride entails going into a cavern where your sins are exposed, judgment is decreed, and your punishment is death. Your damned soul descends into hell and then returns to the mortal world. Dante's and Mr. Toad's voyages through the underworld also correlate to trips through the human digestive system. Organic matter enters through the mouth; is chewed, swallowed into the pit of the stomach and then digested (value judgments are applied); and the waste is sentenced to the bowels until it is expelled at the anus.A great portion of the rides at Disneyland follow an underworld/ gastrointestinal theme. On the Pirates of the Caribbean, you board a Stygian vessel that enters a cave and descends a waterfall into a vast netherworld. At the banks of the river, you see swarthy pirates sinning and running wild in the streets, raping and pillaging (although the scene showing the pirates chasing women has been slightly altered recently-the women now carry plates of food, in theory giving the impression that the pirates are chasing women because they're hungry for dinner). Off to one side, straight from the pages of Inferno, a mechanical pirate endlessly struggles to push a huge, bulging bag of loot up an incline. Farther down the river, the entire town is consumed by a hellish fire. Next, you see the pirates locked up in jail. Finally, only skeletons guard the pirates' treasure (gold and riches are often associated with excrement). At the end of the ride, you miraculously ascend a waterfall and disembark into the Mardi Gras atmosphere of New Orleans Square.The theme of the underworld is equally apparent in the Haunted Mansion. On the front gate, a brass plaque bears the horned image of Satan himself. Visitors enter an elevator-like art gallery where, as you descend, the ghoulish portraits stretch, exposing the sins of each. You then board a vehicle and travel through a haunted house until you reach a vast subterranean graveyard. "The lid of every tomb was lifted up/And from each tomb, such sorry cries arose/As could come only from the sad and hurt" (Inferno, IX, 121-123). Disney's netherworld is haunted by 999 ghosts (the mark of the beast turned upside-down). You witness a scene reminiscent of the biblical Last Judgment as you see souls rising up from their graves. At the terminus of the ride, you ascend an escalator like a stairway to heaven, while a sexy little Vampira ghoul beckons, "Come back-and be sure to bring your death certificate."Near Disney's alpine Matterhorn, there is a captivating cast of a Bigfoot print allegedly found on its snow-covered slopes. (Before someone came up with the term "Bigfoot," the beast was called "Mountain Devil.") Adventurers ride bobsleds into the Matterhorn's caves. The frozen interior is riddled with ice caverns similar to the ninth circle in Dante's Inferno, where hell freezes over. This frigid world is populated by Yeti, or Abominable Snowmen. (These ape-like creatures are actually purported to live in the Himalayas, not the Alps.) The Matterhorn Yeti creature recalls the vicious baboon demon of the Egyptian underworld.Similar netherworld themes can be found in the Submarine Voyage, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and the Indiana Jones Adventure ride, as well as in Disney's kiddie rides. On Alice in Wonderland, you go down the rabbit hole to an underground domain. On "It's a Small World," you take a hellish boat ride through an abyss of maniacally singing dolls. On Storybook Land, you float through the gaping jaws of a whale. In Pinocchio's Daring Journey, you are swallowed up by Monstro the whale, a theme taken from the biblical lesson of Jonah and the Whale: "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). The Jonah and Pinocchio stories are allegories of death and resurrection.The rides that descend into the underworld and then ascend heavenward are allegories of salvation, correlating to Christ's death and resurrection. It is written, "For Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). According to the Bible, Christ was crucified, died and was buried. According to the Apostles' Creed, he descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven.Terrestrial Disneyland is like a paradise on Earth, but subterranean Disneyland is hell itself. Luther wrote, "God leads down to hell those he predestines to heaven." In the Magic Kingdom, each ride is a biblical morality lesson in which we are repeatedly redeemed. We pilgrims-like Jonah, Christ and Dante-can take a rollicking roller-coaster ride to hell, with the assurance that we'll be resurrected and return to heaven: "the happiest place on Earth." That's why Disneyland is so damn fun: it takes us to hell and back.

 
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