A Haunting Melody: Grim Grinning Ghosts

When the crypt doors creak

And the tombstones quake

Spooks come out for a singing wake

Happy haunts materialize

And begin to vocalize

Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize…

So begins the music to the single greatest theme park attraction ever built. The Haunted Mansion revolutionized what was possible in dark-ride entertainment, elevating it to an art form. While much of that success is due to the Imagineers’ unique ability to blend cutting-edge technology with centuries-old practical effects, it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the attraction’s music.

Variations on the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (music by Buddy Baker and lyrics by Francis Xavier Atencio) play throughout the attraction. The style and presentation of the song vary depending on the room you are in, ranging from a slow, slightly off-key dirge in the foyer, and a waltz performed on the organ in the Grand Balloon, to the rollicking sing-along heard in the cemetery. It’s a constant presence, enhancing and tying the disparate narratives within the Haunted Mansion into a cohesive whole.

The Boy from Springfield

Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, Norman “Buddy” Baker started his music career early, beginning his piano studies at the age of four (though some articles say six). By 11, he’d picked up the trumpet. He began studying under E. W. Peter’s and Mickey Marcell at Drury College. He followed that musical passion into a doctorate from Southwest Baptist University. During this time, he began composing pieces for local nightclubs.

After relocating to California, Baker began composing music for radio programs. A 1960 article in the Springfield Daily News related his rise in the musical world, stating, “During Baker’s climb toward the summit of his chosen profession he has worked with personalities whose names most Springfieldians hear with a feeling of awe. He has conducted musical programs for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, arranged for such name bands as Bob Crosby and Stan Kenton…”

His transition into a Hollywood composer was in part fueled by his distaste for the rise of rock and roll, as he related, “I left the recording field six years ago because I couldn’t stand rock ‘n roll, which was taking over the business. About the only place left where one could write music was in the Hollywood studios.”

After making music for television programs like The Jack Benny Show, Baker was brought into Disney to assist George Bruns with music for the Davy Crockett series. As noted in his official D23 biography, “From there, Buddy went on to score more than 50 films, including Toby Tyler, The Gnome-Mobile, and The Fox and the Hound. He also scored such animated featurettes as the Oscar®-winning Donald in Mathmagic Land and the original three Winnie the Pooh films. As the Studio ventured into television, Buddy contributed to such series as Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. He then moved into the theme park arena, beginning with the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, scoring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress.”

X Marks the Spot

I’ve written previously about Francies Xavier “X” Atencio and his composition of Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me). An animator turned Imagineer, Atencio was not musically trained and did not even suspect that he had any aptitude for music until he worked for Disney, once saying, “I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

The child of Agapito and Ida Atencio, X grew up in the historically Mexican coal town of Walsenburg, Colorado. As noted by Creepy Kingdom, “Jesus M. Abeyta, X’s great-grandfather, first brought his family to nearby Trinidad, Colorado around 1864, according to an account signed by former state senator Jose Miguel Madrid. Before that, Abeyta was born in Abiquiú, New Mexico in 1820 while it still belonged to a nascent nation called Mexico. Jesus’ father and grandfather also hailed from New Mexico dating all the way back to 1757, a historical period that saw Abiquiú play host to the last of the major witchcraft trials that began centuries ago in Europe.”

His grandfather worked as Las Animas County Assessor, while his father became the editor of El Clarín, a Spanish-language newspaper. X originally planned to follow his father into the world of journalism, but decided to study art instead. When he received a job at Disney, it was celebrated at home with an article in the local newspaper which read, “This coveted position of honor and recognition of artistic ability is much treasured by young Atencio and both his grandparents and parents are very proud of his achievements and accomplishments in the artistic line.”

That a man who possessed no musical or lyrical training should go on to write songs is remarkable enough. The fact that he wrote two of the most popular songs in the company’s long history, lyrics which have worked their way into the popular imagination, is the sort of twist that seems only possible in the world of Disney. 

Despite his surprise when Walt Disney suggested he write the song (Atencio felt sure that the Shermans would be given the project), he attacked the project with gusto. As Bob Weiss, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, recalled, “That was how X worked — with an enthusiastic, collaborative attitude, along with a great sense of humor. His brilliant work continues to inspire Imagineers and bring joy to millions of guests every year.”

Speaking with the website Laughing Place, Atencio recalled that Dick Irvine and Marty Sklar brought him into the Haunted Mansion project, stating “They knew I had done Pirates, so they wanted me to move onto the next assignment. And there again, Claude Coats and Marc Davis had worked out the continuity of the ride, and everything like that, as they did on Pirates. My job was to figure out what was going to be said in it.”

Part of that script work involved creating the song Grim Grinning Ghosts, which he stated presented its own challenges.

“When Buddy and I did the music for this, the graveyard for instance, we had a cacophony of sound, because each little vignette had it’s own little music bit in it,” he said. “But it didn’t work, so finally Buddy had to put a general sound throughout. We got the Grim Grinning Ghosts theme working through the whole ride so we could concentrate on the things like the busts singing.”

As in Pirates of the Caribbean, they were also faced with striking a delicate balance between the macabre subject matter and Walt’s desire to keep the park family friendly. As Atencio related to D23, “We researched Japanese spooky stuff, and Walt didn’t want any blood and guts. In the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” I say, “Come out to socialize.” That was the key to it. They terrorize but their main point was to socialize. Walt bought that idea. That was the hook, the Disney angle. “Socialize” is the key word.”

Creepy creeps with eerie eyes start to shriek and harmonize…

Over half a century since Baker and Atencio composed their masterpiece, Guests are still tapping their feet to the morbid melody they created. It’s been featured in Disney fireworks shows, movies, and a variety of albums. It has even been covered by artists like Barenaked Ladies and featured in video games. A true classic in every sense of the word.

As Halloween approaches, let’s join our voices in a spooky verse:

If you would like to join our jamboree

There’s a simple rule that’s compulsory

Mortals pay a token fee

Rest in peace, the haunting’s free

So hurry back we would like your company