By Dori Koehler
All Disneyland really is, you see, is a projection outward of the phenomenology of the imagination. And, if they can’t go into their own imaginations, they might just as well go into Walt Disney’s and he’ll help them. And that’s what religions have done all the time.
—Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, 17
Guess what, everyone! I got a book published! It’s my first one, something I always wanted to do, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Find it here!
Although it’s not the great American novel I dreamed I’d write as a child, yet it’s an academic monograph that IS my dissertation, after all. I believe I’ve explored the topic in a way that enlivens the imagination of the reader. I often wonder about the inspiration of authors, so I thought it would be interesting if I shared a short personal introduction to the epiphany that led me to spend five years researching and writing about Disney’s original Happiest Place on Earth.
In Spring 2009, I was a third-year graduate student preparing to enter the dissertation phase in the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I’d just spent the previous three years studying global mythologies from the perspective of Jungian archetypal psychology, in a program guided by the motto anima mundi colendae gratia, or “for the sake of tending soul in and of the world.” I cherish many things about my studies, but I also feel that my program unfairly neglects American popular culture. Looking back, I understand the limitations of time and accreditation. However, the choice is still a problematic blind spot. Since our faculty was happy to see us write about it in our papers, I set out to illuminate that blind spot. Each time I finished a course about ancient myths, I’d return to a set of questions like: Yes, but what about American myth? Can we see these themes in it? What about the way America is responsible for the current state of manufactured globalized myth? How do we take what we’ve learned out into the world if we ignore the stories that move us today? Is contemporary culture redeemable, or is it irrevocably broken? Can we weave strands to heal global corporate culture?
I turned to Campbell’s theories about the way myths function in culture. I began to ask questions about how America unifies its myth in a secular society with religious freedom at the core of its foundational document. I questioned American identity as I wondered how one might even attempt to balance the polarized American ego. I still question this, but ultimately, I became convinced that American culture is not devoid of myth but is actually reiterating ancient mythic methods and tropes as cultures have always done, with two broad cultural stages playing out those myths—Hollywood and Washington, DC.
I thought about Disney’s role in the realm of media: ABC, ABC Family (Now FreeForm), The Disney Channel, A & E, Lifetime, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation, Pixar Animation Studio, LucasFilms, Marvel Studios, ESPN, and HULU. This is merely a segmented list of companies Disney owns, either partially or outright. And that’s just what’s active at the present moment. Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax, Buena Vista Pictures/Music—all of these companies have been owned by Disney at one point. Regardless of how one feels about the monopolization of media and American consumerism, it’s worth taking note of the mythic footprint of the corporations that create our media, and by extension, our corporate myths. From this perspective, I began to think about why people are drawn to Disney. I came up with some unifying themes related to their stories—the role of freedom of imagination in human dignity, the vitality of hopes and dreams, the balance of good and evil, the importance of familial and community bonds, and love’s ability to heal and transform. Every single one of Disney’s stories explores these themes. I came to the conclusion that these stories drive Disney. This is their mythic legacy, and despite anything else, there’s beauty in that. I call this work being a “Disney apologist,” and I feel that it offers an avenue toward healing, coaxing out the mythic power of broader contemporary popular culture. Then, one day I went to Disneyland and things changed even more. The following is an excerpt from my book that recounts my experience. I hope it inspires you to think about the stories you love in a different way, too.
In March 2009, on an unbelievably beautiful day in Anaheim, I had an experience that made the mythic impact of Disneyland particularly clear to me. Up to that point, in all the years I spent visiting Walt Disney’s original hub for physicalized storytelling, I had not noted much about the patterns of behavior among the patrons. It had always been clear to me that there was intentionality behind the things that Disney was doing, and I enjoyed other Disn-o-philes as though they were friends, instead of simply strangers I would most assuredly never meet again. This day though was a bit different.
As my husband and I strolled across the Plaza Hub, a town square-like locale which centers and acts as a bridge between the different lands of Disneyland, I noticed a gathering of guests standing in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, a situation that is not uncommon at Disneyland, especially where characters are gathered or attractions are located. We decided to stop and listen to the Disneyland Marching Band. Mickey Mouse, Minnie, and Goofy joined them as they danced to the tune the band played. It was all so typical. I had encountered this many times during various visits—that is, until something happened that completely changed the way I understood both Disneyland itself and the Disneyland patron.
The band finished their set, and as Mickey Mouse (the band leader) brought the music down low, Walt Disney’s voice came over the loud speaker, reciting the opening day speech. “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past [. . .] and here, youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America [. . .] with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to the world”.[i] A reverential hush came over the crowd of people, the likes of which I had previously only seen in settings dedicated to worship. As we listened to the words of Walt Disney, this prophet, priest, and king of his own land of enchantment, dreams and magic,[ii] I felt a palpable energy being generated between both the others and myself who witnessed this. As the speech concluded and sound was brought down completely, it was the silence of the experience that most moved me. It is extremely rare for pure silence to fall over any part of the park, and when it does it is usually in anticipation of something. On this occasion, the silence felt more like a completion of sacred liturgy. It seemed to me that we were hearing a Bard’s voice speaking, and, as I experienced it, the group was both transfixed and transformed. The moment of silence ended, and as the crowd went on to their next moment of fright and fun, I came away with an experience that cemented Disneyland’s importance to me as the center of a pilgrimage.
I’m not sure whether the crowd present that day was conscious of the transformation that occurred at that moment. Perhaps it was something I noticed because of my sensitivity to archetypes and deep mythic patterns. Either way, as I enjoyed another sunny day in the park, it became clear to me that simply being in this place had effected a change in consciousness, not only on myself, but also on many others around me. As I stood in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, I noted the crowd itself. Around me stood people of all ages, races, national origins, religious creeds, political affiliations, and sexual orientations. It became clear to me that the crowd willingly suspended the issues humans generally find divisive. Somehow and for some reason, patrons of Disneyland choose to leave these distinctions of nationalism, politics, and subversive morality outside the main gate. Patrons talk to strangers. I have even had parents ask me to watch their children while they run to the restroom. A sense of safety reigns supreme, as Disneyland patrons seem convinced that they are unified by their adherence to Disney’s ideology. And with respect to exceptions that do occur, people generally seem happy. This kind of willing suspension of disbelief, the ability and eagerness to submit to the realm of fantasy, is central to all ritual experiences, and it is integral to the transcendence necessary in order to make an effective ritual.
[ii] Occasionally, there were those who would suggest that Walt Disney should run for mayor of Los Angeles. His response was simply that there was no reason for him to become a mayor when he was already king of his own land.
http://d23.disney.go.com/archives/collecting-dreams/ Disney News, Winter 1993.
Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of American popular culture. She is a professor of the Humanities, Interdisciplinary Studies, Popular Culture, World Mythology, and the Fine Arts at Southern New Hampshire University. She also teaches Classical Mythology and Shakespeare to children online through the Gifted Home Schoolers Forum. Her latest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays through John Libbey Publishing. She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and their cocker spaniel, Lucy.