Why you should care
Because the creative mind that helped forge a pillar of modern popular culture was even darker than you imagined.
The story of Walt Disney, for all its wholesome charm, would never earn a G rating. Like many of the brilliant cartoonist’s creations, it is a tale inextricably tied to death and, in Disney’s case, one that starts with a stunning act of animal cruelty — and we don’t mean the slaughter of Bambi’s mother.
It was a lazy, hot Sunday afternoon, and 7-year-old Walter Elias Disney was bored. Spying a big brown owl in an orchard near his family’s Missouri farm, the boy crept up behind the animal and grabbed it. When the frightened creature started to fight and claw, Disney panicked, throwing it to the ground and stomping the life out of it. It was an act that haunted his dreams for years, and that episode and other close encounters with death would mark Disney’s life and his work — and thus the collective imagination of Disney fans across the globe.
There is a persistent, and unsubstantiated, rumor that Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen body resides in a vault, waiting to be restored to life when summer returns to Arendelle and modern science triumphs over death. It’s easy to see how the rumor may have been started since, from the beginning of Disney’s career, as chronicled by professor Gary Laderman of Emory University, the American icon had a curious obsession with death. As early as 1929, on the heels of his first big splash with Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie, Disney offered a bizarre follow-up entitled The Skeleton Dance, which opens, not surprisingly, with a terrified owl perched in a tree.
Disney’s creative animations take the dance with death to a whole new level.
Even danse macabre doesn’t do justice to the five-minute short in which animated skeletons cavort in a graveyard, using each other as instruments and pogo sticks. Theater managers were aghast. “What’s he trying to do, ruin us?” one asked Walt’s brother Roy. “You go back and tell Walt. More mice, tell him. More mice!”
But if Disney was in touch with anything as much as his own mortality, it was the sentiments of his audience. The graveyard romp turned out to be a macabre hit, and over the next decades, as America faced economic hardship, war, nuclear annihilation and drastic social change, Disney’s films helped the nation navigate good and evil, vice and virtue. And for most of his early tales, as Laderman observes, “death, or the threat of death, is the motor, the driving force that enlivens each narrative.”
From the evil queen’s desire to kill a beautiful maiden in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), to the wooden puppet in Pinocchio (1940) who must die to be reborn as a real boy, to the fawn in Bambi (1942) witnessing his mother’s (off-screen) murder, the Grim Reaper looms large over many Disney tales. And while death is a fixture in some of the greatest children’s literature, including Grimm’s Fairy Tales — on which several of Disney’s biggest hits were based — Disney’s animations take the dance with death to a whole new level. In the somewhat disturbing “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia (1940), for example, monstrous demons and bare-breasted female ghouls join skeletons and other nocturnal creatures to plot the invasion of a small mountain village.
Disney’s personal encounters with death continued to multiply during that period. As his daughter Diane would later recount, in the early 1930s, a fortune-teller informed the famous animator that he would die at age 35, prompting a burst of productivity from the paranoid Disney, and leading him to avoid funerals for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most scarring incident, however, was the tragic, accidental death of Disney’s mother, Flora. In 1938, following the success of Snow White, Disney bought his parents a home in North Hollywood. Shortly after moving in, they complained of gas fumes coming from the furnace, and Disney promptly dispatched some studio hands to fix it. The furnace was not fixed properly, and Flora died from asphyxiation a few days later.
We will never know exactly how such events influenced Disney’s creative output. But as Laderman is quick to remind us, it is not the presence of death that gives so many Disney films their “mythic power in American culture” — it is the happy ending or redemption for which death so often serves as the conduit. Bambi’s perseverance in the wake of losing his mother, Snow White finding happiness with her prince or Pinocchio with his father — these are the moments that drew generations of fans to Disney’s compelling brand of family fantasy.
In the end, it was lung cancer that brought the dancing skeletons to Disney’s door in 1966. But his death, like those depicted in his films, would be transcended by the millions of lives he touched along the way.