Grim Grinning Ghosts, also known as "The Screaming Song", is a song written by X. Atencio and composed by Buddy Baker. It has been the main theme for nearly every incarnation of The Haunted Mansion, except for Mystic Manor, which uses a different song composed and written by Danny Elfman. During the Haunted Mansion Holiday and Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare overlays, a completely different tune is heard, based on traditional Christmas carols, but still ending with "Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize!" The initial music and lyrics were composed by Gordy Gordwin, but a replacement score was written by John Debney with essentially the same lyrics.
Just as "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me)" was written to turn a band of bloodthirsty cutthroats into more family-friendly, fun-loving swashbucklers, "Grim Grinning Ghosts" was written to uplift what was an already dark and dreary mood.
Armed with his thesaurus, X wrote a series of fast paced stanzas filled with singable alliterations like "when the crypt door creak and the tombstones quake" and "weird glows gleam where the spirits dwell," and presented them to the attraction's musical director, Buddy Baker. The title of the song itself is taken from the William Shakespeare poem Venus and Adonis:
“And, sighing it again, exclaims on Death. ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean, Hateful divorce of love,’—thus chides she Death,— ‘Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean?"
The minor key melody spanned the performance spectrum - it became a dirge, a valse macabre, and ultimately a "contempo-retro" graveyard jamboree.
"Grim Grinning Ghosts" features Buddy Baker's melody, usually in the key of A minor. Different variations use 4/4 or 3/4 for the meter. The following chord progression is used for all versions: Am, B, Am, B♭, Am, F, Am, F7, Am, E7, Am. Typically, each chord lasts for two beats of 4/4 or three beats of 3/4. This underlying chord progression provides a macabre mood for the Haunted Mansion attractions. The song modulates to B-flat minor thus: Am, E7, F7, B♭m and on to B-minor via B♭m, F7 and F♯7. The melody then modulates back to A-minor after repeating a dissonant chord six times.
Recording began in April of 1969, with over 40 tracks recorded, a majority of which were recorded for the Graveyard. The organ pieces heard in the Foyer and Corridor Of Doors were recorded with the help of veteran silent film organist, Gaylord Carter. Recording for the organ took place at Lorin Whitney Studios on a Robert Morton theater organ IV/34. When recording for the Foyer, the resonant, melancholy theater organ's output was so intense that the recording microphone was moved away from the instrument, and into the hallway to avoid distortion. For the Grand Hall, however, Carter was taking too sensible an approach for Baker's tastes, so he took a transcription of Carter's improvisations to William Sabransky. Sabransky then improvised from Carter's attempts. Also for the Foyer, Carter actually played the song backwards to achieve the discord that the composer intended. The organ part that can be heard in the song is the recording played backwards, so the melody plays forwards.
In fact, a majority of the music heard, besides the Grand Hall, was performed in reverse. A musician played the score sheet as written but began with the final note, proceeding right to left and up the page to the top. When playback was reversed, the natural resonation of string plucks or breathy exhalations of a woodwind instrumentalist were surrealy inverted, resulting in a normal melody line with a most abnormal sound.
Sound effects artist Jimmy MacDonald created the etherial, airy variations heard in both the Portrait Hall and the Séance Circle by using his mouth as a reversed ocarina. Jimmy changed the shape of his mouth to alter the pitches of air escaping from a balloon held close to his lips, creating a musical "wind".
For the swinging accompaniment in the graveyard, Baker hired a small selected group of talented jazz musicians: rhythm guitarist Allan Reuss, bass guitarist Al Hendrickson, contrabassist Jess Bourgeois, percussionist Chet Ricord, and jazz organist Marvin Ash.
Baker insisted that the graveyard band must omit some of the most unearthly musical sounds ever heard. Each of the various instrument cues were recorded separately at least three times, including reversing them backwards. In the final show, only Cappy Lewis' trumpet and Art Smith's flute tracks are played backwards, while Doris Hultz Johnson's eerie harp performance is played normally.
For the band bagpiper, Baker wanted to use a real bagpipe, but the instrument proved too hard to control melodically for the song. For the bagpipe sound, Gordon Schoenberg played an oboe out of tune, and then the track was overlaid with the same track played backwards. Chet Ricord pounded out the tempo for the band on a pair of stones used to simulate the sound of bones drumming against a tombstone.
The roles of the Singing Busts were filled by Chuck Schroeder, Vern Rowe, Bob Ebright, Jay Meyer, and Thurl Ravenscroft not only vocally, but also visually as well. Initially, the men were only contracted to record voices for the busts. However, when recording session leader Allan Davies noticed how good the men looked as a singing group, they were later brought back to have their faces filmed for the busts. They also provide the somber reprise heard in the Exit Crypt.
The Duke and the Duchess were voiced by professional singers Bill Lee and Betty Wand, receptively. The Tea Party Ghosts are provided by Betty Wand, Ernie Newton, and Bill Days in monotone. Originally accompanying the monotone chorus, was a track by vocalist and choral arranger Allan Davies, who "la-da-dum"med out the main melody. Unfortunately, the track has been lost from the American Mansions, but can still be heard in Tokyo's Haunted Mansion. When recording the vocals, Baker directed the vocalists to not "sing it straight. Sing it like you're a bit nuts."
The voices of the Opera Singers belong to soprano Loulie Jean Norton and tenor Bill Reeve. Much of Norton's performance as the hefty prima donna was completely improvised, as Baker said "She had the melody down, so she'd get so far away from it you wouldn't recognize it."
The Mummy and the Old Man vocals were supplied by the attraction's vocal director Allan Davies, and voice actor Dallas McKennon, respectively. The German tones of the Beheaded Knight are voiced by singer and voice actor Ernie Newton. The duet of the Executioner and the Prisoner (Gus) are performed by the talents of tenor Bill Days and bass singer Candy Candido, respectively.
For the "Re-Haunting" of the Mansion in Orlando, completely new vocal tracks were recorded for all of the characters except the Singing Busts, the Mummy and Old Man, and the Beheaded Knight, who is now mute. It is unknown who these singers are or why these tracks were recorded.
On April 12, 1992, Phantom Manor was opened at Disneyland Paris. Based on the original Disneyland ride but with a new backstory tied into Frontierland, Big Thunder Mountain, and Thunder Mesa, Phantom Manor featured a more coherent storyline and an all-new orchestral soundtrack by composer John Debney.
Debney took a different approach to the same concept as the Haunted Mansion attractions. The intended mood is one of corrupted elegance, rather than morbid kookiness. As a result, the soundtrack is different as well. The regular Haunted Mansion attractions feature music that is usually played or sung by characters in the scenery: an organist's waltz, a graveyard band jamboree, and so on. Phantom Manor, however, has a full orchestral soundtrack that takes a more cinematic approach, although all of the music is based on "Grim Grinning Ghosts."
Recording sessions took place at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London, England. Debney himself conducted the London Chamber Orchestra. A variety of instrumentation is used. At various moments, guests hear piano, organ, alto flute, a boy's choir, and a jazz band, all in addition to the ordinary orchestral complement. Imagineer and amateur opera singer Katherine Meyering provided Melanie Ravenswood's singing voice.
In Popular Culture
- "Grim Grinning Ghosts" was covered by the Canadian rock group Barenaked Ladies in 2003.
- The song can be heard briefly in Toy Story 3: The Video Game in the Toy Box mode. In the Sid's Haunted House level, after clearing the first room, the song plays in a continuous loop until clearing the last room.
- The song was performed on The House Of Mouse episode "House Ghosts," and was sung by The Hitchhiking Ghosts. In this song they are released from a crate by Pete and scare him along with the other residents from The Haunted Mansion. including the Lonesome Ghosts, the Hatbox Ghost, the Executioner, the Skeletons from The Skeleton Dance, and The Bride Where they attempt to scare Pete out of the club.
- The song is heard during Riley's nightmare in the 2015 Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.
- The Sounds Of Disneyland by Stacia Martin