Drew McWeeny called Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow, the psychological horror film about bad things happening in Disney World that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has now finally received a commercial release, a “magnificent, impossible nightmare.” Any sentence that uses the word “magnificent” is potentially a money quote for a movie’s publicists, but the publicity for Escape From Tomorrow has chosen instead to focus on the “impossible.” They want you to know that making it—much of which was done guerilla-style, covertly shooting with miniature cameras while posing as ordinary park-goers—was an act of defiance against the laws of probability, not just Disney. It was impossible to make and equally impossible for it to be shown—and yet here it is.
“Yet here it is” is the dominant tone throughout most of the film. Nothing makes sense. In the opening scene, a father named Jim has a frustrating telephone conversation with someone who tells him he’s lost his job, but can’t satisfactorily say why. During the first few rides he and his family go on at the park, demonic faces grin at him from the animatronic figures and his son’s eyes turn black. The surreal mingles with the banal as the family experiences continual petty friction and Jim and eventually his wife struggle to hold on to their sanity. Jim develops a sudden obsession with a pair of teenage French girls also visiting the park. The disorienting final act offers a little explanation for some of the goings on, or at least draws some new connections, but doesn’t really make it all coherent. In particular, it doesn’t offer us an antagonist. Disturbed, dangerous, and weird characters walk around making life difficult, but they’re not acting in concert. They’re just existing in the same haze of madness that covers the whole place.
All this is doubly impossible: impossible because it’s bizarre, but also impossible because it takes place at Disney World, where bad things aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. The film relies for its effect on everyone in our society to know what Disney World is: mass entertainment engineered to be as perfect as a human creation can be, a shining corporate paradise. More than a haven for the innocence of childhood, it’s designed to be a place where adults can become children again. That’s why the most horrifying (and inspired) ideas and images in the film have to do with the desecration of childhood. Beautiful Disney princess actresses preside over an underground empire of kinky sex with visiting businessmen and, curiously intertwined with this, become the focus of a universal desire for innocence—a desire so intense that it leads to the unhinging of minds.
The film, then, is not just weird for weirdness’s sake; it speaks to some basic human needs. However, its spell doesn’t work on everyone. It isn’t a very polished production, truth be told. In some places, the script uses ham-fisted callbacks and flashbacks when it should let us make connections on our own, and in others, it makes some missteps with pacing that make the story structure seem a bit random. I occasionally felt that the film was getting in its own way, doing too many things at once and diffusing its power.
But in a way, its imperfections might be seen as an advantage. It belongs to the grand tradition of “underground” horror, and this includes not just movies but written stories as well. Today, of course, these stories are circulated on the Internet. If one happens to seize many people’s imaginations, it gets spread around on various websites, usually without attribution, as if it had arisen out of the collective consciousness of the web, and becomes a “creepypasta.” (A copypasta is anything that is copied and pasted; a creepypasta is the same thing, only creepy.) A good creepypasta can do just what Escape From Tomorrow does: tap into fears and doubts about the way we live our lives today that are rarely discussed openly, but that many people feel. They always begin with the mundane: they deal with the evil that might be lurking in computer games, TV shows, and other everyday entertainments.
A fundamental feature of creepypastas is that they’re never very well written. Some have better writing than others, but none are superb. You can never quite say whether the mediocre prose is an artistic choice (since they tend to be first-person accounts, and are supposted to sound like they could have been written by anyone on the Internet) or a result of the writer’s limitations, just as you can’t quite say whether the black and white cinematography in Escape From Tomorrow is an artistic choice or a result of the difficulty of doing uniform color correction on footage shot with miniature cameras in uncontrollable lighting conditions.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no art involved in writing creepypastas. These stories are produced in vast amounts on forums and blogs everywhere, but only a few have what it takes to really take off. Many are extravagant and blood-soaked, but the most effective ones tend to rely on the power of suggestion. A good example is Candle Cove, an imaginary message board conversation about an old kids’ TV show that was just a little bit…off. Another is Normal Porn for Normal People, which, unlike most computer-centered pastas, many of which involve people somehow being killed through their computer screens, seems just surreal enough to be disturbing and just possible enough to be scary.
The one most clearly relevant to the film is also, if you ask me, one of the best, and one which all readers of this post should take the time to read if they don’t know it already: Abandoned by Disney. It’s a story about a terrifying experience someone had while attempting to explore an area that Disney was trying to turn into a theme park and resort, but inexplicably abandoned during construction.
The story takes place in a park called “Mowgli’s Palace,” supposedly located in North Carolina, which is of course completely fictional. However, the beginning of the story refers to a different abandoned park, one called “Treasure Island” and located in the Bahamas, and emphatically states: “This is a FACT. Look it up.” Looking it up, it turns out, isn’t too easy. Scanty information is scattered about on various sites, none of them obviously reliable. The one that seems to most know what it’s talking about, Notes from the Road, is frustratingly incomplete, especially on one page that seems to have been intended to provide a complete history of the incident but instead gives only a capsule summary lifted from a newspaper, with no hint of the publication date of the article it quotes. However, as far as I can tell from this muddle, “Treasure Island” was indeed a real thing that actually happened. It was constructed by Disney and its partner, a company called Premier Cruise Line (a company with a similar name still exists, but I don’t know whether there’s any connection), on the island of Great Guana Cay in 1989.
By all accounts, the attempt was at best a hubristic act, and at worst an act of eco-terrorism with overtones of cultural imperialism thrown in. Disney, according to this narrative, dredged a tiny and unnavigable channel to make room for their cruise ship, helpless to resist the shifting tidal sands, which was nevertheless wide enough to “shit the poisonous excrement of potato-chip-eaters and Mountain Dew drinkers” into the pure tropical sea; tore up the native flora of the island to make room for more properly exotic pine trees from the Middle East; built a park out of spare parts; and treated its captive dolphins, the signature attraction, with brutal indifference. Pollution, rape of the natural world, Orientalism, and cruelty to animals in one fell swoop: this story is tailor-made for those who have no love for corporate mass entertainment.
And it may well be true, as the creepypasta says, that locals were none too happy about the project. There really is a blog post with pictures of the ransacked and vandalized remains of the park, and while the chuckleheaded author of this particular post treats the whole thing like a joke, the serious side of it suggests itself as well. “Abandoned by Disney” evokes all this with its reference to Treasure Island, and then asks Americans to imagine: what if there were another goofy attempt at an exotic Disneyfied paradise, where tourists could amuse themselves by observing a constructed vision of a fictive “Other,” built with the same disregard for the feelings of the local inhabitants and the same wanton destruction of the native environment…only this one took place in our own backyard. It may be an implausible scenario, but it’s a potent thought experiment. Such a project would remind us of our national insecurities about race and culture. Disney would seem to be imposing on us a grotesque, monstrous version of what we already have complicated feelings about, and the results would be uncomfortable:
We’re talking about a large Indian Palace, Jungle, and Loincloths not only in the center of a relatively wealthy area, but also a somewhat “xenophobic” area of the southern USA. It was a questionable mix at that point in history.
One member of the crowd tried to storm the stage, but he was quickly subdued by security after he managed to break one of the presentation boards over his knee.
Disney took that community and essentially broke it over its knee, as well.
A Disney theme park is a happy place. It has to be. And yet no matter how much we all love Disney, there’s something about it that gives us pause. Can it really be that this manufactured joy conceals no dark secrets? How much of real life, how much of truth, did they bulldoze to build this storybook fantasy? To many people, as stories like this show, the comprehensiveness of Disney’s sweetness and wholesomeness bespeaks a frighteningly casual attitude toward the real world. There must be cracks in the foundation somewhere; something must be wrong under the surface.
In “Abandoned by Disney,” there’s some mysterious kind of evil power lurking in the abandoned theme park, something that defies any attempts to document it or to determine its true nature. Its inverted coloring suggests that it is a sort of anti-Disney, but in another way, it is Disney itself. Or at least, it was something that it was natural for Disney to find.
In Escape From Tomorrow, however, Disney only brings out the darkness that is already within people’s hearts. The film is a story of a man striving hopelessly to save his own soul. His efforts at redeeming himself are inadequate: he can try to make the right decisions, but there is no innocence to be found in Disney World, not even in the children the park was built for. There is only depression, madness, obsession, bitterness, and foul disease. After the surrealism of most of the film, the ending may seem disappointingly mundane to some, but it’s a logical, frightening conclusion to the story. Never have Disney’s simple icons—Buzz Lightyear, Mickey Mouse—looked more chilling.
The irrationality of the story’s events don’t make the film any less full of ideas, and it’s made with so much wit and passion that its shortcomings are more than forgivable. I’ll be seeing it again.