In 1969, the Haunted Mansion dark ride attraction first opened at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and was an immediate success. The ride eventually spawned duplicates at Disney World in Florida and Tokyo Disneyworld. The theme park attraction also inspired a 2003 movie, “The Haunted Mansion,” starring Eddie Murphy as the father of a family which has a bad time in a haunted mansion. The movie performed poorly for a Disney film, but that often does not stop new producers and actors from trying the same idea again. “Haunted Mansion” (no “The” in this title) is based on the same Disney attraction, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, and scheduled to be released in 2023. This one has Rosario Dawson as a single mom who unknowingly buys a haunted house, and boasts a star-studded supporting cast featuring Owen Wilson, Winona Ryder, Dan Levy, Jared Leto, Danny DeVito, and Jamie Lee Curtis. To help make sure this new version does better than its predecessor, the director gave each of the cast members a crystal ball to help them to “tune into paranormal thinking.” Will it help? Why a crystal ball? Could a crystal ball help some other paranormal movies? Or actors?
"I related to it. I felt like I knew I could make it. I was a fanboy, so I understood the ride. I had to make sure all the details and Easter Eggs were there."
Director Justin Simien already had a connection to Disney – he told the audience at a D23 Expo promotion event that he once worked at Disneyland, calling it “the best summer job I ever had” and revealing that “I used to ride the Haunted Mansion on breaks.” The movie has already been filmed and is now in post-production, so Simien is participating in interviews for publicity and to keep the excitement high until its expected release in August 2023. During an interview, Simien revealed how he got his cast to focus on making the paranormal aspects of the film as realistic as possible – a challenge for those not familiar with that world.
“(I gave them each a crystal ball to) bring clarity, amplify energy … just tune into paranormal thinking, so it felt authentic on screen.”
Why a crystal ball? While the polished crystal orb is generally associated with the performance of clairvoyance and scrying (using an object to obtain visions or messages), it is not featured much in the modern world of the paranormal. Simien’s choice may have been inspired by Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in the film, Madame Leota – a so-called clairvoyant Romani spirit whose job requires her to look into a crystal ball. Curtis mentions in the same interview that seeing her reflection in the crystal ball freaked her out because she doesn’t like looking at “my now 63-year-old body in the mirror.” No, it isn’t a full-length crystal ball – she just prefers using mirrors and reflections for practical purposes like brushing her teeth or plucking her eyebrows.
Despite Curtis’ non-paranormal discomfort with it, Simien may have actually made a good choice in giving his cast members crystal balls to help them focus. Also called the orbuculum, the crystal ball dates back to at least the 1st century CE when Pliny the Elder wrote of the use of the "crystallum orbis" by soothsayers. Its use for scrying became so popular in the Roman Empire by the fifth century CE that the early medieval Christian Church condemned crystal balls as heretical – probably making them even more popular. Dr. John Dee, the noted British mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, was interested in crystal balls in addition to other mystical objects like Dee's Speculum (a spirit mirror) and the Voynich manuscript. Crystal all gazing probably reached its peak in the Victorian era when it was alleged that the ball would theatrically fill with a mist or smoke before the vision or message appeared. The downfall in the popularity of the crystal ball can be attributed to its use by Romani fortune tellers who were held in low esteem, and by 20th century magicians who performed mentalism – a popular one was Claude Alexander, better known as "Alexander the Crystal Seer". In the skilled hands of a mentalist, the crystal ball helped distract the audience while they read body language, asked leading questions and used other psychological means to appear to read minds. In today’s magic acts, the crystal ball is often relegated to a levitation trick behind a silk cloth.
Perhaps Simien had the modern pop culture version of the crystal ball in mind when he passed them out to the cast. In the 1950s and 1960s, the popular psychic Jeane Dixon used a crystal ball as her prop to allegedly predict the assassination of John F. Kennedy, although her the rest of her prediction record was far from perfect. Despite that, she was employed as an adviser to Nancy Reagan, who used Dixon's forecasts to plan the schedules of President Ronald Reagan – a former actor himself. Crystal balls continue to play important parts in other movies – Professor Marvel told Dorothy’s fortune with one in “The Wizard of Oz”; poor Dorothy also saw Auntie Em crying in the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball; the fortune-telling, crystal ball reading machine called Zoltar played a big part in the movie “Big”; and David Bowie's Jareth the Goblin King in “Labyrinth” was a master at spinning, waving, and floating crystal orbs.
According to Vice, the power of crystals in general keeps the crystal ball in the repertoire of many modern seers and psychics – their shape is a perfect for cupped hands to hold while other things are happening in a reading. However, for movie actors, perhaps the best benefit from holding a crystal ball is to inspire both paranormal and non-paranormal plot points. In 1913, a Chicago “seeress" charged with murdering five people used her crystal ball in her defense – it didn’t work. In 2014, a crystal ball helped started a fire after sunlight refracting through it caused a pair of curtains to catch fire and nearly burn down a house. In 2021, a woman in Oklahoma City bludgeoned a man to death with a crystal ball.
For whatever his reason, it is certain that the folks at Disney hope Simien’s crystal balls focused his cast to make “Haunted Mansion” film a hit in 2023. If they work, Eddie Murphy may want one of his own to help revive his career.