As part of our Contemporary Media and the Gothic series, Stephanie Gallon looks at the Gothic influences of a Disney short. Stephanie is an MA English student. Her interest in the Gothic is werewolf literature, feminism and monster theory. See more of her posts on the Student Profiles.
Night on Bald Mountain is the final segment of the 1940 Disney Classic Fantasia. It is something infinitely darker than what Disney has become synonymous with. There is no saccharine characters or cloying moral message. Instead, the ten minute short shows a devil figure raising the dead. The scene is infamous for its frightening concept and imagery, set to Modest Mussorgsky’s symphony of the same name, and is often cited as one of Disney’s more terrifying and adult pieces.
The scene is set at midnight when the devil atop the mountain awakens and summons the dead from the quaint, sleeping village at the foot of Bald Mountain. The mountain towers over the village, a dark and imposing reminder of the Sublime forces of nature. The Sublime was a term defined by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Burke noted that the Beautiful and the Sublime exist in a dichotomy, with the Beautiful representing the ideal aesthetics and the Sublime being the aesthetic which inspire both fear and pleasure in us. This foreboding Gothic monument that stands behind the picturesque village serves as a reminder that evil forces reside almost everywhere. In Night on Bald Mountain, that evil is the devil.
The devil in question is Chernobog, an old Slav god. His original purposes and roles have long since been forgotten. The oldest recording of him are Christian writings, who depict him as a malicious god. His name literally means black god, though this may not be how he was seen by the ancient Slavs. In Night on Bald Mountain, he is as a black giant with glowing yellow eyes and a towering wings. With his fangs and claws, Chernobog appears as a gargoyle, and as the lord and master of these spirits. He wields fire and cares little about his subjects, casting some down in to the mountain with no qualms. He spreads shadows in to the village, all with a terrifying smirk. In an interview, Walt Disney called Chernobog Satan himself.
The animation is brilliantly slow and grand to move with the music. The spectres move with ethereal grace on a dark and intimidating background. There is even the disturbing image of spirits rising from beneath the gallows, floating through the hangman’s noose. The symbolism is clear: these are the souls of the damned, executed for their transgressions and raised through the devil’s hellish will. The spirits are skeletal, fiery and monstrous, soaring above the slumbering town towards their dark master. The spirits and skeletons revel at the mountain’s peak by a gaping hell-pit. Skulls and ghouls make appearances as the music builds in to a crescendo, and figures of women in flames dance provocatively for Chernobog’s pleasure. It is a scene of decadence and horror, a true spirited rendition of Gothic joy.
In the end, the spirits are sent away by the sun rise and a procession of hooded monks singing Ave Maria. Even Chernobog recoils at the holy symbols. It is not the last time Disney would use this sort of religious imagery. In the 1998 animated classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there is the iconic villain’s song Hellfire that is illustrated with hellish hooded monks singing Gregorian chants as a backing to Frollo’s spiritual turmoil. Still, the message is clear in Night on Bald Mountain. Come the light of day, evil must return to where it came from. Chernobog returns to his home at the mountain summit, and the spirits return to their graves. All is well in the village; all are safe.
Though it is only a small segment of the movie, its Gothic influences are clear. From the macabre ghosts to the cathartic knowledge that light and goodness must always triumph, Night on Bald Mountain is a Gothic tale at its core. The animation is beautiful, the music is grand and moving, and both have an inherent darkness that makes the Gothic vibes thrive.
You can watch the full animation below.