The Frozen Head Legend

1 Dec

Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.

As a major figure within the American animation industry, today the name of Walt Disney is known throughout the world. He is an iconic figure, well-regarded as a philanthropist and well known for his influence and contributions to the field of entertainment during the 20th century. Disney was particularly noted as a film producer and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. His creations, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Fantasia and The Jungle Book, are known the world over and characters like Donald Duck, Jiminy Cricket and Dumbo are household names from the Golden Age of Animation. Yet Disney’s reputation is not entirely controversy-free. There are sinister rumours about his personality and his treatment of others which seem to tarnish his otherwise family-friendly image. Disney was long rumoured to be anti-semitic during his lifetime, and such rumours persisted after his death. It has been claimed that Disney attended meetings of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, in the late 1930s – a claim lent some strength by the fact that in 1938 he welcomed German filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film Olympia. Disney was also rumoured to be racist, an allegation which stems from several Disney cartoons of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which sometimes displayed racial stereotyping and racially insensitive material. Other allegations against Disney included the claim that he was an unforgiving taskmaster who routinely mistreated his employees.

What are we to make of these claims? Well, in Disney’s defence, it is often said that any allegations of anti-semitism or racism made against Disney should instead be levelled at the times that he lived in. Ethnic/racial stereotyping was a common feature of American entertainment in the 1930s and there is no solid proof that Disney was ever in any way a supporter, actively or otherwise, of the Nazi party. There is no doubt that Walt Disney was a tough man to work for, but the same can equally be said of almost any successful business magnate. ‘It’s tough at the top’ so the mantra goes, and you have to be even tougher to stay there. In this context it could perhaps be suggested that the frozen head legend is simply the result of some disgruntled former employees of Disney, having a final pop at their ex-employer. However, although the cryogenesis rumour may have come initially from animators who once worked for Disney Studios, it does not help that it was perpetuated in two biographies: Disney’s World by Robert Mosley (1986) and Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince by Marc Eliot (1993). Both claim that Disney did know of cryogenesis and had a strong interest in the science. They also attribute a sinister motive behind the refrigeration: Disney, it is claimed, wanted nothing less than immortality in order to ensure that he could enjoy his wealth, fame and success forever. It has to be said that both books have been largely discredited for containing numerous factual errors and undocumented assertions, rendering them rather untrustworthy as sources of reliable background material. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, this is one urban legend that just refuses to die.

One Response to “The Frozen Head Legend”

  1. easyondeyes December 3, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    It’s often surprising when you hear or read “truths” about the man or woman that lies behind a name, isn’t it? After all, there’s no reason to assume that because Walt Disney created what he did he must have been a delightfully nice man! But somehow we seem to assume it. :-/

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