Not long ago I saw, for the second time, an innovative, entertaining and very strange independent film called Escape From Tomorrow, directed by Randy Moore, which came out in 2013. This film is stylistically noteworthy in that it’s the ultimate “guerrilla production”: a film entirely shot on cell phone and digital handheld cameras, and entirely without permission, within Disney World and Disneyland theme parks in Orlando, Florida and Anaheim, California. The film, which is sort of a psychological horror tale, was intended as a satire of the Disneyland mystique and possibly as a direct provocation to the Disney company itself. The guerrilla means of its production are part of its message. In thinking about the film I also got to thinking about that Disneyland mystique itself, why we’re drawn to it, and why Disneyland is such a natural magnet for dystopian or dark reflections in fiction. Escape From Tomorrow is hardly alone in trying to show the Magic Kingdom as something other than the wholesome good-clean-fun that the Disney corporation wants us to believe it is, and it taps into kind of a dark side of our popular culture and our modern consumer society.

Escape From Tomorrow is essentially the story of a middle-class everyman, Jim White (Roy Abrahmsohn) and his descent into madness. Jim, a typical dad, has brought his family–wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and kids Elliot and Sarah, about eight and six, respectively–to Disney World for a vacation. While on the rides Jim experiences bizarre hallucinations, such as demonic faces on the “It’s A Small World” ride, and imagines having sex with a woman dressed as a fairy princess who is actually a high-priced call girl for rich Asian businessmen. He also becomes obsessed with following two teenage French girls around the park. As Jim’s breakdown progresses the film becomes increasingly more surreal and bizarre, culminating in (semi-spoiler) a truly disgusting finale as Jim realizes the mysterious “cat flu” going around the park is no joke. The film is black-and-white and made like a 1940s film noir, showing Disney World as a forbidding place whose wholesome image is little more than a deliberately deceptive projection masking cynicism, depravity and conspiracy.

Although somewhat uneven in its execution, the concept of Escape From Tomorrow is certainly audacious, and it gains much of its power from the naughtiness of attacking an unassailable sacred cow: the Disney universe, which has been assiduously promoted in popular culture for over 60 years as an indispensable part of childhood in the United States. If you were born in America at any time since the 1950s you probably grew up watching Disney movies, whether the old classics like Snow White or Jungle Book or the newer ones like Aladdin or Finding Nemo, and you instantly recognize the core characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy etc. Tens of millions of people from all over the world have visited the Disneyland theme park since it opened in 1955 and/or Disney World in Florida which opened in 1971; today you can go to Disneyland in Paris or go on a Disney cruise. The Disney corporation has increasingly marketed its attractions not just for kids–it packs its parks with plenty of more adult-themed items too, like restaurants, the World’s Fair-like EPCOT Center at Disney world and other phenomena beyond the core cartoon-character stuff. Disney tries very hard to be as ubiquitous in our culture as it wants to be indispensable. A film like Escape From Tomorrow can only work from that premise, by asking the question: what if something that looks so wholesome actually turned out to be dark and evil under the surface?

The notion of “Disney as dystopia” is hardly limited to Escape From Tomorrow. I haven’t read Cory Doctorow’s 2003 science fiction novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, which takes place at Disney World in the 22nd century and depicts the park as the battleground between two political factions competing for the admiration, known as “Whuffie,” of park guests; Whuffie is a sort of all-purpose currency in the future. One of Clive Cussler’s first nautical techno-thriller novels, Iceberg, published in 1975, involves a battle with terrorists at Disneyland, who try to assassinate two world leaders on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. The tongue-in-cheek metal band Ugly Kid Joe recorded a song, “Madman,” on their 1991 debut EP As Ugly As They Wanna Be, the lyrics of which tell the story of a psycho ax murderer on a killing spree at Disneyland. (Given the epidemic of gun massacres in modern America, one wonders if this concept is a lot more inappropriate today than it was 25 years ago). There’s clearly something about the idea of violence or madness in the “happiest place on Earth” that lends itself to these kinds of depictions.

Ugly Kid Joe’s song “Madman” is about a spree killer loose at Disneyland. This taps into the same dark vibe as Escape From Tomorrow.

Why? Maybe part of it is generated by Disneyland’s squeaky-clean image itself. On an instinctive level maybe we believe that Disney is “too good to be true,” that any company that tries to be so good and wholesome to kids must have an ulterior motive. (In point of fact they do–it’s called “money.”) Maybe it’s a sense that the power and mystique that Disney, its characters, movies and theme parks have over children is so total and universal that we can’t conceive of someone not trying to misuse it for some nefarious purpose, which itself plays into a notion that evil is inherently stronger than good. Or perhaps it comes from a deep insecurity with the post-World War II popular middle-class consumerist culture that Disneyland sprang from and, to a large degree, defines. That identity has never been as pervasive or universal as pop culture seems to want us to believe; check out Cody Climer’s recent article on the 1950s movie All That Heaven Allows for an interesting take on that. Were we really meant to live in sterile houses in the suburbs, work middle-class jobs and take our kids to stage-managed corporate theme parks as the sina qua non of the American dream? Many people chafe under this largely artificial ideal, and pushing back against the assumptions of middle-class wholesomeness that Disney presumes are universally shared is a way to express misgivings about it.

In a certain sense, we can’t escape the gravitational pull that Disneyland and its ideals have on our popular culture. I never counted myself as a huge Disney fan, whether as a kid or an adult, but I’ve been to the parks; I was at Disneyland last in 1987, Disney World in 1983. Just recently, about the same time I saw Escape From Tomorrow for the first time, members of my family organized a fairly lavish expedition to bring my nephews, ages 9 and 5, to Disneyland; they had a great time, and this visit was basically all I heard about in my family for months. The Disney attractions seem to be an inescapable rite of passage for American childhood. We adults who live in a world that increasingly does look like a dystopian science fiction novel–come on, Donald Trump running for President?–may even take comfort in the stability and immutable nature of the wholesomeness of Disneyland that persists year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, if only in our heads. But at the same time we doubt the wholesomeness is truly real. Works of fiction like Escape From Tomorrow exist to remind us of that, and well they should. Mickey Mouse’s ears cast a long shadow on the world, but every shadow has its dark side.

The poster for Escape From Tomorrow is presumably copyright (C) 2013 by Film4 Productions, the makers of the film. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible as fair use. All other images are public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips. The Disney Corporation has been very careful to make clear that they do not sanction and have nothing to do with Escape From Tomorrow.