This article is about the character from classic Disney cartoons. For the Marvel Comics character, see Grim Reaper.
The Grim Reaper (otherwise known as Death) is a legendary figure being the personification of death. Best known to be described as a skeleton in a hooded cloak (that usually hides their face) carrying a scythe. The Grim Reaper has appeared in many Disney properties. He first appeared in the 1929 short The Haunted House, as the main antagonist and leader of the Skeletons.
The Grim Reaper is the embodiment of death itself. They are often portrayed as a pscychopomp, a deity-like being which brings souls to the afterlife.
The Grim Reaper is a dark, gothic character with a mysterious presence. Ultimately, the Grim Reaper is neither good nor evil who cares only about collecting the souls of the deceased, and bringing them to the afterlife.
In The Haunted House, the Reaper posesses an ominous, hostile malice to his behavior however as demonstrated in their antagonistic relationship with Mickey Mouse who wanders into its abode during a fretful storm to escape the rain.
Despite their antagonistic personality in the Reaper's first appearance, later appearances have depicted them as a less self-serving malevolent entity. After all, death is only natural and neither cruel nor kind; merely being a condition of life and the natural order which every living thing must face.
The character's depictions are frequently based on the folklore's Grim Reaper with skeletal hands, wearing a grey cloak, and their face is covered in darkness. The Grim Reaper's appearance changes with his various different appearances, in their first appearance in The Haunted House their face is obscured in darkness, they don a ragged grey cloak and their hands are outlined in thick, black shadow. As Marty in American Dragon: Jake Long he bears a light silver skull face with ominous, glowing dark red eyes, has a jet black cloak, light silvery skeletal hands, and a bone banner at the center of the top end of his cloak bearing two dark silvery hands hanging down. His appearance however in shading alters in American Dragon as the dark silvery hands protruding and the rest of his skeletal features lighten to a ghostly white in certain sequences. In Darkwing Duck the Reaper appears again with a face shrouded in darkness, their cloak, however, a faded grey and their hands a skeletal white.
The Grim Reaper originates from Europe in the middle ages during the time of the Black Plague when one third of Europe was killed by the Bubonic plague. Due to the high death rates, depictions of death as a common figure in art escalated to visually portray the conditions of the event. These portrayals showed Death using a scythe to reap mortals as if they were reap, an allegory for human life growing like plants only to be cut short by demise.
The pop-culture depiction of the Grim Reaper is also highly influenced by death personifications and psychopomps throughout world cultures. This includes: Thanatos, Charon and Hermes/Mercury from Greco-Roman mythology, Santa Muerda from Latin-American folklore, the Angel of Death and apocalyptic Horseman of Death from Abrahamic faiths, Hel/Hela from Norse myth, and Marena/Marzena/Mara from Slavic mythology. Due to this influence, the Grim Reaper is typically anachronistic to any one religion and holds a melting-pot of different traits. Traditional iconography for the Grim Reaper includes a black robe, skeletal appearance, hourglass, scythe, and pale horse.
Although not being named the Grim Reaper in the movie, the Irish mythological representation of Death known as the Dullahan appears near the end, driving his Death Coach, to claim the soul of the daughter of Darby O'Gill, Katie.
It should be noted that the Dullahan is not the personification of death nor does it reflect the conception of the Grim Reaper. The Dullahan (or the Headless Horseman) is traditionally a race of headless fairies who ride on horses while using skulls and spines as weapons. They traditionally herald death but do not personify it, simply being a warning of impending demise or bringer of it.
The Grim Reaper only makes two brief appearances throughout the film. He is first seen during the musical number, "This is Halloween" and in the crowd during the Town Meeting where Jack tells the citizens about his discovery at Christmas Town.
Animated Short Appearances
The Grim Reaper appears in the abandoned hilltop haunted home before Mickey Mouse unwittingly sought refuge at his mysterious, seemingly uninhabited abode. He comes upon the shelter desperate hero and demands he play his piano so as to amuse him in the rainy night's macabre musical ensemble. He has his legion of skeletons perform alongside Mickey and prevents Mickey from escaping; with the intention of having him join the undead as a nightly performer of his for his own amusement. He plays on Mickey's fear to control him and eventually fails in his plot to integrate traveler Mickey from joining his undead troupe as the weary mouse leaps from a Haunted House window to freedom, fleeing as the sun begins to rise, signaling the end of the Reaper and the Skeleton ensemble.
He appears to King Midas a couple of times as the said King is having a breakdown over his curse that turns anything he touches into gold. The first is when he is in front of his mirror and asks if he will starve to death. His reflection then turns into the Grim Reaper who nods yes. Horrified, Midas runs from his mirror only to encounter the Grim Reaper in the form of his shadow who makes a slitting throat gesture.
A different depiction of the Grim Reaper appears in the Short Circuit short released exclusively on Disney+. Here, the Grim Reaper plans to take the soul of a cyclist to be ranked as the Death of the Month, but decides not to; however, one cyclist disappears after he passes through him as he chases the cyclist he saw on his tablet down a hill while dodging a number of obstacles, still chasing him. Seeing the cyclist reach the finish line, he decides to take revenge as his number of collected souls decreases. Looking at him falling in love with a woman, the Grim Reaper stops stalking and remembers his romantic flashback and feels inspired upon seeing the couple. He then grabs a bouquet of flowers from a woman and rides his bike towards a hospital meeting his wife, but she feels too tired to accept it, leaving his robe, scythe, and tablet behind.
After Darkwing Duck was killed and came back to Earth, he was convinced when the Grim Reaper came. Many times he avoided him so he wouldn't come with him. Then, he finally caught him while was trying to save Gosalyn and Launchpad from Megavolt. While going, Darkwing made a challenge with the Reaper, if he can't do what Darkwing can do, he can have an hour to save Gosalyn and Launchpad from Megavolt, and the Reaper failed. He did managed to save them, when there wasn't a way to bring Darkwing back to life, the Reaper came and took a willing and dignified Darkwing. But on the way, Darkwing fell on his knees crying and kept on saying he didn't want to go, then he woke and realized it was all a bad dream.
The show's version of the Grim Reaper, here named Marty, appeared in the episodes, Family Business and Nobody's Fu. Marty is actually the latest Grim Reaper, implying that the role is inherited when the previous reaper dies; in Marty's case, he became the grim reaper after joking the first reaper (literally) to death.
In the Haunted Mansion, the Grim Reaper is shown as an illustration on page 1312 of Madame Leota's spell book in an article dedicated to summoning spirits bound in limbo. The Grim Reaper is depicted as having the same skeletal face as the hitchhiking ghost Ezra and the Hatbox Ghost while holding a staff. By death are the words, "Memento Mori" which is a latin expression meaning, "Remember you will die".
The Grim Reaper shares other connections with the Haunted Mansion, the attraction's theme song Grim Grinning Ghosts is even named for the reaper. The expression Grim Grinning Ghost originates from William Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis (1593) in the quote, "And, sighing it again, exclaims on Death. ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean, Hateful divorce of love,’—thus chides she Death,— ‘Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean?". Here the term was originally used to mock death as a personification.
The Ghost Gallery
In the 1990s, cast-members of the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World created a backstory for the attraction as a means of answering guest questions. All of this backstory was recorded on paper and while unofficial, has since influenced both the original Haunted Mansion's official and semi-official features as-well as adaptations based on the Haunted Mansion.
In this story, the Grim Reaper made an appearance as, "The Angel of Death" involved in the backstory of the shadow pianist seen in the Magic Kingdom's version of the ride. In this story it is explained that the pianist was named Ludwig Von Baroketch and that he was an 18th century composer who composed the melody for Grim Grinning Ghosts to try and appease death to extend his own life. Death refused the offer however and forced Ludwig to haunt his piano as a ghost with the piano eventually coming into the collection of George Gracey, Jr..