The Skeleton Dance

The Skeleton Dance

The story of the Disney animated short that terrified audiences 50 years ago

When Walt Disney introduced the world to the first animated cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie (1928), he knew it was just the beginning of a series of innovative cartoons he could produce. The success of Mickey Mouse brought more ideas to the studio to stay relevant, and one of those ideas was the Silly Symphonies cartoons. It all started as an idea for a short film: a test to see how it would fare in theaters. The very first Silly Symphony was The Skeleton Dance in August 1929.


Synchronized sound became an important part of storytelling after Mickey Mouse introduced it. Composer Carl Stalling started working with Disney as one of his first jobs after Walt saw him conducting an orchestra. He is credited with writing scores for Mickey Mouse cartoons. He is the genius behind the soundtrack of Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, and the song “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo”. In 1929, Stalling met animator Ub Iwerks, the visionary behind the design and execution of Mickey Mouse. He pitched the idea of The Skeleton Dance, using music to tell the story of these skeletons coming to life.

It was Stalling who also proposed the idea for the 1929 classic The Skeleton Dance and launched the Silly Symphonies series for Disney.


The cartoon begins with a frightened owl on a tree, a dog howling at the wind, and two cats fighting over gravestones. A menacing skeleton rises from the gravestone between them and scares them. The skeleton leaps through the graveyard, removing its head and hitting the owl with it when it hears it screeching.

Other skeletons appear from behind the gravestones, dancing together, holding hands, and swinging around, enjoying the night. At one point, a skeleton falls apart to transform into a xylophone for another to play. Towards the end of the five-and-a-half-minute cartoon, a rooster crows to signal the morning, and all the skeletons rush back into a tomb.


Initially, many distributors were reluctant to show this new eerie film: it wasn’t something that had been done before, so the audience’s reception was a gamble. Walt operated by taking risks and hoping it would work. Eventually, Columbia Pictures distributed the film, and the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles agreed to screen his new film. It was the first cartoon the Carthay Circle had ever shown. It was released on August 22, 1929.

The Skeleton Dance was a huge audience hit despite the strange reactions to the idea at first. It ultimately became a Halloween success, especially with big names like Variety and The Film Daily. In a Variety article from July 17, 1929 (exactly 26 years before Disneyland’s opening, by the way), they write:

“The title tells the story, but not the number of laughs included in this short that looks like a cartoon. The number is high. The peak is reached when one skeleton plays another’s spine like a xylophone, using a pair of femurs as mallets… Everything takes place in a cemetery. Don’t bring your kids.”


In 1994, Jerry Beck, an animation historian, wrote a book titled “The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.” The Skeleton Dance ranked number 18, right after Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) and just before Snow-White (1933) by Dave Fleischer.

The Skeleton Dance remains an important part of animation and cinema history. Not only was it the first Silly Symphony cartoon, but it also has a universal and timeless theme that can be presented every year.

As discussed by Anya Stanley on the Shudder blog in 2019, the cartoon mimics that theme, with the four skeletons dancing together, regardless of who they were in their previous lives. Anya says:

“Rather than presenting a dialogue between Death itself and its victims, the dance simply says that we are all connected in death: prince and pauper, liberal and conservative, man, woman, and child.”


The Skeleton Dance is also considered the first cartoon with non-post-synchronized sound ever. This means that instead of creating the cartoon and then adding sound to it later, both the sound and the cartoon were made to be synonymous with each other. The music was created simultaneously with the animation.


Since the short film was such a success, it made sense to turn it into a full-fledged musical series. The Silly Symphonies continued for another 10 years, promptly ending in 1939 when Disney began its foray into feature-length films. The Disney studio created 75 unique cartoons that introduced many important characters into their tradition. These shorts carry the legacy of important musical performances in storytelling.

“The Silly Symphonies started as an experiment. We used them to test and refine color and animation techniques later employed in feature films like Cinderella, Snow White, and Fantasia.”



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