REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. – Along the boardwalk of this Atlantic Coast city, an old-fashioned amusement park called Funland is a paradise for over-sunny families who power neighborhoods with Skee-Ball machines and use mallets to try to flip the rubber frogs on the water lilies move in pursuit of a stuffed animal.
And among the newer attractions that launch riders into the air or upside down, there’s one ride that continues to hold an important place in visitors’ memories: the Haunted Mansion.
Meredith Luzietti, 45, has been to Funland all her life and says she first rode the haunted mansion when she was about to 6. She has no idea how many times she’s used it since.
“I think I was pretty scared of it when I was little,” she says.
Her 14-year-old daughter Sophia is standing in line with her.
“I remember it was really scary, but now that I’m older it’s fun,” Sophia says, remembering being startled by scary jumps and weird floating objects.
Luzietti says it’s the nostalgia the park evokes that keeps her coming back.
“My dad filmed us, so we watch 80s movies with us on the rides. And now my daughter does it, so it’s fun that generation after generation does it,” she says.
further back online, I meet Levi Crossman, who is from nearby Lewes. He says he rode around the mansion a lot when he was a kid. He is 12 years old.
“All I remember is that at the end, there’s a train or a bus and it honks, and it’s really loud,” he warns me.
His friend TJ Brittingham is about to take the tour for the second time.
“It’s really fun. It’s not this scary,” he says — except for the first time, when things jump up as you cross.
I tell them it’s my first time going to the Haunted Mansion and I ask them if I’m going to be scared.
“Probably not,” guesses Levi.
So I board one of the ride’s all-black cars, suspended from a track above, adorned with a skull and crossbones. A moment later, I’m plunged through the gates of the mansion into a very chilling scene.
The car takes me to a red, carpeted room in what looks like a Victorian house. There’s a moving skeleton, glow-in-the-dark artwork, and eerie laughter echoing down the hall as I’m carried upward. Then darkness suddenly falls and I am sprayed with a stream of water.
My car enters a macabre living room where a skeleton plays the piano while another is spread out on a sofa in perpetual rest. A library opens and I’m led behind it through various haunted scenes: a bat cave, a graveyard, and an abandoned mine. I am transfixed by a room covered with mirrors where skulls float and dance, like one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms.
And there are times when sunny reality pierces through: doors will open to overlook the park’s revolving Gravitron and beachgoers along the boardwalk.
The haunted mansion, which opened in 1980, is known in entertainment parlance as a “dark ride”. Among aficionados of classic dark rides, Funland’s frequently ranks in the top 10 nationwide.
For me, a newbie to dark riding, the experience is choppy, exhilarating fun – full of scary jumps and weird scenes.
Randy Curry has been here since Haunted Mansion was created. Now in his 43rd year at Funland, he works as a mechanic, in the third generation of the family that runs the amusement park since 1962.
Much of the mansion’s decor is handmade, some of it by Curry himself. Take the Frankenstein figure hiding in a corner.
“He’s just a chicken wire and a wooden frame,” Curry said. “His arms and legs are cardboard mat tubes that I covered with fiberglass. Only his elbows and stuff are solid. His legs are just mat tubes with hinges for the knees.”
In the darkness of the ride, with its constant deviations, it’s convincing enough to be scary. But just a little: Curry says the ride was designed to be scary and fun — and not too scary.
However, I see a child coming out of the merry-go-round, his cheeks wet with tears. I ask Ayeisha Robinson, who works at the carousel exit, how often she sees children come out crying.
“Every day,” she said.
But the child who cries today is the child who cries and laughs next summer. And for all, Funland and its haunted mansion will hopefully be there for years to come, serving up memories of summer along the boardwalk.