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An amusement park Haunted Mansion delivers summer screams and lifelong memories

Funland, a staple of the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del., has been run by the same family since 1962.
Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
Funland, a staple of the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del., has been run by the same family since 1962.

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Along the boardwalk in this Atlantic Coast town, an old-school amusement park called Funland is a haven for over-sunned families who feed quarters into Skee-Ball machines and use mallets to try to flip rubber frogs onto moving lily pads in pursuit of a stuffed animal prize.

And among the newer attractions that fling riders into the air or upside down, there's one ride that continues to loom large in visitors' memories: the Haunted Mansion.

Riders get airtime on the Free Spin.
/ Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
Riders get airtime on the Free Spin.

Meredith Luzietti, 45, has been coming to Funland her whole life, and says she first rode on the Haunted Mansion when she was about 6. She has no idea how many times she's been on it since.

"I think I was pretty afraid of it when I was little," she says.

Her 14-year-old daughter Sophia is with her in line.

"I remember it being really scary, but now that I'm older, it's fun," Sophia says, remembering being startled by jump scares and eerie floating objects.

Luzietti says it's the nostalgia that the park evokes that keeps her coming back.

"My dad took movies of us, so we watch movies from the '80s with us going on the rides. And now my daughter's doing it, so it's fun to have generation after generation do it," she says.

TJ Brittingham, left, and Levi Crossman, both 12, prepare to board the Haunted Mansion.
/ Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
TJ Brittingham, left, and Levi Crossman, both 12, prepare to board the Haunted Mansion.

Farther back in line, I meet Levi Crossman, who's from the nearby town of Lewes. He says he rode the mansion a lot when he was a kid. He's 12.

"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 go on the ride for his second time.

"It's really entertaining. It's not that scary," he says – except for the first time, when things jump out when you're riding through.

I tell them it's my first time on the Haunted Mansion and ask if I'll be scared.

"Probably not," guesses Levi.

So I climb aboard one of the ride's all-black cars, dangling from a track above, adorned with a skull and crossbones. A moment later, I'm plunged through the doors of the mansion into a very creepy scene.

The Haunted Mansion is a classic "dark ride" with eerie scenes and plenty of jump scares. But it also features surprising vistas over the boardwalk.
/ Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
The Haunted Mansion is a classic "dark ride" with eerie scenes and plenty of jump scares. But it also features surprising vistas over the boardwalk.

The car takes me into a red, wallpapered room of what looks like a Victorian house. There's a moving skeleton, artwork glowing in the dark, and eerie laughs ringing out through the hallway as I'm carried upward. Then darkness suddenly falls and I'm sprayed by a jet of water.

My car enters a ghoulish salon where one skeleton plays a piano as another is splayed across a sofa in perpetual repose. A bookcase opens, and I'm taken behind it through various haunted scenes: a bat cave, a graveyard and an abandoned mine. I'm transfixed by a room covered in mirrors where skulls float and dance, like one of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms.

And there are moments when sunny reality peeks through: The doors will open to overlook the park's spinning Gravitron and beachgoers along the boardwalk.

The Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1980, is known in amusement parlance as a "dark ride." Among aficionados of classic dark rides, the one at Funland frequently ranks in the top 10 in the country.

To me, a dark ride novice, the experience is jerky, exhilarating fun — full of jump scares and weird scenes.

Randy Curry has been here since the Haunted Mansion's inception. Now in his 43rd year at Funland, he works as a mechanic, in the third generation of the family that has been running the amusement park since 1962.

Much of the decor in the mansion is handmade, including some by Curry himself. Take the Frankenstein figure that lurks in one corner.

"He is just chicken wire, and a wooden frame," Curry says. "His arms and legs are cardboard carpet tubes that I fiberglassed. Just his elbows and stuff are solid. His legs are just carpet tubes with hinges for knees."

Curry shows that underneath Frankenstein's suit, the monster is just chicken wire and cardboard carpet tubes.
/ Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
Curry shows that underneath Frankenstein's suit, the monster is just chicken wire and cardboard carpet tubes.

In the darkness of the ride, with its constant diversions, it's convincing enough to scare. But just a little: Curry says the ride was designed to be spooky and fun — and not overly frightening.

Still, I see one child exiting the ride, her cheeks wet with tears. I ask Ayeisha Robinson, who's working at the ride's exit, how often she sees kids come off crying.

"Every day," she says.

But today's crying kid is next summer's screaming and laughing kid. And for all of them, Funland and its Haunted Mansion will hopefully be here for years to come, serving up summer memories along the boardwalk.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A much-oversized spider lines the path of the Haunted Mansion.
/ Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/ NPR
A much-oversized spider lines the path of the Haunted Mansion.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.