News & Politics

Why Rehoboth’s Haunted Mansion Is One of America’s Best “Dark Rides”

A new book digs into the history of Funland, including the beloved attraction.

Photograph of Haunted Mansion courtesy of Funland Rehoboth Beach.

For anyone who grew up going to Rehoboth Beach, the boardwalk attraction Funland was as much a part of summer as Thrasher’s fries and Grotto pizza. And if your inclinations ran toward the macabre, the most exciting part of Funland wasn’t SkeeBall or bumper cars. It was the Haunted Mansion.

Now a new book digs into the story of Funland, including its signature scary ride, which opened 40 years ago this summer. Written by Takoma Park author—and former Funland employee—Chris LindsleyLand of Fun: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Amusement Park for the Ages traces the 57-year history of the family-owned amusement park. But many readers will immediately do what we did: flip straight to the chapter on the Haunted Mansion.

It turns out the hair-raising attraction isn’t just a local favorite—it’s actually one of the all-time great “dark rides,” as such horror-oriented amusements are known in the industry. When it opened in 1979, its combination of overhead track and two-level design was both innovative and complicated to pull off. Enthusiasts still consider it a classic of the genre.

Because the apparatus is installed above rather than on the floor, where riders would see it, the experience is enjoyably disorienting. Its creative use of space and light—or lack thereof—elevates the creepy skeletons and eerie sound effects. “I like the fright of the unknown,” says Jim Melonic, an artist and ride creator who designed the scenes and visual effects. “It’s like that in life. We want the answers, and when you have a lot of questions about something, that’s when you’re on edge. That’s the set­up I place people in to get a good startle out of them.”

To build the Haunted Mansion, Melonic and second-generation Funland owner Al Fasnacht worked together to dream up the various scenarios. “I drew sketches of every set with him at my shop,” says Melonic, who’s still in the business, designing things like custom mini-golf courses for cruise ships. He then built the sets from those plans, including such favorites as the clever bookcase fakeout and the skeleton-about-to-hit-you-with-a-truck scare, which makes use of a real tractor-trailer cab salvaged from a nearby junkyard.

Today, jittery kids (and adults) still line up to see what horrors await beyond those red double doors. “It’s the ideal family ride,” says Lindsley. “It seems to be scary enough for most, but it’s not gruesome. It doesn’t create nightmares for people.” And when the short experience is over? “They want to get back in line.”

This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.