2024-07-15 7:30 AM

Luray’s Darkwood Manor Haunt a ‘Captivating Ride’

darkwoodmanorAs my mother and I pulled up to the Darkwood Manor “haunted house” in Luray, Virginia, I turned to her and asked sarcastically, “Ready to be scaaaared?” She just laughed.


GHOULS AND GOBLINS line the insides of the Darkwood Manor haunted house in Luray, Va. (Photo: Louis Brown)

As my mother and I pulled up to the Darkwood Manor “haunted house” in Luray, Virginia, I turned to her and asked sarcastically, “Ready to be scaaaared?” She just laughed.

My mother and I are, after all, thick-skinned fans of the horror genre. Over the years, we’ve braved professional haunted house attractions ranging from colossal (Pennsylvania) to claustrophobic (New York City). We’ve ridden rickety pitch-black haunted house rides at state fairs, attended Halloween-themed amusement park nights, and have seen just about every horror film to hit a screen since the 1980’s – the good, the bad, and the gruesome. We read horror, we follow horror, we tape horror on the DVR. (I even eat Count Chocula when I can – a sure scare for my dentist). To us, nothing’s quite as fun as a good, safe scare.

After the 90-minute drive to Luray – much of it on an appreciably spooky and under-lit two-lane highway – I was surprised to come upon what seemed like a very simple wooden house behind a small shopping district. This was Darkwood Manor, once home to sadistic killers Leroy and Raven Darkwood, their creepy daughter Abigail, mysterious son Thane, and the tragic fates that befell them all…or so the detailed legend goes. In reality, Darkwood Manor is celebrating its 10th anniversary, taking in hundreds of guests every weekend, 7 – 11 pm, through Halloween night.

Darkwood’s relatively simple exterior belies an intense, cavernous belly. Its brilliance hits you almost instantly, as a well-dressed curator sets the scene in an ornate living room, and you receive a cautionary welcome from Leroy himself, the first of many creepy-cool special effects.

This is a haunted house experience created by people who obviously love haunted house experiences … and don’t pull any punches. To be clear, this is not for children. Darkwood distinguishes itself with a well-developed narrative that evolves as you move further into its labyrinthine depths. The experience is also interactive – guests are given assignments and objects, and are prompted at one point to choose between doors. There’s no way to stay at arm’s length from the horror – you are involved. And you are captive.

About halfway through, my formerly unflappable mother announced she was just too scared to continue.

Artist Louis Brown is the creator and co-owner of Darkwood Manor. Along with his wife and small staff, he conceives new storylines each year; builds sets, props, and masks; applies makeup; and trains the actors, which can be a tricky assignment in and of itself. “I’ve found that scaring comes natural to some people – they just innately know how to scare people, but some can never learn the skill it takes to get a scream.” I’ve been nearly accosted by enough teen actors in lesser haunted houses to agree.

Brown’s dedication shows in a lovingly-detailed, seemingly never-ending multi-sensory tour of mutilated creatures, hypnotic TV images, hostile alien encounters, skin-sewing psychos, pitch black passages, sadistic laboratories, hissing boiler rooms, hanging body bags, and repulsive bathrooms and kitchens. And that’s a very incomplete list. In fact, about halfway through, my formerly unflappable mother announced she was just too scared to continue. I took her hand and trudged onward. But as we crossed through a menacing corn field only to see ourselves heading back inside the death-drenched house, even I thought: “Is it possible this will never end?”

There are roughly 17 rooms in the entire experience, but it feels more like 40. By the time we finally escaped – and believe me, it absolutely feels like an escape – my final surprise was that our hair hadn’t turned white.

Brown explains that the thrill comes not just from the rush of being scared, but also from a sense of safety as well. “The scream is most often followed by a laugh,” Brown told me. “You get the adrenaline that real danger would give you, but you know you are really safe. Fear can be fun when you know it is not based on anything real and you can laugh at the end.”


(Photo: Louis Brown)


True enough, we ended the scariest ride of our lives with a deep laugh, but not the relaxed and self-assured kind we shared when we first arrived. No, this was a laugh of relief as much as pleasure, one that reminded us we were now, finally, free to exhale.

• Joel Schwartzberg is a Falls Church resident, essayist, screenwriter and author of the award-winning essay collection, “The 40-Year-Old Version.” Two of Schwartzberg’s horror screenplays were finalists at the Los Angeles International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. For more on Darkwood Manor, visit darkwoodmanor.net.






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