True ‘Nightmare’

New York City Haunted House Tries Out Serial-Killer Theme

Caitlin Dickson on how one of Manhattan’s creepiest haunted houses is getting spookier this Halloween.

Joshua Hoffine

From the street, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side gives off a somewhat eerie vibe. So it makes sense that the historic building has been hosting “Nightmare,” one of the most frightening haunted-house productions in New York City, for nearly a decade.

Creator Timothy Haskell has a reputation for putting on a bloodcurdling show. This year he collaborated with Steve Kopelman, creator of “The Nest,” a Phoenix haunted house that has garnered a number of its own hair-raising accolades, to come up with perhaps the most frightening—and controversial—haunted-house theme yet: serial killers. From now until Nov. 3, thrill seekers can peruse a chilling exhibit of drawings and other artifacts once belonging to real-life monsters such as John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson, donated by an anonymous collector with a twisted taste in art, before subjecting themselves to the real terror.

Each room of the house depicts a scene based on a notorious serial killer, with performers acting as murderers, victims, or both. Visitors who particularly enjoy shaking in their boots can opt to have a red “X” drawn in fake blood on their head before entering, giving the actors permission to interact with them and make their fear part of the performance.

Haskell and Kopelman decided they would make a point of not clarifying which serial killers were being portrayed in which rooms, but some are unmistakable. One area of the house, for example, is set up like a courtroom in which an actor in an orange jumpsuit recites the cold, calculated apology that “Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer delivered while being tried for 17 murder charges. Another room is instantly recognizable as the living room of “Clown Killer” Gacy, who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men in the mid-1970s and buried them in his crawl space.

Some of the more frightening scenes, though, are the unfamiliar ones, such as that of Lady Bathory, a Hungarian countess who, in the late 1500s, was accused of torturing and killing young girls whose blood she allegedly bathed in to preserve her youth. Ed Gein, the body-snatching inspiration for such fictional characters as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs is portrayed by a bald man in a house dress who welcomes visitors to join his nearly dead, skinned family for dinner.

From the exhibition of serial-killer memorabilia to the paint-covered faces that pop out of the solid darkness between rooms, “Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House,” is a truly terrifying take on history’s most violent minds.