New York’s Scariest Night Out: The Ghosts, Rats, and Lunatics of ‘Nightmare New York’

The dark side of New York history—from Typhoid Mary to the “rat kings”—is brought to terrifying life in specially created house of frights.

Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

On almost every corner of New York City there is a piece of history. At any given moment you could stumble upon the homes of Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the spot where John Lennon was shot, or one of the many scenes from Sex and the City. Maybe it’s passing a bar you’ve spent countless nights with friends, the corner where a messy break-up transpired (and resolved), or seeing your very first apartment.

This is one of the great things we New Yorkers love about this city.

Then, there’s the dark side—the rats and roaches, the crazy pee-stained homeless man, and the many haunts of alleged murders, diseased and bewitched happenings. They’re the yin to the yang that completes the city’s personality. But, they’re not something you ever want to witness or relive…unless it’s Halloween, of course. And let’s be honest, we all possess a little bit of crazy this time of year.

That’s the beauty of Nightmare New York, the latest rendition of New York City’s longest running haunted house. Combining folk lore and legend with horrific events from the city’s history books, the once-a-year attraction will force you to see the city like you’ve never wanted to. There’s no unseeing what lies within.

“The mythology of New York is so rich,” John Harlacher, the attraction’s co-director, told The Daily Beast. “It deserves a celebration … and it’s something that’s not been done before.”

With a run time of about 20-25 minutes “depending on how fast people run through it,” Nightmare New York is a chronological timeline of New York City’s history—from the Native American settlers who “cursed” the island onwards.

“Each room has a well-researched story behind it,” Harlacher, a native New Yorker, said. “That’s what makes us different from other haunted houses. Our audience really likes that aspect of it.”

There’s a black-out moment as soon as you enter, leaving every sense heightened in anticipation of what’s to come. You navigate from scene to scene in an intimately small group. The sets, seen through fog and strobe lights, become less and less dated as the bouts of fire, vomit, and spit hurled your way become more frequent.

Step too far off the beaten path and you could be faced with diseased rodents and filthy insects. Or taken hostage by a psychotic serial killer. The anxiety never stops. If you’ve never heard the city’s haunted history, then prepare to be fascinated and terrified.

Typhoid Mary, the infamous chef who murdered all her employers, was an unknown carrier of the disease for years. Everyone she worked for would mysteriously die from the disease. Once the connection was made, she was locked in an isolation cell on a tiny island off of Manhattan where she spent the last 15 years of her life alone, unable to accept that she was responsible.

The Dakota, a co-op residence on the Upper West Side, is historically known for its ghostly figures. It’s where John Lennon was murdered and his voice has been heard by residents. There are reports of a crashing chandelier that doesn’t exist, sightings of an elegant man with a baby’s head, and a little girl walking down halls and through walls.

Brooklyn’s Melrose Hall is one of the most active haunts in the area, according to locals. A colonel during the American Revolution was rumored to have a special dungeon below his house to brutally torture Patriot prisoners. He also fell in love with an Iroquois girl and concealed her within his home, under the care of one of his slaves.

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Being called to duty, the colonel was forced to leave the young girl behind. When he returned, the slave had died and so had the young Native American, who no one knew was in the home. She allegedly still haunts the property to this day.

There is “Cropsey,” a Staten Island urban legend about an escaped mental patient who would snatch small children and brutally kill locals. It’s one of those tales that’s been around for centuries, but no one knows its origin.

Then, of course, there are the more modern tales—mutated “mole people” who live in the city’s abandoned underground tunnels, “rat kings” comprised of dozens of rodents stuck and tied together, and the drug-addicted vigilantes from the New York’s crime-ridden decades.

“People expect people to startle them,” Harlacher said. “It also breaks the tension—the feeling of something strange or fucked up is happening. The action breaks it and you relax. But when something happens again, it just keeps building higher.”

After eleven years directing different themes of “Nightmare,” Harlacher has mastered the art of shock and panic. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks or clichés. The highly trained team makes sure that each moment is unexpected and unique, hiring performance artists, puppeteers, and set designers to add to the theatrical moments. He’s even implemented a more aggressive experience for spectators to have.

For those who want the most out of the attraction, they can be branded with a bloody X on their foreheads. This allows the actors to be more engaging. They can touch you, remove you from the group, or place you in specific scenarios. The saga is a bit more terrifying and Harlacher hopes this adds you to his “body count.”

“It’s the number of people who are scared out of the haunted house each day,” he said. “That’s a success for us.” The record sits at 67 people in one night, last year for their production of their last show, “Killers 2.” Since opening on September 26, they have already reached 12 in one night. Panic attacks are common. Multiple people have defecated themselves.

“For someone to scream, that is like applause to us,” Harlacher said. “But if someone falls on the floor or voids themselves that is a standing ovation.”

“Nightmare: New York,” located at 107 Suffolk Street, will run through November 1