A Terrifying Trek Through NYC History and Fiction

Photo by Michael Blase It’s not your island: Manhattan’s original inhabitants have a bone to pick.
Photo by Michael Blase
It’s not your island: Manhattan’s original inhabitants have a bone to pick.

BY SEAN EGAN   |  “Nightmare” did not become New York City’s longest-running haunted attraction by remaining static or playing things safe. In each of its 11 years in operation, this adult-oriented haunted house company has switched things up, providing an entirely new theme and show. Most recently, the company’s examined the lives and crimes of some of America’s most notorious and violent serial killers in their back-to-back houses called “Killers” and “Killers2.” Breaking from this series, the folks at “Nightmare” decided to play things a little more introspective this year, to terrifying effect.

Simply titled “Nightmare: New York,” the new haunted house draws its inspiration from urban legends and true-life horror stories from the city itself. Tracing tales from early stories about witchcraft and cannibalistic natives all the way to modern fears of “super rats” that evolved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this haunted house is a distinctly New York experience — though it is just as likely to unsettle and scare any out-of-towner who decides to trek down its path through the city’s history and fiction.

Upon reaching the front of the line, you’ll be asked if you want to be marked with a large red X on your face, which indicates to the cast that you’re up for a “more intense” experience during your walkthrough. I opted to be branded with the scarlet letter, and honestly, while you’re here you might as well go straight in. Taking on a more active role in the proceedings and allowing the cast to get physical with you enhances the fun, and the terror and thrills of the performance (though if you opt out, these things are still plentiful).

From the get-go, the house is intense, and doesn’t let up until the very end. Being guided through the winding halls of “Nightmare: New York” is a totally immersive sensory experience. The sound design keeps you on your toes even when nothing immediately intimidating lurks ahead. The touch of a cast member, or a prop knife, or the multiple inflatable, claustrophobic tunnels on the skin is enough to cause panic.

The dim lighting almost swallows you at times, but everything remains entirely legible and terrifying. It’s the perfect equilibrium: dark enough to feel momentarily safe hiding in the corner, but still dark enough to not see the horror lurking just behind you in said corner.

Much of the credit for the success of “Nightmare: New York” lies in its production design, which is stellar throughout. Since New York is its narrative and thematic through-line, the house feels like a unified whole because of the world created by the designers.

Though everything flows quite nicely, there are still a few exceptional standout set pieces. In one early highlight, groups are led into the room of an old mansion by a suspiciously genial butler — who proceeds to reveal terrifying specters in a stately fireplace. Another set, a replica of a subway car circa the 80s, is simply stunning, and eerie in a way that hits close to home.

Photo by Michael Blase Subway breakdancers are the least of your problems, in this 1980s-era “Nightmare” scenario.
Photo by Michael Blase
Subway breakdancers are the least of your problems, in this 1980s-era “Nightmare” scenario.

The acting is also top-notch. Instead of letting the makeup and costumes alone carry the scares, the unique theme allows for a lot of the cast to sink their teeth into strange characters that go above and beyond the standard haunted house boogeyman fare.

Many of the actors get a chance to embody distinctly warped individuals. One low-key, deranged man insists to guests that Gene Hackman used to serve him hard-boiled eggs. Another standout performance comes from an unhinged man in the subway, giving an intimidating rant while aiming a gun dead at you.

Figures like these seem to have a psychological depth and sense of purpose that makes their scares stick — and when the characters aren’t quite as well-defined, at the very least they are suitably scary and/or gleefully gruff and explicit when barking orders and administering threats of bodily harm. The whole thing is a blast that comes together to provide an adrenaline rush and a chilled spine.

And yet, “Nightmare: New York” seems to be tapping into something deeper than just reiterating the city’s ghost stories. Towards the end of the tour, near the temporal present in the show, a hooded figure in modern clothes forces the group to put burlap sacks over their heads, and follow a rope to an uncertain fate, sensory deprivation heightening the terror of what’s to come.

Suddenly you’re not in the world of the fantastical or the world of the past — you’re very much in the present, a part of your own interactive horror story. As you’re fumbling, being dragged along a rope by a madman, “Nightmare: New York” shows it understands that sometimes, our own expectations can disturb and unnerve more than any grotesque costume or special effect — and that the fear of being blind and vulnerable to danger in our own backyard is one that will linger long after Halloween passes.


Produced by Timothy Haskell
& Steve Kopelman
Through Saturday, November 1
Hours vary daily
At Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural
and Educational Center
107 Suffolk St.
(btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.)
Tickets: $30 in advance
$35 at the door
Student Rush tickets: $20
(1 hour before, at the door)
VIP tickets: $50 in advance, $60 at the door (front of the line access)
Reservations & Info
at nightmarenyc.com