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Why haunted tours are secretly the best way to see your city

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Learn something new by visiting places where people died!

2016 US Open - Day 9 Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA

If you’re looking for a Halloween activity that isn’t terrifying or lame, but rather educational, a ghost tour of your city is a great option. Not only are they creepy, thrillingly morbid, and cheap (mostly), they’ll make you fall in love with your city all over again and teach you a lot about it to boot.

I live in New York City, and since the first ghost tour I went on was largely populated by tourists, our tour guide was obligated to stop once in a while and say things like “This is Times Square! Anything can happen!” or “There’s a very nice bathroom on the eighth floor of the Marriott.” Both of these statements filled me with a new joie de vivre.

In fact, the whole experience of the ghost tour made me feel like a youthful little butterfly, come to be part of New York’s history for however long until I get crushed under its wheels. All of the dead people I heard about had lived big, interesting lives (though some of them were sex criminals, and those stories were distinctly non-fun). The best and maybe only good thing about New York is how easy it is to get excited about it all over again at the merest suggestion. I want you to experience that in relation to whatever place you live this Halloween!

Me and my ghost-hunting crew admiring the Lyceum Theatre. It might be haunted.

The terror one experiences on a New York City ghost tour is also a little more existential than the terror one might experience in a haunted house or the positively revolting movie theater currently sinking into the dirt next to Park Slope’s worst Connecticut Muffin. I wasn’t immediately frightened for my life and there were very few jump scares, but after two hours of wandering around sites of tragedy and massacre I definitely felt deeply that my city is built on death and that ghosts will follow me where’re I go. It’s sort of like how the scariest part of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion is at the very end when they tell you a ghost is going to follow you home on your airplane.

Here are just a few of the very many things I learned on the two ghost tours I’ve been on so far:

  • I have incorrectly identified the Chrysler Building as the Empire State Building for my entire life. The real Empire State Building is supposedly haunted by a bunch of young women who were working there on a Saturday in July 1945 when the building was struck by a B-25 bomber. Visitors to the building often see them in the bathroom, reapplying red lipstick in the mirror, according to my ghost tour guide named Mary.
  • You can go into the Algonquin Hotel even if you aren’t staying there and walk all the way to the back to look at the original site of the famous Algonquin Round Table without anyone making a peep. I did so with a group of 25 people.
  • Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin and she was 13 at the time. Very gross, and I don’t like him now.
  • The New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd street has a dilapidated (and haunted!) secret rooftop garden, where Ziegfield’s Follies performed scandalous midnight shows in which they would walk on a glass runway while dudes sat underneath. There is also a secret tunnel beneath the theater that spits you out a block away for discretion purposes. Sort of gross, but still interesting. The New Amsterdam was purchased by Disney after decades of disrepair, and it now hosts all of the Disney musicals. One of the most famous Ziegfield girls, Olive Thomas, allegedly hangs out there all the time — an interesting addition to Disney’s wholesome family entertainment considering she’s dead. I love it!
  • There’s a mass grave for yellow fever victims under Washington Square Park, and historians estimate that about 20,000 people are buried there. Thinking about how I laid on the ground in Washington Square Park and listened to Prima Donna on repeat for three hours one time feels almost fake, like at the end of Tuck Everlasting when it cuts to Jesse Tuck at 200 years old, driving to Winnie’s grave on a motorcycle.
You can walk right into the Algonquin Hotel and look at this cool painting. Ghosts, too!

None of this information is particularly useful, but it’s more useful than just crying weakly at a midnight showing of The Exorcist. And even if you don’t see an actual paranormal apparition, you’ll feel the weight of history all around you (unless your nerve endings are totally deadened and you have no empathy). The stories you hear on a ghost tour aren’t the big, obvious ones — a lot of them are about ordinary people who lived weird lives on the same ground you walk on every day. You’ll learn things about your city that won’t come up in polite conversation or a history book, and that feels like a certain sort of intimacy.

There are lots of free or cheap options for ghost tours, and there are also nearly infinite options for ghost tour themes. Here are just a few you can take in New York, but I promise Google will be able to help you out if you want to check out all the dead people stories in a different city.

  • Wall Street Walks Ghost Tour. Features the Trinity Church cemetery, where the newly famous Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler are buried.
  • From Ghostbusters to John Lennon: The Ghosts of the Upper West Side. This tour involves stopping by the set of Rosemary’s Baby, which is a little confusing to me as far as its relevance to a ghost tour. It sounds fun though!
  • Hell’s Kitchen Mostly Murders Tour. If you’re into cannibalism, serial killers, and an excuse not to bring anyone under the age of 13 with you to an outing, this could be the ghost tour for you.
  • Ghosts on Broadway. This tour is where I learned about the Marriott’s nice bathroom and the ghost of Olive Thomas. You also visit Judy Garland’s ghost at the Palace Theatre and talk a lot about why “show biz” people are more likely to keep lurking around after death. It’s fascinating (and FREE), and I fully intend to write a glowing Yelp review.