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October 27, 2015

Putting the Boo in Books: A Haunted Literary Tour of Downtown Manhattan

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“Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
--Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” 1845

There is no time of year more suited to reading horror stories than the weeks leading up to October 31st. It’s the season where suddenly every other person you encounter on the city streets is carrying a book by Stephen King, Anne Rice, or any of the other great modern masters of the spooky story. And in an effort to fully embrace the most haunted time of year, some of my friends and I decided to explore the haunted literary roots of our current home: New York City. After reading about a company that runs ghost tours, we recently embarked on one centered in Greenwich Village, a delectable romp that promised to show us the haunts of two of the classical horror greats, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Having been an unabashed Poe fan during high school, my spine tingled in anticipation of this literary haunted bliss.

Promptly at 9pm, we met our tour guide on a rather neglected little side street just off Washington Square Park, ready and eager to be equally frightened and enthralled. After giving us the brief safety lowdown, our guide informed us of the significance of our rather peculiar meeting spot. Although presently an NYU-owned facility, in an earlier life, this rather unassuming building was one of the many residences of the original American master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe. During his lifetime, Poe was one the first authors to attempt to earn a living entirely by his pen alone. And, as this was a very unstable form of income, Poe was constantly obliged to move around to escape his creditors. This location marks just one of the possible hundreds of residences in lower New York he called home. Although today a rather bland looking academic building, its interior boasts a “stairway to nowhere” that runs, in a horrifically absurd manner, right into the wall. It seems a fitting memorial to the famous author.

After that brief stop, our group took a short walk to Washington Square Park, whose famous landmark arch calls to mind the turn-of-the-century opulence described by Henry James and Edith Wharton. But, our guide informed us, prior to becoming one of the most prime pieces of real estate in Manhattan, the acreage that the Park now sits on had a decidedly gruesome purpose. In the earliest days of US independence from Britain, it was allocated as a Potter’s Field, the gravesite of any deceased person whose identity could not be discovered. It is estimated that over 30,000 bodies are buried beneath the now beautiful park. Even after its use as a mass cemetery was discontinued, the park was used a location of public hangings during the nineteenth century. With all dead souls who met their untimely ends there, it’s easy to imagine the numerous ghost sightings that are associated with Washington Square Park. After learning this, never again will I be able to read WASHINGTON SQUARE or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE with quite the same reverence for their setting.

After that rather chilling park visit, we journeyed to several eerie locales: the site of the first reading of the classic poem “The Raven,” a haunted former speakeasy (the ghost is a dapper gentleman in a top hat and cape), the house where Founding Father Thomas Paine died, and several other rather ominous locales. Truly, my senses were prickling with eerie delight. Tucked in between the busy bars and vibrant restaurants were all these historic places that contained rather macabre events in their backstory.

Toward the end of tour, we came to a peculiar little locked alley, which, even through the slim gates, we could see opened into a spacious courtyard. As our guide told us, these expansive alcoves could be found all across Greenwich Village, and during the early 20th century, it was possible in parts of downtown New York to walk miles by merely passing through dozens of these alcoves. Our guide informed us that cult-classic writer H. P. Lovecraft adored these alleyways, one of the few aspects of the city that the notorious recluse didn’t wholeheartedly despise. He was known to go for long walks in the dead of night through these alleys, preferring the quiet of the streets at night to the hustle and bustle of the daytime. One such of these walks is rather eerily mirrored in Lovecraft’s short story “He,” first published by the magazine Weird Tales in 1926. The tale’s unnamed protagonist meets an odd man dressed in 18th-century garments during a midnight walk in Greenwich Village, and accepts the man’s offer to show him the history of the city. Wandering the streets until dawn, the man eventually shows the protagonist that past and future of New York, events that are so horrific that the protagonist screams wildly, flailing from side to side. Ominously, the story abruptly stops there, leaving the readers clueless as to what the protagonist saw and as to his eventual fate. It is left to the imagination to fill in the gaps. It’s a horror story that could put even Hitchcock to shame.

With that last anecdote, our guide concluded the tour, leaving us with horrifyingly good chills and goosebumps, our minds running with the ghostly, literary and macabre facts that we had imbibed in the last two hours. When I arrived home later that evening, I decided to read several Poe stories before bed, eager to read some of the tales of one of the authors who I had heard so much about that evening. As it was the middle of the night, and I was alone in my apartment for the weekend, it was disturbingly quite. The wind whistled through a crack in my window, and a tree rustled outside, setting me increasingly on edge as I sat reading through some of my stock Poe favorites: “Morella,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” But when I finally got to “The Raven,” the whistling wind seemed just a little too ominous. I was officially spooked, and definitively convinced that New York was more than a bit creepy. But this time of year, that spooky feeling is just the feeling that I was looking for in my reading and in my surroundings.