You may or may not believe in ghosts, but history is undeniable. Humans have been around for a long time, and while sites may be torn down or built on top of, history lingers. Brooklyn is no exception. Williamsburg-based tour company Madame Morbid’s Trolley Tours guides tourists and locals through Brooklyn’s darkest, sometimes haunted historical sites.
I met up with Madame Morbid’s CEO and primary tour guide, Allison Huntington Chase, at Two Boots Pizza in Williamsburg (they have a Madame Morbid pizza, complete with a pesto pentagram!) to chat before heading out on a trolley tour.
Why a haunted history tour business? For Allison, this was a pretty natural choice — she’s actually a legacy in the business of spooky enterprises. Her father once owned and operated one of the largest haunted houses in the country, with proceeds going to juvenile diabetes research. Not only did she continue her family’s legacy of ghostly entertainment, but their commitment to charitable causes as well. 10% of all Madame Morbid ticket sales go to feeding New York’s homeless.
Allison’s fascination with the macabre has made her a dark historian of sorts, and she’s been to some of the most haunted places in the world. “I’m obsessed with ghosts. They scare me but I can’t stay away from them,” she explained.
Her extensive knowledge of the darker side of Brooklyn’s history is immediately clear. When asked what the most haunted neighborhood in Brooklyn is, she was quick to respond, “Brooklyn Heights for sure. It’s the oldest part of Brooklyn, where it was started and settled. The houses are the oldest in the city.” And you thought rent prices in the Heights were scary.
I was surprised to learn that Madame Morbid has been in operation for less than a year. The attention to detail will not be lost on anyone who attends a tour. The trolley alone is an experience; Allison explained, “I wanted to mimic a fancy train parlor car. Our seats are tufted the way the original Ford Model T cars were. It’s an actual replica trolley, so it came with wooden seats. We did everything ourselves.” It picks up at a bus stop on Driggs Ave and 9th St in Williamsburg, and turns the heads of every passerby. Stepping onto the trolley is like stepping into a different time, but also a funeral, with the advantages of modern technology. And don’t worry, there’s a fog machine. She added, “It was really important for me to go for quality more than anything. If there’s anything I’m missing quality wise, you can tell me and I’ll add it tomorrow.” The only thing I can think of that would make the tour more legit is actual corpses, but you can’t have it all.
Allison gave the tour decked out in the garb of a Victorian widow and covered all of the gruesome local history that I’d hoped for and then some. Ghosts aren’t the only non-human entities that come up on the tour. “We mention an alien story that we sort of make fun of because of it’s so ridiculous,” she mentioned before the tour began. Maybe I’m gullible, but the story didn’t seem so ridiculous to me. You’ll have to take the tour to get the full rundown of this Brooklyn alien abduction story, but I’ll just say that there were an alarming number of witnesses, and I’m going to keep my eyes on the sky near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Beyond being spooky, the tour is also interactive, fun, and completely hilarious. Allison kicked off the tour by warning passengers that the driver, Matt Zaller, who is also Madame Morbid’s COO, is blind, and also her ex-boyfriend. Their back-and-forth along with Allison’s funny commentary had me laughing for the entire hour and a half. The trolley is equipped with a loudspeaker which was used to interact with pedestrians. A recurring (and self-aware) theme is that while Brooklyn was one of the first American suburbs, it’s now a hipster Mecca. The tour includes video content and passengers can win prizes answering spooky trivia questions between sites.
If you like true crime, ghost stories, or history in general, you will find this tour captivating. While most tours in New York are designed for vacationers, I recommend this one to my fellow Brooklynites. Allison explained, “I think Brooklyn people appreciate it because these are things they walk by every day that they had no idea was formerly something else.” Did you know a commercial airplane once crashed down in the middle of Park Slope? I didn’t either, but apparently there’s still evidence of it if you look hard enough.
I walked away with a new perspective on the borough that I call home. As Allison said, “Everyone should know the history of where they’re living. We talk about the people who lived here before you lived here, the original Brooklynites. That goes back 400 years.”
Photos courtesy of Madame Morbid’s Trolley Tours