NEW YORK — New York City's bad old days are here again — in a Halloween haunted house, that is.
"Nightmare: New York," staged in a Lower East Side building, depicts the ugliest, scariest vision of 1970s- and '80s-era Gotham. Subways are awash in graffiti, creeps and crime. Menacing punks roam the streets. And the "characters" of Times Square don't look anything like Elmo or SpongeBob SquarePants.
Visitors wander through a 13-section maze of New York's dark side, starting with a blackout, followed by scenes amid flashing strobe lights or a fire. Characters include a psychotic, Son of Sam-style serial killer, a urine-stained homeless man, a deranged woman crawling on the floor and tunnel-dwelling "mole people" whose grotesque faces suddenly pop up from dark corners.
"When someone screams, that's our applause," says Timothy Haskell, the off-Broadway director who created the show. "But I also want them to appreciate the real-life stories that seep into your bones. Startles are ephemeral, haunting is forever."
To be sure, there is still plenty of real crime and creepiness in New York City. But the very idea that people would need to visit a haunted house to experience the worst of the "bad old days" is just what city officials like to hear. They repeatedly tout the steady drop in the city's crime rate in the past two decades, saying New York is now the safest big city in America. Last year, 333 homicides were recorded, down from 2,245 in 1990, according to police statistics.
The 38 actors starring in this in-your-face, interactive attraction crank up the fright factor for visitors who mark their faces with a blood-red X, a signal that they allow themselves to be touched by performers trying to scare them out of their wits.
"The best will be when they grab her," says Matthew Elgandy, looking at his girlfriend as they wait to enter. "I'm pretty sure my ears will be destroyed after she screams."
Before even entering the spooky spectacle, the couple was startled by a man with a nylon stocking mask who popped out of nowhere and whispered threats in their ears.
"Nightmare" is in its 11th season, with themes changing each year. It runs through Nov. 1. Tickets range from $30 to $60, the latter allowing the spectator to skip what's often an hour-long line as Halloween approaches.
"I come every year and I'm still scared, but I come again," Anthony Seala says. "Every year they push the envelope a little more."