There are plenty of ways to get around New York City: Train, subway, taxi, Lyft, bike, bus, skateboard and more.
But there’s only one all-black trolley.
The trolley lumbers down Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue thoroughfare, with the words “Madame Morbid” painted on the side. When the door opens to let guests off, a spooky puff of smoke blows out too.
Madame Morbid is a tour company, but it’s also the alter ego of Allison Chase, the company’s co-founder.
Chase, who wears black Victorian garb when she’s working, takes guests on tours through the seedier side of New York City’s coolest borough, pointing out sites of famous murders, ghost sightings and more.
“It’s more of, like, a Disney ride on wheels,” Chase tells CNN Travel. “I like to call it the TMZ of ghost tours.”
While there are some famous addresses along the tour route, like Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, not all venues are as easily recognizable.
One example is the McCarren Park Pool, located in Williamsburg near where the trolley picks up its guests. Now, the pool is a spot for movie series and concerts, but that wasn’t always the case.
“McCarren Park Pool was built in the 1930s by Robert Moses as part of the New Deal,” Chase explains.
“It was one of the largest pools for many years. Some people drowned in it. The neighborhood kind of went downhill for a while, so it was abandoned. It was a big place for homeless community and drug users, so many people died there.”
In the age of true crime obsessives and fan sites devoted to picking apart unsolved murder cases, Chase’s love of all things macabre is not only welcome but celebrated.
She has an encyclopedic knowledge of famous murderers, especially female ones whose stories aren’t as well known, and for trivia about these killers.
“I just love Ted Bundy,” she admits. “‘The Stranger Beside Me’ was such an amazing book that it’s hard not to be infatuated with him. I went to Seattle and took a three-day-long Ted Bundy tour. He’s my favorite.”
While Chase isn’t a Brooklyn native, spooky and scary things are in her blood — her father runs one of America’s biggest haunted house companies, so it wasn’t weird when she was a kid and a shipment of fake eyeballs would arrive on the family’s doorstep.
But it took a trip to London and a ghost tour on a double-decker bus to give her the idea to bring the concept stateside.
Guests who book online are given the address for a bus stop in the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, and from there are escorted through several historic Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope.
The tour also touches on issues of gentrification, as many of the places where death and strife took place have now been built over — in one case, into a giant outpost of office-goods store Staples.
Famous New York City “characters” like Joan Rivers, Judge Judy and Walt Whitman also get shoutouts along the way.
The first trolley tour took place on October 13, 2017 — which just so happened to be a Friday. Despite some initial hiccups — like the trolley itself dying in the middle of the inaugural tour — Groupon offers and word of mouth (the trolley itself acts as a form of mobile marketing) helped the company grow into its second year.
Although Madame Morbid gets a huge uptick in interest every year around Halloween, the vibe of October 31 lasts all year round.
Chase and company have since expanded their tours to include the occasional themed one-off, like a couples-only tour for Valentine’s Day (where each guest gets a black rose as a souvenir) and a special nighttime tour on full moons, where guests can eat mooncakes and — if they want — howl into the sky.
Chase’s tour persona is a mix of Victoriana and vaudeville, with plenty of jokes — often at her own expense. Although she believes death can be as funny a topic as anything else, it sometimes takes tour-goers a little bit of time to warm up to the idea.
“Do you want to hear my favorite ghost joke?” she asks.
“Sure!” a guest responds.
“That’s the spirit.”
There’s a pause.
“That’s it. That’s the joke.”
Finally, the nervous chuckles of the guests turn into genuine laughter, and Chase begins handing out “ghost poop” (marshmallows) to everyone on the trolley. It won’t be the last time she has them eating out of her hand.