10 Creepiest Phantoms and Urban Legends of NYC

manhattan-new-york-city (Image: Joey Parsons, cc-4.0)

With a population of over 8 million, New York City is a place with its own fair share of stories. And some of those tales just happen to be absolutely terrifying. In a city this size, it’s not surprising that some urban legends would arise. What’s surprising is how eerily believable many of them are. Read up on any of these stories before venturing out into the streets at night and you might just find yourself glancing over your shoulder the whole way home…

The Legend of Cropsey (Staten Island)

cropsey-willowbrook-mental-institution (Image: low res screenshot via YouTube)

Tucked away on the fringes of NYC and frequently ignored by City politicians, Staten Island seems the perfect breeding ground for chilling urban legends. The most-chilling of all may just be that of Cropsey.

Cropsey was the ghoul to end all ghouls. An escaped mental patient living in the empty Willowbrook Mental Institution, he was said to creep out at night and quietly ‘disappear’ children – hauling them away into the inky blankness of the institution, never to be seen again. In some variations, he had a hook for a hand. In others he carried an axe. But what’s truly terrifying about Cropsey is that he was real.

In 1972, children began vanishing from Staten Island. In total, five disappeared. The kidnappings were ultimately linked to local criminal Andre Rand, who is currently serving a 50-to-life sentence. Although he was never convicted of murder, Rand remains a prime suspect in the deaths of all five children. Chillingly for the residents of Staten Island, this urban legend managed to step out of their nightmares and into reality.

The Mole People (NYC Subway)

freedom-tunnel-mole-people (Image: Susan Murray, cc-sa-3.0)

Imagine discovering another world existed beneath your feet; a vast society functioning in the darkness, hidden from view. Well, beneath the mean streets of NYC, that might just be the case. For decades now, legends of secretive mole people manipulating the city’s ancient subway lines have been whispered. And there’s more than a grain of truth to them.

It’s widely-known that many of New York’s homeless have found a niche for themselves underground. In 2000, the film Dark Days chronicled the lives of a group living in the Freedom Tunnel. But the urban legends of mole people go way beyond tiny collectives. According to a 1993 book on the subject, NYC’s underground dwellers have fashioned entire societies: with teachers, nurses and even elected officials. The idea of a subterranean society mirroring our own is a weirdly unnerving one, and legends of the strange and violent mole people continue to abound to this day. Are there really groups of modern Morlocks under NYC? We’ll leave it to you to decide.

The ‘Cursed’ New York City Penthouse Apartment (57 West 57th Street)

57-West-57th-Street-NYC-curse (Image: Google Street View)

It’s sometimes theorised that particularly violent or gruesome events leave a psychic mark on the world; a kind of stain through which some of that pain still seeps. If this is true, then 57 West 57th Street must be like a festering scar on NYC’s mental landscape.

Owned many years ago by socialite Edna Crawford Champion and her volatile French lover Charles Brazelle, it saw the two slowly decay into something like lunacy. Screaming arguments would spill over into physical violence, until Brazelle finally beat his lover to death with a telephone. In the immediate aftermath, Champion’s bodyguards calmly defenestrated Brazelle, turning the apartment into a bloodbath. And then things got really weird.

The next owners found themselves in a world straight from the Shining. At night, phantom arguments swept through the living rooms. Footsteps clicked through empty halls. But worst of all were the visions. Although no accurate record was ever made, it’s said that those living there saw horrific, unexplainable sights. Sights that could drive you mad.

Today the apartment is an open space, frequently used to stage art exhibitions. But many still refuse to set foot inside, fearing the horrors they might uncover.

The Souls of the Dead Crossing Hell Gate Bridge (Queens/Manhattan)

hell-gate-bridge-nyc (Image: Ben Schumin, cc-sa-4.0)

A vast steel and stone construction straddling the East River, Hell Gate Bridge is a place that lives up to its name. Aside from old urban legends about a child-snatcher living under its foundations (see below), the bridge has one more creepy claim to fame: the hideous ghost trains that allegedly cross in the middle of the night.

According to local lore, those who climb up onto the rickety span after dark report seeing strange lights racing towards them – lights that vanish before they ever arrive. But others report something altogether more unsettling: a broken and battered old train that slowly drifts over the river, its carriages filled with the unseeing souls of those who lost their lives in the choppy water below. Mafia victims, Dutch explorers and suicides all sit side by side in this demonic train, trapped forever on their lonely ride into hell. It may sound preposterous, but that doesn’t make it any less unnerving.

The Victorian Time Traveller (Times Square)

times-square-nyc (Image: Terabass, cc-sa-3.0)

One of Times Squares’ most enduring legends is also one of its weirdest. According to various whispered rumours, in around 1950, locals and tourists witnessed a sight no-one has yet been able to explain. At around 11.15pm a young man in Victorian dress was spotted in the middle of the intersection. No-one saw him arrive or had any idea how he got there. He allegedly appeared confused and disorientated. Before anyone could intervene, he was hit by a taxi and killed. But the strangest part came later. When his body arrived at the morgue, officials noted his pockets contained old banknotes and letters dated 1876. None had aged a day.

Unsurprisingly, such a juicy story has led to plenty of speculation – especially online where it’s occasionally reported as fact. Sadly, the truth is far less prosaic. The entire tale comes lifted almost directly from an old sci-fi short story published in 1951. However, it has since taken on a life of its own, and remains one of NYC’s more chill-inducing urban legends.

Mutant Rats (NYC Subway and Sewers)

mutant-rats-nyc (Image: TmoeGee, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

It’s well-known that NYC is a city with a major infestation problem. Animal Planet named it the most rat-infested city on Earth, and every local has a story about a friend or work colleague’s encounter with an unwelcome rodent. But, if the urban legends are to be believed, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

For over a century, rumours of gigantic mutant rats have been stalking the streets of the city. Vague reports of creatures 3 feet or larger continuously crop up and it’s said that entire colonies exist down in the inky depths of the sewer system; whole tunnels of squirming rats, writhing in sightless ecstasy. If the rumours are true, there could be rodents down there bigger than any found elsewhere on Earth. And if you live in a dirty neighbourhood, you might just wake up one night to find one scuttling across your apartment at night.

The Hudson River Storm Ship (Hudson River)

ghost-ship-2 (Image: B1bl1kal, cc-sa-3.0)

Since the days of New Amsterdam, residents along the Hudson River have reported seeing a strange sight. It’s said that by moonlight a mysterious ship cuts its slow way up from the Atlantic Ocean – a ship that vanishes if anyone tries to get a good look at it. A ship that brings storms and chaos in its wake.

Older versions of the story have it that the ship is crewed by a goblin and his minions. Other versions have it that the captain is none other than Henry Hudson himself, leading an eternal voyage of the damned. More modern takes simply credit it to being a phantom ship left over from the city’s past. But one thing is constant in every telling: when the ship has been seen, a devastating storm will follow. Although no sightings were reported around the time of Hurricane Sandy, that hasn’t stopped the legend from clinging on, thanks to the sheer size and otherworldliness of NYC’s most-famous river.

The Belasco Theatre Ghost (Broadway, Manhattan)

belasco-theatre-new-york-city (Image: Mademoiselle Sabina, cc-sa-4.0)

Sat slap-bang in the middle of Manhattan, the Belasco Theatre is tourist attraction enough without the help of a good old haunting. Yet that hasn’t stopped rumours from swirling around these last few years that put most other theatre ghosts to shame.

The story goes that the owner, David Belasco, was such a theatre fiend that even in death he couldn’t leave the stage behind. Audiences have reported seeing a shadowy figure lurking high above the stage, watching the cast perform with a demonic glint in his eye. Actors are said to have encountered the deceased owner in their dressing rooms after a particularly good performance. But the really unnerving part involves Belasco’s old apartment above the theatre.

A bon vivant in life, Belasco is now said to host macabre parties in his empty flat. Strange shadows have allegedly been seen dancing and eerie music heard playing. Visitors have reported a strange presence in the rooms and no-one knows exactly who or what is being entertained up there. Only one thing’s for sure: most of us wouldn’t want to find out.

The Hell Gate Rapist (Queens/Manhattan)

hell-gate-bridge-construction (Image: via Popular Mechanics, public domain)

Every district in every city has its fair share of legends involving child-snatchers. But it’s hard to think of one quite as disturbing as that of Hell Gate Bridge. For decades, children on the Queens side of the river have told one another disturbing stories of a Satanic torture chamber buried in the bridge’s foundations – and its unholy occupant.

The legend goes that a strange homeless man with a terrible secret used to lurk around the bridge at night. When he caught a child playing out alone, he would take them and lead them into a giant chamber hidden under Hell Gate; where all sorts of unimaginable abuse would be meted out. Depending on the teller of the story, this could be anything from cannibalism, to torture to rape. But most disturbingly of all, it was said that he had an accomplice who would take pictures as the nightmare unfolded, pinning the photographs to the wall around the rapist’s lair.

Thankfully, this legend is exactly that: a legend and nothing more. But it remains a particularly chilling example of genre.

The Sewer Alligators (NYC Sewers)

new-york-city-sewer-alligators-urban-legend (Images: scubadive67: Annie Mole (inset); cc-4.0)

No other city on Earth has an urban legend quite as persistent as that of the alligators living below NYC. Allegedly the pets of former Florida residents who flushed them down the toilet when they got too big, the alligators are now said to roam the city’s sewer system, surviving off rats and waste. The stories have been floating around for decades, and every now and then, a sighting comes along that makes you question whether this really is an urban legend.

In 1955, for example, writer Robert Daley reported a meeting with the city’s sewer superintendent immediately following an alligator encounter. According to his book, the superintendent “sat at his desk, screwing his fists into his eyes, trying to forget the sight of alligators padding serenely around his sewers… the colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.” In the years since, there have been many more such sightings, such as this one reported in Time.

So, are there colonies of alligators living underneath one of the world’s greatest cities? Snopes seems to think otherwise, but one thing’s for sure: you wouldn’t catch us going down there to find out.


About the author: Morris M




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