I really should come back and do Fort Totten properly another time. But this was too goofy to miss.
Fort Totten is one of the loads of forts scattered along New York’s harbor – built during one war or another, rendered obsolete, and consigned to a landmark or park status. Fort Totten was built during the Civil War, and the original design for the battlements was far grander than what stands there today; but halfway through construction, it was becoming apparent that the Confederate Army probably wasn’t going to come quite so far north after all, so they scaled back a bit, and the “fort” ruins now occupy a small part of the shore overlooking Little Neck, on the northeast shore of Queens.
But that’s just the fort proper. The area around it was a military base for a good while as well, complete with officers’ houses, a chapel, rec buildings, a workshop, an infirmary, an armory, and an officers’ club that ironically was designed by Robert E. Lee. Most of it is now a city park, with some of the buildings used as training centers for city police, and a couple museums in some of the old buildings. Rangers give tours of the fortification and battery itself.
But the weekend before Halloween, the rangers have a little fun and throw a different kind of tour.
The ads I’d seen said that the tour ran from 6:30 to 8:30; I thought I was doing well getting there just before 7. But the line for the tour was already long and loud and boisterous, about fifty people huddled on the path down to the battery’s gate. Four rangers kept order, waving us all into line and counting us off into groups, warning us not to use flashlights inside, and working the crowd. One ranger was actually dressed in a full werewolf costume, and was asking kids in the line if they wanted him as a guardian.
I was in line a good 15 minutes, admiring the view of Bronx across the harbor as the line gradually shuffled down to the gate. The rangers were all taking turns leading groups of about 20 of us through at a time, and our guide reminded us all one last time to not use flashlights, to stick together, and when a couple of kids said they’d been there before, he asked them not to spoil any surprises for the rest of us. After winding us all up a bit, he led us in, giving us a potted history of the battlement during the five-minute walk to the fort itself. He also wove in stories of a construction accident while they were building the fort, “and so that’s why we always see spooky things every year about this time…” We all paused at a second gate. “Okay! Everyone ready to go in?” All the kids shouted “yeah,” the adults laughed, and in we went.
To be honest, it was your typical “haunted house”, with lots of fake cobwebbing and spooky lights and costumed people jumping out and shouting “boo”. But the path lead us through the creepy ruins of the granite fort, complete with iron-barred windows and dark winding passages and dim alcoves, which gave everything a genuinely creepy feel. Midway through the tour I realized that I was outpacing everyone else in the group by about five feet, and turned around to see they were all cowering. “What, you’re sending me out to die alone??” I teased them.
Except then a guy dressed as a zombie jumped out beside me and I screeched and hid behind the ranger.
The whole tour was more of a startle-then-laugh thing, though. The rangers were clearly into it, hamming it up for all they were worth; a few other rangers scattered throughout were dressed as Ghostbusters and were there to keep order and calm down any genuinely-scared kids, and the path was strewn with loads more people dressed as mad scientists and witches and zombies and ghouls cavorting through the fort and jumping towards us and grabbing us and making spooky noises and generally having immense fun. Our trip through the fort was short, but it was goofy.
There was one sincerely creepy moment, though – at the very end of the tour, we had to walk through a long tunnel, which they had pitch black except for a small pin light every ten feet or so. “Just follow me through,” our ranger told us all, “just follow the sound of my voice! There will be a light at the end of this tunnel, I promise, and then we’ll be safe!” I was more worried about stumbling in the near-darkness, and was moving slowly, trying to feel for a handhold along the wall. And soon I did see a light – or, at least, a lightish patch of something in the tunnel. And then it got closer and I saw it was a glowing face, hovering in the air and coming towards us. Once it got close enough I could see it was a glow-in-the-dark mask, slung against someone’s chest; still, it was spooky enough that I edged away from it, and a couple people behind me also squealed at the sight.
But then a teenage voice scoffed out of the dark just above the face. “Really?” it said. “Really? People, I’m on my break.”
The tunnel opened up beside the fort’s visitor’s center – closed for the night – and the ranger lead us all up the driveway and out, shouting out quick directions to where to catch the city bus home. “Thanks for coming, and have a happy Halloween!” he chirped. I asked him a couple questions before I left myself; was this an annual event? “Oh, yeah, I think they do this every year, always the weekend before Halloween. I wouldn’t know for sure, though, I’m from a Manhattan park – they just needed extra help this year!” He told me that usually they saw about 400 people a night – but so far this year, they’d had a turnout nearly three times as high.
“You look like you’re having a blast, though,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. They always get people to come help – from Manhattan like me, or Staten Island…even the people inside, those are mostly local kids who volunteered with our nature program. Well,” he laughed, “we couldn’t get them too interested in nature for these past couple weeks, though.”
I was actually halfway to the main gate and on my way off the grounds when someone stopped me to ask where the “haunted castle” was. “You mean the fort? I think it’s back that way…”
“No, I did that,” they said. “I’m talking about the castle thing. You know, the mansion?”
I had no idea what they meant, but another passerby did, and gave them directions; I followed them a few paces behind. We ended up at the old officers’ club, current home to the Bayside Historical Society, which was running its own haunted house. Except this one was charging admission. “Five dollars, please,” he woman by the door asked me.
“Oh….I only have two.” The woman just eyed me. “Um…you don’t take a check, do you?”
“No, afraid not.”
“oh….” I turned to go; I hadn’t planned on visiting anyway. “Well, thanks anyway.”
But a young couple behind me stopped me. “You don’t have cash?” the guy said. “Don’t worry, we got ya.” He handed money to the woman, saying “party of three.” Grateful, I tagged along with them.
It was a similar case of costumed-people-jumping-out, but the museum’s rooms let them set up a few tableaus as well – a “funeral” room where a woman in a mantilla urged us closer to a coffin, so a guy in a zombie mask could sit up and roar at us, or a closed-off “autopsy room” we could peer at through a window only to see the “cadaver” was alive and begging our help. A team of kids were the costumed zombies chasing us on the porch, but as soon as we were safely through the door they all dropped the act and went back to being kids just hanging out. Still, it was all too much for some of the little kids; we were going through the house just behind a young family, with a kid of about seven; when they got to the funeral room, I saw the kid take one look at the woman in the mantilla and beeline right over to the next door, passing by the whole room completely. “Come see the dead guy!” she implored to his back, as he totally ignored her.
The house tour ended in a hall where witch-hatted women sold snacks and small toys like glow-sticks and light-up rings, and encouraged people to “take a selfie with the zombie” – a mannequin dressed in raggedy tuxedo and a zombie mask. My new friends were heading over to the zombie, but I stopped them – “I got just enough for two candy bars,” I said. “Can I get you guys some?”
“Really?” the guy gushed.
“Dude, you got my admission,” I said, fishing my money out. In the end they only got one Hershey bar , and all three of us helped ourselves to a free “Halloween treat bag,” a plastic bag festooned with a toy skeleton keychain. After taking turns taking each others’ pictures with the zombie, we bade each other goodnight and I wandered out to find my way back to the bus home.