A spooky streetcar

On a balmy fall evening, the line to ride the “Ghost Trolley” near Lake Harriet can stretch 45 minutes. On a busy night, 600 to 700 people ride the trolley, which is filled with actors that create a new show each year.

“We’re one of very few events that are suitable for most children,” said Rod Eaton, senior superintendent of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. “We don’t have blood and gore, and we don’t have people screaming at you from out of the dark.”

The long wait has become part of the trolley experience. A local Boy Scout troop builds a bonfire and sells hot cider, s’more kits and hot dogs to roast over the fire. Many attendees come in Halloween attire, and costumed volunteers handle crowd control. While working the lines one year, volunteer Mike Helde wore a Leatherface costume and carried a real chainsaw. He accidentally made a 30-year-old woman cry, but the 5 year olds were unfazed.

“They hadn’t seen ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” he said.

Helde is part of a team of train enthusiasts who collaborate every year to build props, find costumes and develop a family-friendly script.

“Probably the toughest thing is you can’t make it too crazy,” said Helde, a streetcar conductor and frequent star of the show. “It would be very easy to do a full-blown PG-13 or R-rated show. But the trolley crowd now is a lot of people bringing children or families. We want our story to be fun, not scary. We don’t want to traumatize the 3 year olds, and we don’t want to bore the teenagers.”

Of course, Halloween is risky business for little ones.

“Every year, we manage to scare one child,” Eaton said.

This year, Helde plays an eccentric director of a movie called “Snakes on a Streetcar.” The riders will serve as extras in a few final takes. 

“Some of the snakes might have gotten loose, but we’re not sure…” Helde said.

Helde calls himself a “Halloween connoisseur.” His closet contains a vampire cape, an Indiana Jones whip and 

Stormtrooper armor. He is a dedicated Ghost Trolley volunteer — he even shaved his head for a role as Hannibal.

“My hair is back now,” he noted.

One of Helde’s favorite shows in prior years involved zombies — lots of them. The Ghost Trolley crew enlisted spouses, kids, cousins and an entire Girl Scout troop to play the parts.

“We had a zombie assembly line going,” said Helde, describing the nightly process to cover everyone in white hairspray, makeup and lots of blood. 

On board, passengers heard the story of how the Minneapolis Park Board sprayed harsh chemicals to kill milfoil in the lakes. The method successfully killed the milfoil, but it also killed the local swimmers, who subsequently turned into zombies. At one point in the ride, the conductor stopped the streetcar near a car barn covered in “milfoil” and vines. Suddenly, zombies started rapping the sides of the streetcar and coming on board, ripping off their arms and eating them. 

“We tried to crank out as many zombies as we could,” Helde said.

The Ghost Trolley shows have operated for about 16 years, and more trolley events have joined the lineup. Southwest High School students are now presenting murder mystery plays on the streetcar each summer. 

“To stage something in such a confined space, it’s an immersive experience for both the audience and the actor,” Eaton said. 

Wild Rumpus also hosts PJ parties on the trolley. A guest author reads bedtime stories on the train, and kids enjoy cookies and milk at the station. 

“They have literally sold out every event they have ever done,” Eaton said. 

Eaton said the Ghost Trolley sees more competition every year from new “haunted” events that crop up throughout the cities. But the show remains as popular as ever. 

“It has become a real neighborhood event,” Eaton said.