Touring Austin’s Haunts
By Kathleen Leon
For Reporting Texas
While the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” Chris English, founder of Haunted ATX, is keeping Austin scary. English provides the one and only mobile haunted tour in Austin, a year-round venture that is particularly popular around Halloween.
Every night, English guides two tours a night, 8 p.m. and midnight, mixing magic tricks and parlor humor in with ghostly tales of Austin. The two-hour tour, which costs $35, begins with a seat in a classic 1979 Cadillac hearse that has been converted into a limousine capable of sitting up to six passengers. After spending $2,000 on the hearse, English spent $7,000 more to install seats, a microphone and speakers, lights, air conditioning and, of course, additional windows.
“As I’m sure you probably know, hearses do not come with windows in the back like that,” English said. “The stiff that usually rides back there doesn’t need nor can see from the back anyway.”
English, a 40-year-old from Houston, started the business in March 2010. He got the idea while traveling the country with the Renaissance Festival from 2000 to 2004, selling food and wares and “even working games such as the knife throw and ax throw” at the traveling outdoor Elizabethan festival.
“I wound up in Savannah, Ga., and there was a guy there doing haunted tours in a hearse,” English said. “I took the tour and had so much fun that I knew I wanted to do something like that.”
Eventually he quit his job as a phlebotomist for The Central Texas Blood Bank so he could devote himself to his tour business full time. Most nights, the hearse is at least half full.
The tour consists of 15 haunted landmarks. Beginning downtown, weaving through the East side and the UT campus and finishing in Hyde Park, English narrates the entire journey in a black bowler and a funereal black suit coat (with a T-shirt underneath, this being Austin).
He opens at The Tavern on 12th Street, a one-time speakeasy and brothel that opened during Prohibition and is thought by some to be haunted by an apparition of a little girl. Legend holds that Emily, daughter of one of the “working girls,” was killed during a fight at the establishment.
“For obvious reasons, Emily has a tendency to not like mean people,” English said in explaining reports of strange goings-on at the bar, which allegedly include glasses tipping over and spilling drinks on rowdy and unruly customers.
English’s tour takes in other infamously spooky places like the downtown Driskill Hotel, reportedly haunted by a number of ghosts, and Metz Elementary School in East Austin, whose renovation in the early 1990’s was plagued by construction troubles that some blame on spirits. The school legend also includes ghostly children running, laughing and writing on the blackboards.
At least one other member of Austin’s small but active ghost industry approves of the tour.
“If you are just getting into paranormal investigating and want to experience a haunted location without actually doing an investigation, Mr. English’s limo tour is a great way to get a sampling of the paranormal hot spots here in town,” said Jackie Milligan, a ghost hunter and founder of Ghost Girls Austin and Texas Paranormal Events.
“Although he doesn’t conduct a ‘ghost hunt,’ he does take people inside some of the locations if they request it,” said Milligan, who grew up in a haunted house, started Ghost Girls in 2008 and now investigates paranormal activity in houses around the country.
Patrick Labay, a “self-described” ghost enthusiast recently shared the Haunted ATX hearse with four of his friends to satisfy his Halloween itch. He called the tour “a well-honed repertoire of haunted facts and Texas mass-murdering goodness!”
David Saunders, who recently moved to Austin from Fayetteville, N.C., used the tour as an introduction to the city.
“I can’t think of a better way to get to know Austin,” he said. “Riding in the back of a hearse, drinking and getting a haunted history lesson of the city? The tour was not only a hell of a good time, but it gave me the opportunity to get to know not just the haunted spots in Austin but also really cool places to visit.”