The Terrifyingly Beautiful World Of Abandoned Buildings
We're longtime fans of abandoned buildings and all the terror sweat to be found in, on, and generally around them. But who exactly brings us all those photos of the spooky places that we love to fantasize about never, ever visiting? There's no Indiana Jones of abandoned hospitals. It's all down to some brave, foolhardy, almost certainly cursed hobbyists and their trusty cameras. We sat down with one to learn his ...
Horror Stories From Urban Exploring
A couple years ago, a group of my friends slipped into an abandoned school at night ...
Along with dusty books and probably the ghosts of tortured children, they realized someone else was in there with them. It was a rough part of town, so they hid. Then they heard dogs barking and an authoritative voice calling them. Oh, cool. It was just the cops. Time for a slap on the wrist, right?
Nope! The cops set their dog loose to tear up one guy's leg. Asked about calling an ambulance, the officers said medical care would delay processing, so the guys agreed to come to the station. They spent five hours bleeding in lock-up before being released without a charge and then heading to the hospital for stitches.
The crime is trespassing. The motive? The knowledge that abandoned buildings look really, really cool.
Like something out of a movie.
For me, the love began with seeing dripping, spooky lairs in Ghostbusters 2 and Ninja Turtles III. As a kid, that was enough to send me ducking into abandoned houses, hotels, and schools -- picturing Michelangelo hiding out there, waiting for me to come skateboarding with him. Later on, I joined a ghost-hunting group, though I didn't believe in ghosts at all, because that's the most legit way to get into those massive decaying buildings.
Even today, my best shot at getting permission to enter somewhere I have no business being is to put on my Ghostbusters T-shirt, approach the night watchman, and tell him I'm interested in hearing about what's haunting the place. Every guard has tales of mysterious squeaks and cold spots, so he'll enthusiastically tell me his theories about which restless spirit is tied to the place, while I'll be photographing the weird industrial beauty of rusted machinery and shattered glass.
"Sometimes, I hear footsteps like someone's there!"
Of course, sometimes we go in without permission. Hence the occasional run-ins with police. Also, hence the occasional run-ins with not police. When I see drugs stored in a Ziploc bag or a backpack, that's the dropoff point for a deal -- the money exchange happens in a different spot -- and the dealers may be back any moment, thinking I'm trying to steal their stash. And then there are the criminals unique to abandoned buildings: the scrappers, who trawl for wiring and other material to loot.
One man's trash is another man's trash which he sells for booze money.
Explorers and scrappers have an odd relationship. Scrapping is a crime much more serious than trespassing, and it attracts much more police attention, but by knocking in their own entrances, scrappers also create openings for explorers. Sometimes, the two groups bump into each other. They'll say: "I'm telling you, I'm going to this floor/building/area, where are you going?" It's not small talk -- it's their way of saying "Let's steer clear of each other."
And stay clear I do, since some scrappers are organized, dangerous gangs. I remember one time I was in an abandoned hospital in Statesville, North Carolina, when we heard a generator fire up, which meant someone was inside with us. Then I heard a circular saw roar to life, which meant someone hardcore was inside with us. I felt the whole building shake. Scrappers were breaking down walls to get at the pipes. Which is not a great thing to experience when you're already deep in an abandoned and unstable building.
I wasn't ready to explore the afterlife.
See, when the city declares a building condemned, they're saying that the whole thing falling in on you is a very real risk. It hasn't happened to me yet, but explorers almost always get a little banged up. If you leave without a scratch, then you probably didn't have much fun.
During one expedition, my partner's foot went through a break between concrete slabs and his leg split open. Blood pooled in his shoe. We probably should have gotten a real medical eye on that, but I didn't exactly want to phone an ambulance to pick us up from property where we were trespassing. So I took out my knife (yes, I carry a knife) and my first aid kit (yes, carry that too), and cut away the torn flesh myself, then bandaged it. Asbestos is another constant risk, so you should always wear a respirator. "Should" doesn't always mean "do," though. Another explorer from my town fell two stories through thin plywood while out photographing an abandoned building. He is now a paraplegic.
One loose bolt and you're sliding into a wheelchair.
One of my more interesting expeditions was to a Tennessee military base built around World War II. A single road approached the development, and I visited the guard house there to try to get permission to explore, but I was denied. So I cased the area using the criminal trespassers' greatest tool: Google Earth. I discovered that's it's wildly impossible to restrict a 6,000-acre compound to a single entrance.
I mapped out an alternate mile-long route via the woods, found a weak spot in a fence, and entered ...
Inside was a ghost town. I discovered dark bunkers and strange, ancient computers. There were military training manuals and documents on manufacturing war materials. We code-named this place "zombie farm" after seeing a weird cage covering a control panel and joking that the military was unleashing zombies from here. (This was around the time of the Florida face-eating incident.)
There was also this weird computer with a German accent ...
But even the mundane places have their surprises. Maybe they're wildly unpleasant, like a drug overdose victim found encased in ice. Or maybe it's evidence of someone living there, like the bed we found set up in an industrial hopper -- we made the bed, folded the vagrant's clothes, and put some mints on his pillow. Maybe it's more articles of clothing, like the loads of panties I find, hopefully from adventurous couples and not adventurous Buffalo Bills. Once, I found the carcass of a shot deer set oddly beside an abandoned complex.
I figure someone must have fired at the animal, realized it was out of season, panicked, and dumped the body.
One expedition revealed a collection of classic cars covered in layers of dust, rotting behind an old school.
On another, we entered the flooded basement of a Chattanooga "floating" restaurant and found piles of financial paperwork which, if we understood correctly, revealed they'd cheated a bunch of investors before going out of business. It's fun to uncover those kinds of backstories -- like hunting for lore in a video game. But other times, we find things we don't want to explain. Like when I entered a house and discovered that the last owners had fastidiously removed all the furniture, but left a single set of teeth on the floor ...
Sometimes it's best to stow the curiosity and just start running.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Insane Moments in the World's Most Hardcore Haunted House and 4 Horrifying Realities Of Working At A Haunted House.
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