My first clandestine visit to an abandoned building occurred almost a quarter century ago. A handful of my friends and I discovered one afternoon that a sheet of plywood boarding up the condemned high school was loose enough to let us in. We hurried home to plan and equip our expedition, drawing maps and packing flashlights and filling our Boy Scout canteens. We returned that afternoon, parked our bikes some distance away, and sneaked across the field surrounding the school. Then, prying aside that plywood board, we slipped inside. I remember dropping a few feet from the window sill to land on something squishy like the inside of a mouth: it was the damp carpet of a grand auditorium, full of red velvet seats facing a stage.
We traced our flashlight beams all across the walls. We skirted the edges of holes in the floor. The backs of our throats felt dry and itchy with the musty scent of every chamber. We saw classrooms full of toppled desks and a storeroom containing a pyramid of wet books. We saw old drawings left tacked to the walls of the art room. It was history frozen for us to witness, and it was wonderful.
Some people call this activity "legend tripping"; others call it "urban exploration." To me, it is as simple as wanting to experience the latent energy of a long forgotten place, to absorb its atmosphere, to remember its heyday, to consider the fleeting nature of our things and institutions. There's something magical about looking back at the so-called real world from inside an abandoned building, seeing through its moldy window-eyes.
Many writers and readers of horror fiction, perhaps even you, enjoy this thrill of discovery. Maybe we're just people who enjoy the atmosphere of the forgotten and the emotionally charged. There's certainly a spiritual element for me, anyway; I consider myself a visitor in someone else's time, and I try to be suitably respectful.
You can read plenty of articles on the Internet about breaking into abandoned churches, train stations, sewers, schools, hospitals, and even mental asylums. There is plenty of nitty-gritty advice for getting into places you shouldn't, everything from picking locks to prying out windows. There are lists of equipment, too--ropes and carabiners, miner's helmets and jumpsuits, breathing masks and pick axes.
I find that sort of exploration unseemly, bordering almost on rape. It is clumsy and brutal, and it violates the spirit of quiet communing with the past.
The proper way to investigate an abandoned place is more leisurely. You're walking with friends on an antiquarian tour of the neighborhood and you walk around the building, discussing its history and admiring its architecture. Maybe one of you finds a broken window or an open door, and maybe you step inside for a few minutes to look around. You take some pictures, maybe, and you're quietly contemplative about all the people who lived and thrived and suffered there. Then, disturbing nothing, you leave.
That's how H.P. Lovecraft would do it, anyway. We have little evidence that Lovecraft ever broke into a building, true, but we know he took his friends on tireless marches past Providence's historical sights, and he certainly wrote often about mysterious places forsaken by man. It is hard to believe that Lovecraft never stepped into a place he shouldn't have, especially on those lonely clouded afternoons when nobody was looking.
After years of writing fiction, the most common "fan mail" I receive involves my visit to the DeJarnette Center several years ago. Usually, the messages demand to know how to get into the building. I always respond the same way: "If you're supposed to be there, you'd know how to get in."
Still, I wonder if it wouldn't be worth offering a few suggestions about carefully and responsibly visiting places you're not technically supposed to go.
After all, you're all responsible people, right?
So here, then, are Will Ludwigsen's Tips for Gentlemanly Conduct in Abandoned Places:
(Please Note: Nothing I mention here should be construed as encouragement to break into buildings.
Nor is it legal advice of any sort.)
- Do your homework first. Visit the local library and scan old newspapers for mention of your building. When was it built? What was its purpose? When was it abandoned? Why? A little context can make a place all the more exciting to visit; you'll better understand the things you see there. Also, you might discover threats to your safety--asbestos, for example.
- If you can, obtain permission to get into the building. Contact your local historical society. Go to your county property appraiser's website and look up the current owner of the property. Tell them the truth: you're hoping to visit the site and take a few photographs to preserve it. Make it clear that you won't touch anything, and you'd be happy to do it even with supervision. Sometimes you can arrange a quid pro quo, offering them copies of your photos for use in insuring the property or recording its history.
- Take someone with you, preferably the owner or site manager plus a friend or two. Choose your co-explorers wisely; reckless boneheads need not apply. Your life could well be in their hands, physically and legally. Not to mention spiritually: old buildings hate reckless boneheads.
- Dress as much like an ordinary and responsible citizen as possible. Leave your nose, tongue, and skull rings at home. Wear a plain shirt instead of the Slayer one. You want to do everything you can to distance yourself from the crackheads, graffiti artists, and horny teenagers who usually trespass on the property. You want to look like an ordinary, responsible adult who just happened to step inside for a quick gander.
- I suggest going during the daytime. Not only will you have some light from holes in the roof or seams in the windows, but you'll have safer entrance and exit from the building. Plus, you'll look less suspicious.
- When you get to the site, start first with an exterior exploration, walking carefully around it, taking plenty of exterior photos, peering in the windows if any are at your level. Sometimes even this can offer a satisfying draught of a place's spirit.
- If you happen upon a loose board or an open window, I could hardly blame you for using it to go inside. I caution you, though, to NEVER force your way into a building. NEVER break windows or kick open doors; NEVER smash through boards. If the building wants you to come in, it'll leave you an opening.
- DO NO HARM. Don't break anything. Don't take anything. Don't mark anything. You are, at heart, a visitor to the past, and it isn't your place to befoul it. Behave in an abandoned building as you would in your grandmother's parlor. The grandmother you like.
- Don't take idiot equipment with you--rope, miner's caps, special boots or fatigues. If you need safety equipment, you shouldn't be there. Also, if you're caught, you look far more suspicious and malevolent with that junk. A flashlight should be fine. If it isn't, you shouldn't be there.
- For God's sake, NEVER go armed. If you're caught by the police, you could find yourself in big trouble, depending upon the laws of your state. Also, if you have to use that gun in your own defense, you'll be in even worse trouble.
- Safety-wise, don't be an idiot: if something feels squishy or weak, if something cracks, if the stone looks slippery, then DON'T WALK ON IT. Don't be a daredevil. No photograph is worth hurting yourself. And in some of those places, full as they are of rusty nails and tufts of asbestos, you could hurt yourself very badly.
- Be respectful to anybody you encounter, especially the police. Make it clear that you meant no harm by taking photographs, and that you'll leave immediately.
- Attitude is everything, both in enjoying the place itself and avoiding legal trouble afterward. If you approach your exploration like a conquistador, hoping to be the guy who can make it to the top of the chimney whatever it takes, you deserve all the injuries and criminal charges you'll likely receive. If, on the other hand, you're circumspect and take no unnecessary risks, you'll likely take your photos and leave without incident.
If all else fails, ask yourself, "What would Lovecraft do?" It's hard to imagine Lovecraft kicking down a door or throwing a rock through a window or scratching his initials into a carved wooden column, isn't it? Lovecraft would meander through the site respectfully, letting its atmosphere wash over him, forcing nothing of himself on it. That's what you should do, too.
If there's one thing we know from horror stories, it is that you never offend a building.
Here are some galleries of various ruins I've visited:
Will Ludwigsen's story about a house that does a little exploring of its own, "Remembrance is Something Like a House," is available in the Interfictions II anthology. Other stories are forthcoming in Cemetery Dance and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. To find out more about his latest trespasses, check his website at www.will-ludwigsen.com.
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