When I was nine, my family lived in a cramped apartment above a greasy restaurant that catered to drunks from the area’s numerous bars. I often heard them fighting in the alley beneath my bedroom window. There was plenty of fighting in the apartment, as well. Although my mother and my stepfather never came to blows, their arguments made me so afraid that many nights I stuffed pillows under my bedding to make it look as if I slept there while I lay awake under the bed.
I often escaped that apartment and wandered the streets, where I learned the secrets of every alley and parking lot within ten blocks. I also learned the secrets of abandoned buildings. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I didn’t run into fatal trouble in some of those buildings. But I was a street kid, a survivor, and the worst that happened to me was a cat bite on a wrist and a nail through a foot, both of which caused blood poisoning.
Those abandoned buildings-a house, a factory, and an apartment complex-fascinated me. The smashed windows, the moldy wallpaper, the peeling paint, the musty smell of the past, lured me back repeatedly. The most interesting building was the apartment complex because, although deserted, it wasn’t empty. Tenants had abandoned tables, chairs, dishes, pots, lamps, and sofas. Most were in such poor shape that it was obvious why they hadn’t been taken. Nonetheless, combined with magazines and newspapers left behind, they created the illusion that people still lived there-ghostly remnants of the life that once flourished in the building.
I felt this more than I understood it. Treading cautiously up creaky staircases, stepping around fallen plaster and holes in floors, peering into decaying rooms, I gazed in wonder at discoveries I made. Pigeons roosted on cupboards. Mice nested in sofas. Fungus grew on walls. Weeds sprouted on watery windowsills. Some of the yellowed newspapers and magazines dated back to when I was born.
But no discovery meant more to me than a record album I found on a cracked linoleum floor next to a three-legged table that lay on its side. Eventually, I learned that it was called an album because, prior to the 1950s, phonograph records were made from thick, easily breakable shellac that had only one song on each side and were stored in paper sleeves within binders that resembled photograph albums. At the time of my discovery, discs of this sort (which played at 78 rpm) had been superceded by thin, long-playing, vinyl discs that were far more sturdy, had as many as eight songs on each side, and played at 33 1/3 rpm.
I’d never seen an album. When I opened its cover, I felt an awe that was only slightly reduced by the scrape of broken shellac. Two of the discs were shattered. But the majority (four, as I recall) remained intact. Clutching this treasure, I hurried home. Our radio had a primitive record player attached to it. I switched its dial to 78 rpm and put on one of the discs.
I played the song repeatedly. Today, I can still hear the scratchy tune. I’ve never forgotten its title: “Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.” An Internet search tells me that the song was written in 1929 by Irving Kahal, Willie Raskin, and Sammy Fain. Melodic and rhythmic, it was an instant hit, recorded frequently over the years. But at the time, I knew nothing of that. Nor did I understand the emotions of the lyrics, which described the loneliness of a young man whose friends are all getting married. What captivated me was that scratchy sound. It came palpably from the past and served as a time tunnel through which my imagination could travel back to other years. I visualized the vocal group in unfamiliar clothes, surrounded by unfamiliar objects, singing out-of-fashion music in a setting that was always fuzzy and in black-and-white. Regrettably, I don’t recall the group’s name. So much for immortality.
Since then, I’ve obeyed a compulsion to investigate many other abandoned buildings, not to mention tunnels and storm drains, although I never again found anything so memorable as that phonograph album. I assumed that my traumatic childhood accounted for my fascination with crumbling deserted structures and that I was alone in my obsession with links to the past. But I now realize that there are many like me.
They call themselves urban explorers, urban adventurers, and urban speleologists. Their nickname is creepers. If you type “urban explorer” into Yahoo, you’ll find an astonishing 170,000 Internet contacts. Type that name into Google, and you’ll find an even more astonishing 225,000 contacts. It’s a reasonable assumption that each of these links isn’t represented by just one lonely explorer. After all, nobody’s going to put together a site if he/she doesn’t have a sense of community. Those 395,000 contacts are groups, and logic suggests that for every one that publicizes itself, there are many others that prefer to be hidden.
Those who wish to remain anonymous have a good reason. Bear in mind, urban exploration is illegal. It involves the invasion of private property. Plus, it’s so unsafe it can be deadly. The authorities tend to insist on jail terms and/or serious fines to discourage it. As a consequence, many of these websites emphasize that explorers should get permission from property owners and that they should always follow safety precautions and never do anything against the law. Those warnings sound socially responsible, but my assumption is that for many urban explorers, part of the appeal is the risk and thrill of doing what’s forbidden. It’s significant that their slang term for entering a deserted building borrows from the covert-ops military expression for invading hostile territory: infiltration. As the website www.infiltration.org indicates, the objective is “places you’re not supposed to go.”
Creepers are mostly between the ages of 18 and 30, intelligent, well-educated with an interest in history and architecture, often employed in professions related to computer technology. They share a world-wide interest, with groups in Japan, Singapore, Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Holland, England, Canada, the United States, and several other countries. Australian groups are fascinated with the maze of storm drains under Sydney and Melbourne. European groups favor abandoned military installations from the World Wars. US groups are drawn to classic department stores and hotels abandoned when social decay led to an exodus from cities like Buffalo and Detroit. In Russia, creepers are obsessed with Moscow’s once-secret multi-level subway system intended for evacuating Cold War officials during a nuclear attack. Deserted hospitals, asylums, theaters, and stadiums: Every country offers plenty of opportunities for urban exploring.
One of the first urban explorers was a Frenchman who in 1793 became lost during an expedition into the Paris catacombs. It took eleven years for his body to be discovered. Walt Whitman was another early urban explorer. The author of Leaves of Grass worked as a reporter for the Brooklyn Standard, where he wrote about the Atlantic Avenue tunnel. Touted as the first subway tunnel anywhere when built in 1844, it was discontinued a mere seventeen years later. Before it was sealed, Whitman trekked through it. “Dark as the grave, cold, damp and silent,” he wrote. “How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals, the dissatisfied ones at least, and that’s a large proportion, into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork.”
But Whitman didn’t get the point of urban exploration. He saw the tunnel in negative terms. For a true devotee, however, the cold, damp, silent darkness of a tunnel or an abandoned apartment complex or a deserted factory is exactly the goal. The spooky attraction of the eerie past: I suspect that’s what a much later explorer felt in 1980 when he uncovered that same Atlantic Avenue tunnel 119 years after it was barricaded and forgotten.
A major modern instance of urban exploration occurred recently in the Paris catacombs. Those catacombs are part of a 170-mile tunnel system beneath Paris, the consequence of quarry work that over many centuries provided building materials for the city. In the 1700s, some of the tunnels were used to store thousands of corpses when cemeteries exhausted their space. In September of 2004, a French police team on a training exercise found a fully equipped movie theater among the bones. Seats were carved into the rock. A small adjoining cave functioned as a bar and restaurant, with whiskey bottles on display along with professional electrical and telephone systems. Another major example occurred in Moscow in October of 2002 when Chechen rebels seized control of a theater. After the military surrounded the building, an urban explorer guided soldiers inside through a forgotten tunnel.
Some of this is adventuring in a basic sense. But I think that there are also psychological implications. As I note in Creepers, our world is so fraught with elevated threat levels that it makes a lot of sense to retreat to the past. Old buildings can be a refuge, drawing us back to what we imagine were simple and less stressful times. In my youth, the deserted apartment complex provided an escape from the turmoil of my family. I was a time traveler, finding sanctuary in a past that appealed to my imagination and in which there were never any arguments.
In my youth. As an adult, I now have a different perspective, one with deeper, less comfortable implications. To me, old buildings have become like old photographs. They remind me how swiftly time passes. The past they evoke draws attention to my ultimate future. They are an opportunity for reflection.
I recently had the chance to visit the high school I attended more than forty years ago. A part of it burned to the ground. Most of the remainder has been boarded shut for a decade. When I entered, a hazard team was checking for asbestos, lead paint, and mold, prior to the school’s demolition. It’s amazing what years of disuse can do, especially when broken windows allow rain and snow to intrude. In disturbingly silent hallways, the hardwood floors were buckled. Plaster drooped from the ceilings. Paint strips hung from the walls. But in my memory, everything was clean and well-maintained. I envisioned students and teachers filling the noisy corridors. The trouble is that many of those students and teachers have long since died. In the midst of decay, my imagination conjured youth and the promise of hope, gone just as the school would soon be gone.
I wonder if deserted buildings are vessels to which children bring a sense of wonder and adults bring their unacknowledged fears. When I obeyed the compulsion to visit that wreck of a school, was I unintentionally confronting my own mortality? But my visit had a safety that urban exploration doesn’t. Infiltrating forbidden sites, investigating the decay of the past, creepers flirt with danger. Any moment, a floor might give way, a wall topple, or a stairway collapse. Creepers challenge the past to do its worst. With each successful expedition, they emerge victorious from another confrontation with age and decay. For a handful of hours, they lived intensely. Obsessed with the past, perhaps they hope to postpone their inevitable future. Or perhaps they feel reassured that the past lingers palpably into the present and that something about their past might linger after they’re gone.
When my fifteen-year-old son Matthew was dying from bone cancer, his most plaintive statement was, “But no one will remember me.” Memento mori. Maybe that’s what urban exploration is all about. Is an obsession with the past another way of hoping that something about us will linger, that years from now someone will explore where we lived and feel our lingering presence. That phonograph album I found. The distant hiss I listened to just as someone listened to that same platter decades earlier. “Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine.” It’s a song about time, which is basically what all stories come down to. In the lyric, a young man says he’s got a lonesome feeling. But as I think back to that apartment complex and the deserted rooms I wandered through . . . the abandoned sofas, chairs, lamps, and pots . . . I didn’t feel alone.
© 2005 David Morrell
Creepers is Published in the US by CDS Books September 2005 and in the UK by Hodder Headline in October 2005
More information on the work of David Morrell is available from www.davidmorrell.net and an extensive interview reviewing his work was conducted by Shots Ezine last year:
Until then, catch up on David Morrell’s back catalogue :-
David Morrell’s Bibliography
First Blood (1972)
Last Reveille (1977)
The Totem (1979)
Blood Oath (1982)
The Hundred-Year Christmas (1983)
The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984)
The Fraternity of the Stone (1985)
Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1985)
The League of Night and Fog (1987)
Rambo III (1988)
The Fifth Profession (1990)
The Covenant of the Flame (1991)
Assumed Identity (1993)
Desperate Measures (1994)
The Totem (Complete and Unaltered) (1994)
Extreme Denial (1996)
Double Image (1998)
Black Evening (1999)
Burnt Sienna (2000)
Long Lost (2002)
The Protector (2003)
John Barth: an Introduction (1976)
Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss (1988)
American Fiction, American Myth: Essays by Philip Young (2000)
Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft (2002)
David Morrell is published in the UK by Hodder Headline.
More Information is available from www.davidmorrell.net
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