Urban exploration taps into our instinct to uncover mysteries in abandoned spaces, but this brand of adventuring is not for the fainthearted.
On YouTube you can find a video covering just about any topic. Makeup tutorials. Video game play-throughs. People sitting and smiling into the camera for hours. But in one special corner of YouTube you’ll discover a group of brave individuals armed with respirators and cameras and exploring abandoned motels, factories and dead shopping malls. Urban exploration on YouTube channels like This is Dan Bell, Exploring With Josh and Kentucky Urbex takes us into places most people would avoid traipsing into alone on an overcast night.
But have you ever walked down a city street, maybe not in the best part of town, and noticed a building cordoned off with police tape or covered in bright Condemned signs? Did you want to click on your phone’s flashlight and wander in, just to see what you might find?
We are drawn to the abandoned. Maybe humans are naturally nosy. We all harbor the wannabe sleuth inside. It’s the same compulsion that drives us to peek through the medicine cabinet of someone we just started dating or glimpse across the bus aisle to see what a stranger’s reading.
Urban exploration gives us a look into others’ lives through what people leave behind. And sometimes what we learn is far from pretty.
A standard urban exploration video — or urbex — will begin with the adventurer giving a brief rundown of the place they’ll explore accompanied by some exterior shots. The location might be a nondescript, dilapidated factory or shuttered farmhouse. Places most of us see on road trips before promptly locking the doors, imagining some horrific crime that happened inside. And, well, sometimes they did — as in Dan Bell’s “This House is Evil” video, where he explores a rundown home in a particularly uninviting portion of Baltimore in which years before a man, suffering from a deadly mix of addiction and psychosis, murdered his own infant son.
Most of the time urban explorers don’t have permission to be in the places they’re going and have to gain entry under the cover of night. How exactly they get in isn’t usually shown in the video.
Some explorers use camera-mounted flashlights. Others, like Kentucky Urbex, use a form of night vision. A camera-mounted flashlight gives a tunnel-like quality to the video. We see only what the flashlight allows us to, with the fringes of the frame cluttered with darkness — where anything could, as the vantage shifts, come popping out at the explorer.
Once we’re inside, accompanied by the explorer’s footsteps and little else, a palpable sense of anticipation begins. While urban explorers sometimes come across fragments and clues to what happened in these abandoned places, often they find simply garbage or evidence of squatters. A few times they’ll discover signs, legitimate or not, of a crime or murder.
Exploring with John discovers evidence of a recent Satanic ritual. Maybe:
But as they say, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. A majority of urban exploration videos will show only what the adventurers see, with nothing curated or manipulated. Others will embellish things. Some urban explorers — among the younger set, I noticed — will jump at every little noise and/or flee from the site completely. This also has its appeal because who doesn’t like watching someone, who shouldn’t have been in a place to begin with, get chased off by nothing but their own fears?
For viewers of a certain age, a lot of urban exploration videos will recall films such as The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, when shaky-cam footage was a novel idea. Urban exploration is a raw look at a thing that puts you, the viewer, in place of the explorer. Often the old mills and shopping centers and hospitals are rather mundane, the only spooks being random trash and the occasional skitter of a mouse. Nonetheless, the thought of someone being there, watching from the darkness, gives the viewer a certain tension that’s hard to define without using the word dread. Dread you could cut with a knife, specifically. Because in the real world there are much scarier things than ghosts and Cloverfield creatures.
Dan Bell explores an abandoned children’s museum — and he may not be alone:
Especially when the explorer has to pause to command themselves under their breath to keep going. Though they’re brave and arguably insane for doing such things, these scenarios are real. These are regular people whose fight-or-flight instincts are on a very precarious balance. These are not movie stars in elaborate and safe Hollywood sets. The threat is genuine, whether it’s weather-weakened flooring, crumbling cement ceilings or stumbling upon a den of not-very-nice people.
Adding to the legitimacy is the urban explorer whispering to the audience, who won’t see the video until much later after the footage has been edited together. Anyone who’s hummed a song to themselves when venturing down to the basement with a basketful of laundry can relate.
To avoid alerting neighbors or cops on patrol, urban explorers travel in small groups or completely alone. In urbex, the goal is to go unnoticed, to avoid provoking, but to go in, observe, document and leave.
Surely due in no small part to the popularity of urban exploration videos, the next installment of Blair Witch is in theaters now. So if you prefer to get your shaky-cam scares in the confines of a multiplex and not via YouTube, Blair Witch might be worth your while. And if you’re one of those crazies considering emulating Dan Bell or Kentucky Urbex, just remember: you probably don’t want your parting gift to your surviving family to be a bit of spooky footage on your smartphone.