Urban Exploration: Off Limits Curiosity Can Kill

English: An urban explorer under Hobart, Tasma...

I was going to talk about a film I watched last night. The 2011 film URBEX aka Urban Explorer was directed by Andy Fetsher and distributed by German distributor Universum.  It is about a group of five young people who go through previously sealed tunnels underneath Berlin. I quite enjoyed it and will be reviewing it later.

As I was trawling the net (or Googling the net if you prefer) to find more information on the film, my eye caught a reference to urban exploration. I went back and clicked on the link to a Wikipedia page.

The Wikipedia definition of Urban Exploration is, ‘ Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as draining (when exploring drains) urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, or building hacking.’

Essentially urban exploration (UE) is something that has been steadily gaining in popularity since 2006. The dangers, according to Wikipedia, are many: Arrest – for criminal trespass or common trespassing. Jail or imprisonment – this one sort of dovetails with arrest. Physical – this can be broken down to personal injury and health issues (mostly due to exposure to Asbestos).

I can see the appeal. The article in Wikipedia intimates that this is a new hobby of younger people. I am guessing that includes a demographic of perhaps 13 to 30. Although looking at it, I would probably enjoy participating in the practise as well.

I remember getting excited when I learned  about the ‘buried city’ underneath Seattle in the mid seventies. This curiosity was given a booster shot of publicity when it featured in an episode of Kolchak: The Night StalkerAmazingly this curiosity has been around since the 1950’s and it’s first official tour took place in 1965.

Seattle underground city. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I felt the same burst of excitement when years later I learned of the buried city under Edinburgh, Scotland. I would have given my right arm to see  either of these two fascinating places in person. If you wander through the web, you’ll find that a lot of places have ‘buried cities’ or ‘underground vaults’ all available for public legal touring.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll find images and links to the UE world of ‘tours.’

Urban Exploration in Oświęcim
Urban Exploration in Oświęcim (Photo credit: robfuncken.nl)

My daughter adores old  buildings and abandoned industrial estates. They are, to her, the modern equivalent of the ‘ghost town’ and they hold the same fascination as the Mesa Verde held for me as a youngster. But if I am really honest, I feel the same about buildings or areas that are abandoned and forgotten in the not so distant past.

I can see the allure of exploring these forbidden places. Places that have been deserted and emptied of human occupants with only the vestiges of prior inhabitants remaining.

Seattle’s underground city.

I worked, for a very short time, for a used office furniture retailer. They would go and survey what office articles such as desks, chairs, filing cabinets, et al, an out of business retailer had left behind. A bid would be put in for clearing out the remaining equipment. If the bid was accepted, we would go in and collect the things for cleaning, inexpensive repair and re-sell the items at a ‘discount’ price.

It was while I was working for this small business that I got to experience what could be called a type of urban exploration.

The business had been a long running traditional employer of thousands of people in the local area. The company had gone into receivership in the mid 1990’s. I was tasked with another employee from the furniture store to collect any office furniture that was deemed ‘worth messing with’ and bring to the store’s repair warehouse.

Manufacturing memories.

The abandoned building was the size of two American football fields laying end to end. It was winter time and the inside of this huge mausoleum was ten degrees colder than the outside.

Machinery, desks, chairs, filing cabinets and other assorted office paraphernalia was scattered throughout the building. The main area  was surrounded by little offices that perhaps the worker’s supervisors had run their sections from.

The entire area, including the offices, had a feeling of panicky departure. It looked like a land bound Mary Celeste.  Books were left open on desks as if they’d been abandoned mid-sentence. Pens, pencils, staplers and staple pullers littered the desks and the floor.

A lot of the pen holders still had expensive pens in them. The desks were full of papers; expense sheets, manifestos, instructions and private correspondence. A few briefcases were scattered here and there. If not for the thick layer of dust that permeated the building and the lack of order and people, it looked as though everyone had just left hurriedly for a fire drill or a quick union meeting.

It was eerie, disquieting and  fascinating.

One room was full of children’s books. Not your run of the mill present day books either. Quite a few looked as though they might be collectors editions of children’s classics. Black Beauty, Treasure Island, and other children’s books littered the floor and filled boxes that were in untidy heaps.

When my colleague and I had our lunch break we went into the areas that were ‘off limits’ and explored. These areas were even more fascinating. Where the main area we’d been working in looked hastily deserted. The off limits area looked like there should still be people there working and planning their rosters and task lists. This area was almost clean. The ever present thick dust that had coated everything in the other room was not present in these offices. The look of disarray was not present either.

Everything was neat and precise and clean. We both felt a little like cat-burglars so we did not stay long. I don’t know about my co-worker, but I felt like the inhabitants of the offices were going to come in at any minute and throw us out.

 When we finished our collection of the old office things deemed saleable, we left. I felt like a modern day archaeologist. As silly as it might sound, I felt I knew how the folks had felt that explored the Egyptian tombs and the Aztec ruins.

Oh sure, my little exploration of a business gone broke couldn’t compare in importance or significance, but, the snapshots of daily activity in an recently deserted building was fascinating.

I can well imagine why people have been increasingly interested in this modern form of exploration. The mix of forbidden exploration of hitherto unknown or sealed locations and the chances of injury combined with the visceral and tactile experiences must be a heady combination that is difficult to refuse.

A lot people are curious about life before we came along. Even more so if the life we see is of an infamous or disturbing nature. It will be interesting to see where this variation of time travel will go.  Because that is what urban exploration seems to be. A quick look at yesterday or yesteryear, that is dirty, forbidden, dangerous and excitingly real.

I can understand that.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, http://MikesFilmTalk.com Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

75 thoughts on “Urban Exploration: Off Limits Curiosity Can Kill”

  1. This was a cool post. Thanks for writing it. I went on the Underground Tour in Seattle and was amazed by the city’s story. I highly recommend that tour to anyone that travels there.


  2. I come from a part of North Carolina that is bristling with abandoned industrial structures dating all the way to the Civil War. It was awesome to see a different perspective on these sites, as we here in the Wilmington area have always vowed to leave “easter eggs” for future explorers. Sometimes, we will affix a small vial filled with a scroll that has the names and dates of the explorers. Surprisingly, we’ve also found some of these vials in our travels and suspect it is a common practice. It’s always cool to see who else is out there, prowling about the abandoned rocks, bricks, and steel tunnels.


    1. That sounds not only fun but interesting. I would have never thought of leaving easter eggs/time capsules with the names of the explorers inside. Kind of like the pioneers who carved their names on Chimney rock on their way west. Cool idea! Thanks for liking and sharing my little post! Cheers mate!!


  3. Very interesting article, Mike. I enjoyed it a great deal. Reminds me of something I read in National Geographic a couple of years ago about kids exploring and using the spaces beneath Paris. The buried streets in Edinburgh are meant to be really interesting. Mary King’s Close is one of them.

    I was interested to read of your experience going in to a company that had gone into receivership. Weird that they had left so much stuff like papers and books just lying around.

    Thanks for sharing it with us!




    1. Thanks for your kind words of praise! This new exploration is growing in popularity so much so that films are being made about it. URBEX and Chernobyl Diaries to name just two. The experience at the company was strange. It did feel like everyone had left the huge building in a blind panic. I had not thought about the place in years (this happened in 1994 I think) and the Wikipedia article made me think of it. Thank you for taking the time to comment! Cheers David! 🙂


  4. Very interesting! I had no idea that this was happening. I know that when people go to a tourist area, sure they want to leave the tourist spots and see what the locals see. But I never knew there was a trend of people going to the off limits area!

    Great read!


    1. Yep, apparently it’s been gaining in popularity since 2006 and it kind of explains the emergence of Urban Exploration films. Chernobyl Diaries and URBEX are just two. I found out about this trend when I was doing research for a film review! Thanks for your kind words of praise and for sharing! 🙂


  5. That sounds fascinating, looking into old deserted buildings. I’d be terrified – I’m a very jumpy person, and the slightest sound would scare me. Even so, sounds like an interesting experiment!
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed 😀


    1. Thank you so much! It is fascinating. It is like walking into a time machine of sorts. It is sort of terrifying when you consider that most of these places don’t welcome visitors! But that is part of its charm and quite probably the allure for most folks who do it on a regular basis. Thanks for your words of praise and for taking the time to share! Cheers!


  6. Nicely said. I enjoy ‘re-discovering’ those kinds of places. It would be interesting and pleasant to get to find something like the business you mentioned with all of the articles laying about as they were. I once spent some time near Pie Town, NM where I discovered some old dugouts and homesteads still standing (though in disrepair) and I even found an old one-room school house; probably from around the 1910s-20s. Looking through such places is like a dim spyglass into the past and even the simplest of things catch your interest.

    Bonus points for mentioning Mesa Verde. =)


    1. I’m going to guess and say that NM is New Mexico! I lived there for a short while courtesy of the USAF. I should imagine that it’s full of abandoned areas ripe for viewing. I know Louis L’Amour (the western writer) wrote that a lot of ranches had ghost towns on them, but, nobody knew about them. Such a shame considering that folks would be so interested in them. Thanks for the Bonus points! Cheers!


  7. There is a fantastic abandoned cinema in Kingston-Upon-Thames that I visited a few times and it held that same eerie feeling. It opened in 1900 as a theatre, and still has old projectors and film equipment in the small projector room over looking a vast auditorium with steps leading down where the seats would have been. When you’re stood in there its like you can feel the history in the walls.


    1. That sounds fascinating. It astonishing that it hasn’t been turned into a bingo hall! That certainly seems to be the fate of a lot of old theatres in the UK. Thanks for taking the time to share! Cheers!! 🙂


  8. What a fantastic read! Love the subject and can see why you made it to Freshly Pressed. Back in my teenage years, I lived a few months in Seattle. Remember distinctly a shopping area in an underground part of the the city. It was pretty cool and sort of strange in a way, like a whole hidden city within the city.
    Reading the part about that abandoned place you were in I kept thinking ” I bet he wishes he’d had a camera that day “. Though, you described it perfectly and I agree it’d be a great set for a movie.
    Nice post, thanks for bringing it to us.


    1. Thank you for your kind words of praise! I’m green with envy about your experience with the ‘underground’ part of Seattle. I do indeed regret not having a camera with me, but, I am not a great talent with a lens. If you’ve ever seen those ‘how not to take a picture’ illustrations you’ll get some kind of idea about my abilities! Thanks again for sharing! Cheers! 🙂


  9. I’ve done some urban exploration in New York and Mass. and while there are many places hidden and buried to explore, the surprise is finding the things in NYC that are hidden in plain site. There is a thrill to UE that cpmbines the excitment of exploration with the danger of the forbidden and (depending on the site) the danger of the unknown. A couple of the places I’ve explored have been in danger of collapse or had other physical hazards.


    1. I take my hat off to you. It’s not many who will dare to go into those places that have been forgotten or ‘lost’ or even hidden ‘in plain sight’ as you’ve said. It’s funny how in this day and age of electronic chills and thrills, we still look for the excitement of a more tactile experience. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Cheers! 🙂


    1. Thanks! I’m still a bit shell shocked by the whole thing. I only wrote the post because while I was doing research on a film for reviewing, it came up in my Google search. It caught my eye and made remember my ‘own’ urban exploring. Cheers!


      1. Enjoy the ride. It happened to me on June 20, so I believe I understand some of how you’re feeling right now. But things do calm down later and you adjust to the new normal.


      2. Well, belated congrats on being FP’d as well! Yeah it is a bit unreal, but in a good way I might add, I haven’t had this kind of attention since I accidentally posted a review on a film that for some reason was a ‘hot’ topic! Cheers mate! 😀


      3. LOL That’s brilliant, I had no-where near that amount, what I did have was a astronomical view count and a ton of emails. I took one look and thought, ‘well, it’s up.” Cheers!


  10. Interesting article. I work as an English teacher in Barcelona and over the years have done many in-company classes. This requires that I travel to the industrial parks which acn be found on the outskirts of most cities. As the Euro crisis worsened these places began to empty out in the frenzied manner described in this post. While I’ve never actually had the “cojones” to enter any of these buildings, I’ve looked in windows where I could see fully furnished reception and office areas, coffee cups on the desks and all. I also had the opportunity to observe the evolution and decay of these places as nature and/or squatters inevitable took over. It’s amazing how quickly a neglected building becomes a creepy example of (sub?)urban decay.

    There are also a huge number of abandoned construction sites that look like they were left in the middle of a workday with machines running. These also decay incredibly fast. Someone should run a Spanish expedition.


      1. Yup, I haven’t checked out Opacity in a while but formerly visited frequently. I recall there was a hotel with mushrooms coming up through the ballroom floor or something. Then there were the photos of autopsy trays in a mental hospital… There’s something enchanting about abandoned property, alluring yet creepy.

        Back in college I recall going through the tunnels under the campus. We called it… ready? “Tunneling.” How clever. Verbotten of course, but very fun.


  11. Interesting concept;this urban exploration of buried cities. It’s sort of new to me.I can only imagine what it would be like. I bet some of these places hold a lot of secrets that could stir up controversies if found.


      1. I bet I am 😉 In fact we could even discover that we’ve been duped by forged histories. We might even find gold there(how’s that for motivation.lol!)


    1. I’ll bet if you dig a little deeper (sorry about the bad pun) you’ll find something. 🙂 If not it may not be too long before an opportunity arises. Here’s hoping. 🙂


  12. A beautiful post… the way you described your journey… I could imagine it all, easily. There is something extremely catchy about urban exploration. I’ve done it a few times and it always feels wonderful. The last time was in 1998 at a Nobel explosives factory at the South of France. It had long been disused, but I came across a notebook, lying in the rubble. It was well preserved. It detailed workers’ outings and what they ate and drank. The date of the entries was 1965. It’s bizarre there is so much history just lying around…


    1. Thank you! I loved your South of France experience! It is amazing the things that get left behind, waiting for some curious person to pick up and discover. Thanks for sharing! 🙂


  13. Not just boys. When we lived in the country, I loved to “explore” the woods and fields around our house. In the suburbs, it was unused barns, workshops, a burned-out house, and so forth. Later, when I was old enough to drive, I loved to explore abandoned buildings. In Texas, at least in my world, abandoned buildings are usually along the railroad tracks and were factories or depots for loading crops onto trains. I also had some good, scary times exploring the almost-abandoned waterfront of a western city that shall remain unnamed.

    One of the best “explorations” happened at a lake. The Corps of Engineers built the lake, but they underestimated how fast it would fill with water. As a result, the bottom contained full-grown trees, at least one bridge, and other things. I found a campfire–under about 15 feet of water, that looked as if it had just been put out. And I found a house–a whole, modest house–under the water. I was free-diving, so I couldn’t take as much time as I wanted, and when my parents found out, they grounded me, but it was completely spooky and cool.

    Oh, and out west–mines. They’re everywhere.

    Not just cities. You should check out the utility tunnels under your local university. (This requires stealth and planning, or an inside man.) Great stuff.

    Thanks for this interesting post and congratulations on getting Fresh Pressed.


    1. Wow thanks for sharing that! I wonder…is that lake in Texas too? I seem to remember a ‘man-made’ lake that covered up quite a lot of property (houses, et al) in, I think, North Texas. Either way, I envy your experience. Thank you so much for sharing that. I know, I said that twice… Oh and thanks for the kind words of praise. I’m a little stunned to be Freshly Pressed! It’s Thanks to Cheri Lucas who spotted the article. 😀


  14. Great post! I dabbled with that stuff when I was a kid, we never had a name for it, just boys being boys. Scampering over rooftops and through the gaps of chain-linc fences, exploreing and otherwise staveing off boredom. Occasionally bumping in to some of the fauna of are little piece of urban jungle, I remember climbing out of a small window in a (we thought ) abandoned building and as I lowered myself with a distinct lack of grace I noticed my friends running off. Turning I found myself face to face with a scruffy looking gent, as I ran he gave chase and to this day I remember his shadow closeing in on mine (the sun was at my back). Fear, they say, give’s men wings but it seems it will furnish a boy with roller skates and a jet-pack.


  15. I’ve always wanted to do something like this. My sister and I have often talked about ruins and old abandoned buildings, and how there’s definitely a fascination with being inside them and seeing furniture or equipment lying around, and imagining that if you stood still, and wound the clock back far enough, people would be walking around, lights would be on, the rooms would be clean, and life would be moving. The stagnation of a place like that is a field-day for the imagination. 🙂 I remember when I played Silent Hill, the original game, and thought the same thing; especially at the school. Not that you have a lot of time to explore when you have demon children attacking your ankles, but still. The ruins of Detroit are something I’d love to see one day myself. I’d talked to a few friends about going to Detroit a while back and they looked at me like I’d lost it, and said ‘What the heck for?’ I said, ‘The ruins!?’ They just kind of rolled their eyes. There was another time when I went to lunch with my Mom, and afterwards we stopped at this huge antique house, converted into an antiques seller. The entire house is filled with items 70 years old or older; every room, hallway, you name it. It was a weird feeling, because as interesting as many of those items were, the rooms and passages were the most interesting. Most of them were no longer identifiable, for what they once were i.e. bedroom, etc. But the bathrooms, also filled with shelves and tables of antiques, still had sink faucets and old tubs, which were also filled with items. Seeing things like that, you can’t help but remember the fact that life existed there once, not just as this antiques dealer. If you haven’t already, look up the Detroit ruins, and find the picture of the interior of a large theater house. You can almost picture the ghostly audience watching a show! Pretty eerie stuff. Somehow, labeling a building or site as ‘condemnded’ makes it even eerier, and more fascinating. 🙂


    1. I think there is a fascination with anything that has been abandoned. Look how popular the American West’s ghost towns are. But there’s something about viewing a building or area that has been deserted seemingly in a hurry. Glasses half-filled with dried out liquid, ashtrays half full, plates with remnants of food, Mary Celeste with a foundation and walls. Great feedback dude, but then, I’ve come to expect nothing less. Cheers mate!!


      1. No worries, you should check out a book called ‘ The world without us’ the author visit’s place’s that have been abandoned or otherwise uninhabited such as chernobyl, the dmz between north and south korea, and Famagusta the cypriot ‘ghost city’ that was evacuated back in the 70’s and then sealed off. keep up the good work.


      2. Hey thanks for the heads up on the book. I’ll definitely be checking it out, it sounds fascinating! Oh and thank you for your kind words of praise/support. Cheers!!


    2. Dude, did I answer you on this comment? I thought I did, but it’s not showing up on my comments section. If I haven’t, let me say that it was a great comment. But then I have come to expect that from you! Cheers mate!


      1. Thanks, Mike! I do see your original comment here, but I honestly wasn’t sure if it was targeted at me. Lol That was cool of you to go out of your way to be sure though. 🙂 Yeah, I would love to see a ghost town out west, that would be incredible. And the underground city in Seattle? I’d never even heard of it before you mentioned it! I love that kind of thing. And you’re definitely right about that feeling of ‘someone’s left in a hurry’. That definitely adds to the intrigue! There was a book I read over a year ago, I’m thinking one of King’s Dark Tower novels, which are excellent by the way, and Roland, the main character, I believe walked into an abandoned house very much like what you described; where the glasses are dried out and everything is left in place or unfinished. Eeerie scene, and again, your mind goes crazy thinking of all things that may have happened to drive the inhabitants away. I have a thing for really old ruins too. 🙂 There’s a Chavin site in South America, pre-Inca, where the temple leads deep underground via an impossibly dark passage. Upon reaching the depths, you’ll discover a massive stone obelisk at the heart, detailing aspects of Chavin culture, which kind of vanished mysteriously. The crazy thing, if I remember right, is that the dark passages and chambers were engraved without the use of torchlight. The people used hallucinogens to see and work in the dark, as the sound of nearby rushing water amplified their senses. Anyway, my point I guess is that the ancients have some very interesting ‘urban sites’ too. But regardless of the era, be they ancient or relatively modern, they’ll always be ridiculously interesting! 🙂


      2. I’ve had a fascination with the Inca’s, Aztec’s, Maya, et al. I have always wanted to visit Mesa Verde again to actually go through them, The Mesa Verde are cliff side dwellings of an Indian tribe that vanished years ago or centuries ago. Yeah old abandoned things also grab my fancy. 🙂


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