For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.
Other people ruin everything.
Some things are not improved by technology. For example, while websites have grown ever-more sophisticated, this sophistication has largely served to corral people into a small range of platforms in the hope that they will bully each other to death in a manner pleasing to sponsors. Another arena of human self-expression that has manifestly not been improved by the march of technology is Urban Exploration.
Urban Exploration (or Urbex) is a sub-culture devoted to gaining access to and exploring abandoned buildings. Setting aside how cool and exciting this sounds, Urban Exploration has suffered enormously from the democratisation of Audio-visual recording equipment. Twenty years or so, Urban Exploration was a gold mine of weirdly evocative photographs in which unfamiliar spaces sat on websites besides familiar spaces rendered strange by decay and neglect.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the fact that everyone has a video camera on their phone means that Urban Exploration is less a place where you find beautiful photographs of abandoned places and more a place where you find unedited footage of a bunch of lads in hoodies wandering damp office buildings rifling through old paperwork and squinting at weather-soiled carpets. YouTube is full of Urban Exploration videos, they all look the same, and most of them suck.
Uncharted Travel is very much a repository of videos in which dudes in hoodies wander around damp buildings. The channel’s most popular video to date is a paragon of the form. I watched the video one day whilst working out and vowed never to watch another but then the algorithm did its magic and suggested I watch another video from the same channel. Normally I would not have bothered but this one seemed different: Camping? Alone? Coyotes? Now that I will watch.
Alone is a strand of Urban Exploration videos on Uncharted Travel and the videos are simply superb. The basic pitch is that a skinny Canadian dude drives a long way and then hikes even further in order to get to some abandoned place in the middle of nowhere. Equipped with a tent, some extra socks, and a can of bear mace, he then proceeds to gain access to an abandoned building, explore said building and spend the night there. Alone.
Part of what makes this series so cool is the fact that the person doing the videos is literally all alone. The fact that he’s alone not only makes him more scared, it also makes him less likely to front or to turn to his friends for help.
Watch enough Urban Exploration or Ghost Hunting Videos and you start to notice that blokes tend to express fear in quite a narrow range of ways when they are in a group. What usually happens is that you see someone start to get worked up to the point they freak out at which point they will turn to their friends who will generally calm them down. With nobody to whom he can turn, the person in the Alone videos is free to get more and more worked up and the displays of fear are fascinating in their own right. In one video, he breaks into a large abandoned mansion and decides to stay the night on the top floor. Convinced that there are people with him in the house, he doesn’t leave or try to confront them. He starts setting weird traps in the hope that they’ll make enough noise to frighten people off. Of course, our dude is making these traps at three in the morning and it’s pretty clear that they won’t frighten anyone but building a trap is within his power and doing something — regardless of how silly or pointless it may be – serves to calm him down.
While the solo camping angle does account for a lot of the series’ charm, one should not overlook the fact that the guy doing the series knows how to edit and how to tell a story (something that is also true of the goblin-hunting documentary series Hellier). Indeed, look at the video of the guys wandering around the abandoned paediatric psychiatric facility and there’s no pace, no tension, and no structure to anything. They just amble about and occasionally get a bit twitchy. Conversely, Alone often opens with a foreshadowing glimpse of its scariest moment and so all of the calm exploration of old boiler rooms is given an edge of expectation. Things build and fester.
Though I don’t think any of the videos are outright faked, I do suspect that some of the field recording is mixed in a way to make the weird noises seem a lot louder and closer than they actually are. This being said, I think the camper is being genuine when he says that he thinks there are things just outside his tent and so the remixed audio is probably an accurate representation of how it felt, even if the reality may have been a touch less dramatic.
While some of the episodes are more eventful than others, my favourite episode is the one in which he spends the night in an abandoned farm. This episode is the primary reason why I decided to write about Alone for this blog as I think it’s an absolute masterclass in the use of set dressing.
One of my favourite things about the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series is the way that developers will populate their dungeons with these weird little tableaux built out of objects. Sometimes it’s a pile of skulls in the corner of a room. Other times it’s a load of weird corpses arranged in a sculpture. I really enjoy these tableaux as they make me wonder about the set of circumstances that lead to those things finding their way to that particular spot. What kind of madman would collect a load of human spines and put them in a room? Who filled this room full of cheese? All the developers needed to do was dump a load of objects in a room and already I’m telling stories in my head.
The Alone video filmed on the farm uses a similar technique when the camper starts playing old tapes and reading old letters written by the last owners. There’s nothing inherently sinister about writing letters to celebrities or using a tape recorder to keep notes but the camper takes those details from a person’s life, strips out the context, and presents them to us in all of their glory. Play a little sinister music over the top and you have a recipe for creepiness.
One thing I have learned in life is that other people’s relationships inevitably sound wildly toxic and dysfunctional. Partly this is a product of the fact that you often only learn the private details of other people’s relationship when one of the couple is venting, but it’s also a function of the fact that everyone has their eccentricities and what’s normal for you or I will seem absolutely deranged to anyone else. This Alone video leans into this phenomenon by presenting us with the odd eccentricities of a dead person; the world they inhabited has long ceased to be and the person who did those things is dead too. The world in which it made perfect sense to record details of the weather forecast no longer exists and without a world to provide context even the blandest eccentricities can seem sinister and deranged.
This is a powerful reminder of the fact that you don’t need creepy subject matter to make an abandoned house seem creepy. Next time you run a game of Call of Cthulhu, consider filling your haunted houses with evocative but mundane items and see the stories that the group will come up with all for themselves.
‘What kind of mad man would have hundreds of pictures of ducks?’
‘Why would you order that much soap?’
‘Writing letters to the weather lady on TV, isn’t that a bit weird?’
Even if your group doesn’t play investigation-based horror games like Call of Cthulhu, the Alone series is a great example of how fucking scary it must be to spend the night in a dungeon.
One of my favourite books from the D20 era was a weird little setting book that re-invented dungeon crawling as an extreme sport and adventurers as WWE-style ‘sports entertainment’ athletes who would put themselves through these terrifying ordeals in an effort to make money, build an audience, and maybe become successful. While the RPG Earthdawn can be seen as an attempt to rationalise D&D by coming up with a series of in-world justifications for D&D tropes, I think it might be interesting to use Urban Exploration as a basis for a modern dungeon crawling game.
The group breaks into an old house in the hope of striking it rich by pulling out the copper wiring and along the way they have to sneak past security guards, disarm silent alarms, and deal with an unexpected coyote attack. I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty fun to me.