The Pros and Cons of Building Hacking
Exploring uninhabited, “haunted” buildings can lead you to some crazy, inspirational findings, but it can also leave you running for the hills.
By Maria Alvarado, Savannah College of Arts and Design
Urban exploration had a different name not too long ago.
It was called “getting in trouble.” Just by picking up any old comic, young adult fiction book or even watching a kids movie from the ‘90s, it is clear that people have always been interested in exploring abandoned buildings, historic tunnels and creepy factories, in between others. And yet for some time, urban exploration remained in the background as a forgotten to-do-with-friends activity.
When I was a kid, my parents would constantly tell me to keep away from closed-down places. Luckily for them, there weren’t that many in our neighborhood. Still, when I turned twelve and learned how to navigate around the city, I would go out with my cousins and explore uninhabited houses that were old enough to be “mostly haunted by ghosts.” We never did break into restricted areas or condemned buildings, but we did like to mess around and try to climb trees and roofs to see if there was something interesting in the crumbling houses. It was fun for a while, until one of us ended up falling and getting a ghastly scrape or cut.
Though long has passed since the last time I heard someone get excited about exploring urban landscapes, lately I’ve noticed a new growing trend on YouTube. Among the various DIY, make up tutorials and gameplay videos that are uploaded to the platform everyday, many people have started sharing videos of their own expeditions with friends, a camera and a couple flashlights in the dead of the night. YouTube explorers have renamed the activity to “building hacking,” “urban spelunking,” “Ubex,” “UE,” “urban caving,” etc.
In fact, this tendency started not more than two years ago. At first, it was possible to wrongly connect the rising popularity of this activity to the huge wave of found-footage horror movies that have appeared in recent years. The truth is that this pastime simply reemerged from its ashes like many other fashion trends already have.
Moreover, this is the first time that people are able to experience “Ubex” through a video platform like YouTube. Before, people would be lucky to encounter short, low-quality videos of the insides of catacombs or utility tunnels. Thanks to the new technology that’s available today, viewers have the opportunity to be part of their favorite YouTubers’ journeys through their videos.
“Exploring with John,” for example, is the channel of an American urban explorer that teams up with other YouTubers to enter deserted sites of multiple cities in different countries. This channel has grown more popular since the group started recording their expeditions, in which sometimes they find the bizarre and dangerous. Very similarly, the channel “The Proper People” belongs to friends, Bryan and Michael. Recently, the two have won a good number of viewers by posting the videos of their trips to abandoned theme parks, malls, chemical power plants and hospital wings.
It is easy to see the pros of this pastime. People who immerse themselves in urban caving get the chance to travel around, see, and get to know places that most are unaware of. Yet, there are more pros to urban exploration than just exploring antique or historic locations.
There are many things that people leave behind as they abandon residences and establishments. Of course, it is perfectly natural to run across old medical equipment while touring the rooms of an asylum that was last open during the ‘60s. But finding diaries, lost letters, family pictures or even expensive and unique jewelry? I would be lying if I said that the discovery of similar items doesn’t add to the thrill of the adventure.
In addition, some smart experts in urban exploration have found a way to make a profit off their favorite activity. In the video “How This Urban Explorer Gets Into Restricted Areas,” Tim Hwang explains that it’s possible to build a network of people who are willing to facilitate the entry into restricted or private properties that are otherwise impossible to tour. For a price, he says, people who have connections or know how to force their way into off-limits locations will help those who are interested in dropping by for a day to take pictures or simply get a view. Photography also plays a big role in how it is possible to make money from building hacking. Since the access might be prohibited, a picture or two can be worth a lot of money.
In my opinion, one of the biggest pros of YouTube channels dedicated to urban caving is getting to know the places that I definitely have no courage to visit on my own. Let’s be honest, everyone would love to know if that one Victorian house in the neighborhood is actually haunted, if the basement was really used for satanic rituals and if “Redrum” is truly written all over the walls. But gathering the courage to go inside some of the buildings that the owners of these channels have already looked into is not a task that everyone can fulfill.
Which brings me to the cons of building hacking or spelunking.
In many Ubex videos, the crew of explorers struggles to make their way through old structures. A decayed wood floor, broken stairs, deteriorated rafters and the deep darkness of the constructions pose a challenge and, most important, a danger to the lives of the intrepid teams. In some cases, the members are all able to find a way around a huge hole in the ground and continue their journey. In other cases, the viewer is shocked to learn that one or many of the people involved in an expedition ended up getting harmed while walking in the dark hallways of facilities or properties that are falling apart.
What troubles me the most is wondering what people are supposed to do when they severely injure themselves in these places. Even when nowadays almost every corner on planet Earth has phone reception, there are still rural terrains and underground premises where not even the best phone carrier would be able to hold those connection bars.
When thinking about the dangers of urban exploration, it is necessary to ask: Is it illegal? Though there are many places that can be explored without risking getting in trouble with the law, there are also places where entering is actually trespassing or infiltration. Many YouTube explorers do their homework and research the sites they want to visit to make sure that no legal charges can be made against them. However, there are YouTubers who have faced detention or arrest for breaking into restricted or private areas. This is why a small portion of the Ubex videos has titles like “Stopped by police” or “Arrested! Spent the night in jail!”
The biggest con in this short list is also one of my favorite things about watching the adventures of urban explorers. Yes, no one can say for sure that ghosts exist and that they haunt the halls of old abandoned schools. Yet, one of the reasons why YouTube explorers grew so popular are the videos where they stumble upon the stuff nightmares are made of. Blood on the floor, weird drawings of demon-like figures, scary messages written on the walls, animal parts, human bones and even what seems to be a door that opens on its own. Again, urban exploration is not for the faint-hearted. Needless to say, encounters of this kind can make anyone turn around and run for the exit. The true danger, however, lies in the fact that people get so scared after seeing this stuff that they might hurt themselves while trying to escape the premises.
After experiencing urban exploration through the videos of bold YouTube explorers, I can have nothing but respect for their dedication and ability to overcome the different difficulties that are tied to the activity. They really deserve the views, thumbs up and subscriptions for their bravery.