Why I Explore Abandoned Places and Why It’s Insane


By Jonathan H

In a September, 2010 posting on The Psychiatric Times, Dr. Greg Eghigian, a historian of “madness, mental illness, and mental health in the western world,” writes in no uncertain terms about his perplexity at the modern explorer of urban ruins. I respectfully concede to Dr. Eghigian’s higher stature, both academically and institutionally. I’m not here to profess any sort of “urbex” elitism or to propose to offer a rebuttal to his argument. I will, however, help elucidate – simply as a means to better inform him (and any of his colleagues) of the motivations, value, and utility of my interests. Far be it from me to endow my hobby with any sort of higher meaning, but I feel it has it.

Over 100 years ago, before the Great Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed to feed a water-hungry San Francisco, John Muir vociferously likened the place to a cathedral. To Muir, wilderness was his cathedral, his transformative oeuvre. Nature was his religion. Today, an entire national monument is named after him, and environmentalists around the world credit him for saving some of our most treasured national monuments.

Dr. Eghigian, as a well-trained and groomed intellectual, knows about Muir, but I’ll hazard to say he knows little or nothing about Richard Nickel. In fact, ask any American on the street today who Richard Nickel is, and I’m quite sure that you’ll get a blank stare (John Muir is another matter entirely!). Richard Nickel was an obsessive man, an idealist, who knew when to step over legal boundaries to salvage national treasures before their destruction. If Dr. Eghigian has a chance to visit Chicago sometime soon, I highly recommend that he walks inside of the Art Institute. Inside he’ll find the opus of Nickel, the one room that helped vindicate the risks that eventually took his life.

People like Nickel are rare. Urban explorers are rare. Despite the somewhat “cult” status that we’ve acquired over the last decade, there are only 36,791 members on the preeminent forum for Urban Explorers online. This means that there is approximately one of us for every 182,000 people on this planet! We are a minority — Some would even argue, an oppressed minority!

So how are we oppressed? I can count the ways. We face arrest, harassment, lawsuits, loss of job opportunities, loss of reputation, loss of credibility simply for what we love doing. We admit that what we do breaks the law, but to us “law” is a very malleable moral construct. Novelist Tom Robbins makes the outlaw his protagonist.

There were times in this country, of which I’m sure Dr. Eghigian is well aware, in which our own citizens (one of which was a gubernatorial candidate to be exact!) were arrested and jailed for reading the Constitution of the United States in public.

But I digress.

My point here was to explain to Dr. Eghigian what we do, and why we love what we do. I’m endeavoring here to speak for everyone else, but you all know this cannot be true. So I will speak for myself, in the hopes that it represents what others are feeling.

We love what we do because it offers us an alternative to the oppressive, institutionalized, corporatized, hum-drum world that modern society offers us.  This is not simply an American anomaly. Across the world, workers are being marginalized under fluorescent lamps, tipping and tapping away at keyboards to serve the interests of multinatonal corporations headed by multi-billion-dollar CEOs. We DON’T get angry-as-hell. We DON’T get subversive, like those dastardly “wobblies” of yore. We just escape from it, from time to time. It is our only form of dealing with the maddening demands that modern society places on us. If you want an example, ask Kevin Morrissey. Oh, wait, he’s DEAD.

Does that answer your question?

No, we are not voyeurs.
No, we are not vandals.
We’re just people with an innate love of discovery.

Discredit that, and you discredit Magellan, Sauer, Einstein, and Sir Edmund Hillary at the same time. Good luck with that!

To claim that we get “titillated” and “entertained” by this sort of experience demeans our purpose. Are you voyeuristically titillated and entertained while doing your archival research? I sure hope not! (though I admit that I often am)

Last but not least: I do not mean any malice towards you or the vaunted institution of the Pennsylvania State University. The fact is, I’m currently applying for graduate schools. Being an urban explorer, I’ll take any credibility I can get. I do apologize for desecrating the most respected and loved of American values – that of private property – but, then again, I see a Wal-Mart being built 15 miles from me via eminent domain with no protest, and an Indian gaming casino on city-owned property (even though the tribe it serves has never set foot on this territory). Are they not desecrating our current community by increasing crime and drugs? Are a few chuckling kids on a moonlight tour more of a cause-celebre to you than the paving over of our past and the usurpation of our common property for corporate interests? Say it isn’t so, Dr. Eghigian! I know it’s not the realm of psychology, but I have to admit: Wal-Mart and the egregious casino going up near my home (in place of gorgeous abandoned structures) is really unsettling my mind. Do you offer free psychiatric consultations?

8 comments on “Why I Explore Abandoned Places and Why It’s Insane

  1. Nicely said. Love your blog.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks, Colin.

  3. Andy Frazer on said:


    You’re too polite.

    Having never ventured on an urban exploring trip, Eghigian speaks from his ivory tower, “Yanni is quite correct in her analysis: these excursions are really best understood as incursions, serving only to further mystify and marginalize individuals and groups who historically have been seen as alien to accepted society.”

    His comment is presumptive and ill-informed. I don’t know any UrbEx fans who seek to either mystify or marginalize anyone, although it may be true that many UrbEx’ers themselves “have been seen as alien to accepted society”.

    Personally, I’ve enjoyed exploring old buildings for the thrill of the building itself. If anything, I probably relate to the people who used to live the asylums more than I would ever think of mystifying or marginalizing them.

  4. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Andy. I think what he’s done is take the most unpalatable sliver of urban explorers and imbued them as being representative of the entire group. It’s no different than saying that all Muslims are terrorists. I can’t help but feel threatened at such allusions, because it has a bearing on how the public at large views everyone who wields a camera in an abandoned building.

  5. Andy Frazer on said:


    I agree. And the big problem with associating all urban explorers with the most unpalatable sliver, is that the unpalatable sliver are basically arsonists. And then how do you educate the public (which may include law enforcement) that one of the creeds of urban exploration is the total opposite of vandalism?

  6. jtcolfax on said:

    It is ALL getting said, so I am going to fling on a Touchstone. This is about 79 seconds of acting like a Fool in a building on a well known asylum grounds which contains junk from other asylums all over NY state.

    The arguments being made would fall FLAT if there is no acknowledgment that such media is Out there.

    I have visited that building about 4 times and always find it just as I left it. It in itself is not much of an explore, but it is situated in some very peaceful deer filled woods. Like MOST explorers I sit and think in a spot like this, I look, I rummage through drawers. I think I spent about 90 minutes in that building the time I filmed the ridiculous above item. It’s not like I walked around GRUNTING the whole time, nor is the grunting in relation to being on asylum grounds.
    I could have or would have filmed this nonsense in ANY abandoned building of any nature.

    Stay with me here. Do not shriek the OBVIOUS that this sort of media is where Dr. Eghigian gets his cheap notions. My point is that even UGLY “disrespectful” SEEMING notions are done in a FLEETING moment. In many ways I take the tiny amount of time it takes to do these things to actually MOCK much in the urbex world. I don’t like to always see over produced, over thought out,
    cheerleading type media and so I throw in a little action, population, and humor when I can.

    My point is related to Dr. Eghigian’s use of the notion of someone laying in an abandoned casket somewhere. These things happen. And even those who participate in the creation of SUCH media
    might have been lost in a deep world of meaning and thought and learning for hours before and after
    such an image was made. Or maybe they just got drunk and trashed the place. That too is what
    happens when a building is abandoned. Dr. Eghigian has responded to some complaints about this article on uer.ca and he seems to LECTURE on the notion that people have been exploring since the dawn of time, as if people in the Urbex world are not aware of that. He utterly MISSES the notion where he could be VALUABLE with all his credentials as a historian that never ever before in the world until these times has it been possible for people who do SUCH to communicate their findings to
    others all over the world. THAT is what is NEW since the dawn of time. There is value in it, and we KNOW it. Still he belittles us with the NEWS that people have been doing this before us.

    But my main point was not to TROLL that one stupid video but to come to LIFE in this discussion as
    a person who has MANY times probably presented media that could be focused on in the same way Dr. Eghigian focused on his examples. I punch and punch and punch again at the point that: even those who have put out any examples that don’t DRIP with respectful sincerity are not the SUM TOTAL of
    being involved in a moment of levity to Break the dark mood.

  7. Thanks for this post Jonathan. I wonder what this academic thinks about those of us that have to go in these buildings for work?

  8. Crystal on said:

    Though I am too much of a wuss to do it myself, I appreciate the work you do in documenting and capturing the history of these old buildings and other ruins of modern civilization. I like your analogy to John Muir. Well said, Jon.

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