I’ve been fascinated by abandoned buildings since I was a child. We used to drive by this very simple one-room building on a weedy corner, its roof caved in, its door missing, its whitewashed walls spotted with graffiti. Every time I saw it, I wondered what it had once been, who used it and for what, how it had come to be in that condition. I was simultaneously frightened and mesmerized by it. That fascination has only increased as I’ve gotten older, perhaps peaking in an adventure that even now I can hardly believe I engaged in – sneaking into an abandoned fun park in my parents’ town, and taking photographs of it to post to an online community for such things.
I was very into the photography aspect of it, for a while. Taking photos gave me something to do with my inexplicable and contradictory feelings about these places, and the online community gave me people to share that with. Sadly, photography is an expensive sort of hobby; even without needing to pay for developing (digital images are more than sufficient), I no longer have access to a camera good enough to justify the time and effort I would spend taking the pictures. Or maybe I’ve just gotten enough older and busier that it’s not a priority. I certainly still enjoy looking at such pictures, and reading the accounts of those who took them, talking about what they saw, how they got in, whatever they know about the history of the place. Ah, the history of the place – that’s always the best part.
I’m not a person who generally enjoys being afraid; I’m easily scared and avoid situations that would bring on that unpleasant spike of emotion. Yet it’s the creepiest of the abandoned places that hold my attention: long-closed mental asylums and hospitals; rotting theme parks wreathed in mist; the home with dishes still on the table, where legend has it a family received news that their son was getting out of prison, and simply dropped everything and vanished. Also of great interest are the places with no explanation at all. I once photographed a storefront in the middle of a college-town downtown area, with thriving businesses on either side of it, that was not only empty but collapsing. The roof had fallen in, and plant life was taking over – trees peeking out the top, flowering vines crawling down the faded sign. Yet the door, through which sunlight and wind passed freely, was still locked, and lacy curtains still adorned the broken windows.
I spend a lot of time driving through rural Alabama, and there are a quite surprising number of abandoned buildings to be seen there. I can only imagine it’s because the land is not in high demand. Throughout my childhood, for instance, I watched a pet grooming business in the middle of absolute nowhere spring up, fade, and quickly die, the building left to rot. At some point the building (before it started falling apart) was for sale, but no one bought it. This could never happen in, say, downtown New York; a new business would likely take the pet groomer’s place within weeks, if not days. Space is in too much demand. But in the rural South, land is passed down through a family, used for farming one generation, then simply for living on the next; the third generation uses the old homestead for family gatherings at best, maybe only for storage, and lets the fields grow over. They might hold onto the land out of sentiment, or use it for hunting and camping; they might finally make up their minds to sell it, only for it to languish for years without a buyer. Who needs to buy a chunk of woods miles and miles from town? What would they use it for? Well, they might build a gas station there – only for the business to fail, and the building be left for me to take photos of, a decade later when the tall price-sign is just a shattered frame and trees have grown up around the gas pumps.
These buildings are ghosts, in a way, the only kind that you can prove exist. As with any ghost, they’re sad and hollow and decaying, and even if they scare you, you may find it’s impossible to look away.