The Horrible Truth: An Abandoned America Blog
Posted: 31st October 2014
The funny thing to me about Halloween is that it is a time that, while outwardly about scary things, actually seems to be mostly about comforting us with 'safe' scares that allow us to confront fear but in a way that is sheltered. Much like a roller coaster gives us the sensation of falling to our deaths with the risk of death all but removed, in theory a horror movie or person in a creepy Halloween outfit pose no actual risk. The "haunted house", often an abandoned home with several layers of urban legends attached, gives us an opportunity to look at something terrifying but at the same time to reassure ourselves that it isn't real. Sure, the kid on the bus ride home that everyone knows is a pathological liar says that mutilated bodies were found in the cellar or that the owner was a witch, but nobody with any sense actually takes him seriously. We want to be able to confront our demons, but conquer them by reducing them to entertainment. We turn our fear of death and of being forgotten into ghost stories, our fears about the precarious balancing act our society requires to function and the consequences of our social structure unraveling into zombies. It's conveniently packaged for our consumption, just enough darkness to give us a thrill but not enough to make us hopelessly depressed. In the end, reason prevails. It always does.
Natural disasters and those that are the consequences of man's mistakes, loneliness, senselessness and chaos, poverty, irrelevance, grief, helplessness, failure, incarceration and being at the mercy of others, bigotry, the mob mentality, famine and disease, mass murderers and rapists, abuse of power, environmental devastation, losing loved ones, corruption, unchecked greed: these are the things we all face when we look at the news every day. Our ability to communicate the horrors and injustices in the world has increased exponentially with the advent of the internet, and it's hard not to be overwhelmed by all of them. Even if you focus on one area (say, water pollution), the issues are so global and complex that to make any impact on them seems impossible, particularly when added to the pressures of just trying to survive in a floundering economy. So we sublimate and compartmentalize. We can't turn off terrifying phenomena but we can turn off a movie. The lines blur, we base fiction on truth, and train ourselves to become spectators. Then, when the train derails, rather than rushing to help survivors, maybe we just pull out our phones to capture a video.
Prisons like this were always the most frightening places of all to me. While we see them in movies and television shows all the time, actually being inside one (even without the guards or inmates) is hard to express. Looking out windows to see razor wire spiraling around fences and food apertures on cell doors designed to allow guards to give inmates food without having feces thrown at them - intellectually you know prisons are bad places full of people capable of terrible things, that they are designed to keep these people from escaping or concocting devious plans to hurt others, but seeing the reality of it still is still shocking and disconcerting. What would it be like to sit in this guard station and look out into these cell blocks, filled with hostile inmates, knowing that the second you step out you could be stabbed in the eyes and blinded by one of them? I can't imagine that anyone wants that. You do it because there are bills to pay and you have to. Even though I am inhabiting the space where guards and inmates once were, I can never begin to comprehend their lives. I, too, am a spectator, viewing it all through a lens.
I never wanted it to just be idle entertainment, though. I never wanted you to be able to just look at an image, one of the thousands you'll be bombed with daily, and click your way off to something else without consideration of the actuality of what was presented. It's not about ego or wanting to be a celebrity, it's about the places themselves and the people who were in them, about the vital truths about who we all are that they all hold for us to discover. Sometimes when I post things that people have to squint at a little to see a connection to the theme of abandoned sites, they'll get angry. "What right do you have to post this," they sometimes say. "I expected you to dance for my amusement and just post photographs of abandoned sites without having any thoughts or opinions that might challenge my own!"
This body of work was never meant to be some goofy collection of made up haunted house stories. It's not my attempt to become a rock star (God knows I'm not), to impress you with my exploits or just have you say, "Wow, look at that place, it sure is creepy." In the real world terrible places aren't always dramatic and gothic; sometimes they have drop ceilings and fluorescent lights and look disarmingly ordinary. The key thing is that they represent failure - often massive systemic failures. Why did the factory close and who did it affect? What will happen to the children now that their school has closed? Who were the people kept against their will in this asylum? Did they deserve to be there? How could they have been better helped? Why did the people in this prison commit the crimes that they did? Is there any way to rehabilitate them or to root out the causes of their transgressions? Is this the only way to deal with crime? The questions may seem rhetorical but the outcomes absolutely are not. The huge unanswered questions we all tell ourselves we have the answers to and the immense toll that hubris can take on those around us, that's the horror story.
That's what my website is about, to me at least: staring off unflinchingly into the abyss of the unknown no matter how frightening it may be. I don't have the answers, but I have many questions. I think asking them of each other honestly with a willingness to consider different viewpoints and treat others as equals, and having discussions about them without hostility or defensiveness is the logical first step in understanding and therefore resolution. It still doesn't mean we'll ever figure them out, it just helps when we work together at it.
There's a psychological need for a holiday when we pretend that the scary things around us are manageable and within our control. Maybe it helps us fortify ourselves for when we have to go back to the real world and stand up to the horrible and inexplicable things around us and pretend we're up to the task of confronting them.
Recently closed correctional facility, guard station. Image and text by Matthew Christopher.
If you're interested in more Abandoned America blogs, follow this link. If you enjoy my writing, check out my books: Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream (Amazon / Barnes & Noble) or Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences (Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Signed copies).
By Linda: You caught me! I was doing exactly what you are warning me about in this blog and shame on me. Shame on all of us. The idea of abandonment is frightening and sad. I look forward to adding this amazing book and your beautiful photographs to my Christmas list this year. I promise to give each page the time and attention it deserves.
By David Burnett: Matthew.. stunning work... and your description of the motivations are really perfectly stated. Having spent 40 + years trying to capture the 'living world' of history as a photojournalist... seeing these close to home pictures of those things "missing in action"... are quite astonishing. well done... i hope to see your book soon... cheers David B davidburnett.com
By Karen E. Schultz-Hess: Agreed. I work in them from time to time and the building itself scares me more than the inmates. The sound of it is loud and it echoes right through you. I can only imagine that it is worse in this state. Beautifully written, Matthew.
By Mx Paul G: Well put! I sometimes wonder why I am attracted to photo's like this or why I sometimes take them myself. Such a mix of emotions. At least you're asking the right questions. The photos demand it.
By Jenny Baker-Carr: Wonderful and poignant images and words. Strong enough to make me visit your site. Amazing work.
By JoAnn: Enjoy your work. Thank you.
By Donna Marie: Love your photos and the cause that inspires you.