Decades of horror movies, Gothic novels and campfire stories have turned the phrase ‘abandoned school’ into a byword for creepy. Secluded, magnificent, ramshackle and almost overflowing with hidden memories, they exist in that weird borderland between haunting and juvenile – part Jane Eyre and part Scooby-Doo. But there’s no denying their pull, or the otherworldly quality found in photos of their abandoned dormitories and classrooms. Here we pick nine of the creepiest right on your doorstep:
Lillesden School for Girls (UK)
The archetypal abandoned boarding school, Lillesden School for Girls closed down in 1999 and has become a mecca for explorers, ‘radical’ artists and film crews ever since. Much, much bigger than it appears from the outside, this broken shell resembles at times a Chinese Puzzle Box – thanks in large part to the number of strange surprises stored beyond the various security doors. From the demonic graffiti in the old bathrooms, to the partially-collapsed gym and the occasional – unexpected – appearance of strange sculptures left by local art collectives, this great, shambling ruin contains enough weirdness to fill a particularly gothic carnival. It’s also the site of several cult films and TV shows of the past decade: with both 28 Days Later and Doctor Who filming scenes here.
Holley High School (NY, USA)
Shut down in the 1970’s, Holley High School sits on the edges of a tiny village in New York State gathering dust and graffiti. Although small and a noted asbestos hazard, the main draw of Holley comes from its abandoned auditorium – a multi-tiered ruin looking down on a vandalised stage. Moss grows up the inside of walls while long-abandoned children’s toys make their home amongst the rubble, nestling down between forgotten text books and discarded drug paraphernalia. The township is reportedly looking into ways of renovating or demolishing the building, allegedly due to the danger of collapse, but for now Holley High remains an unnerving tourist destination for a stranger class of tourist.
Bennett College (New York)
A long-standing demolition order on Bennett College (supposed to be carried out in 2012, but still unenforced as of 2013) means the heavily-rotted building may disappear at any time. When this happens, urban exploration will lose one of its finest abandoned buildings. Constructed around a failed hotel-venture in 1907, the school looks like a cross between Hogwarts and a Tim Burton set: turrets, towers and arches support rotted timber classrooms, alongside an explosion of vegetation that has made its home in the upper floors. Wild animals flit in and out with ease and the whole building comes across as a strictly archetypal design for a post-apocalyptic world. Nonetheless it’s a strangely beautiful one, the sort of place where you can spend hours exploring or even longer simply sitting there, reflecting on the decades of memories long since swept away.
L’école de Médecine Vétérinaire (Belgium)
This abandoned school in Brussels may well be the creepiest on our list. Once a city-spanning veterinary school, the main building was abandoned after the faculty relocated: leaving their specimen collection behind to gather dust. The result is a grotesque warehouse where jars of pickled organs skulk beyond the reach of sunlight and shelves overflowing with lungs, hearts and brains seemingly stare back at unsuspecting visitors with something like reproach. Gruesome, unnerving and frankly just a little bit odd, this Flemish monument to death is like stepping into a brutal work by Damien Hirst – only significantly more likely to leave you feeling deeply disturbed.
Detroit Schools (Detroit, USA)
(Images: Detroit Urbex, all rights reserved)
The sudden economic changes of the 1980’s triggered a sort of slow-motion apocalypse across the USA. Buildings fell down, cities emptied out and nature reclaimed the streets. In Detroit alone there are roughly 30 abandoned schools, all marking where a vibrant neighbourhood, close-knit community or upwardly-aspiring suburb once stood. Often closed down with little notice, the overall feeling of these places is one of urgent abandon: it’s not hard to imagine, stood amid a sea of discarded notebooks that the inhabitants were fleeing in the face of some indescribable catastrophe. The reality is less prosaic. Two decades of neglect, deindustrialisation and rising unemployment have hollowed out Detroit, leaving only these empty classrooms as a sad reminder of the boom town once known as ‘the city of champions’. (Above: Paul Robeson Academy, destroyed by fire in 2011. Read more at DetroitUrbex.com.)
Université du Val Benoît (Liege, Belgium)
Situated on the banks of the Meuse, this former university once produced some of the finest mathematicians in Belgium. Empty since 2005, it now serves as a magnet for urban explorers, thanks to its sheer size and air of otherworldly decay. Brutal modernist corridors of reinforced concrete join unexpectedly with pristine classrooms – some perfectly preserved, others a mess of broken tables and discarded needles. Thanks to the angular architecture, the entire interior gives off a vibe entirely hostile to organic matter; like the building was never intended to house life and has stood empty since it was first constructed. Currently, the city of Liege is planning a major redevelopment of the complex for 2015 – putting a strict time limit in place for any planned exploration.
Eastmoor (Adel) Reformatory School (Leeds, UK)
A relatively high security presence makes getting in to the old reformatory school in Leeds something of a challenge, but the photographs suggest it’s worth the effort. A one-time housing place for violent and insane juveniles (one of James Bulger’s killers was allegedly a resident in the 1990s), the outbuildings still contain traces of this past in the form of discarded toys and creepy, childish graffiti. Once a site noted for its atmosphere, Eastmoor has since fallen into such an advanced state of disrepair its main draw now stems from a kind of wonder that anything so badly trashed could still be standing at all. The emptied pool, for example, has become so flooded with toxic gunk you half-expect to encounter a B-movie monster swimming about in there; but the overall ambiance remains a sad one – as if even its death throes, the building still can’t quite shake off its terrifying past.
Chianan Home Economics Vocational High School (Taiwan)
We stumbled across this abandoned Taiwanese school in an online collection and have been unable to dig up any additional information. But the few photographs available show an almost mysterious state of disrepair. While vegetation spreads across the courtyard, strangling old doorways and obliterating windows, the classrooms inside seem almost-untouched – abandoned maybe only yesterday. Textbooks litter the floor, signs dangle from the ceilings and the each photo carries with it an atmosphere of time frozen forever. How long the building has been empty, and how much longer it may stand like this is unknown. But looking at the photos, it’s hard not to suspect the school has always looked this way – a quiet, haunting structure built intentionally to be abandoned.
Pripyat Schools (Ukraine)
Unlike the other buildings on this list, the schools in Pripyat, Ukraine really were abandoned in a hurry – as locals struggled to escape an incoming cloud of radioactive dust. In 1986, Chernobyl nuclear plant went critical, spewing lethal radiation across the European continent. Emergency workers evacuated the nearby towns of residents and the exclusion area remains largely off-limits to this day – at least for any extended length of time. The result is a genuinely apocalyptic landscape, of which the four empty schools in Pripyat and their desolate playgrounds make up a haunting part. While the buildings themselves are now off-limits due to the very-real threat of collapse, simply wandering through their grounds in the bleak Ukrainian winter is enough for most visitors – who often emerge feeling shaken, sick and not a little unnerved. Morbidly fascinating and quietly disturbing, the forgotten schools of Pripyat have an atmosphere unlike any other.