As a kid you would have found him peering out of the backseat window while his parents were driving–trying to catch a glimpse of an abandoned dance club called Pulsations in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. According to folklore, the building was constructed on sacred Indian burial grounds. He recalls being captivated by this place each time his family went to visit grandma. The tall weeds and overgrown grass surrounding the dilapidated building sparked his curiosity in the unknown and stirred his imagination.
His childhood was also spent watching movies about haunted houses, such as a 1966 film called The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. In the film, Don Knotts plays a newspaper stamper who spends a night in a creepy house for a story. “From the moment I saw that old house, the spider webs and the old photos I was absolutely hooked,” he says. “I was also really into this painting my grandmother had drawn by Andrew Wyeth called Christina’s World. It featured a woman lying in the grass staring at this old farmhouse and barn. I was only eight-years-old, but I was in love with this photo. Today, it is hanging in my house.”
These were the moments that started it all.
Determined to remain anonymous, he calls himself Abandoned Steve. Generally, he is keen on discovering and photographing the remnants of local warehouses, hospitals, and schools, though he prefers to explore old houses–about 75 percent of his work is abandoned homes.
I love to find places that no one else has been to, places that hold a personal history. While those other areas are really cool to see, so many other people have already been there. Where I live, there are tons of very old houses from 1700 to 1800 just sitting there decaying. Each one of them holds a unique story. It’s like travelling back in time.
It’s the history behind each place that inspires him to pursue the hobby of urban exploration. Since they are being torn down every minute, his ultimate goal is to film and photograph what he sees as a way to digitally preserve them before they are lost forever.
Back in 2006, he decided to sneak onto the grounds of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital. It was the first time he ever explored an abandoned location, and he did it all alone. The property closed its doors in 1987 after being rocked by years of negative publicity for allegations of neglect, abuse and overcrowding. During his visit, he was more interested in investigating with his eyes and taking mental photographs, rather then capturing images with a camera. Knowing the history of this site before entering, Steve used his imagination to try and relive exactly what went on when it was still in operation.
“Pennhurst used to be a lot more overgrown and accessible than it currently is today. I remember walking onto the property being adventurous but at the same time cautious of my surroundings. I was in complete awe of the beautiful brick buildings that Mother Nature had taken back. As I walked around, all I could hear was complete eerie silence,” he explains. “Any sound of birds or a twig that snapped beneath my feet made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The entire time I was there I felt like I was being watched.”
In order to track down these deserted properties, he relies on his daily driving. There was actually a time when abandoned structures were invisible to him because they weren’t on his radar. Now, he spots them constantly.
“You’d be surprised how many you’d find when you are thinking about it,” Steve discloses, as he reflects on why he’s so intrigued with these forgotten structures.
During his adventures, he usually keeps his eye out for objects that are out of the ordinary, such as special door hinges and handles, antique furniture, calendars that show the last year someone lived in the house, old photographs, or anything else that would help him understand the history of the location.
“Unfortunately, many places I have been to have been vandalized. These punk kids like to enter the buildings and smash every window, door and wall. They’re the ones ruining it for those of us trying to document history. I’m viewed the same way as those kids busting everything up, as well as the copper thieves trying to turn a profit. So, in other words, I am always taking risks,” he adds.
Much of the time, Steve gets permission to access the grounds, however, even when he gets no response, he grabs his camera and hits the road. He often travels alone, as to avoid worrying about anybody in his shots, though when visiting extreme locations he’ll never go solo.
Speaking of such locations, there was this one time he visited what he calls “The Abandoned Livingston Creepy House.” It is located off a road that is no longer accessible and closed off to public traffic. When he walked into the 5,000 square foot home and gave himself a tour, he experienced some of the scariest moments of his life, and ended up chickening out before he could get the shots he wanted. The rancid smell of mold forced him to wear a respirator to avoid getting sick, but that’s not even the chilling part.
“As I walked the first floor capturing photos and video, I kept hearing these strange noises, like doors opening and closing. You can hear in my videos that I would pause and stop breathing so I could listen to what was going on around me. I was seriously freaked out!,” he confesses. “When I went into the room the sounds were coming from, there was nobody there. But as soon as I left that room, the same creepy thuds happened again. I couldn’t even make it down into the basement. I feel like I escaped death that day.”
The art of urban exploration, of exploring the forgotten and mysterious does not make him rich, it’s just a hobby. If he had all the money in the world, he’d choose to travel to distant corners, especially to Europe. Not only that, but he would also be living in one of these abandoned houses he loves documenting.
“Fixed up, of course!”