There are places on campus which, after dark, are to be routinely avoided.
I’m sure you’ve heard of them. After all, you’re not a freshman, are you?
The old parking garage. One look should be enough to ward you off. Better to spend the night on the couch in the TA offices — maybe try again in the daylight.
The back alley loading docks. What possesses one to hang out back there defies reasonable comprehension. If you get close enough, you can almost smell the midnight mugging — hot, fetid steam rising from manhole covers, the perpetually wet pathway stretching on into the dark. Occasionally you’ll find the odd postdoc flicking a cigarette over their shoulder, having just come from that way, but that lot seems to share a peculiar immunity to those darker places on campus.
Then there’s the tunnel stretching between McHugh and Wilson Halls.
Not even the postdocs venture into the tunnel after nightfall.
Under siege of pelting rain and heavy curtains of frigid sleet, the seasoned academic takes the long way around, across the lawn and back through the engineering quad, though it adds roughly seven minutes to the journey. Four, if you run.
Everyone knows why.
But no one says.
No one says the chill skittering down their spine could be more than just their imagination. That the inexplicable feeling of being watched is anything more than preservation instincts thrown into overdrive by the dubious blanket of inky black night. That there is something about that tunnel that compels one to suffer the elements rather than seek a few minutes refuge within.
They don’t say.
But they know.
It’s a well-lit space — no dark corners, nowhere to escape the harsh glare of scintillating fluorescent lights. During the day it overflows like the levees, students churning through like the push and pull of a battering ram. Chattering voices swell into building waves, crash with a roar, before ebbing back down into fizzling seafoam in the lull before the next hoard rolls through.
But once dusk falls, so too does the silence. The tunnel empties out and yet still feels strangely occupied; for though the students have vacated, there lies something else within. Something lurks there in the yawning maw of colonial brick.
Something perhaps best left undisturbed.
You’ve been through the tunnel in the daytime, yes? Have you noticed? You will now when you next go through alone. It’s fine in the day, just don’t go at night.
It’s quiet in the tunnel. But it’s not the right kind of quiet, is it? That is to say, if you talk it echoes, you can hear yourself — it’s not anything so obviously spooky as that. But it’s as if the only sound in the tunnel is the sound you bring into it. As if the tunnel itself has no noise.
It sounds strange, I know, for a space to have noise.
But have you ever been in one of those noiseless rooms?
An anechoic chamber.
You don’t realize how much noise there is in an empty room until it’s sucked out.
There’s a spaceless void swallowing up everyday static — the white noise, the soundtrack of your life you don’t even know is playing — and creates the kind of silence that begets madness. A silence so profound the mind — to cope for sake of its own survival — begins to manufacture sounds of its own. The numbing, bandsaw-like buzz of a thousand cockroaches with crackling wings, strong enough to make your molars hum; far-off wailing cries, hauntingly baleful and pregnant with suffering; reedy, whisper-thin voices calling, growing closer, louder, until they needle sharp and clear into your ear, right behind you.
Auditory hallucinations, they call them.
But they never care to explain the source of the silence to begin with.
Years ago it had been a hazing ritual, goading freshmen into the tunnel, a scavenger hunt to retrieve a flier tacked to the notice boards at the far end. They would stow an upperclassman at the end to jump out and grab at the new students, screeches and laughter amplified in the exposed ducting, echoing the sounds of innocuous school pranks.
They did this every year.
They did this until one night, when the air was still and the stars were muted by light pollution, when the rhythmic thrum of cicadas was noticeably absent.
They did this until one night, a girl entered the tunnel and never returned.
It’s easy — all you have to do is go into the tunnel and bring back one of the fliers from the notice board.
She tries not to look too nervous. She’s a freshman in a male-dominated field, and she’s tough.
One of the guys.
She didn’t quite ace the first semester exams — she was too busy schooling the guys at beer pong, exchanging trash talk over cheap beer. If statistics had to slip, well... Besides, if she saw another Gaussian, she was going to fucking harf.
They’re all close, and she’s cool — but they don’t think of her like that.
They still arrive that night tucking someone else under their arm, shielding them from the cool evening breeze.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong.
They tease their girlfriends mercilessly. See? She’s not afraid — she’s cool.
I don’t care, I’m not going into that creepy old tunnel.
They still get smacking kisses pressed to their cheeks.
She doesn’t know how to get them to see her as more than their classmate, more than one of the guys. I can tell you anything, you’re cool.
She doesn’t realize this isn’t the way. No matter how many tunnels she braves, she’ll always be on the outside looking in.
Why don’t you be more like her? She’s cool.
“Easy,” she calls over her shoulder.
Her footfalls are oddly quiet in the tunnel.
An overhead light flickers, and one of the girlfriends squeals.
She turns back to look at them through the mouth of the passage.
They feel it then, all of them.
The blanket of silence rolling over them with a sigh like fog on the moors. Like a body slipping into murky waters. They turn to each other, and they’ll later deny how peculiar it is to actually see hair on someone’s neck stand on end, to watch the first bead of sweat break from beneath their skin. They’ll deny something insidious and otherworldly inhabited that space, caressing each one of them with the bony, pale hand of terror.
Everyone will later deny anyone had pissed themselves from the cold clutch of crippling fear that gripped their young hearts — though this is harder to deny under the hard gaze of a city detective.
It was only a second.
But when they turn back to the tunnel, she’s gone.
She remains missing to this day.
The missing person fliers are old now. There are a few of them still tacked to the breezeway notice boards, fluttering up like fingers as students pass by.
It’s a ubiquitous truth that the tunnel is unsafe at night.
But due to the nature of academia in and of itself there is always, of course, some contention over when ‘at night’ begins.
I know, I know — but it’s never been in the nature of the academic to leave well enough alone.
They find him in the morning collapsed at the edge of the tunnel, having cleared the threshold by inches. He’d been riding a bike, trying to breeze through as the sun sank lower and the first stars twinkled in the deepening indigo sky. People talk, but it’s just a fucking tunnel. The worst thing in the tunnel was Crazy Mike that time, homeless and screaming — he’d scared that underclassman so shitless she didn’t leave her dorm for a week.
He can handle Crazy Mike.
He went through at speed, the sound of clicking pawls ricocheting like strings of firecrackers, hundreds of fliers floating up in his wake, railing against the blu-tack holding them to the bricks.
Suddenly he was running.
Legs pumping, stumbling, desperate to make it out without tripping over his bike shoes. They offered little purchase against the brick, stiff-soled with the slippery metal clip mechanism. Fuck, why did he even wear those stupid shoes?
He pounded at the ground, determined not to look behind him again.
He didn’t want to think about what he saw. Wasn’t sure he could even articulate it. And when he turned his head the barest fraction, tempted to sneak a glance, he found the exit had receded, that he had more tunnel ahead of him than to begin. As if he were slowing down and the tunnel was speeding up.
He was running out of time — he’d been there too long already, and every second he spent in the tunnel was a second he wasn’t free of it.
His lungs burned. His eyes burned more but no fucking way was he losing sight of the end again. Not for a second.
Not even to blink.
The sounds were catching up to him. The skin-crawling sound of thousands of insects skittering around his ankles. The blood-curdling cries of the woman, her desperate fingers peeling at his shirt. The rasping voice sharp in his ear, right over his shoulder.
His eyes stung like sandpaper. He didn’t know if it was because his eyes were drying out or because he could feel the voices closing in, but he was crying, tears streaming as he fought to keep his eyes open. The pain was overwhelming; he couldn’t keep them open any longer. It was like trying to die by holding your breath — it doesn’t work. Eventually, you breathe. Eventually, you—
He was screaming again.
The figure in front of him, the image that would plague his dreams for the rest of his life — if he was lucky enough to live that long — reached out. It too, like the hungry open mouth of the tunnel, beckoned forth like false lights on a shipwrecked coast. He couldn’t stop, he’d built up too much momentum in the minutes — or was it hours — he’d been running. Like a ship, he’d run aground and be dashed, dragged back into the tide like many before him.
“Jesus, take it easy.” The kid that shook his shoulder covers his ears, backing away as the early morning dew coalesces.
Lying on the cobbled pathway, alive and ghost-white, he dry heaves.
The cops arrive.
That’ll happen when a student suffers a psychotic break. When a kid raves about moth-eaten faces and what about all those fucking bugs, man?
Tunnel vision, the detective called it.
Tunnel vision is fucking right.
An illusion, the detective assured.
Then what the fuck happened to my bike?
He looked at the mangled bike, folded in and snapped like kindling, wheels bent as though they’d been chewed by an excavator.
The detective shrugged.
Lock your bike up next time. Shit happens in the city.
It’s easy to think the cops are ignorant, derelict in duty — to blame them for not investigating the bike, or giving up on the missing freshman when they did. But I’ve seen the haunted look on those of their faces who are unlucky enough to be dispatched to the tunnel.
I often wonder if they know more than they let on. If they have their own history of those curious places on campus, tucked away in an unnamed folder in the back of a filing cabinet, full of accounts and evidence that can’t be put into an official report. At least not if they want to keep their jobs.
But the survival instincts of the general academic population seem to have evolved on their own over the generations. The number of people seen entering the tunnel is infinitely less these days, and the unsolved missing persons are down astronomically over the last decade alone.
But they’re never zero.
Lady Trashbird is a chemical engineer by trade, and while she loves spooky things, she's a bit of a chicken. You can often find her watching spooky movies from between her fingers in broad daylight.