Never let you down: The Elevator Game

Do you like being trapped in a small space? How about in a small space in an unfriendly dimension? If so, this month’s post is for you! 

I’ve decided to try something experimental to teach you about the wonders of the Elevator Game–a try-at-your-own-risk, internet “ritual” that was born cerca 2008 and has seen an uptick in the past couple of years. 

The goal of the game is to get to another dimension, and then (of course) to get home. All you need to play is:

  1. Yourself (you must play alone),
  2. A 10+ story building with an elevator that services at least 10 floors, and
  3. To follow the “rules” of the game. These include pressing the floor numbers in a specific sequence, among other things.

Let’s play here live. Instead of reading this post in order, press the button at the end of each section to travel to the next floor in the sequence. 

As we go, we’ll discuss what you can expect to happen, and outline any of those other pesky “rules” that might be helpful for staying alive.

Sound good? Scroll down to start on the first floor.

Floor 1

Here we are! You can start the Elevator Game at any time of the day, but you must start the game on the first floor. You must only call the elevator using the “up” button. And, to reiterate, you must be alone. 

Before you step in, take a long moment to familiarize yourself with the lobby around you. How many lights does it have? What is the exact pattern along its walls? What does it smell like? How do shoes sound scuffed against its floors? It will be important that you remember every detail later. Maybe life-or-death important. 

Now, let’s step inside. Once you’re in, do not get off the elevator at any point until we reach our destination or until you return safely to this lobby. Got it?

Going up!

Floor 1

Back at the lobby at last! Thank god. Only…are you sure it’s your lobby? Take a look around. Take a listen around. A smell around. Is anything…off? No? Are you sure? 

Remember how I told you to pay attention when you got on? Just because you’ve exited the ritual doesn’t mean that you’re back where you belong. So…are you sure? Because once you step off the elevator, that’s it. 

If you’re not sure, you’re going to need to start the ritual all over again, completing the sequence again and again until you are.

Also–you’re still remembering not to acknowledge the woman, right? Even though she’s getting a little closer?

Floor 2

A few fun elevator music facts:

  • “Muzak” is an official brand name, not unlike Kleenex or Chapstick
  • 7-Eleven weaponized it in the early 90’s to deter teenagers from loitering around their stores
  • The tunes are deliberately calibrated to hack into your brain and manipulate your emotions. Its inventors found it especially helpful, for example, to lull people into a sense of docility as they hurtle hundreds of feet through the air in a small metal box. 

Going up!

Floor 2

At this point, you may hear someone scream your name. Not to worry. It’s time to go to floor 10, our ultimate destination, for the first time. We’re not in the other world quite yet, but I assure you: we’re close.

Floor 3

Good choice. Though that woman’s laughter is going to stick with you for a long time, isn’t it? 

Hit 1 to go to the first floor and get the sweet hell out of here. What’s that? It’s not working? Hit it again. Again!!

Floor 4

Enjoy the elevator ride and this little box you’re trapped in. Claustrophobia impacts about 12.5% of adults at some point; fortunately, it doesn’t impact you. You don’t mind that you can’t stretch your arms out without hitting either wall. Nor that if this box was airtight, you’d run out of oxygen in less than 2 days

Also: You’re still alone, right? You have to be alone this entire time, until the moment when you’re not.

Going down!

Floor 5

When the doors open on 5, a woman might get on. 

If she does, do not look at, speak to, or acknowledge her in any way. Even if she looks like someone you know. Especially if she looks like someone you know.

She may try to get you to break the rules. She’ll say that there’s been an accident and ask for your help. Or she might scream obscenities into your ear. Or she might simply stand in silence, staring until the urge to look at her becomes almost unbearable. 

Don’t do it. Do not so much as glance at her feet

Now is the moment of truth. You’re going to press floor 1. Only, if the ritual has worked, the elevator isn’t going to go to floor 1. It’s going to floor 10. 

She’s watching you. Press the button.

Floor 6

Did you know that incidents involving elevators and escalators kill about 30 and seriously injure about 17,000 people in the U.S. each year? Elevators specifically cause almost 90% of the deaths and 60% of the injuries. 

Passenger elevator deaths were categorized as follows:

  • Falls (60%)
  • Caught in/between (21%)
  • Other (19%)

“Other,” you say? “Other” meaning what?

Going down!

Going up…

Can you feel your stomach jump? It’s working! Are you really sure you want to do this, though? I haven’t mentioned yet what’s on floor 10. 

If you hit any button other than 1 or 10 before you reach the 9th floor, you can still back out. In fact, I will go so far as to recommend that you back out, since the other thing I haven’t mentioned is that it’s a little unclear if you can ever really come back after visiting floor 10. 

We’re passing 8 now…what’s it going to be?

Floor 10

You will see floor 10 now as it is in our world: ordinary enough. Maybe a little quieter than you would like it. And your blood might be pumping a little faster now, because we’re about to get to the part of the game that people really, really don’t like.


(Floor 10)

The elevator doors slide open into darkness. The 10th floor is completely deserted. Other than that and the fact that all the lights are off, it looks almost normal. 

Well, you’ve gotten this far, haven’t you? Why don’t you get off?

“Where are you going?” asks the woman. Or maybe she shrieks as your feet cross the threshold. She’s prone to do either–she’s wily that way. You’ve remembered not to jump and look at her right? Even though it’s just you and her here, alone in the dark?

That loneliness is a sign that you’ve made it. This other world is many things, but it’s not populated. As you move down the hall past tightly shut doors, you realize that your cell phone and watch are no longer working. That’s too bad, because at this point, you are really craving some light. 

Hold on–there’s light there, coming through the window. It’s red–a searing red, but not a red that’s warm. It’s–well, it’s coming from a cross. A blazing red cross, glowing way off in the distance.

Except wait: There’s a red cross down the hall now, too, bright in the black. Or was that where you saw it originally? Has it been there all along? It’s closer than the other one. A lot closer.

What’s that? You want to go home? Well, better get back to the elevator, then. Only…which elevator was it? It’s important that you take the same one. Do you remember the one that you took? I can see you’re a little dizzy. Maybe a lot dizzy. Well, hurry back. You’re going to have to execute the ritual in reverse, if you ever want to get home. The hall is tilting merrily, but I’m sure you’ll find the elevator before you pass out. 

(Don’t pass out, by the way. If you do, you’ll never get home.) 

See you’re back in the elevator now! Well, an elevator. The woman is there waiting for you, but I get the feeling that she might be waiting in every elevator, don’t you? I think she might be smiling. But don’t look! Execute the ritual in reverse now, go on. 

What’s that? You don’t remember the numbers? I didn’t tell you to write them down? Oh. Sorry about that. I know the room is spinning and all, and there’s a pretty heavy ringing in your ears, but I’m sure you can figure it out. Go on. Press the right button, just as soon as it holds still. 

Home at last!

Only–are you? You were supposed to move laterally, not upward, right? Oh, well. I’m sure it’s no big deal. When you go to sleep tonight, I’m sure you’ll wake up in your own bed, and not in the hallway on the 10th floor. 

Maybe I should have given you more detailed instructions for this game right from the top. Or been a little more clear that people who have played this game often don’t end up in the greatest of places, even if they seem to have made it out. 

You see, even if you think you’ve played the game right, if you break a single rule, you’ll end up in a world that seems like yours, but is not. A world that will turn on you by degrees. Many report a feeling of being followed, of seeing and hearing strange sounds, of developing a slow, uncontrollable shake. And if they’ve gone and looked at the lady from 5–whew. God help them. They’ll continue to look at her for the rest of whatever remains of their lives. They’ll spot her in a busy crowd. On their street. Outside their window. 

But that’s not you. You followed all the instructions to a T; you never looked at or acknowledged that woman with the brown hair and polka dot dress and blue eyes that struck you right in your guts, and, if you visited the 10th floor, you flawlessly executed the trip in reverse (1-6-5-10-2-4-1. Or was it 1-4-2-5-10-6-1? 1-5-10-4-6-2-1?). Right? 


What do you think–was it worth it? Or next time, are you taking the stairs? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Derrick Treadwell of Unsplash. Thank you very much!

17 stories below: Myths of the Moscow Metro

In the very first post on this blog, now 6 (!) years ago, I mentioned my strange encounter with a security guard deep in the Portland subway system. It was that encounter that helped to encourage me to write this blog in the first place. 

Subways have always been a fascination of mine. Living abroad as a kid, I have memories of pressing my face against the windows of the London and Tokyo metro systems and imagining all kinds of things lurking in the darkness beyond. When I moved to New York City, one of the first things I did was to look into legends of the “mole people” living in hidden cities in abandoned parts of the MTA (it turns out there are some, but often they are just people that needed help). 

So really, it was only a matter of time before I got to a post like this. I’ve never been to Moscow, but have heard about the beauty of its metro system, as well as about the host of urban legends connected to it. I’ve also had a great time watching my husband play Metro Exodus while attempting to learn to crochet (really, the humanimals are a lesser horror), so it felt like this full moon was a perfect time to take a look. 

What lies beneath

Moscow metro gilded ceiling
Exhibit A.

The Moscow Metro system (or Metropolitén) opened in 1935, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful underground systems in the world. Many stations practically double as underground art museums. The whole thing was built during the Stalinist era, with an eye toward showing off Soviet power. All of the metro’s gilded sculptures and murals are impressive enough. But dig into legends, and you’ll discover that these stations deep beneath the surface might be only just the surface. 

“Metro-2” is a second, hidden train system said to be buried below the one that the people of Moscow use every day. Also constructed by Stalin in the 1930’s, it was built to accommodate Soviet citizens in case of war, offering protection 45 stories below Moscow’s streets. Legends about what this “metro system” is vary. It could be a handful of tube lines connecting different cities, a secret passageway for officials, or even an entire hidden city complete with food and swimming pools.

Underground switch
A supposed Metro-2 entrance.

While Metro-2 is shrouded in secrecy, some officials haven’t denied its existence. In 1991, the US Department of Defense wrote a report about an extensive underground installation network linked by subterranean transit under Moscow and its suburbs, which sounds an awful lot like Metro-2. 

There are many tales of enthusiasts disappearing when they’ve gone looking for it.  The “diggers” that have come back report hearing the sounds of KGB boots around alleged Metro-2 entrances. One even said that her friend was shot when they got too close. 

So it is very possible that there really is a Metro-2. As Atlas Obscura points out, Russian leaders have a history of impressive subterranean projects. The Metropolitén is one itself, but Metro-2 might be something more. 

Welcome to the underworld 

You know how you probably shouldn’t build a house above a burial ground? Well, you might not want to build a subway station (or multiple subway stations) below one, either. But that’s what the Metropolitén constructors did

Ghost stories abound. There have been encounters with people from out of time–Muscovites, Civil War soldiers, people on horseback. Staff have reported bloodied WWII soldiers wandering around Sokol station in the wee hours of the morning. A girl in a bright dress who ran into the tunnels to escape a group of drunkards still peers out of the dark. A conductor who was burned into a charred husk wanders the tracks in a rage, seeking revenge on his supervisors that blamed him for the accident. 

On September 9, 1999, just after midnight, five women riding in a car on the orange line suddenly lost consciousness. A male passenger filmed the face of a young woman peering at them from outside the train. One year earlier to the day, a young woman had lost consciousness at a station along that line, and fell under an approaching train. 

Aviamotornaya escalator
Going down…

The most haunting (😏) story involves your worst fear re: escalators. In 1982, a loosened chain on one in the Aviamotornaya station resulted in the stairs suddenly pulling apart. Some people plummeted into the 150-foot shaft beneath them; others were ground into the machinery. Still more were killed as the commuters stampeded over each other in an effort to escape. Meanwhile, the escalator kept running. The workers responsible for keeping an eye on it were absent. 

All in all, there were about 30 dead. So now, naturally, gore-covered ghosts wander the station, terrified and missing their hands.

A dark zoo

Moscow Metro Tunnel
A biological cornucopia!

Ghosts aren’t the only thing wandering around the Metropolitén. Much like there are supposedly alligators in the New York subway system, Moscow’s boasts massive, radioactive rats. These glow in the dark, and will maul railway workers that get separated from their group. 

Tourist sites report that the Metropolitén “is also rumored to be filled with extraordinary flora and fauna,” to the point that university groups will travel down into it to get interesting things to study. 

In a less uncanny twist, there are (and this is 100% real, yo) dozens of stray dogs that will ride the subway with you. These cuties (and fatties, if this video is to be believed) have mastered the complex system as well as any commuter, and will go back and forth from the suburbs into the city center in search of food and friendly pets. No word on how they fare against radioactive rats.

Train to nowhere

The Metropolitén looks something like a spiderweb, with strands criss-crossing and radiating out of a circle that holds it all together. It is on that circle that, in the wee hours of the morning, a silent ghost train runs. Its cars are styled like the ones from the 1940’s. Depending on the night, they are either full of grim, grey-suited passengers, or are glaringly empty. The train stops at every station, but only rarely do its doors open to let the living aboard. 

Inside of train car
Better nab a seat. It’s going to be a long ride.

Much has been made of this train. Some say that it ferries the souls of people who died building the metro under Stalin. Others say that the train’s purpose is not to transport old souls, but to collect new ones. 

There is a Youtube video claiming to show the train at the Polezhaevskaya metro station.* In the video, a semi-transparent train drifts into the station, lights glowing in the dim. A “mysterious” (and very difficult to see, IMHO) man gets off, while living passengers continue about their business unawares. Then the train pulls away, disappearing as if it was never there.

One thing is certain: if you’re on the platform late at night, and an old, ghostly train does pulls up, and its doors do open, it would be best to stand away from the platform edge. Even if you’re not stupid enough to straight-up walk in, if you stand too close, its passengers might make your choice for you. 

So what do you think? Would you descend into the world of the Metropolitén? Or would you prefer to take the bus? Let me know in the comments below. 

*The video was later used to try to prove the existence of a Chinese ghost train, but it seems like it was originally used for the Russian one. It’s fun to pretend that it’s totally not using the classic double-exposure trick that’s the oldest in the book.

IMAGE CRED: Abderrahman Ait Ali for the fancy ceiling; Anakin (not the pod-racer) for all the underground; Sansculotte for the real (I think) Aviamotornaya escalator; and Kucharek for the ambient inside of a car

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody–

Sleepovers! Those are a thing that used to happen, back in the days before COVID-19. The ones I experienced growing up were pretty stereotypical. There was ice cream, sleeping bags, attempts to reproduce music videos, and, of course, dares. More often than not, these dares included one many American girls might be familiar with: the dare to lock yourself in the crapper and invite a ghost to kill you. 

I had always assumed that the Bloody Mary “game” was just shallow fun, with no real meat behind it in terms of meaning or actual sightings. Hot damn, was I wrong.  

Bathroom roulette

Let’s start out with an introduction. The Bloody Mary legend is young-ish, with first written mentions dating back to the 1970’s. It’s unclear where exactly it came from, but it does seem to have some ancestry in older British traditions of catoptromancy (such as one where a girl would walk up a flight of stairs backward in a darkened house, holding a candle and a hand mirror that would show either the face of her future husband [score!] or her own skull [eat more healthily and avoid cigarettes and fast-moving buses!]). 

Behold this place of horror!

For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:

  1. Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn the lights off. 
  2. Look at whatever you can see of yourself in the darkness in the mirror.
  3. Repeat “Bloody Mary” aloud three times, keeping your eyes on your reflection.
  4. Bolt before Bloody Mary coalesces in the glass.

The details of the rules vary. Some say you’re supposed to spin while you say her name, others that you need to have the water on or have a single lit candle below the mirror. You can say “Bloody Mary” a bunch of times (way more than three), or for good measure add “I killed your baby!” You can do it by yourself or in a group. Sometimes, you have to flush the toilet before you leave.

Even if you escape that vision in the mirror, you might experience “signs” of Bloody Mary for the rest of the day–a bloodied knee on the playground. Splattered ketchup across your shirt. A dead bird on the way home from school. 

And if you don’t escape her? If a woman drenched in blood, or headless, or simply very dead does coalesce before you, either over your shoulder or in place of your own reflection? Bloody Mary can scratch you, show you a sign of your own impending death, or reach out of the mirror, grasp your shirt, and drag you through. 

Gory histories

So this is all good and well. But as a kid I never stopped to ask: who is this Bloody Mary ghost supposed to be? It turns out that there are three generally-cited possibilities.

Erzsébet Báthory

Elizabeth Bathory
“I’m so bored while not murdering” Bathory

The first and least likely (IMHO) is Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered a metric butt-ton of women in the late 1500s (possibly as much as 650, though it’s possible that Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy to steal her property and tortured/murdered much fewer). Legend has it that she bathed in her victim’s blood to preserve her youth. 

It’s all very grisly and memorable. But Erzsébet (or, anglicized, Elizabeth) is “Erzsébet,” not “Mary.” What’s more, her life doesn’t resonate with the Bloody Mary game in a way that the other candidates do, as we shall see.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots
Bearing it all pleasantly.

The second candidate is Mary Queen of Scots, who was an unlucky contender for the throne against Queen Elizabeth I. After a life spent mostly imprisoned and struggling for power, Mary was beheaded in 1586. She went to her death bravely, even making jokes, but the executioner botched the job horrifically

The first swing buried the axe into the back of Mary’s skull. The second went into her neck, but didn’t sever it. Finally, the P.O.S. executioner just sawed away at the sinew attaching Mary’s head to her body, blood sluicing everywhere, Mary’s faithful dog still clinging to her skirts, trembling. Job finally finished, the executioner held her severed head aloft, crying “God Save the Queen!” But he’d only grabbed Mary’s wig, and her head fell out and smacked to the floor. 

In short, there is plenty about the scene that makes it easy to believe that Mary might come back as a vengeful ghost. But for me, she’s not as strong of a contender as Elizabeth I’s half-sister, Queen Mary I. 

Queen Mary I, “Bloody” Mary

Queen Mary I actually was nicknamed Bloody Mary, thanks to her burning some 300 Protestants at the stake. Those killed included many vulnerable poor and disabled people. One victim was even pregnant–the trauma of the burning made her give birth, but her newborn was simply tossed back in the fire with her. 

Queen Mary I, Bloody Mary
Those arms are definitely long enough to reach out and pull you over the sink.

Hard as it is to empathize with someone who could order that, Mary I wasn’t the only monarch to do so, and much of the vitriol against her seems to stem from misogyny and cruelty against her frumpiness. She was a miserable woman. Her father was King Henry VIII, who famously annulled his marriage to her mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to the much prettier and more charming Elizabeth I, who Mary would forever be compared unfavorably to. She was plagued throughout her life by terrible menstrual pains and irregular periods. She married someone ten years her junior whom she was madly in love with, but who was indifferent to her. 

Desperate for affection and political security, Mary hoped, at least, for a child. But when she finally got pregnant–the happiest point of her life–people whispered that it was all a fake, that her growing stomach contained nothing but a tumor. That was cruel enough, but then, when Mary went to give birth, nothing happened. Her stomach deflated, and no baby came out. The vicious rumors were right, but not through any fault of her own. She’d wanted to be pregnant so badly that she’d tricked her body into believing that it was, leaving her with nothing but very public humiliation and hate. 

A common plight

Why do I think that Queen Mary I is mostly likely the Bloody Mary? Because in addition to actually being nicknamed that and killing a bunch of people, Queen Mary I’s problems with fertility and periods dovetail perfectly with the game of Bloody Mary itself. 

Think about it: the game is played mostly by girls. In a bathroom. Looking at your own reflection, you’re summoning another woman that’s covered in blood. It’s frightening, sometimes painful. And in some cases, you take pains to flush the toilet before you leave. 

As scholar Alan Dundes points out, when you look at what goes into the game, it’s hard not to see Bloody Mary as a handy way for pre-pubescent girls to process the oh-so-taboo prospect of getting your first period, and all of the horror that entails. Enter Mary I, Queen of frustration, pain, and blood. Who better to teach you about the importance and terror of periods than the woman whose problems with them made her life a living hell?

The monster in the mirror

So there is all of that. Bloody Mary is a surprisingly nuanced allegory for something almost all girls have to contend with. But clever though that allegory might be, here’s something even more fun: sometimes, Mary isn’t an allegory at all. Given the right conditions, shrieking slumber party participants will actually see another face in the mirror. 

A 2009 study of 50 test-naive individuals revealed that after less than a minute of gazing into their reflections in dim light, so-called “strange-face illusions” began–for every single participant. From Giovanni Caputo, the author of the study:

“The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).”

Obviously in the context of Bloody Mary, we are interested chiefly in this last one. Caputo himself seems puzzled by it, especially as he tries to put together what exactly is happening with these illusions. As he puts it:

“The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear (Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new traits.”

Maybe, he postulates, this “strange-face” illusion thing is just a misfiring of the brain’s face-processing mechanism–with the dim light and the fixed attention, it’s freaking out and scrambling and deforming your own face. Seems simple enough. And yet…

“Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top down accounts seem to provide adequate explanations.” 

God, I love me some weird stuff that science can’t explain. And I love me some weird modern rituals that get at the ID of our brain, and some dramatic and twisted histories. Who would have known that plain old Bloody Mary would have all three?

Had any fun times gazing into a dark mirror? Maybe you haven’t looked close enough. Give it a try and share your hallucinations (…?) in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Wolfmann for the bathroom; Public domain for Bathory; Public domain for Mary Queen of Scots; Public domain for Mary I; Susanne Nilsson for the candle.