It all started with this unusual panel in the elevator at the Freys Hotel in Stockholm. You need to use your huge old-school room key to make it go and it reminded me of the two-man rule for launching nuclear weapons. What can I say? It was pretty late.
@brokenbottleboy Mic. Where was that lift? Certain lift filmers on youtube would kill to film it. Including that panel.
— Darren Richardson (@MrDazz1966) April 9, 2015
Once Darren tipped me off about their existence, I quickly realized that searching for and documenting interesting elevators is a rich YouTube culture.
Take this tour around London’s Kings College Hospital and its many elevators – lifts in British parlance – by UK-based filmer Benobve, which has hit nearly 92,000.
I got in touch with Ben, whose distinct voice makes his videos particularly mesmerising, to unpick what began his elevator obsession:
I have been interested in trains and public transport since I was three. And lifts are another form of public transport. Theres several things of interest about lifts:
One, there is the history of the companies and lifts they made. Two, there is the excitement of going to a new place and finding new lifts and hopefully finding rare ones. Three, there is the fun of riding them – fast ones, and clunky old relay logic ones. Four, also I enjoy exploring buildings and getting into parts that I am not supposed to (which usually involves lifts).
I heard variations of this story from practically every elevator filmer I spoke to – childhood inquisitiveness developing into a really intense interest as an adult.
Like many members of the community, Ben has very strong feelings about different models and the difference between ‘classic’ lifts and modern ‘generic’ models:
In the 70s and earlier, people expected lifts to simply just work…nowadays, people have a very different attitude. Everywhere works on budgets. Nobody wants to pay for a lift that will last 50 years.
The other problem is that there are a lot of small and crap companies – known to lift enthusiasts as ‘generics’ – who only care about trying to get as much money for themselves as they can. They’re always trying to get building owners to modernize their lifts.
Replacing ‘historic’ parts with more disposable ‘generic’ options really angers a lot of elevator filmers. You’ll hear frequently hear Ben spitting with disgust in his videos about lifts that have been “horribly modernized.”
Of course, before YouTube, which is celebrating its 10th birthday this month, these elevator enthusiasts would have struggled to find each other. Now, it’s easy for a community to come together – there’s even an extensive Wiki profiling individuals in the scene – but that doesn’t mean it’s always harmonious.
Ben told me “there was hardly anyone on the internet filming lifts” when he started looking for information online and it was still early days when he started on YouTube in 2009:
It felt like I was one of very few people interested, but over the years more and more have taken an interest.
Another YouTuber Mrmattandmrchay (real name Matt) credits Benobve as someone who has contributed a lot to the culture:
He produces videos that you just have to watch. People just going into a modern day ‘you can find this anywhere’ life and filming a ride isn’t something that I particularly enjoy watching. But, it’s great when kids and teenagers find videos on YouTube and set up accounts – it’s good to start somewhere.
While filmers are united by their interest in elevators, there are still, inevitably arguments. Ben explains:
As with all online communities people sometimes fall out with each other – mainly on Facebook, rather than YouTube. I always avoid any arguments that happen. The main reason for them is cultural differences between countries.
To find out more about those differences, I sought out someone who’s been filming elevators long before YouTube was born in 2005. Andrew ‘Dieselducy’ Reams , 38, made his first ride video in 1993, at the Hilton Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. His YouTube channel gets more than 1 million hits a month.
Andrew is on the autism spectrum and eloquently tells the story of his decades-long love for elevators on his website. He explains to me:
I have been fascinated with elevators ever since I was a little kid. My first ride was in a Des Peres MO at Famous Bar. I was two-years-old. I don’t really know why I became fascinated, I think it may have to do with the fact that I am on the spectrum.
For those on the spectrum, I think the appeal is the repetitive nature and stimulation elevators provide – the sound, motion and visuals.
Unlike most of the other elevator filmers I spoke to, Andrew doesn’t really enjoy other people’s videos:
There is so much drama in the elevator community. I am an adult and most other filmers are kids. I prefer to cater to people who are not so involved with the YouTube elevator community, mainly kids who are on the spectrum.
My best friend Jacob Bachta – The ElevatorChannel – is my favorite filmer. He was inspired by my videos!
A big problem for most elevator filmers is accessing lifts that interest them without clashing with security guards. In the video above you’ll see Ben being stymied when they remotely stop him from riding in one.
He told me:
I got caught by security when they were closing a Tesco store in Chatham [Kent]. I jumped on top of a lift to go up to the abandoned upper car park levels and while I was looking around up there I suddenly found that I wasn’t alone. I had been caught by security. It got rather stressful. They phoned the police, but in the end there was not much they could do as it was a civil offence. I don’t really want to repeat that.
Matt says avoiding trouble is a matter of taking a little more care:
I find my lifts by coming across them while I’m out visiting places for work. If I got to a different country I might make a detour to find some, or revisit old ones. If you’re careful enough with your filming you shouldn’t get any hassle from security guards. The whole idea is to film discretely.
That said, he’s had his moments too, as he recounts in this video about a ‘friend’ being pursued by a security guard after sneaking into an abandoned building to check out an old lift.
Andrew takes a different approach entirely:
Sometimes we do get harassed. My presence in the elevator industry and media have made me somewhat well known. That has made it easier for me to access cool stuff. Also I have very good people skills so I can talk my way in sometimes!
‘Elevator surfing‘ is the one part of the culture that has dragged it from its quiet YouTube backwater and into the mainstream media glare. The practice is exactly what it sounds like – riding on top of the car instead of inside of it.
Ben, who surfs elevators in a decent number of his videos, is cautious but keen:
Lift surfing is fun, but it’s dangerous if you don’t understand how to do it safely. It is interesting to see the lift from a different view point. It’s good for exploring buildings as you can get to locked floors.
Despite being a fan of Ben’s channel, Matt disagrees:
I don’t particularly enjoy surfing. I’m in the security industry. If I was caught and even cautioned by police that could be the end of my career. I also can’t see any point. All my videos are recorded for my channel and fans. There is no need for me to be on top of the lift with a camera.
I’m not sure I approve of Benyobe’s videos which show how to get on top of a lift and emergency procedures. That’s a recipe for the disaster if the public – or a kid – tries to copy it.
Until there’s another death from elevator surfing, it’s likely the largely sedate, oddly hypnotic world of YouTube elevator tours will stay far of the media’s radar. While viral videos and teen-pleasing stars dominate the headlines, its communities like this one that could never have existed without YouTube’s power to bring them together.