Her first weekend at Ball State University in the fall of 2013, Jane Doe* was looking for something to do. She wasn’t a partier, she says, so the typical choice for newly freed young adults was out of the question. Her friend, who had recently graduated from the residential high school on Ball State’s campus called Indiana Academy, was spending his final weekend in Muncie. He offered a solution.
Drinking and partying might have been too much for Jane’s first weekend. But trespassing—that would be okay.
They went out after dark, around 11:30 p.m. Everyone would be at the parties, they figured, and campus police would be patrolling the neighborhoods. So Jane and her friend ventured to the quad, near the southern edge of campus. Jane’s friend approached a maintenance grate near the Burkhardt Building and lifted it from the ground.
They timed their entrance carefully. They needed to watch the lights at the nearest intersection to make sure traffic would be moving past them and car passengers wouldn’t have much time to stop and look around.
Jane jumped into the hole, about a four-foot drop.
The first section of tunnels beneath Ball State’s campus was installed in the 1920s, and now they connect most buildings on campus. These tunnels were built purely for utility purposes, says Jim Lowe, the associate vice president for facilities planning and management at Ball State. The underground spaces contain high-voltage electrical lines, steam pipes covered in hot condensation, the chilled water that cools campus buildings, and almost any other service that doesn’t involve gas. They’ve never been meant as pedestrian tunnels, and they aren’t designed for easy travel, so students have never been allowed inside.
Until recently, however, not much stopped them.
Jane turned to look at the tunnels, joining the generations of Ball State students who have found a way in. They didn’t stay long that first time—Jane was scared. She could hear steam and water rushing through the pipes. The sounds weren’t loud, but she had to focus on matching noises with their sources so she could know they were alone.
Before entering the tunnel, Jane had pictured a big, open area, like she’d seen in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” But the space was small and the ceilings were low, and Jane had to crawl over and duck under pipes to get through some places. It was really hot and really muddy.
But she would be back, and she’d bring more people who wanted the inside scoop.
Due to their dangerous nature, the Ball State steam tunnels aren’t advertised around campus. A lot of people don’t even know whether the tunnels exist.
When they can’t find answers, some students might come up with their own.
But it doesn’t really matter if they get it right. It’s the stories people tell, both true and absurd, that make us who we are.
The legends of the Ball State tunnels
Some students believe the tunnel system was originally built as a warm place to cross campus on snowy days, which is actually true at a few Midwestern schools. One of the darker rumors is that the tunnels were closed to students after they became a popular location for sexual assaults.
I asked around on social media, trying to figure out what others have heard about the tunnels. Here are some answers I got from students:
“Probably my favorite is that there is an area called ‘The Freshman Fifteen’ that is very narrow and hard to get through. The legend is that someone died or got burnt by steam because he was a little chubby and couldn’t get through.”
“My former roommate used to talk about a secret society made up of alumni and a couple professors [who led] covert tours of them. Something about The Society of The Rhombus? Maybe the rhombus is a person?”
“The Shively cult took them over after Ball State started tearing down LaFollette, their former sanctuary.” [Shively is a residence hall within LaFollette Complex.]
“Allegedly, there is a room underneath Lafollette where people used to go and hang out. One of the walls is covered with signatures of those who made it down.”
Lowe says the myths seem to pop back up every four years or so. The conversation peaks with each new generation of students, then people seem to forget about it, at least for a while.
When Cailín Murray, an associate professor of anthropology at Ball State, arrived on campus in 2004, she began hearing mysterious things about the tunnels. She understood that students were looking for them, but she was never really sure if they existed.
Regardless of how truthful the legends are, they serve a purpose, Murray says. People from all walks of life come together on a college campus, where they hope to be part of a community. Students often bond over stories and experiences, discerning what it means to be a Ball State student. Thinking the tunnels might be haunted is part of what goes into that identity formation.
But it’s not about whether you believe in ghosts, Murray says. It’s more about the narratives people feel compelled to share.
Steam tunnels on college campuses aren’t uncommon. And it seems that, wherever these tunnels exist, a culture of folklore and mystery appears.
According to an article in The Journal of New York Folklore, campus legends are meant to localize the college experience and make students feel like they are part of something unique. But many colleges have tunnels, and the legends are all fairly similar. It’s common to hear about someone playing underground pranks, for example. Students might also associate tunnels with the fantasy game “Dungeons & Dragons,” or with the Underground Railroad.
Simon Bronner, a distinguished professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, says a widespread story in the 1960s was that secret tunnels and elevators had been installed so administrators could escape if a student rebellion ever broke out. Many campuses also have legends of ghosts haunting the tunnels, he says, or of secret societies using these forbidden spaces as meeting places. While story details differ based on the school, the central plots really aren’t that unique.
Finding your place
When Bronner was a college student at Indiana University, most folklorists studied remote communities. But Bronner noticed the folklore on his campus as soon as he got there, and he started writing about it.
Bronner says college folklore helps students express their place within the formal context of a university. Folklore includes bits of knowledge students might use to navigate being at the bottom of this campus hierarchy, shared with one another through stories, rituals, slang and customs.
Elizabeth Tucker, a distinguished service professor of English at Binghamton University and author of the book “Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses,” says folklore creates the sense that students are in some kind of magical place together. These mysterious legends, especially when about dangerous things like tunnels, might make new students believe their campus will be an exciting place to spend four years.
Legends usually spread from older students down to younger students, Tucker says, helping initiate freshmen into the college experience. Many of the stories have morals: Don’t be like this person. Don’t become a ghost.
College students might be especially prone to folklore due to their age. Tucker says legends are often associated with “legend trips” to places believed to be haunted or dangerous, and young people are more likely to take these treks. Wherever they exist, tunnels become a common destination for such trips because they resemble some underground realm students might associate with villains and evil.
Even just knowing about the tunnels can serve as a right of passage, according to the New York Folklore Society article, but actual exploration boosts this experience. “Performances” like these illustrate the internal transformation of discovering one’s abilities or potential for growth while in this transitional stage of life. Legend trips provide opportunities to challenge yourself. On a college campus, these experiences might help students feel more like independent adults.
Tucker says forbidden places are especially inviting because getting inside becomes something to achieve.
“Students are very bright and very energetic and eager to learn about all sorts of things,” Tucker says, “including how to get into a forbidden campus tunnel system.”
Murray says a human urge to break the rules seems to be at the heart of much folklore. Good stories often feature characters who go against the dominant culture.
“And we want to be heroes in our own stories,” Murray says.
Being the hero
As Jane returned to the tunnels about once every two months, the sounds didn’t scare her any more. The people she took with her would be looking for her leadership as they explored, so she had to be calm.
Here are a few prominent spots from Jane’s tunnel trips. Click on the red markers for details:
But Jane still felt a sense of adventure, and she still worried about getting caught. She never took more than two people at a time, she only went at night, and she usually didn’t stay much longer than an hour and a half.
According to Ball State’s Office of Student Rights and Community Standards, any punishment for entering the tunnels would very much depend on the situation. But students would most likely be charged with trespassing, vandalism or misuse of property, and they could be subject to one of several kinds of disciplinary action.
Probably not worth it
Nathan Smith*, who graduated from the Ball State honors college in 2016 with an almost perfect GPA, started hearing rumors about the tunnels during his first year on campus.
He heard about underground murders, along with some other scary stories. He says the craziest myth he encountered was that the tunnels were an emergency route for horse-drawn carriages taking patients to the hospital near campus.
Nathan wanted to know more. Most people he asked didn’t say much, until he met a friend of a friend who knew where to find an open entrance.
The outdoor service grate was somewhere between Burkhardt and the Administration Building, near the entrance (or perhaps the same one) that Jane used. Nathan believes someone must have assumed an opening in such a visible location—close to a street intersection with no buildings or other large items to provide cover—didn’t need to be locked.
Nathan first ventured into the tunnels around 3:30 a.m., when he didn’t think there was much risk of being seen.
He didn’t know what to expect, so he took two flashlights, a first aid kit, a phone charger, a water bottle, and his roommate. One person kept watch as the other lifted the grate, and Nathan led the way.
Even after the many tunnel adventures Nathan’s had since, that first entrance will always be special to him. He’d landed in a sort of tunnel crossroads. From where he stood, he could look into tunnels stretching out in three different directions.
“The rising and falling of the tunnel,” he says, “coupled with the occasional steam that caught what little light there was and played with it by casting ghostly shadows on the wall, was truly breathtaking and simultaneously terrifying.”
He chose a route that led to the basement of Hargreaves Music Building, where he exited.
Nathan was hooked. He spent the following months looking for new tunnel routes, which rarely matched what the above-ground campus layout led him to expect.
This map shows all the places where Nathan says he was able to access the tunnels during his time at Ball State.
“It was made for efficiency of maintenance and utilities—not a walking party,” Nathan says. “But to some degree, this too contributes to the other-worldly feeling in the tunnel.”
He went back nearly two dozen times, mostly during his sophomore and junior years. He sometimes went alone (foolishly, he says), and other times he took up to five people with him on “tours.”
Nathan says he’ll remember those adventures forever, but looking back, he’s glad they’re over. He’s still amazed he never got seriously hurt, and he says it really wasn’t worth the risk.
The tunnels aren’t designed for public safety. Nathan saw sharp metal pieces and some broken lightbulbs with exposed filaments. The ground was almost always damp from rain water. There were some rats, too, and it was just really, really hot.
But Nathan believes the most dangerous thing was the lack of cell service. If he ever needed help, he probably wouldn’t have been able to get it.
The last time Nathan checked the service grates near Burkhardt, they were welded shut. He thinks that’s probably for the better.
“Honestly, to anyone considering going down in the tunnels,” Nathan says, “don’t.”
The adventure of a clumsy journalist
I didn’t listen to Nathan.
But I didn’t go into the tunnels alone, or without permission. Instead, Lowe took me on a brief guided tour of the tunnel below Ball State’s Music Instruction Building.
The tunnel I walked through was relatively new and tidy, but I still had a hard time not tripping or hitting my head. I had to go up and down ladders, crawl over dirty pieces of plywood, and duck under low-hanging pipes. In the main tunnel this newer one intersected with (which I didn’t continue on into) I could see the sharp points and muddy floors both Nathan and Jane had described.
Here’s a video of my tunnel adventure. Lowe talks more about the technical details of how the utility tunnels work, and I figure out how to safely crawl over pipes.
When places claim us
Now, university officials do everything they can to keep students out. Warning signs cover tunnel entrances, the public can’t access official maps of the system, and maintenance personnel check all the locks at least once a year.
Lowe believes the tunnels are pretty secure now, and he doesn’t know of a time within the last five years when a student was caught inside. But he knows that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get in.
Campus tunnels usually don’t deserve the attention students give them, according to the New York Folklore Society. But tunnel stories help build a school’s character.
According to an article in the European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research, places can grow on people. Locations can claim us, in a way. We don’t just “get used” to places: We create relationships with them and shape our own identities accordingly.
Murray says a place’s personality mostly comes from the stories told about it, even if those stories aren’t true. Absolute evidence aside, a story means something as long as people want to tell it.
In a college setting, those narratives might encompass the strange experience of young adulthood. You’re not fully grown up, but you’re not really a teenager, either. It’s a liminal, in-between space.
That’s when you’re searching for something. You search to belong. You search for new places, and you search for ways to connect with them. You search for challenges. You search for rules to break. You search for the forbidden, and you brave the four-foot drop to get inside. Perhaps it’s there, in that breathtaking and terrifying place, where you search for hints about the person you might become when the in-between ends.