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It Came From Below: Sewers and Underground Tunnels

Urban explorers in underground tunnel

Urban explorers at the entrance of a technical gallery under construction in Paris, France

They’re cramped, dark and full of rodents. The air is cold and stagnant, the shadows deep. “Normal” people would probably prefer not to linger there. They’re just the setting you need for that one scene.

I’m talking about sewers and underground tunnels. The mysterious labyrinths underneath the city streets where danger and mystery may await your characters. These gritty, urban landscapes can hide any number of pitfalls and serve any number of purposes. Your characters could be fleeing from someone, searching for something, or traveling somewhere, and their path may lead them into the underground.

I think the underground is appealing because it taps into a primal fear of the dark and illuminates for your characters that there are objects of unspeakable horror lurking just below their feet. The creatures slithering through these tunnels – monsters, murderers, crazy “mole people” or worse – are out of sight and largely out of mind, but only just. The naive out-of-the-know inhabitants of your city probably have no clue that these threats even exist. They’re the ones who are really in the dark.

Another bone-chilling aspect of the underground is the possibility that, were your characters to become injured or trapped in the tunnels, they may never make it out. It’s not like they can pick up a phone and call for help or light a signal fire. They would simply be swallowed up by the earth and lost to the world. Their family and friends may never know what happened to them. They would never see the sun again.

That’s enough to give anyone goosebumps.

Sewers and underground tunnels

Storm drain outfall in Saint Paul, Minnesota

But maybe your characters aren’t surface-dwellers venturing down into the unknown underground. Maybe it’s their home. A common purpose of the underground in fiction is a place of refuge. Whether the surface world has been ravaged by disease, war or radiation, or they’re hiding from a band of criminals out for their blood, your characters may be living underground because it’s the safest place to be.

Whatever your reasons are for putting your characters in such a dank, dark setting, have fun exploring it.

Underground tunnels and sewers appear in countless works of fiction. Here are a few examples:



  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • City of Ember
  • The Matrix

Video games:

  • World of Warcraft
  • Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines
  • Minecraft

Here are a few real-world tunnels to inspire:

Paris Catacombs

Seattle Underground

NYC City Hall subway station

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