Magonia 19, May 1985
I first met the London Underground Platform Maniac when travelling on the Circle Line between Blackfriars and Embankment on 25 February 1985. Not in person, happily, but as a story told by the middle-aged lady opposite me to her friend. I wasn’t meant to be included in this audience of one, of course, but something about her hushed tone advised me to make sure that I was, even if only as an eavesdropper. So my ears flapped long and hard enough to pick up the following …
The London Underground harbours a veritable Maniac. Needless to tell, this Maniac – and the narrator used that very word, by the way – is of the definitely homicidal variety. He is further presumed to be male and is not know to favour one Underground station more than another. No-one has seen him apparently, and yet oddly enough the narrator was able to reconstruct the individual form taken by his homicidal mania in rather convincing detail. The Maniac lurks on crowded Tube platforms, taking his stand just behind the front ranks of oblivious passengers who are waiting for the train. In front of him, very near the platform edge and indeed too near to recover herself if something made her loose her balance, is his chosen victim a young woman. Then, as the train sweeps into the station, the Maniac gives her a short, abrupt but irresistibly powerful thrust in the back. She topples forward and …
To clarify the Maniac’s MO, the narrator raised her palms at chest level and with grimly-earnest expression mimed a sharp, malicious push-away action. As she acted out his demented deed her face momentarily borrowed the flinty eyes and terrible rigidity of your typical screen-play psychopath. She was absolutely insistent that her friend realized that here was no accidental-inevitable kind of nudge which the seasoned Tube traveller learns to live with. Up came her hands again, out they thrust in action-replay, condemning an imaginary victim to untimely death under an imaginary train. “This is deliberate:” she hissed. “He does is deliberately!”
The Maniac, as her tale unfolded, was or is everything we have come to look for in a homicidal lunatic: secretive, essentially anonymous, impulsive in choice of victim but compulsive in execution. Above all else, he is never caught; he remains a shadowy figure who is subtle to the point of fiendishness. For example, he times his push from behind to coincide with the climactic moment that the train surges out of the darkness of the tunnel and into the garish light of the station. The shove is disguised – goes unnoticed – in the anticipatory forward-jostle of the passengers as they see the train arriving at last. Only the police know that it isn’t just an accident, but one in a series of ghastly murders by a killer who can’t be traced. How come we have not been warned of this elusive, faceless mass-murderer. The narrator explained that the police had hushed up all details lest the publicity inspired a spate of ‘copy-cat’ murders. It was dreadful, she admitted, but there were always unbalanced people around who’d do exactly the same thing if they read about it in the papers. She appealed to her audience – was it not indisputable that “when people hear about something like that, something goes in their minds?” (sic – or maybe even sick).
The story, let’s recall, was being told as stone-cold fact and if the listener found it a little dubious she was too polite or too overawed to say so. The narrator herself all-too-blatantly wanted it to be taken that way: she alse wanted to elicit an appropriate alarmed or disgusted reaction to her tale. And for myself …
That a person has from time to time been thrust into the path of an oncoming train – accidentally, at least – I could believe. That somebody should ‘encourage’ someone else to take that trip – purposely, homicidally – I could just about concede to be possible. Movie hit-men are forever pushing folk under subway trains and it wouldn’t take an inspired mind to glimpse the possibilities should his or her victim cooperatively place him/herself in the position to make it all seem feasible. Again, there are some pretty strange characters to be found in our large cities these days and some of them use the Underground.
What strikes me as neither believable nor faintly possible is that a bona-fide maniac is prowling the LT Underground stations and pushing passengers from platform to perdition
What strikes me as neither believable nor faintly possible is that a bona-fide maniac (or more than one of them?) is prowling the LT Underground stations and pushing passengers from platform to perdition on some kind of regular basis. An ultra-sympathetic person, a conspiracy buff or supreme optomist might reply that the Maniac on the Platform is a believable, literal sort of nightmare – the more so as he is never caught. Despite this, I prefer to think of him not in terms of prosaic News-at-Ten fact, but as one of the latest modern myths. The Maniac is a canard, a whale tumour story, an urban legend. That is, he’s folklore – or, since these incidents always seem to be confined to the purported experiences of that perennially-unavailable witness known as the ‘friend-of-a-friend’, we can borrow the coining of Fortean Times’ editor Paul Sieveking and call him foaflore.
Whether folklorists have already recorded the Maniac on the Underground I don’t know. The overheard conversation of 25th February was my own introduction to the motif, but I find it impossible to think I was witnessing any kind of debut. The polish of the story argues against that and it is far more possible that we have here a variant on a theme which is common to any city with a long-established, well-developed subway system. Nor can we eliminate the idea that it is a reworking of a 19th Century cautionary tale that may originally have belonged to an overground rather than an underground setting. My point in bringing it forward here is that it was new to me, that I’d like to know if anyone else has encountered him or it and moreover that it appears to be part of a growing but still under-studied folklore of the London Tubeways.
The essential characteristics of an urban legend as analysed by Prof. Jan Harold Brunvand in his immensely popular The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1983) were exemplified during the conversation going on across the car from me. The anecdotal account was offered as something that had ‘really happened’. Narrator and listener tacitly agreed on that point; the latter made only a token effort to challenge the speaker’s material (“Where ever did you hear all this?”) and the speaker responded with token corroboration (“I knew a man whose daughter…”). The setting was apposite (a story of the London Underground told on a London Underground train) and thence more immediate to teller and listener. Finally, the horror factor was enhanced by the insanely haphazard way the Maniac fell on victims quite at random.
True enough, the story-line only provided for attacks on young (by inference, innocent) girls, but the implication was that nobody could consider him- or herself safe. The Maniac could be anyone. He could be standing behind you on the platform right now. Yes, you might be his next victim!
Then again, the Maniac is never caught. This adds to the sense of terror and inserts an element of doubt as to who he is and why he behaves as he does. The impenetrable anonymity creates a narrative situation that is integral to stories of this type: for our enlightenment concerning him we’re wholly dependent on the narrator having access to access to certain information. We can’t simply pick up a newspaper and read all about it. And for the narrator to be able to supply this crucial ‘inside’ information, the sorce must have some personal involvement in the action, albeit at a stage or so removed. He or she must be able to corroborate the tale by being the traditional friend of a friend.
Imagine my delight when, with a slight but noticable emphasis in her voice, the narrator announced that she “actually knew” someone to whom it had happened – or rather, as she hastily amended, her friend knew a man (a doctor) whose daughter had been killed by the Maniac. Aside from acting as a guarantee that the story is true – we’re asked to accept that it is because the narrator knows the main witness/source – this reference to the Doctor’s Daughter throws a fascinating light on how an urban legend can assail more than one basic emotion in its audience.
This is not merely a horror story, but a pathetic tragedy. The girl was killed not long before she was due to be married – a sub-motif relating this story to many ghost tales which use the same kind of emotive patterning. Worse still, she died as the result of a terrible whim – her whim or that of Fate’s. She had not planned to leave her house at all that day and only did so on some sudden impulse or luck-governed trick of the narrative. Had she not left her home she would not have placed herself in the hands of the Maniac … The narrator modestly disclaimed precise knowledge as to why the Doctor’s Daughter had gone to catch the Tube – “I forget what it was, but she had no reason for going out…’ – except to state that it was a Terrible Bit of Luck.
The Bride-To-Be motif is too corny (and too weepie) to satisfy the discerning critic, but the Fatal Unneccessary Journey is a nice touch. It makes the encounter between victim and killer take on dimensions of a Greek tragedy in which both seem blind instruments of a cruel, sardonic Destiny. This is good for the impact of the story, just as the asserted personal relationship between narrator and relative of the victim does wonders for its credibility-rating.
The Maniac, we’re led to believe, is still out there and “ready to do it again”. With all due respect to the narrator, though, I don’t think we need to worry about him too much. Like the Hook – an escaped psycho so named for the appendage with which he slaughters victims in lovers’ lanes – or the chuckling phone-caller who preys on the nerves of babysitters, the Maniac on the Platform is one of several heavilymacabre urban legends to have appeared over the last few decades. Insanity is always frightening, especially when it is holding a naked razor to our throat.
As urban legends go, the Maniac is a somewhat superior invention. It plays upon often unacknowledged fears (those centring upon insanity, subway travel, assault-and-battery and also upon dark, claustrophobic situations generally). As we’ve just seen, it also canvasses maudlin pathos as well as outrage by making the victims young and female. Best of all, it is impossible to deny the existence of the Maniac in rationalist, reductionist terms. We all know that there are such people as Yorkshire Rippers and Moors Murderers at large among us, masquerading as normal folk: psychopathic personalities so aberrant in retrospect that they seem mythical.
The Underground Maniac may seem like a myth, too, observes our narrator, but that’s inevitable – we have no solid proof that he exists and never will have. The police are purposely withholding it for fear of panic and imitation murders. Pointless our asking the transport authorities if he exists, as they’d deny it as automatically as the doors shut on a tube train; they’d issue those denials for the same reason as the police. And of course, the Maniac is never caught – so once again he can’t prove to us that he really exists. In this sense the rumour becomes perversely believable.
One motive for my offering these notes on the Maniac is the anticipation that fairly soon the press will break their silence concerning him. At present we have here an urban legend which is about to gain wider currency and hence make the all-critical transition from oral tradition to printed pseudo-fact, with all that goes along with it.
The star of the story is, on the other hand, less credible than the other Underground bogeymen we are told to look out for – the muggers, rampaging soccer hooligans, bombsters, drugsters, molesters and all the other assorted wierdos. This need not mean that he doesn’t owe very much to real life; for instance he could be a rumour invoked to embroider the facts of real-life incidents where unfortunates fell accidentally or by self-destructive urge into the path of a train. Or perhaps the Maniac was born in some thriller-writer’s brain; a push under a Tube train is a pretty standard way to remove a subordinate character from a script. But more interesting than where he came from is what he may happen to mean.
Attempts to read morals into urban legends are not always attended by convincing results; frequently the ‘message’ is just too banal to account for the popularity and distribution of the story. Perhaps the Maniac is a exaggerated caution against standing too close to the edge of the platform – a message that London Transport has been winging our way for years. More pertinent is the suggestion that the Maniac personifies the actual fear of being pushed beneath a subway train, a more imaginative dramatisation than the terror of falling onto the live-rail which haunted my childhood trips to subways. Again, the use of the ‘push from behind’ way of murdering victims in thrillers may have popularised the motif.
Without exerting too much effort, the Underground has become the venue for a gamut of uncanny and bizarre ‘true’ stories which may be classed as an evolving folklore of the subways. These stories play on the fear that the Underground is both a dangerous and mysterious realm – the more so because w e take it for granted and think so superficially about what might be in it. There is a dramatic paradox in the prosaic fact that it is used by millions of unsuspecting folk every day and yet can act as focus for fears-wishes-rumours that in its darkest corners lurk people or things who want to harm us. The Maniac is about halfway on a scale of homicidal nightshapes that boasts ordinary muggers at one end and giant man-eating rats at the other (the latter motif, incidentally, was used in a not-so-brilliant episode of The New Avengers a few years back).
One prominent usually unvoiced subway neurosis is that having voluntarily gone down there we might never be able to come back up again. The claustrophobic fear of being inescapably entombed in a Tube train – something sensed by most people at one time or another, I fancy – lends itself to a foaflore motif which has appeared sporadically since the late 70′s and most likely for a long time before that date. The narrative details alter: the basic theme, in which a train full of passengers is sealed up deliberately and forever in a tunnel, stays consistent. There are always unavoidable circumstances which force the transport authorities to take this appalling decision; in each case the victims cannot be rescued and must be walled up where they stand in order that some numerically more horrendous disaster may be avoided.
When I heard the tale, this ‘excuse’ was that an unexploded bomb had somehow landed on the track and – don’t ask me how: – any rescue attempt would have brought the Thames flooding down with unspeakable widespread loss of life. So naturally they walled ‘em up alive… This was told to me by a friend while the train we were on was standing motionless in the inky dark stranded between stations on one of those unaccountable halts that they make whenever you’re in a particular hurry, feel ill or can’t get a seat. I didn’t appreciate hearing it, even if I didn’t believe it!
It’s quite a compact assumption that any orally-established story is capable of graduating to the printed page from whence, reinforced by the credibility that the printed word bestows on most things, it may become the source and authority for further versions of the old story – many of them ‘improved’ by changes of location and by other revisions or embellishments. I’d like to predict that the Platform Maniac is treading this path and that he is over halfway there by now. In other words, what I heard as a straighforward oral yarn should soon occur in newspapers, magazines and books (the ‘true-life crime’ type, mayhap) and with significant changes of detail. The factors which may work for or against this assumption are too complicated to enter into here. But the Walled-Up Train motif has already graduated, it would seem.
Naturally enough, the ground-plan of mazelike burrowings that we call the London Underground is known to few laypersons. This makes it a little easier to believe that somewhere in the twists and turns of long disused tunnels – further blocked by falling masonry or by a hastily-erected brick wall – there stands an abandoned piece of rolling stock. On board is a grim cargo of asphixiated passengers which the narrator usually describes with ghoulish delight as skeletons inside ragged remains of crinolines and frockcoats.
This, or something desperately like it, was the picture conjured up by 19-year-old Pamela Goodsell in 1978 when she claimed to have fallen upon, and literally into, a hidden tunnel near the site of the old Crystal Palace station in south London. (See the London Evening News for 29 September of that year). If anything ever came out of this peculiar story I wish someone could tell me about it; at the same time Miss Goodsell’s report was waved aside by various organisations with professional or historical interests in the Underground and it wasn’t helped by her failure to trace the tunnel when she went back a second time. There are always problems when an urban legend threatens to come to life, yet it seems safe to say that we’ll be hearing more of this particular adventure – in revamped form, probably. And that doesn’t sound an outrageous feat of prediction from where I’m sitting.
Familiar as it may seem, then, the Underground is the breeding-place of myths and nightmares. However often we use it, the place retains a vaguely menacing atmosphere which has nothing to do with the stale air: we don’t know what is waiting down that dark burrow where the platform lights end. This public utility is a place we should not venture to be in.
Fed by genuine tragic accidents and more especially by the occasional suicide – an act in itself so alien, so abhorrently inexplicable to us that we begin to ask whether the victim really jumped or was pushed – the Underground becomes a theatre for ghosts, goblins, maniacs and other nightmares. And now that I’ve reached the end of this article I find I’m pondering on whether the tale I heard on the Circle Line a few weeks since truly was a bit of promising foaflore. Can we honestly discredit the existence of the Maniac on the Platform? I’ve already confessed that in logical terms we can’t, because you cannot discredit a story whose underlying plot dictates that the central character will never actually appear in person.
Just the same, I don’t think I want to believe in him. I prefer him as foaflore, not as a reincarnation of Jack the Ripper’s Even Nastier Brother.
And I shall go on using the Underground, ears flapping for variants on the Maniac’s homicidal misdoings while I hum beneath my breath the old Jam classic: “Don’t wanna go down in Tube stations at midnight…”
For some actual incidents of subway maniacs see my comments when looking back on the article in the Magonia Blog: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2010/05/magonia-19-may-1985.html