Mole People

Mole people (also known as ‘tunnel people’ or ‘tunnel dwellers’) are homeless people living under large cities in abandoned subway, railroad, flood, sewage tunnels, and heating shafts. The term may also refer to the speculative fiction trope of an entirely subterranean society.

While it is generally accepted that some homeless people in large cities make use of abandoned underground structures for shelter, urban legends persist that make stronger assertions. These include claims that ‘mole people’ have formed small, ordered societies similar to tribes, with members numbering up to the hundreds, living underground year-round. It has also been suggested that they have developed their own cultural traits and even have electricity by illegal hook-up. The subject has attracted some attention from sociologists but is highly controversial due to a lack of evidence.

Journalist Jennifer Toth’s 1993 book ‘The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City,’ written while she was an intern at the ‘Los Angeles Times,’ was promoted as a true account of travels in the tunnels and interviews with tunnel dwellers. The book helped canonize the image of the mole people as an ordered society living literally under people’s feet. However, few claims in her book have been verified, and it includes inaccurate geographical information, numerous factual errors, and an apparent reliance on largely unprovable statements. The strongest criticism came from New York City Subway historian Joseph Brennan, who declared, ‘Every fact in this book that I can verify independently is wrong.’ ‘Chicago Reader’ columnist Cecil Adams contacted Toth in 2004, and noted the large amount of unverifiability in her stories, while declaring that the book’s accounts seemed to be truthful. A later article, after contact with Brennan, was more skeptical of Toth’s truthfulness.

Other journalists have focused on the underground homeless in New York City as well. Photographer Margaret Morton made the photo book ‘The Tunnel.’ English documentary filmmaker Marc Singer filmed the documentary ‘Dark Days’ in the 1990s, and a similar documentary, ‘Voices in the Tunnels,’ was released in 2008. In 2010, anthropologist Teun Voeten published ‘Tunnel People.’

Media accounts have reported ‘mole people’ living underneath other cities as well. In the Las Vegas Valley, it is estimated about 1,000 homeless people find shelter in the storm drains underneath the city for protection from extreme temperatures that exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit. An ‘ABC News’ report from 2009, featured a couple, who had been living in the tunnels for five years, had managed to furnish their home with a bed, bookcase and even a make-shift shower. The tunnels are prone to flooding, which can be extremely dangerous for the tunnel’s residents. Most lose their belongings regularly, and there have even been some reported deaths. According to the Clark County Regional Flood Control District, the valley has about 450 miles of flood control channels and tunnels, and about 300 miles of those are underground.

Most of the inhabitants are turned away from the limited charities in Las Vegas and find shelter in the industrial infrastructure of the Las Vegas Strip, similar to most cities. The Las Vegas Channel 8 News sent their Eyewitness News I-Team with Matt O’Brien, the local author who spent nearly five years exploring life beneath the city to write the book ‘Beneath the Neon.’ O’Brien also founded the ‘Shine A Light Foundation’ to help the homeless people taking refuge in the tunnels. The charity helps tunnel residents by providing supplies, such as underwear, bottled water and food.

In fiction there are at least three distinct stock character version of mole people. The first and most famous example are the Morlocks, depicted in various writings as an archetype of ‘primitive people,’ ‘devolution,’ and ‘barbarism,’ who appear in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel ‘The Time Machine.’ Conceptually linked to the Morlocks are socially isolated, often oppressed and sometimes forgotten subterranean societies, most often seen in science fiction (e.g. ‘Demolition Man,’ ‘The Matrix’). Another version is literally a race of humanoid moles, such as in the 1956 science fiction film ‘The Mole People’ (which was spoofed on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’).

In ‘Marvel Comics,’ two very different underground ‘mole people’ societies exist: the Morlocks, a society of mutant outcasts, named after the subterranean race from H.G. Wells’ novel, that live in the abandoned tunnels and sewers beneath New York City; and the inhabitants of Subterranea, a fictional cavernous realm far beneath the Earth’s surface where various species of subterranean humanoids exist, notably the Moloids (or Mole People), which serve as soldiers for frequent Fantastic Four foil Mole Man, a human from the surface world who discovered and conquered Subterranea.

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