Previously: Chip Time.
If you’re here — if you’re reading these words right now — you’re probably already familiar with a particular video that’s been floating around YouTube since early 2009. Titled “No Through Road,” it was uploaded to the then-fledgling video sharing platform on Jan. 15 of that year — and all this time later, the not-quite-10-minute-long found footage horror film is still going strong, inspiring numerous questions from its many, many viewers about what, precisely, it depicts. What fate really befell the four teenage boys who allegedly disappeared on the outskirts of Stevenage in the UK, near Broomhall Farm, in December of 2008?
I don’t remember exactly when I first saw “No Through Road”; nor do I remember how I found it to begin with. I do know that it must have been sometime between 2009 and 2011, though, largely because at the time, there was just the one video. Its three follow-ups, appropriately titled “No Through Road 2,” “No Through Road 3,” and “No Through Road 4,” wouldn’t begin arriving online until the summer of 2011. But despite the fact that the original film is now over a decade old, I’ve found myself coming back to it again and again over the years; what’s more, judging from the search traffic TGIMM still gets from folks looking for information on it, I’m clearly not the only person for whom it resonated. After watching the whole series again, it became apparent to me that it absolutely holds up — so now seems like a good time to take a look at exactly what makes it tick, so to speak.
In case it needs clarification: No, “No Through Road” is not a true story. (For anyone who has ever spent any time Googling “No Through Road is it real” — and I know there are at least a few of you out there; the analytics don’t lie — well, there’s your answer.) Four 17-year-old boys did not go missing outside Stevenage in December of 2008, and, because they never went missing in the first place, they also did not turn up dead later on. They certainly did not get stuck in some sort of loop in space-time, evidence of which is only apparent by dint of footage recovered from a camera one of the boys had with him at the time of the unfortunate event.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
I know all of this, because the “Steven” in the series — the fellow with a fondness for Crunchie bars who operates the camera for most of the original video — was kind enough to chat with me over Skype recently. He’s alive and well, as are all of his friends that appeared in the film along with him. Because that’s what it is: A film. A piece of fiction. A clever act of storytelling that utilizes the found footage format in a way that is truly unforgettable.
The thing that’s most astonishing about “No Through Road” is how effective it is. It was made by a group of teenagers working with nothing more than a camcorder and a handful of other simple resources available to them at the time: A car, a plastic mask, an old trench coat and a hat, the roads near where they lived. And yet, it remains more unsettling than many of the horror flicks you’ll see gracing the screens of your local cinema — and a lot of that, I think, has to do with how it all came together in the first place. There’s a sort of scrappiness to the series that shows just how much you can do with almost nothing at all, as long as your ideas are strong and — crucially — you’re willing to trust both yourself and your audience to be comfortable with a little ambiguity. You don’t necessarily need to pack your work full of answers to all the questions it raises; there’s power in leaving at least a few things unexplained — and, as “No Through Road” underlines, what you don’t see is often much more terrifying than what you do see.
The Start Of Something New (And Terrifying)
Like In The Dark (aka the Louise Paxton mystery), “No Through Road” first arrived on the scene in a post-Blair Witch Project, but pre-Marble Hornets world. As a result, found footage would have been a familiar film genre to audiences by that point (Blair Witch, after all, had been released a full decade earlier, in 1999); at the same time, though, the Spooky YouTube Web Series formula hadn’t yet been codified — meaning that we were still getting used to seeing found footage in places other than the cinema. “No Through Road” therefore counts on us to know what we’re looking at well enough to at least suspect that it might not be real, while simultaneously banking on us being unfamiliar enough with its particular venue — YouTube — to sell the idea that maybe it could be real, after all.
The story of “No Through Road” is a relatively simple one; however, it’s also intricate enough to have inspired nearly a million and a half viewers to spend more than 10 years theorizing about what exactly is going on within the film. Over the course of 10 minutes, the video shows a group of teenage boys attempting to get home to Stevenage after a night driving around Hertfordshire, only to find themselves continually passing the same fork in the road — one with signs leading to Benington in one direction and Watton the other — over and over and over again. Notably, this never-ending loop only begins after they drive briefly through a tunnel bearing a sign reading, “BROOMHALL FARM/Private Road/NO THROUGH ROAD.” They back out of the tunnel fairly quickly, knowing they probably shouldn’t be there, but still — the damage, it seems, has been done.
As the car’s headlights begin failing and the radio starts playing an eerie, repeated refrain — as if it were not a radio at all, but a record player, skipping continually — they’re accosted by a masked figure clad in a trench coat and a broad-brimmed hat. They meet a sticky end at the hands of this figure amidst a wave of blood and chaos before the footage cuts out abruptly. “If you have any information regarding this video and the investigation,” a title card reads, “please contact us immediately.” The contact information for UK Crime Prevention is provided before the video ends.
For readers who aren’t familiar with the area, Stevenage is about 50 kilometers or 32 miles north of London. It’s roughly an hour’s drive; or, you can just take the train, which will get you there in 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the route and your departing station. (It’s about 20 minutes from King’s Cross and 30 from St. Pancras.) Broomhall Farm, meanwhile, is just eight kilometers or five miles away from the center of Stevenage — about 10 minutes by car on the A602. The farmhouse is an A Grade II listed building originally built in the late 16th or early 17th century in Watton-at-Stone, a small village between Stevenage and Hertford.
And yes, the tunnel is a real place, too. It’s actually the underpass of railway bridge; you can even see it on Google Street View, if you like. The Street View camera doesn’t go past the roundabout itself, but if you position your point of view so that you’re “standing” right at the exit of the roundabout facing the bridge and zoom in, you can catch an extremely blurred view of the “BROOMHALL FARM/Private Road/NO THROUGH ROAD” sign that features so prominently in the film.
(Just don’t try to pass through the archway or drive up to Broomhall Farm itself; it is, as the sign notes, private property. That’s why there’s no through road there.)
And Steven, of course, is real, too. He’s actually Steven Chamberlain, who, in addition to appearing within the story as a fictionalized version of himself, masterminded the “No Through Road” saga as a whole. More than a decade on, he’s now a creative director and senior editor for a company in London that makes movie trailers — a career trajectory which, he tells me, he attributes in no small part to “No Through Road.” After making the film as a lark with a group of friends when they were all around 17 or 18 and realizing that the end result was actually pretty impressive, showing it to the right person earned him a place at the University of Westminster’s film program. In turn, a short film he made while studying at Westminster led directly to a job offer following his graduation in 2012. “There’s a pretty clear path back to ‘No Through Road’ in terms of any success that I do have currently,” he says.
Catching Lighting In A Bottle
The really bananas thing is the fact that the original “No Through Road” video came together spur-of-the-moment, mostly as a result of two specific events occurring at around the same time: Chamberlain got a new camera, and one of his friends — Ollie, who, Chamberlain notes, is “the guy driving the car who you see the most” in that first video — got his driver’s license and access to a car. (For the curious, the car was a Peugeot Quiksilver, which Chamberlain describes as having been “very trendy… amongst kids in my hometown back in 2009.”) As is often the case among groups of teenagers with at least one newly-minted driver within their ranks, Chamberlain’s friends took to driving around at night, just because they could — and, on one of those very first nighttime drives, Chamberlain had a thought.
“I think we saw that tunnel first,” he says. He notes that the tunnel actually isn’t as remote as “No Through Road” suggests it might be; it’s actually quite close to Stevenage, and relatively well-known to those who live in the area. Regardless, the group of friends spotted it and remarked upon its creepiness — and then, says Chamberlain, “I just started suggesting ideas.”
The main genesis of the idea was, as Chamberlain puts it, “Hey, that sign that goes towards Benington. What if we can’t escape it?” How would the boys all react if they passed the sign once? Twice? Three times? “And I’d just press record, we’d drive past it again, and that’s what you see in the film,” he says.
They improvised most of the first video, working off of prompts Chamberlain suggested as they went. This lack of structure, combined with the fact that none of his friends were actors in any sense of the word, is what Chamberlain suspects makes the film so believable. “The first one is sort of like lightning in a bottle — because we weren’t planning on it, it has that authenticity,” he says.
It’s the same principle that fueled The Blair Witch Project: Famously unscripted, the 1999 independently-produced hit’s story instead developed through decisions made and actions undertaken by its cast based on notes the creative team left for them in film cannisters outside their tents each morning. (Indeed, according to Chamberlain, Blair Witch is the “unavoidable inspirational thing” behind “No Through Road.”) It’s that quality which both made Blair Witch so notable at the time of its release and what made it stand out from the vast crop of found footage films that came after it — films which were, in essence, only made possible by Blair Witch’s success in the first place. It’s not that it had no idea what it was doing; it just allowed itself to play loosely enough with what it was doing that it managed to avoid falling into the trap of an overly-structured narrative.
That, too, is what makes “No Through Road” so successful. It’s aided, of course, by the fact that it’s a short film, rather than a feature, and therefore has many fewer moving parts to contend with — but by keeping the premise simple enough to allow for this sort of playfulness, and by maintaining its own sense of reality, it comes across as completely and utterly natural. No wonder one of the primary search terms I’ve found people inquiring about over the years isn’t just “No Through Road,” but “Is No Through Road real?”
The vast majority of the original “No Through Road” video was shot in that one night, with everything from the moment the masked figure appears in front of the tunnel, illuminated by the car’s restored headlines, having been filmed as a pickup a few weeks later. Chamberlain played the masked figure as well as himself, by the way; the costume consisted of a trench coat scrounged from his father, a cowboy hat borrowed from his sister, and a drama mask taken from his school. A bit of “trick editing,” as he calls it, allowed him to appear as two different characters — one inside the car and one outside of it — at the same time. This section, too, wasn’t exactly scripted, although Chamberlain had mapped out for himself what he thought should happen and directed his friends to improvise the situation accordingly.
And, originally, that was going to be it. Once Chamberlain and his friends finished editing it and put in online, they patted themselves on the back for a job well done and carried on. It was meant to be a one-off — a self-contained unit that stood on its own as piece of found footage storytelling.
But then came the sequels.
Expanding The Mythology
Posted over the course of about a year between the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012, the second, third, and fourth installments of the series show the aftermath of the original video — and complicate matters further. At the beginning of “No Through Road 2,” we discover that one of the boys, James, survived the original encounter, although he’s not totally clear on how he escaped either the looping road or the masked figure stalking the teens. Accompanied by a friend not present during the events of the original “No Through Road,” Dave, James visits the spot at which his friends had vanished more than two years prior — but as night falls, they both find themselves stuck in a loop once more.
But it’s different this time — or at least, different than what we thought it was: With the re-appearance of first a bloodied Steven, who seems to have no idea that literal years have passed since the original “No Through Road,” and then of the masked figure and Peugeot Quiksilver in the exact same situation as in the first video, it becomes apparent that it’s not just the road that’s looping. It’s also time itself. Taken as a whole, the “No Through Road” saga is actually a time travel story: Ultimately, what seem at first like two separate events — first, the incident depicted in the original “No Through Road” video, and second, the events that unfold in the later three videos — are actually the same event, viewed from different perspectives but occurring at the same time.
Made during Chamberlain’s university years, “No Through Roads” 2 through 4 mostly came up as a result of “visiting home and seeing the guys again,” he tells me. It naturally just came up in conversation — and this time, Dave, operates the camera throughout many of the three follow-ups, was a part of it all. “Dave was also thinking about going to university — I think he went and studied film a year or two after me,” Chamberlain recalls. “So, we talked about film a lot, and I was telling him how uni was going.” Along with James, the three of them started wondering, “Hey, if we did a sequel, what would it be about? What would happen?” — and the rest all spun out from there.
Most of the ideas for the direction the three follow-ups would take came about during brainstorming sessions the friends held during visits home. “We spent a lot of evenings drinking beer and writing down ideas, and going, no, that’s too complicated, how can we make this just complicated enough that people might get it, and it would be satisfying, but not answer all the questions,” Chamberlain says. “And that’s how we ended up with the whole time loop idea.”
When they struck upon the conceit of the time loop, they knew instinctively that it was the right way to go. It’s a process that’s since become incredibly familiar to Chamberlain; “I have to deal with this a lot in my career making trailers,” he says. “You have to go over so many ideas … and sometimes you just know when the right idea comes.” And that’s exactly what happened with what Chamberlain describes as the “rug-pull, gut-drop moment when you realize that the car that’s turned up is them in the past”: “We all sat up and were like, what if, at that point, the lights turn on and it’s us in ‘No Through Road 1,’” he says, “and we were like, yes. It has to be that.”
Much like the first video, the second one was largely improvised; it’s also a bit slower than the other videos in the series, which was an intentional choice. The idea was to try for something “that was a lot more restrained and had a slightly different tone to it,” according to Chamberlain. “Something that interested me was just seeing how real we could make this feel and how languorous the pace would be if you weren’t planning on making a film,” he says. He envisioned it as a way to make the film “still feel authentic and scrappy” — that is, to continue avoiding the trap of an overly-structured narrative — with the hopes that “maybe it being a bit boring is actually going to help with that.” The third and fourth videos, meanwhile, were the only ones that were developed together as a unit.
On Mystery And Legacy
The second three videos haven’t gained quite the same traction as the first one did; the original “No Through Road” hit a million views after years of steadily rising figures — and, in fact, crossed the million-view threshold almost 10 years to the very day of its original upload date, according to Chamberlain — while “No Through Roads” 2 through 4 hover between around 240,000 and 325,000 views apiece. Additionally, Chamberlain notes that the second set of videos is very much a sequel: They were, as he puts it, “planned very much as a separate thing, like, if we can live up to [‘No Through Road 1’], how are we going to do it?” They should, therefore, be “consider[ed] their own separate thing.”
But he remains proud of what he and his friends accomplished with both the original video and the sequels (as well he should) — and what’s more, it’s worth noting that when viewers attempt to analyze and explain “No Through Road,” the most interesting theories arise from considering the series as a whole.
My own read on it is that, after becoming stuck in the time loop, the fictional Steven eventually becomes the masked figure, simultaneously causing and attempting to prevent his own death over and over again. In this read, the situation is paradoxical; the mask exists both because past-Steven finds it in future-Steven’s shack, and because future-Steven put it in the shack after getting a hold of it as past-Steven. This might explain why there are so many masks in the shack, as well; each pass through the loop, another one ends up there. It’s also possible, though, that it’s actually James who becomes the masked figure; he does, after all, run off into the darkness holding one of the masks, never to be seen again. Heck, maybe they’re all the masked figure at different points, each trapped in the loop and doomed never to escape it.
But that’s just how I see it; there are as many different reads on it as there are viewers. What’s more, there are plenty of other questions the series puts forth which I don’t have the answers to — and, honestly, I kind of like it that way. First, there’s the inclusion of what appears to be an old MI5 logo at the beginning of the first video — a logo which hasn’t actually been in use for quite some time. Then, there’s the framing for the sequel videos: The footage is noted in the description of “No Through Road 2” to have been from a tape “procured by the police following the event code named NTR2.” The identity of the uploader is unknown, but unlike the first video, which is framed as having been uploaded by officials investigating the case, they’re clearly not supposed to be in possession of the tapes: “I can only hope they do not catch me before I obtain the second tape.”
All of this suggests there’s something bigger at play here than just what we see in the videos. MI5, after all, is the UK’s domestic intelligence and security agency — not just the local police. Meanwhile, the “event code” named in the second video, “NTR2,” presumably stands for “No Through Road 2” — meaning that this is the second such event to have occurred. We can reasonably assume the first NTR event to have been the events depicted in the original “No Through Road” video — but are these two the only NTR events to have occurred? Are there more? Is there some sort of SCP Foundation-like institute responsible for studying, cataloging, or even suppressing knowledge about these events from the general public? Why would this information be suppressed in the first place, as the uploader suggests it might be? Who is the uploader, anyway?
But all those questions remain unanswered — and Chamberlain is holding his silence on them, as well as on his own solution to the puzzles posed by the series. Indeed, the not knowing is what he thinks has given the series such longevity. He cites one of his main cinematic inspirations as evidence to this fact: David Lynch. “People often say he’s very stand-offish about not answer questions about his own films,” notes Chamberlain, “but it’s because he wants people to enjoy them, and I think that air of mystery really does add something.” He also returns to The Blair Witch Project, stating that its impact is largely because of “the thing you don’t see.” “People fill in the gaps and create their own mysteries,” he says. “So, I think if there’s any kind of reason behind the longevity of ‘No Through Road,’ it’s because I kind of took that one point on board fairly well.”
To which I can only say: Hear, hear.
“No Through Road” is viewable in its entirety on YouTube; the channel is indrancole3, and the videos can be found here, here, here, and here. You can also check out Chamberlain’s recent work at his Vimeo profile here.