954: Chin-Up Bar

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Chin-Up Bar
Those few who escaped found the emergency cutoff box disabled. The stampede lasted two hours and reached the bottom three times.
Title text: Those few who escaped found the emergency cutoff box disabled. The stampede lasted two hours and reached the bottom three times.


Black Hat has once again showed everyone that he is a classhole, with a plan to block traffic on presumably the longest single-tier escalator in the Western hemisphere. At the time of the comic's publishing, that placed the comic in the Wheaton station in Washington D.C.'s Washington Metro subway system, where the 70-meter (230-foot) escalator is. It's clear that Black Hat knows it is the longest and that this is the reason he has chosen this exact escalator for his plan. However, this comic’s depiction of the escalator has several inaccuracies, landing it in XKCD-land instead of real-life:

  • The Wheaton station has three escalators.
  • There are no vertical and perpendicular lines on the side of the escalators. Instead, they are perpendicular to the guard rail.
  • In panel 9, there are two raised disks between the up and down escalators. While this is true in some escalators, the ones for Wheaton are very close together and there is only one column of raised disks.
  • The up escalator leads to a fare gate where there are employees staffed near an elevator control kiosk who will help the elevator people.[citation needed]

Black Hat uses sly conversing methods to avoid saying his true motives for carrying a chin-up bar. Black Hat continues deflecting Cueball’s questions by stating that he's not a psychologist, although he clearly is aware of his own motives and intentions. (One could argue that it would take a psychology degree to explain those motives and intentions.) After this they reach the top and once they get off Black Hat quickly turns around and locks the bar in place at about waist height (i.e. as high up as possible on an escalator), just before the moving part of the escalator ends.

Chin-up bars are typically capable of holding up a 300 pound (130 kg) person without moving, and a bar like Black Hat has brought with him can be installed easily in a doorway, or in the opening of an escalator…

The unexpected appearance of a solidly attached bar at the top of a crowded escalator could be disastrous. The first people would probably stumble backward to avoid it or hit it and topple backwards, and collide with the passengers immediately behind them, knocking them off their feet and likely creating a domino effect all the way down. Indeed, this is exactly what happens and is depicted in the last panel. Black Hat and Cueball are seen on the descending escalator in the background, Cueball has turned around looking at the scene and displaying worry about what Black Hat has done, but Black Hat isn't even looking at the chaos he has caused, completely ignoring all the falling bodies. Although it might be possible, the two are fairly lucky to be unscathed, as they could have been hit by someone in the pileup falling all the way over in their side of the escalator. Since they are most likely on the way down to a subway, the traffic should make it easy for them to get away on the next train, before anyone has a chance to try and find the perpetrator, so Black Hat gets away with his schemes once again.

In the title text it is made clear that the few people that actually escaped the moving stairs were unable to use the emergency shutdown because Black Hat had disabled the system, presumably before ascending in the first place. This is stated to have caused the stampede to last for two hours and waves of falling people would end up reaching the bottom three times, before ascending with the stairs again. The reason for this extended mayhem could be that only the very first people at the top of this domino effect who actually hit the chin-up-bar know what caused the problem to begin with. Since they are likely among those people too hurt to explain anything in time, the next group of people trying to get out after the first wave of falling people might just proceed to run into the same problem at the top once again. The problem is exacerbated by the disabled shutoff, so even if someone sees the chin-up-bar and knows how to escape, they would either be pulled back into the crowd of traffic or be free but unable to help. This helps to explain why the cycle of crowd collapse happened three times, and the use of the word "stampede" connotes the panicked, unorganized behavior of the trapped people that serves to make the problem worse.


[Black Hat is in the middle of on an escalator with five other people as it ascends. He carries something like a pole.]
[Zoom in on Black Hat and Cueball.]
Cueball: This is a long escalator.
Black Hat: 70 meters. Longest in the country.
[Black Hat goes upwards holding his pole.]
[Cueball is still behind Black Hat.]
Cueball: Why're you carrying a chin-up bar?
Black Hat: Why aren't you wearing a hat?
[The view returns to the original view only showing the six people ascending, only shifted so they are all a bit longer to the right.]
Cueball: I'm not really a hat person.
Black Hat: And I'm not really a not-carrying-a-chin-up-bar person.
[Close up on Cueball on the escalator.]
[Zoom out. Black Hat still has the pole in his hands.]
Cueball: Seriously, why did you bring it?
Black Hat: How should I know? I'm not a psychologist.
[Zoom in on the top of the escalator where Black Hat steps off and installs the chin-up bar on the exit of the escalator.]
Twist Click Click
[View from above towards both ascending and descending escalators. Black Hat and Cueball are on the descending escalator.]
[The final panel takes up two entire rows and shows all people falling down.]


It would appear that the man behind Cueball with glasses and a goatee is the psychologist from 435: Purity, and then Megan next to him could be the sociologist from the same comic. This gives new meaning to Black Hat's line about not being a psychologist.

Escalators were also the subject of the earlier comic 252: Escalators, a rather more funny take on these dangerous devices.

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I know the Wheaton Metro station and its escalator very well (I live about 5 miles from there). There are several issues with the comic.

  • There isn't a convenient place that the panels showing diagonal motion (1-6 & 10) can be shown from. The entire escalator set is in a solid tube through the rock. I guess that it could be done from the *third* escalator.(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheaton_(WMATA_station) ) (This would be with (viewed from the bottom, the center going up, the left going down and the right either not moving or going up)
  • There are emergency cut off boxes both at the top and the bottom of the escalators.
  • There is a kiosk about 40 feet from the top of the escalator staffed by an employee next to the fare gates.
  • In panel 9 there are two raised disks between the up and down escalators. While this is true in some of the other escalators, the ones for Wheaton are very close together and there is only one column of raised disks.Naraht (talk) 16:41, 28 February 2013 (UTC)
- What can we learn from this? - That not all of the facts in XKCD comics are right, and some are outright exaggerated (thank you Mr. Naraht). I personally learned that life will keep hurting me on purpose until I figure out how to help myself (Thank you Life and thank you Mr. XKCD for this lesson). - E-inspired (talk) 16:46, 28 February 2013 (UTC)
This is a comic. It's Fiction. It does not claim to be the "Wheaton Metro" escalator anyway - that was in the commentary. Relax. 19:16, 22 March 2013 (UTC)
While I agree that Naraht needs to calm down (I used to live 1 mile from the Wheaton Metro, and would walk up it as fast as I could), you cannot say that the comic did not claim to be the "Wheaton Metro." Black Hat describes it as 70m long, and the longest in the country. There is only one escalator that fits that description, and it is in Wheaton, Maryland. It's like seeing them going up an elevator, never seeing what they are ascending, and having one of the people mention that they are going to the top of the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world, 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches. There is but one structure that fits that description: the Washington Monument. A description can make a claim without using the exact wording. 03:44, 7 August 2013 (UTC)
But this is still fiction, and it is completely OK to make changes to fit the need of the comic. Also drawing someone from a position where you could not put a camera... really? I mean have you any idea how they film TV-series, where there are only two walls in the set? This is exactly the same. This is way to show us what happens, without taking a strange view from the top or where else it would be realistic to have a real camera... ;-) --Kynde (talk) 04:22, 7 August 2016 (UTC)
This could also be the Ploshchad Lenina metro station in Saint Petersburg, which is both 70 meters in altitude and the longest escalator in Russia (and the world, for that matter).-- 23:25, 6 October 2019 (UTC)
Exactly! The comic just mentiones "in the country", with no note, which country it is. It could also be a fictional xkcd-country, with a fictional longest escalator. IP...186 compared it to a claim that mentions "in the world". A big difference to "in the country". --Lupo (talk) 06:44, 7 October 2019 (UTC)

Grammatically, the last sentence should be "The people that actually made it to the bottom were unable to use the emergency shutdown because Black Hat had disabled it. ", (adding 'had' to 'disabled') using the past perfect for the last clause because it refers to an earlier time than the time of trying to use the emergency shutdown, even earlier than the events of the first panel. -CFitz 10:39, 12 November 2013 (UTC)

The title text does not say "those few who reached the bottom." It says "those few who escaped." Several people could have gotten around the chin-up bar or jumped the divider to get on the down-escalator. The explanation of the title text does not take this into consideration. 20:20, 3 January 2014 (UTC)

The last two comments have now been taken into consideration in the explanation. --Kynde (talk) 04:24, 7 August 2016 (UTC)
The title text does, however, say that the stampede reached the bottom. The explanation currently reads as if (and goes into detail about) the stampede being is towards the top (and the obstruction) where it is clear that the stampede is against the flow, probably impeded by (at least initially) 'fresh-blood' riders, those who are exhausted/injured from trying to get to the bottom (being helplessly dragged back up), perhaps even the initial individuals who had reached the bottom, struck out at the stop-switch (not working!) and hadn't the breath/wit to also escape before becoming a new obstacle for the others who had the same basic idea. (You may have to run 70 metres plus the distance unceasingly fed in from the bottom whilst you're trying to run that distance. Gravity-assisted, but not exactly easy if you don't want to fall and find yourself drawn back up again in thus fuss and the general maelstrom of rouling crowd. 19:55, 12 December 2023 (UTC)

This is, in my opinion, one of the most horrifying xkcd comics. I remember talks about a similar incident in the Moscow subway, when something was blocking the exit from the escalator. Some people, trying to save themselves from the stampede, climbed on top of barriers between the escalators, which were not designed to support such weight, and fell to their death in the bowels of the giant machine. 09:54, 5 September 2017 (UTC)

Strictly speaking, A mole of moles is many times worse. -- 04:02, 16 July 2018 (UTC)

Escalator stampedes are common enough that a paper has been written on it: https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-intelligent-and-fuzzy-systems/ifs179156 - 01:26, 19 November 2019 (UTC)

I first read it as "This is 70 meters. A long longest in escalator. The country" PoolloverNathan[talk]UTSc 17:35, 10 June 2021 (UTC)