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 a plan to block traffic on 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. An escalator is a motorized stairway. 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 evil plan.

Black Hat carries a chin-up bar over his shoulder up the escalator, resulting in a conversation with his friend Cueball, riding up behind him, about Black Hat's motives for doing such, where Black Hat uses sly conversing methods to avoid saying his true motives. First he counters the question with another question: Why aren't you wearing a hat. Cueball's reply is a normal I'm not really a hat person, whereas Black Hat's copy reply is not a real answer; I'm not really a not-carrying-a-chin-up-bar person, is probably a sentence never used before this comic. It takes Cueball a second to process this answer. But he doesn't give up and asks again, but Black Hat just continues avoiding him by stating that I'm not a psychologist—so how should he know why he does these strange (and evil) things. (Regarding psychologist the see trivia section).

After this they reach the top and after 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. And this is exactly what happens in the last panel. A psychologist would probably be very interested in the fact that Black Hat is not even looking back at the mayhem he has thus created. His friend Cueball is not so detached and has turned around looking showing he is clearly consternated about what Black Hat has been doing. But now it is just the right time to get away as quickly as possible. Actually from the looks of it, they should be lucky not to get hit by someone falling all the way over in their descending side of the escalator… (But such a thing just doesn't happen to Black Hat!) Since they are most likely on the way down to a subway, it should be easy to get away on the next train, before anyone has a chance to try and find the perpetrator. Black Hat gets away with his evil 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. And this caused the stampede to last for two hours and waves of falling people would end up reaching the bottom three times. The reason for this could be that only the very first people at the top of this domino effect who actually hit the chin-up-bar knows 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 came crashing down to the bottom might just proceed to run into the same problem at the top once again. Especially since it was not possible to turn the movement off, and thus even if the first person do see the chin-up-bar he cannot get away before getting tumbled back into all the other people behind him. This thus explain why it happened three times before someone managed to get the chin-up-bar away safely. That it ended up in a stampede may also relate to the last of the three times, when people at the bottom start to panic because it seems they cannot get out again. This scenario is made realistic because the escalator is so extremely long.

Considering how often people have tried to emulate some of Randall's comics, it is a somewhat dangerous comic to draw. Hopefully no one has actually tried to do this (yet)…


[Zoomed out view with Black Hat in the middle standing on an escalator with five other people as it ascends. He is carrying a pole with what looks like a bracket on each end, resting on his shoulder. In front of him is Ponytail, and in front of her is a guy with spiky hair and pimples. Behind Black Hat is Cueball. Behind Cueball is a man wearing glasses with a small goatee standing next to Megan.]
[Zoom in on Black Hat and Cueball. In the background in front of Black Hat a girl with long black hair can be seen standing on the descending escalator. Most of the characters that appear on the descending side of the escalator is drawn in light gray instead of black.]
Cueball: This is a long escalator.
Black Hat: 70 meters. Longest in the country.
[In the background the girl with long hair from the last panel has now passed the two so she is now behind Cueball, right behind Cueball passes another Cueball-like guy (drawn in black not gray), partly obscured by Cueball, and in front of Black Hat a woman with black ponytail is also descending. Beat panel.]
[In the background the girl with black ponytail from the last panel has now passed the two so she is now behind Cueball, in front of Black Hat a man with baseball cap is descending.]
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. Beat panel.]
[Zoom out again to show Ponytail, in front of Black Hat, reaching the end of the escalator where the handle bends from rising to going straight. The pimpled guy has already left the panel and the escalator. The guy with goatee and Megan is still behind Black Hat and Cueball.]
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 then turns around to quickly install the chin-up bar in the exit of the escalator clicking and twisting it into place. He did let Cueball of first, and Cueball stops and looks back at Black Hat over his shoulder.]
[View from above towards both ascending (left) and descending (right) escalators. Black Hat and Cueball has immediately moved onto the descending escalator already their heads are on height with the top handle bar. It is now revealed that Black Hat placed the chin-up bar in such a way that it blocks people from leaving the escalator sitting at about waist height. The man with glasses and a goatee is shown holding hands with Megan and they are now blocked from leaving the escalator by the chin-up bar. They are slightly higher up than Black Hat and Cueball.]
[The final panel takes up two entire rows (the size of six of the previous nine panels). The view shows an extended section of the escalator, the top right has become a pile of people all squished together and on top of each other, making it impossible to find out who's limbs or heads belongs to which body etc. At least 18 maybe 19 people are full or partly drawn on the ascending escalator. At the very top right there seems to be two Cueball-like heads above a Ponytail-like head, then the goatee guys head, as indicated by the line from his glasses and at the bottom a Hairy-like head. Behind them are another person with hair (could be either sex as someone hold on to this hair making it difficult to tell, see below, and thus it could also be Megan from the previous panel), a third Cueball-like guy holding a hand up in front of his face, and the top of a fourth Cueball-like head at the bottom partly below the handle. Behind the guy holding a hand up is a Megan-like woman (longer hair than the Megan from the previous panels) trying to run down the escalator an arm out in both directions. A fifth Cueball-like guy is standing on that woman's head grabbing on to the the hair of the person in front of him to the right, the one with hair (either sex) in an attempt to avoid the melee below him. Below his other foot which is in the air is a sixth Cueball-like guy who is also trying to get down, both hands out in front of him, like the Megan-like woman behind him with a guy on her head. That guy is pushing one of his hands into the head of a second Ponytail-like woman, who is falling backwards throwing her arms up. Over her head is a seventh Cueball-like guy, who maybe tried the same at he guy standing on peoples head, because he is hanging in the air above her his head pointing down towards her head, his feet in he air and his arms out as he tumbles back first down the escalator. A second Hairy-like guy is behind Ponytail trying to run down the escalator, arms in running position, and he is almost reaching an eight Cueball-like guy, who holds his arms out from his body leaning back. Behind him is a second Megan-like woman holding both hands up in her hair. After that there is a small segment without people, and then a ninth Cueball-like guy holding his hands in front of his mouth stands right next to a man with flat hair and square glasses holding one arm slightly out toward the people in front. In the lower left corner, drawn with the gray lines for the ascending characters, is Black Hat standing in a relaxed position with a hand on the handlebar looking toward the bottom of the escalator, while Cueball, behind him and further up, looks back at the scene over his shoulder holding a hand up in front of his mouth.]


  • 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.

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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)

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[stalk the blue seas]UTSc 17:35, 10 June 2021 (UTC)