Spend enough time in the right corners of the internet and you will find photographs that elicit an eerie sense of dread. The scenes they contain are ordinary: a corridor of nondescript doors that extends into darkness; a slide that leads to an empty, windowless ball pit; an indoor swimming pool illuminated by an unearthly glow. The images won’t make you jump into bed when scrolling late at night, but the longer you look at them, the creepier they get.
Images that fit this description are known as liminal spaces. Liminal them comes from the Latin term turn on, meaning “threshold”, and by the literal definition, liminal spaces are places where people go to get from one place to another. Think airport terminals, school corridors and hotel lobbies.
The label has taken on a new life online and has expanded to include any location that seems subtly creepy or surreal. A mock city built indoors would qualify as liminal space, as would a dead mall or a basement under water. Some spaces are liminal in a temporal sense, with abandon day centers And Chuck E. Cheeses mixing nostalgia and discomfort.
This aesthetic has only been around in its current form for a few years, but its online popularity shows that it triggers a primordial fear that predates the internet by thousands of years.
The online obsession with liminal spaces can be traced back to 4chan. On May 12, 2019, an anonymous user sent a request for “disturbing images that just look ‘turned off'”. People have filled the thread with images of foggy streets, desolate gas stations, and claustrophobic rooms, similar to what you’ll see today if you do a Google image search for “liminal spaces.”
A photo it has notably gained traction beyond the forum. Show a room that could be part of an office building, but there are no windows, signs, or furniture to ground you in the space. The floors, wallpaper, and fluorescent lights are various shades of dark yellow, and though there are curves and doors that break up the room, there’s no way to know where they’re coming from or where they lead.
The image came without context, but another anonymous user imagined a backstory that became the basis for a internet urban legend:
“If you’re not careful and stray from reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where there’s nothing but the stench of old damp carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights on full buzz and some six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms in which to get trapped. God save you if you hear anything wandering nearby, because it sure did hear you.
The original “Noclipping” referred to a video game glitch that allows players to walk through stationary objects such as walls. In the Backrooms universe, it means gradually entering dimensions that humans cannot normally access.
Screenshots of the post circulated on the web and it quickly exploded into a complex mythology. Now people write their own creepypastas set in the world or, in some cases, making high-quality videos. The YouTube channel Kane Pixels releases “found footage” horror shorts featuring a lost director exploring what appears to be an empty office building, but the rooms get stranger as he progresses. The most popular video in the series has nearly 40 million views.
The Backrooms’ influence isn’t limited to niche Internet communities. Dan Erickson, creator and showrunner of Separationsaid Reverse who drew inspiration from the urban legend when making his Apple+ show. The sci-fi series shows a workplace where employees have the memories of their work and personal life surgically separated. Like the Backrooms, their office is in a stark, windowless building with seemingly endless rooms. An office is an inherently liminal space, but for workers whose memories are confined to its walls, escape is impossible.
The Backrooms is an iteration of an online phenomenon. Even without any tradition, photos of eerie, vaguely familiar but not quite familiar places regularly go viral. The Automated Account Liminal spaces has 1.2 million Twitter followers, r/Liminal space has half a million members on Reddit and the hashtag #spaceliminals garnered 2 billion views on TikTok.
At first glance, a photo of a empty school yard it appears to have nothing in common with Kane Pixels’ Backrooms videos, but Dr. R. Nicholas Carleton, a psychology professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, has noticed a few threads tying these images together.
“I think you’re not actually having this metacognitive experience because you’re in this transition state. I think it’s because he’s anonymous,” he tells Mental Floss. “There are distinctive traits in the room I’m in now. There’s a window, there’s a door, there’s a desk, there are things that make the space unique, so I know where the space begins and I know where it ends. And if I were to leave one part of the space, I would be able to see the change and feel certain that I was leaving that space to move into another space.
This is exactly what is missing from these images. Many of the photos show no way in or out of the strange space, or if they do, the exit leads to a room that looks eerily similar to the one before. Clues that could reveal the spot’s location or time of day, such as windows or people, are often missing, creating a dreamlike effect.
“In all of this [liminal space images], one of the main commonalities is that there is essentially nothing specific about this space. There’s nothing you can link to,” Carleton says.
Though taken in mundane environments you may be familiar with – hotels, airports, offices, playgrounds – the photographs of liminal space raise more questions than they solve. Why are there no people here? What’s around that corner? How did I get here? How do I go out?
That not knowing contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the scene. Fear of the unknown has drawn humans away from dark caves and mysterious sounds in the bushes for millennia, and according to Carleton, it may be the basis for most of our fears.
“You hear it in everyday speech where people say things like ‘I better know’ or that ‘The worst part is I don’t know.’ Well, maybe, maybe the legitimate part is the worst. Because you can’t plan and you can’t make it because you lack information. This will create excitement of your autonomic nervous system, make you scared, ”she says.“ And in general as a species, [there is] it proves that we don’t like to be uncertain and we don’t like not knowing.
The most obvious explanation for the effect these photos have is that transitional spaces are naturally unsettling. We are used to crossing them quickly when they are full of people and never stay still for too long in one place. When we pretend to be alone in such a space for an extended time, we get the feeling that something is wrong.
“It’s a place I shouldn’t be, and the reason I shouldn’t be is because I know for a fact that it’s a transitional space, because we defined it that way,” Carleton explains. “And the longer I am in a transitional space, which goes against my expectations, my certainty [is] which is a transition space. I shouldn’t be here very long, I should be somewhere else and now I’m here for a long time. Well, that’s not right.
Carleton’s theories illustrate why we find liminal spaces unnerving, but they don’t explain why we choose to gaze freely at them instead of scrolling past them. The answer boils down to neurochemistry. People are hardwired to take pleasure in things that scare them in a safe environment (up to a point). From a survival standpoint, this is good practice for dealing with real threats in the wild. This is probably why haunted houses and horror movies are so popular.
The images of liminal space aren’t scary enough to raise your heart rate, but you still have an evolutionary incentive to study environments that are mysteriously unnerving. At least, that’s the case when you view them through a screen. If you ever come across an abandoned office building or underground gaming location in real life, you might feel less inclined to stick around.