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Off the Map: Why the Internet Loves Being Creeped Out By Liminal Spaces

Michele Debczak
An indoor pool looks less appealing when you're alone at night.
An indoor pool looks less appealing when you're alone at night. / Ramcornwall, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Spend enough time in the right corners of the internet and you’ll find photographs that provoke an uncanny sense of dread. The scenes they contain are ordinary: a corridor of unmarked doors stretching into blackness; a slide leading to an empty, windowless ball pit; an indoor pool illuminated by an unearthly glow. The pictures won’t make you jump in your bed when you’re scrolling late at night, but the longer you look at them, the more unsettling they become.

Images that fit this description are known as liminal spaces. Liminal derives from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold,” and according to the literal definition, liminal spaces are locations where people go to transition from place to place. Think airport terminals, school hallways, and hotel lobbies. 

Never-ending hallways are a classic example of liminal spaces.
Never-ending hallways are a classic example of liminal spaces. / File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The label has taken on new life online and expanded to include any location that feels subtly eerie or surreal. A fake town built indoors would qualify as a liminal space, as would a dead shopping mall or a basement underwater. Some spaces are liminal in a temporal sense, with abandoned daycare centers and Chuck E. Cheeses stirring nostalgia as well as unease. 

This aesthetic has only been around in its current form for a few years, but its popularity online proves that it triggers a primal fear—one that predates the internet by thousands of years.

Viral Folklore

This photo of a play place called Happy Planet doesn't look very happy.
This photo of a play place called Happy Planet doesn't look very happy. / HAPPY PLANET, Wikimedia Commons // Free Art License 1.3

The online obsession with liminal spaces can be traced back to 4chan. On May 12, 2019, an anonymous user posted a request for “disquieting images that just feel ‘off.’” People filled the thread with pictures of misty roads, desolate gas stations, and claustrophobic rooms—similar to what you’ll see if you do a Google Image search for “liminal spaces” today.

One photo in particular gained traction beyond the forum. It shows 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 varying shades of dingy yellow, and though there are turns and doorways breaking up the room, there’s no way to know where they originate or where they lead. 

This empty retail space has a similar vibe to the original 4chan photo.
This empty retail space has a similar vibe to the original 4chan photo. / ⊙ ☂︎♙₪୬〰⋀ℵ⊃△ ⊙, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The image came with no context, but another anonymous user imagined a backstory that’s become the basis for an internet urban legend

“If you're not careful and you noclip out of reality in the wrong areas, you'll end up in the Backrooms, where it's nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in. God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell heard you.” 

“Noclipping” original referred to a videogame glitch that allows players to walk through fixed objects like walls. In the Backrooms universe, it means phasing into dimensions humans normally can’t access.

Screenshots of the post circulated around the web, and it quickly exploded into a complex mythology. Now people write their own creepypastas set in the world, or in some cases, make high-quality videos. The YouTube channel Kane Pixels publishes “found footage” horror shorts featuring a lost filmmaker 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 influence of the Backrooms isn’t limited to niche internet communities. Dan Erickson, creator and showrunner of Severance, told Inverse that he drew inspiration from the urban legend when making his Apple+ show. The sci-fi series shows a workplace where employees have had memories of their work and personal lives surgically separated. Like the Backrooms, their office is in a sparse, windowless building with seemingly endless rooms. An office is an inherently liminal space, but to the workers whose memories are limited to its walls, it’s impossible to escape. 

Lost in a Dream

Atrium of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai—beautiful or horrifying?
Atrium of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai—beautiful or horrifying? / a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Memm&action=edit&redlink=1" target=_blank">Memm, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Backrooms is one iteration of an online phenomenon. Even without lore attached to them, photos of unsettling, vaguely-familiar-but-not-quite places regularly go viral. The automated account Liminal Spaces has 1.2 million followers on Twitter, r/LiminalSpace has half a million members on Reddit, and the hashtag #liminalspaces has garnered 2 billion views on TikTok.

At first glance, a photo of an empty school courtyard appears to have nothing in common with Kane Pixels’s Backrooms videos, but Dr. R. Nicholas Carleton, a professor of psychology at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, noticed some threads tying such images together. 

“I think it’s actually not that you’re having this metacognitive experience because you’re in this transitional state. I think it’s because it’s nondescript,” he tells Mental Floss. “In the room I’m in now there are distinguishing features. 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 the space ends. And if I were to leave one part of the space, I would be able to see change, and I would feel certain that I was leaving that space and moving into another space.” 

That’s exactly what’s missing from these pictures. Many of the photos don’t show a way in or out of the strange space—or if they do, the exit is leading to a room that looks oddly similar to the one that came before it. Clues that might reveal the spot’s location or time of day, like windows or people, are often missing, creating a dreamlike effect. 

“In all of these [liminal space images], one of the major common elements is that essentially there is nothing specific about this space. There is nothing you can link into,” Carleton says.

A fake town street in the House on the Rock tourist attraction in Wisconsin.
A fake town street in the House on the Rock tourist attraction in Wisconsin. / Ronincmc, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Though they’re shot in mundane settings you may be familiar with—hotels, airports, offices, playgrounds—liminal space photographs raise more questions than they answer. Why are there no people here? What’s around that corner? How did I get here? How do I get out? 

That not knowing contributes to the scene’s disturbing atmosphere. The fear of the unknown has been steering 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 common language where people will say things like, ‘it’s better that I know,’ or that ‘the worst part is that I don’t know.’ Well maybe, maybe that legit is the worst part. Because you can’t plan, and you can’t cope because you’re missing info. That’s going to create your autonomic nervous system arousal, it’s going make you scared,” he says. “And broadly as a species, [there is] evidence that we don’t like being uncertain and we don’t like not knowing.”

Can’t Look Away

Greenery inside an abandoned mall.
Greenery inside an abandoned mall. / Panoramio upload bot, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The more obvious explanation for the effect these photos have is that transitional spaces are naturally unsettling. We’re used to passing through them quickly when they’re bustling with people and never standing in one spot for too long. When we simulate standing alone in such a space for an extended time, we get the sense that something is wrong.

“It’s a place that I’m not supposed to stay in, and the reason that I’m not supposed to stay in it is because I know for sure it’s a transition space, because we’ve defined it that way,” Carleton explains. “And the longer I’m in a transition space, that runs contrary to my expectations, my certainty [is] that it’s a transition space. I’m not supposed to be here very long, I’m supposed to be somewhere else and now I’m here for a long period. Well, that’s not right.”

The SkyWalk connecting Union Station to the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.
The SkyWalk connecting Union Station to the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada. / Stu's Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Carleton’s theories illustrate why we find liminal spaces creepy, but they don’t explain why we choose to look at them freely instead of scrolling past them. The answer comes down to neurochemsitry. People are hardwired to derive pleasure from things that scare them in a safe context (to a degree). From a survival perspective, this is good practice for encountering real threats in the wild. That’s likely why haunted houses and horror movies are so popular. 

Liminal space images 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 viewing them through a screen. If you ever stumble into an abandoned office building or an underground play-place in real life, you may feel less inclined to stick around. 

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