Updated: Apr 29
Simone Baltimore, Staff Writer
A while ago, I was out talking with someone in a mall parking lot. It was about 11 PM, late at night. The environment was foggy and quiet, with an almost serine energy to it. Parking lots are usually bustling with cars, people, their voices, music, and in constant movement, but this one laid still. It felt like time had stopped, like we were in some sort of purgatory between worlds and time.
This phenomenon is what people call “liminal” (spaces). A liminal space is widely defined on the internet as a space which is usually a transition between two locations or states of being, typically abandoned and empty, making it feel frozen in time and mildly unsettling; but also familiar in a way most people cannot explain.
In the midst of the 2020 lockdown, whenever you left your house for a short walk, you were probably aware of the emptiness of urban landscapes people used to frequent. Places like malls, grocery stores, playgrounds, swimming pools, public hallways, and restaurants that were built to be crowded with people seemed uninhabited.
In my case, it was that parking lot. The barrenness was so overwhelming that it made me feel as though I was in a world of my own.
Many people confuse liminal spaces for places that are otherwise purely nostalgic, otherworldly, and/or dreamlike. This appeal leads many to reflect on the passage of time and pine, for times of innocence and optimism associated with childhood. They usually depict more specific locations like old versions of stores and restaurants, like an old design of a Target building, a McDonald’s playplace from the early 2000s, or a living room with old-school technology.
The key difference between these images and real liminal spaces is their unique, nostalgic nature. Liminal spaces, while they can be nostalgic, are led by their exclusively transitional characteristics, usually representing places where people will not spend their time or stay in for a prolonged period.
Liminal spaces are supposed to be vaguely familiar, like a “déjà vu,” in a way that you may have seen a specific type of design while walking in a hallway or sitting in a waiting room, but you do not remember exactly when. The point is that these spaces usually have a unique energy to them, but when they are empty, they are nearly unrecognizable and in most cases, induce a disturbing aura most people cannot handle.
Anyway, most situations are not like mine, but liminal places tend to evoke a sinister and uncanny emotion whenever people come in contact with them. They create apprehensive feelings that make you want to explore them.
One of the most famous liminal space concepts on the internet nowadays is “The Backrooms.” People described them as places where you go when you want to “clip” out of reality (using the video game vernacular of when you accidently fade out of a game map and applying it to the real world and multi-dimensional concepts).
The original image of “The Backrooms” portrays an empty corridor with yellow wallpaper, beige carpets, and fluorescent lighting. It is the image that anyone would think of when thinking of an empty office space of some kind. It is so familiar in its simplicity, but at the same time unsettling to look at.
The concept, originating from “4chan.org,” an early imageboard and social media platform, known for anonymity and toxic user base, has been adapted into several different entertainment mediums. This includes horror video games that have different levels of “The Backrooms” with different types of liminal spaces and monsters in the shadows, films, tv-shows, etc. The space is ideal for manufacturing fear because the emptiness of the space creates a sense of unease, turning on the human fear of the unknown with the possibility of creatures lurking, feeding anyone’s worst nightmares.
Also, it raises inquiry in the onlooker, not only towards “The Backrooms” but with liminal spaces in general, of why a space is left the way it is now. This is often the appeal of videos online exploring abandoned malls, such as those made by the YouTube channel The Proper People.
A place created with the intention of being filled with groves of people lay empty. In the waste of the death of malls, in the wake of online shopping, or even more sinister, in the wake of a tragedy. It has almost become like exploring ruins from a world forgotten, knowing that people once walked where you are standing. Those same people are no longer around for you to truly know how the place was in its prime.
The key difference is the nostalgia element: a place that feels like one could have been there before even if they never have. In the way that there is knowledge in the onlooker’s mind that people are supposed to be there, rather than the ambiguity of an ancient ruin that is so far from our frame of existence.
Personally, I find comfort in these environments. I would say that, in a sense, I seek them out. At night, when no one is up and everything is soft and silent, that time is when my artistic side is fully awake. That time imitates the absence of time, as if I were in a void.
For a long time, I struggled with being fully awake during the day because of this habit, but it proved to be so enticing that even now, I find myself up late at night with the lights off and candles lit while listening to music.
I encourage most people to experience that quiet, unwavering, time of the night to take it in. You never know what might come out of it.