Liminal Spaces: Places of Another World?


Jack McCarthy

   Have you ever been to an abandoned mall or someplace like that? Well, maybe not. But, have you gone online and seen pictures of somewhat abandoned malls? Well if you have, then another few questions I have for you is: Does it seem familiar? Why does it seem so uncomfortable? That is the question we all ask when we see pictures of liminal spaces. 

The Unnerving Concept

   The image above is what you think it is: a mall. But something is off about this. It’s empty and there is nothing really there aside from a gumball machine, and empty stores that supposedly once held places where you could shop for goods or something. The image above invokes the feeling of all liminal spaces: a sense of familiarity, nostalgia, and dread. 


But, why? What exactly are liminal spaces?

   Liminal spaces are in-between places that are not usually meant for anyone to stay there long. Places like stairwells, hallways, and even parking lots are examples of liminal spaces. The word liminal comes from the Latin word “limen,” meaning threshold. Due to the empty environment, liminal spaces can invoke a sense of dread and nostalgia. Examples include a mall at 4 am, an empty pool or room, empty schools during summer break, and empty and unfurnished homes. That is why places such as those can feel frozen in time, and slightly unsettling, yet also somehow familiar to us. A picture of an empty pool can invoke those senses because we expect places like these to be brimming with life and movement, but they aren’t. That is perhaps the strangest thing about liminal spaces: that you know most of these liminal spaces are made to be buzzing with people and energy, but now are empty and abandoned. As a consequence, an unnerving, uncanny, and otherworldly environment is created.


   However, not all liminal space environments are creepy to all people. Some people find liminal spaces nostalgic because of the cultural significance of some of them. Most commonly, these spaces come from the mid late 80’s and early 90’s. The style of those times is in most pictures of liminal spaces. That is most likely why you get the feeling of familiarity and nostalgia when seeing pictures of liminal spaces.

A mall that used to be active in the 80’s, but is now abandoned today


In Popular Culture

The Backrooms


   The Backrooms is the place where you go when you “no clip out of reality.” It is supposedly an endless maze, characterized by the smell of wet carpet, the monochromatic yellow tone walls, and the endless sound of buzzing fluorescent lights. The term “no clip” refers to video games, where a player can pass through a physical boundary that would block their path, via a glitch or something else. It is said to be 500 million square miles in length. People have expanded upon the concept of the Backrooms by adding different levels to it and entities that inhabit the terrifying reality. But the origin of the Backrooms dates back to May 12th 2019, where an anonymous user on 4chan asked for others to post images of places that feel “just off.”  It was there that some user posted the first ever photo of the Backrooms. Then, another user in the comments wrote a story about the image, describing what it is and the name of what it is today: the Backrooms. Over time, the concept of the Backrooms skyrocketed in popularity. People started making games, memes, and so much more based around the Backrooms. Today, the Backrooms remains a terrifying concept to everyone, and a fun little thing to make a horror game about.

The first ever image of the Backrooms…


In Video Games and Editing

   If you thought liminal spaces in real life were creepy enough, there are some liminal spaces in video games that are creepy enough. In fact there are some edits of liminal spaces that can give people the effect and idea of being in a retro horror game or an RPG video game. Some video edits can even pull off uncomfortable, surreal, and even Lovecraftian environments. In video games like GMod, No Players Online, Team Fortress 1 & 2, and early Call of Duty installments, empty game servers and empty maps with old fashioned graphics can be described as liminal because of the eeriness and emptiness of them, which can all invoke the sense of dread like all other liminal spaces.

A photo of a liminal space in Super Mario 64



   Who doesn’t love games, video-games even? Who doesn’t love games where you can explore environments of liminal spaces? Well if you enjoy doing that, and (spoilers) love the fear of being watched by something, then Anemoiapolis is the game for you. This is a recent game that is heavily inspired by liminal spaces. The developer of the game was inspired by places that were abandoned in Michigan by businesses and owners during the Great Recession, which he grew up in during that time. These places included huge empty malls, quiet vast empty gyms, and many more empty and abandoned places. He says that he had found both comfort and discomfort in these places, which is the feeling he wants to capture with his game. Another interesting thing is that the word anemoia (which is in the title) means nostalgia for a time people have never known, relating to the familiar feeling that liminal spaces give. In the game, players take on the role of a man who tries to escape a somewhat underground neighborhood, inhabited by liminal spaces, that is equally comfortable and unsettling. But players aren’t alone down there. Something is watching them. However, only chapter 1 is out as of writing this, and I must admit, it offers a pretty tranquil and surreal experience. For example, players can explore a spa and a pool, which are both creepy and comforting in their own rights. Later, it is discovered that something is watching, and the dread that the “thing” invokes is terrifying. But despite the game’s creepy atmosphere its liminal spaces offer, this is a game that will certainly comfort and creep you out in a good way.