Originally published in Edition Two (2023).
‘The Backrooms’ was born, as most contemporary urban legends did, as a “creepypasta”—a catch-all term for that little corner of the Internet where lovers of all things eerie congregate. On its designated Wikipedia page, ‘The Backrooms’ legend is described as an "unreality", "the existence of a 'place' that people can slip into and become lost or trapped".
YouTube's horror scene is an ever evolving, thriving entity. On the one hand you have ghost hunters toting thermal cameras to any location with a wisp of a ghost story to its name. On the other hand, storytellers regale listeners to tales of spooky ghosts and less-friendly entities. ‘The Backrooms does not include any “thing” of the spirit realm. In a series of fan-made, found-footage YouTube videos, amateur filmmaker, director and Youtuber, Kane Parsons, envisioned ‘The Backrooms’ with empty corridors plastered with dingy yellow wallpaper of a dull, repetitive pattern; the kind one finds in seedy motel rooms with one too many skeletons in their closet. The corners of the corridors are jagged, veering right and left far too abruptly for one's liking, impossible to see what may be hiding behind a shadowy corner. A bizarre ring of static hovers phantom-like over one's eardrums. A metallic screech sounds through the stale air at random. You dare not turn back to witness what ungodly creature could possibly make such a sound. You’d rather run. It isn't any wonder that A24—the studio behind the likes of Midsommar, Hereditary and The Menu—have picked up ‘The Backrooms’ and the aesthetics of Kane Parsons for their next project.
What is it about Parsons’s aesthetics, however, that made ‘The Backrooms’ so compelling for film studios and Internet-goers alike? I feel that it has to do with Parsons’s use of aesthetics associated with liminal spaces in his depiction of ‘The Backrooms’. It is further interesting that the key words used to describe ‘The Backrooms’ are "unreality" and "place". There lies a frustrating ambiguity in "place" and an even more compelling, baffling uncertainty about what constitutes as an “unreality”. A liminal space, certainly, is an unreality away from reality. It is, certainly, the bare bones of what constitutes a “place”.
Liminal spaces are considered transitional spaces; more often a metaphor for that in-between, between one point and the next. The denizens of the Internet, however, associate liminal spaces with a literal space and with a specific aesthetic: empty and silent. Reality is a brightly white-washed house with a picket fence and warm sunlight filtering through clean blinds; a house filled (as expected) with constant noise and movement. Unreality would be an empty house with its whitewash long faded away and the doors swinging on creaky hinges, ensuring that, despite everything, one heard the ringing silence. This abandoned, empty house, however, becomes a liminal space because it sits between being abandoned and the possibility of being occupied and entering reality once more. It is not a home nor a house, but simply a “place”.
So, does ‘The Backrooms’ follow the same rules? It's the silence of an abandoned office building (or is it a hotel? Basement? Parsons doesn't specify and neither does the Creepypasta website) that should be rightfully filled with the noise of keyboards clacking that makes one's hair stand on end. It's the eerie notion of not knowing whether a corridor is empty or not, and the chill (when a noise is heard) that there shouldn't be anything making a sound at all. It’s a game that one plays with their senses; abandoned or not? Empty or not? Occupied or not?
And perhaps Kane Parsons exploits liminal spaces and their aesthetics the most in recent Internet history, but it is apparent that this concept is permeating mainstream contemporary horror cinema as well. More accurately, liminal space has always lingered as a catalyst for an already terrifying horror scene. Take, for example, the infamous stereotype of a character stepping into a morbidly desolate bedroom. The settings of more recent horror films have shown a growing emphasis on liminal spaces as their own entity rather than a contributing factor to the eeriness of a scene. In Jordan Peele's Nope, the arid desert, expanding from the protagonist's lonely ranch, overshadows the creature's destruction; for in that expanse, there is nowhere to hide. The Menu features a similarly desolate island, surrounded by a liminal expanse of water between two docks. The common thread here is loneliness, entrapment and the inability to escape.
And in exploiting these innate human fears of the loss of control and being in the presence of something undefinable, I have no doubt that A24 will be able to transform ‘The Backrooms’ into a cult classic, and thus reroute the trajectory of the future of the horror genre.