What is a Liminal Space? | Liminal Trading Co.

What is a Liminal Space?




“relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.”

A liminal space follows the same concept as this definition. A liminal space is a transitional area. It could be a long winding hallway, a never-ending staircase, or a big, empty, dimly-lit room.

Oftentimes these images evoke some sort of emotion such as nostalgia or a sense of deja vu, feeling as if you have experienced being in them before yourself. This is because in one way or another, we all have. One of my favorite explainations I have read so far for this phenomenon came from a reddit user named TheMagicalSkeleton. They explain how liminality can be more figurative than simply a physical liminal space.

“Liminal spaces can also be more figurative. Like your teenage years can be viewed as a liminal space with childhood being the origin and adulthood being the destination. You don't really dwell in your teenage years; they exist solely to provide the transition from child to adult.“

This could provide an explanation to why some liminal spaces make you feel like you have been there before. Something such as an empty elementary school hallway far after school has finished evokes a feeling of nostalgia, as it was a part of a transitional period in our lives during childhood. It is worth noting though that liminal spaces may evoke different emotions in different generations. An early 2000s McDonald’s playhouse may elicit feelings of joy and deja vu for a person born in 2002, while it may mean nothing to someone born in 1970. Solar Sands made an excellent video about liminal spaces and how they are affected by one’s age and geography. You can watch it here.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m out in the world is finding real life liminal spaces. 

This is a photo of a winding road I took at the Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, CA. The base is no longer in use, but the winding roads of empty housing remains. Although some areas of the base have begun to be repopulated, this area is still especially creepy because oftentimes you can go long spans of time without seeing another person. Combined with the base’s history and knowing that the empty place you are standing in now used to be a bustling military base full of people going about their daily lives leads to an ominous, almost melancholic feeling.

Is it a Dream ?

One trait that some liminal spaces (but not all) share is a sense of dreaminess and borderline-nonsensical form. This can sometimes consist of unnaturally vivid colors, lack of shadows, light coming from places it shouldn’t, or maybe strange creatures hiding in the corners of the frame which are unnoticeable until you see them. Then there’s no going back...

I threw my original picture into photoshop and created this version. With the lack of context, it takes on an odder existence, doesn’t it? It’s hard to put your finger on what’s even going on here.

Liminal spaces in video games

Not all liminal spaces have to be from the real world. This screenshot is taken from the map gm_construct in Garry’s Mod, one of my favorite games of all time. There’s something weird about playing on single player sandbox maps in video games. You’re messing around and having fun spawning in ragdolls and creating source filmmaker videos, then suddenly you ponder the fact that you are one of millions who have spent time on this map in its 10+ years of existence. It’s kind of like a hotel room, or a subway train. You are existing in a space that decades worth of humans had existed in before you and many more will continue to after... trippy...

The horror aspect of liminal spaces in video games

Ever since video games have existed, there have been urban legends are creepypastas surrounding them. There was Ben Drowned, the tale of a man who buys a game cartridge of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask haunted by the a boy named Ben who mysteriously died while playing it, or Polybius, a pre-creepypasta era urban legend in which a mysterious arcade cabinet appeared in 1980’s era Portland, Oregon, which was said to be highly addictive and caused side effects from nausea to amnesia. It’s said that the U.S. government may have been involved with its creation and periodically sent out men in black suits to collect data from the machines.

As of late, it feels like liminal spaces have been having a large impact on video game and internet horror stories. Take the backrooms for example, a concept which began as a creepypasta in which a person noclips (a gaming term which grants the player the ability to travel freely and ‘clip’ through walls and any other objects in a state not usually possible during regular play) out of reality and finds themselves stuck in a serious of damp, florescent lit office spaces in which it seems there is no end nor escape in sight. There might even be evil creatures lurking around the corner which you must avoid for the sake of your own survival...

the original backrooms image which started the internet craze

The backrooms started as a fascinating concept, but as it spread across the internet like wildfire, its once-unique aura began to fizzle as now there were story hijackers creating hundreds of backrooms levels, different floors and variants of the original story where new gamerules and survival difficulties were in place. The lore and story is still interesting, but now increasingly hard to follow as it feels like everyone has their own interpretation and understanding of what the backrooms is. If you’re interested, you can learn about the backrooms’ resident creatures and its hundreds of levels on the Backrooms Wiki.

Garry’s Mod ARG’s (meaning alternate reality games, a story that unfolds by communities searching for clues throughout various pieces of media provided by the creator, including videos, hidden websites, encrypted files, and more) are another notable sect of internet horror that utilizes the concept of liminal spaces. Many times, these ARG’s revolve around YouTube channels who upload Garry’s Mod videos, often under the pretense that they are archives of videos they created many years ago in the early beta days of the game’s existence, again giving them that nostalgic factor that we mentioned previously. The videos often seem innocent and playful at first, with the creator making goofy animations of Gman and The Heavy shooting watermelons at each other, (this was very reminiscent of the time) but slowly as you watch odd anomalies begin to appear, like a confusing jump cut or strange player movement. Then you start to see strange figures briefly in the corner of the map, and NPCs seemingly acting with a mind of their own. Many times these channels culminate with bizarre endings where the player is seen frantically moving and running away from a force which is sometimes completely invisible to the viewer. Recently as more and more of these channels have popped up due to the ‘Garry’s Mod ARG craze’, the genre has become a bit cliche. However, the originators and pioneers of the genre have done a great job and I highly recommend giving their work a view prior to watching one of the million GMOD ARG EXPLAINED!!! videos on YouTube. I reccomend BadWaterVideos2009, GmodGuy2006 and gunslingerpro2009 (dates of origin in the channel’s username seem to be a popular sign of an ARG account.)

In the end, liminal spaces are very subjective and I don’t think there will ever be a definition that fully suits everyone’s interpretation of them. The way they make you feel, or how you identify a liminal space depends on your age, geographic location, and life experiences up to this point. However, I think this is a good thing. Having your own set of principles that define liminality creates a sort of personalized experience that is unique to you and only you. It’s leads to random moments in your life where you are suddenly struck by a feeling that you cannot quite describe with words, but know perfectly well in your mind. You pause for a moment, perhaps to briefly look upon a airport gate where there are travelers waiting to board. Families with children, young solo travelers and business people alike all with the same intention of getting from where they are now to where they need to be then. Soon, in about 15 minutes once their flight begins to board, they will be gone from this space forever, and a new group will come to replace them only for the cycle to continue. You don’t quite know why this stands out to you as something remarkable, but just as you begin to ponder it you hear someone calling your name from the distance - “Come on! We’ve got a flight to catch!”