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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The appeal of liminal horror

Why young people find transitional spaces so frightening


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu 

If you want to gauge the current state of any given society, one of the best methods is to look at the scary stories they tell. Horror, by its very definition, is a reflection of someone’s fears — hence popular horror often serves as a reflection of a more universal anxiety.

Take the 1950s and 1960s for example: giant monster movies and alien invasion narratives were the dominant form of horror, which isn’t surprising if we consider the era’s political climate. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a film about shapeshifting aliens infiltrating the human race, is a very clear allegory for how Americans viewed communism at the height of the Cold War. Comparatively, a very different narrative of invasion swept across the Pacific. The original “Godzilla,” a dark and somber monster movie, was born out of Japan’s collective trauma resulting from atomic bombs dropping on two of their cities. 

Additionally, the original “Exorcist” movie, in which a little girl is possessed by a demon, was considered downright horrific in its day due to its representation of religious anxiety. A still widely Christian establishment at the time, society feared the impact of an increasingly atheist youth. But these days, I think it is safe to say that horror has taken on quite the transformation. No longer are films the only indication of global fear — if you want an unfiltered peek into the things that haunt the dreams of the current generation, you only need to look online. 

Internet horror has undergone an interesting development. Anyone familiar with the subject (in other words, weirdos like me) are no doubt familiar with the term “creepypasta,” but for everyone else, I’ll provide a definition. The word “creepypasta” is a pun on the term “copypasta,” itself a slang variant of “copy/paste.” A copypasta is a story or concept that has been copied and pasted all across the internet to the point where it has become something of an urban legend. As you have probably inferred, a creepypasta is a copypasta that takes the form of a scary story. 

If you’re still having trouble, think of it as something like a meme meant to scare you instead of make you laugh. They’ve been around almost as long as the Internet itself; almost like digital campfire stories — what is Slenderman if not a modern Bloody Mary? But in the last few years, one concept has come to completely dominate the field: liminal horror. 

The word “liminal” is a synonym for “transitional.” A “liminal space” can be defined as any space that exists solely to get from one place to another: a hallway, an airport, a bus stop or a hotel — places where we are not meant to linger. Liminal horror uses these spaces in a frightening and contorting way, and it has become the dominant form of creepypasta. Search the phrase “liminal horror” or even just “liminal spaces” on Google and you will find hundreds upon hundreds of unnerving images and videos (some real, some digitally created) depicting liminal spaces that seem to stretch on forever, emptied of all people. 

Perhaps the most famous example of liminal horror right now is the creepypasta known as “the Backrooms.” The Backrooms legend spawned from one image of a windowless yellow room in what appears to be an empty office building. From that image, an entire Internet mythology was born of an alternate dimension called “the Backrooms,” a place made up entirely of identical empty yellow rooms that we are in constant danger of vanishing into and becoming trapped forever. 

The creepypasta has reached astonishing levels of popularity among young people. A movie produced by A24 is even in development. So what is it about empty transitional spaces that our generation finds so frightening? And why did it only start in the last few years?

This is my thesis: the current liminal horror craze, like so many things, is the direct result of our time in quarantine. The year 2020 was, in many ways, defined by liminality. The pandemic was a time of unexpected and forced transition in which our homes became our worlds. Is it any wonder that horror, so reflective of our fears, became consumed by images of enclosed interiors stretching on forever? 

Adolescence has always been a transitional period, but not since World War II has that transition been accompanied by such a sudden and frightening global shift. For this reason, liminal horror like the Backrooms and other contemporary creepypastas (believe me, there are many) are a fascinating and telling time capsule of this era, like “Godzilla” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were for theirs. The fear of being trapped in an enclosed transitional space is pretty abstract, but creepypastas like the Backrooms are definitive, even occasionally silly. That’s a good thing. 

I am far from the first person to point out the cathartic nature of scary stories; they allow us to give a concrete form to abstract fears, and in doing so, hopefully conquer some of our anxiety with ease. So while I find liminal horror to be very interesting, I also look forward to the day the fad ends. Such a moment might suggest that young people (myself included) might have finally emerged from that endless transitional space on the other side, stronger than we were when we entered it.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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